The Hardcore History of: Tech N9ne and Strange Music

With Missouri’s Kansas City not exactly being a hotbed for rap culture, Tech N9ne (born Aaron Yates) had to figure out his own way, going on to forge a successful rap career and eventually founding Strange Music, one of the most profitable independent labels in the world.

Born on November 8, 1971, his uncles’ rock and blues playlists were the dominant music of his childhood. He started rapping when he was young, (he once said in an interview he did it to help him remember how to spell his name), in a churchgoing household led by his single mom. He showed early promise, supposedly even skipping his graduation to open for EPMD.

When he was exactly 20 years old he joined crews Black Mafia and Nnutthowze, which is where he got his name. Both were shortlived, and he wound up focusing on his solo mission after industry setbacks led to the latter group getting dropped.

Thanks to family ties with Priority Records, Tech N9ne’s earliest break would come by way of “Questions,” his first professionally released song, which was featured on his debut album, The Calm Before the Storm, and the soundtrack to the 2Pac and Jim Belushi film, Gang Related. After this, underground tastemakers Sway and King Tech gave him a shot by way of “The Anthem,” a posse cut featuring heavyweights including RZA, Eminem, Xzibit, and KRS-One.  Released in 1999, this was the same year he would link up with business partner Travis O’Guin to form Strange Music.

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Coming into the game doing joint ventures, Travis and Tech N9ne hoped for bigger companies to recognize the mutual benefit of doing 50/50 deals with their label. Though it took some time for them to get the formula right, they broke out with Absolute Power, landing on the Billboard 200 charts and selling 250,000 units. This is halfway to gold without major label support.

As his fan base grew, Tech N9ne embraced technology. Upon Absolute Power’s 2002 release he encouraged them to download it for free through his personal website, initially rubbing the RIAA wrong, but earning him more listeners and sales in the long run. With 2008’s Killer marking one million albums sold via SoundScan, Tech N9ne said, “It just reminded me of all the work we’d done in the past, up until now. I’ve been planning success all my life. I’m not even a bit surprised; I’m happy about it. That just means I was right.”

Strange Music also played a big role in the career of other artists.

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Crossing paths through producer and mutual collaborator IcyRoc in the late 1990s, Krizz Kaliko’s long running loyalty to Tech N9ne has made him an independent star in his own right. Also charting on Billboard’s independent charts, his long running affiliation with Strange Music has allowed him to work with esteemed artists including T-Pain, Chamillionaire, T-Pain and E-40 since his 2008 debut Vitiligo. Set to release his sixth album with the label soon, Krizz isn’t one for creative slacking as he’s gone on record saying, “When you’re an artist like myself or Tech N9ne who have a fan base and have people that are just loyal to us for years, you have to find ways to reinvent yourself every album. I wanna keep that core audience engaged.”

Then there’s Top Dawg Entertainment’s Jay Rock. After his collaborations with Warner and Asylum Records fell short, Rock aligned with Tech N9ne to release his debut album, Follow Me Home. Singles include “All My Life,” and “Hood Gone Love It” featuring a less seasoned Kendrick Lamar.

Always giving a shot to anyone willing to work hard, another up-and-comer to benefit from the Strange Music brand name has been Georgia’s Rittz. After surviving numerous setbacks, it was Yelawolf’s “Box Chevy” that put him on the map. Hooking up with Tech N9ne’s label in 2012 made way for his debut, The Life and Times of Jonny Valiant, in 2013. This was followed by an appearance on the 2013 BET Hip-Hop Awards and his sophomore release, Next To Nothing, a year later.

But through merchandising, music and touring, Tech N9ne has quietly become a music mogul, (earning more than some bigger names) having made Forbes’ Hip-Hop Cash Kings list in 2014, with Strange Music reportedly generating up to $20 million annually.

Speaking to this rise, Tech N9ne has said “We’re steadily on the incline, and it’s a blessing to be able to do it independent. Our own money, without major radio or video–still on the Forbes list.”

With almost two decades in business, Strange Music has revolutionized the independent hip-hop business model on the strengths of rigorous touring and income generated through merchandising. Released May 5, Special Effects is Tech N9ne’s fifteenth album, with features including B.o.B, Eminem, 2 Chainz, Yo Gotti, and Hopsin. Tech N9ne has spoken to the power of sticking to his beliefs, saying, “We’re becoming the big machine. We’re multiplying. We’ve built the empire. We don’t need any help. We would have sold out by now for money if that’s what we wanted to do. But the object is to make beautiful music for people to have forever.”

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