Within the walls of a nondescript building in an ordinary suburb of Kansas City, hip-hop’s most mysterious mogul stands atop a staircase, surveying his latest products as a proud farmer might gaze out at a bumper crop of corn.
Below, the shelves of the supermarket-sized room bloom with t-shirts, backpacks, water bottles, sunglasses, sticky-notes, g-strings and just about anything else that can accommodate Tech N9ne’s name or his logo, an interlocking bat and snake that form the first letters of his Strange Music empire. Other curiosities on the floor include a dusty Dodge Challenger (a graduation present for the rapper’s son), two bins filled with bras (thrown at the Tech during shows) and an $80,000 custom motorcycle (destined to become a wall ornament in his new recording studio).
Tech scoots down the stairs, his bald head gleaming in the bright fluorescent light, and soon he and his business partner, Travis O’Guin, are tearing into the latest cardboard box to arrive on the slow boat from Asia. More t-shirts. These ones are emblazoned with the motto “Strange Music Saved My Life” (the rapper also sells a shirt that reads, “Strange Music Ruined My Life”). Tech’s face erupts into a grin.
“This is how busy I am,” he says. “I’m like, ‘When did this come in?’”
Tech isn’t exaggerating about his schedule. He has played over 1,000 shows over the last five years; since 2006, he’s released more than one studio album a year on average. For his latest effort, this year’s Something Else—which was battling Jay Z’s Magna Carta…Holy Grail for the top spot on the rap charts when I visited Kansas City this summer—he collaborated with B.o.B, T-Pain, Cee Lo Green and fellow Cash Kings Wiz Khalifa and Kendrick Lamar.
All that hard work is finally paying off. He and O’Guin have crafted a one of the most streamlined independent operations in hip-hop–perhaps of any genre–making Strange Music something a leaner, stealthier, Midwestern version of Cash Money. As a result, Tech pulled in an estimated $7.5 million over the past year, up $1.5 million from his Cash Kings debut in 2012, topping better-known artists including 50 Cent, Mac Miller and Rick Ross.
“What sets him apart is not only that his all-around work ethic is crazy, from the stage to the studio, to writing them rhymes,” says Lamar. “[But] in everything, he reaches for perfection.”
For Tech N9ne, aged 41, the results have been a long time coming. Born Aaron Dontez Yates to a single mother in a rough section of Kansas City, he started rapping as a youngster and earned his nickname for his rapidfire style (he now sees the name as a combination of “technique” and “nine, the number of completion”).
Tech always had a flair for the eccentric, whether it was hunting ghosts as a youth or donning dramatic face paint before shows as an adult. As s a rapper, he married the verbal dexterity of hip-hop’s Golden Age with the tenacity of thrash metal. That was enough to score him some success as he bounced between local labels, landing in 1997 at Quincy Jones’ Warner Brothers-backed Qwest Records. But nobody could agree on a single, and Tech’s career stalled.
It wasn’t until he met O’Guin in 1999 that things began to change. O’Guin told the rapper he was a big fan of his music—and asked why Tech was never on television or radio while lesser rappers prospered. Tech felt that his tangled web of handlers were preventing him from reaching his full potential. O’Guin told Tech about the millions he’d generated from his furniture business, and suggested they go into business together.
“We did a 50/50 partnership of Strange Music, and it was the best move I could make,” Tech recalls. “He took this idea I had in my head, the snake and the bat … Travis is such a shrewd businessman, he took this idea and put it everywhere.” Says O’Guin: “I realized this was a lot more interesting than furniture.”
But before Tech could get to the point where he was selling Strange Music beer coozies for $4.99 and pendants bearing his logo for $74.99, he had to get out of his existing deals. It certainly didn’t hurt having O’Guin, a defensive lineman-sized force of nature, at meetings with some of the more questionable local labels with which Tech had become entangled. But Tech’s new partner also helped him get lawyered up and started cutting deals; O’Guin would eventually pour in $2 million of his own cash before he started getting money back.
Before that happened, the duo encountered more than their share of adversity. They partnered with JCOR Entertainment to launch Tech’s album Anghellic in 2001, but six months–and 100,000 copies–in, the company stopped paying him. Tech and and O’Guin were able to get the album’s rights back, at which point they teamed with MSC, a label launched by Priority Records founder Mark Cerami, and rereleased the album, selling 300,000 more units. Tech’s 2002 follow-up, Absolute Power, sold over 350,000.
After moving to Los Angeles in 2004 to be near MSC’s Hollywood offices, the duo decided to return to Kansas City in 2006. They’d sold half a million records in a little over a year, earning enough respect to land a distribution deal with Fontana/Universal–and rebooted Strange Music by themselves. In 2006, Tech released Everready—this time keeping the bulk of the bucks gleaned from its sales of more than 250,000 units for themselves. And that trend has continued.
“I don’t get in his way, creatively,” says O’Guin, picking up a black football jersey adorned with a letter X flanked by a set of flaming wings, and holding it up to his chest. “We’ve got one rule: we don’t talk about hurting kids.” Tech pipes in: “Exactly.”
These days, the entire operation is generating just shy of $20 million per year. As we wander through the warehouse, O’Guin explains that the streams are split fairly evenly between the three main categories—merchandise, which totals roughly $6.1 million annually; music, which brings in about $6.5 million; and touring, which adds closer to $7 million. The genius of the duo’s operation lies in the cost structure: for all three streams, there’s essentially no middle-man.
Merchandise comes in directly from manufacturers, mostly in China, leading to astounding margins (the average cost of a t-shirt that retails for $25 is about $3). CDs and LPs are pressed independently through a distribution agreement with Fontana (giving Tech a cut that’s perhaps six or seven times as much as he would receive at a major label). Strange Music slices off another layer of cost by owning its own fleet of 23 tour vehicles, enough to take $1.7 million worth of merchandise on a recent tour (O’Guin says they refilled the trucks three times). And then there are the endorsements.
“Monster Energy is one of the only deals,” says O’Guin. “We’ve been approached to do 20 different deals, but there’s a lot of them that just don’t make sense to us: ‘Hey, we want Tech to do this.’ He ain’t going to wear that damn shoe—”
O’Guin’s attention is diverted by a recently-arrived box of black-and-white scarves, each about six feet long, with the words “STRANGE MUSIC” spelled out in block letters. “Dude!” he says excitedly, his voice booming over the crinkling cellophane. Tech wanders over, suddenly enthused for the fall fashion season. “Oh, shit! October time!”
The tour complete, I follow them out to the parking lot. O’Guin ushers me into his long black Bentley Mulsanne, which is parked diagonally and seems to take up as much space as a school bus (he tells me he has 24 cars in total, including a Lamborghini Murcielago, a Rolls Royce Phantom and a Ferrari F130; Tech isn’t as much of a car guy, he says, but has a penchant for Mercedes).
On our way to Strangeland Studios, the duo’s $4 million facility currently under construction, O’Guin estimates that between 5,000 and 10,000 people have had the Strange Music logo tattooed on their bodies.
“When you put this on a person, on a shirt, on a hat, they become walking billboards,” Tech tells me, his tone dripping with amazement. “And conversations start.”
Perhaps it’s the decades spent toiling in relative obscurity or maybe it’s just his personality, but Tech does seem to carry a sense of wonderment with him wherever he goes. He gushes over collaborations on his new album with rockers including System of a Down’s Serj Tankian and the remaining members of the Doors.
And he recalls when, at a recent concert in Utah–standing backstage as 3,500 fans screamed his name at the top of their lungs–O’Guin tapped him on the shoulder.
“He was like, ‘This is your life,’” Tech recalls. “And said, ‘I know! Shit is crazy.’”