By Drew Ailes
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Tech N9ne has nowhere to hide. He crouches behind a speaker stack, catching his breath after a six-song set in 90-degree heat at St. Louis' UMB Bank Pavilion. This maneuver shields him from the fans still buzzing in front of the stage, but it leaves him in full view of followers who line the diagonal barriers that extend from the stage's corners to the back fence. "Yo Tech, we down from KC," shouts a trio of white twentysomethings. "Prospect, Independence Avenue, represent!" Tech, still squatting, smiles and flashes the Dio-patented metal horns. Then his manager Travis O'Guin appears with a box full of snippet samplers of his new disc, Absolute Power (he'll hand out 130,000 before the tour ends), and while hip-hop enthusiasts swarm like fish chasing tourist-tossed pellets, Tech gets a moment of respite.
The diminutive rapper moves to his next stop, camouflaged by his burly associates. He takes a seat in Motorola's Hellomoto booth, which Tech's crew has commandeered as its home base. Hip-hop heads who came for Sprite Liquid Mix Tour headliner Jay-Z join tanned, tattooed skaters who pledge allegiance to second-billed 311 in the slow-moving meet-and-greet line. A good percentage of these patient fans wouldn't wait a hot minute to get almost any other rapper's attention, but Tech, with his drumroll cadence and guitar-solo virtuosity, is the exception.
More than any other current hip-hop performer, Tech can convert concertgoers with his infectious energy and far-out flows. Finally, after a career full of shady industry dealings and poisoned partnerships, he's getting the chance. But Tech's biggest selling points -- his high visibility, accessibility and unique appeal -- can also be a curse.
Back in Kansas City, it's hard to imagine Tech N9ne (n Aaron Yates) isn't already a star. Last year's AngHellic, a mind-blowing collection of futuristic rap tunes dealing with death, debauchery and deliverance, broke the area's SoundScan record, outpacing every other disc ever released there, with sales exceeding 20,000 copies in the first week. Wherever he goes, Tech gets mobbed, deep. Not that such attention has made him reclusive: Tech appears at more clubs than cover charges. He's so ubiquitous that some of his friends marvel that people still pay to see him in concert.
Tech learned the value of gettin' around from the late Tupac Shakur. In 1993, while in Los Angeles working on the soundtrack to the 2Pac film Gang Related, Tech noticed that Shakur appeared at every party. "You'd see him different places the same night," he recalls. "Whenever something hot was goin' off, he'd be there."
Then again, Shakur was an infamous trouble magnet. Although Tech hasn't yet become a target of high-profile national rivals, he gets his share of unwanted attention, to the point that friends plead with him to don a bulletproof vest. So far, the worst he's experienced is some fighting words from misguided MCs. Tech has been known to put together a ferocious diss track, bring it back to the club at which he was confronted and have the DJ throw it into the mix. "You're in the place, and this song comes on talking about you, and everyone's looking at you and singing it," Tech says, detailing the plight of his victim. "I made a club hit out of your ass."
On Absolute Power, Tech settles a score with longtime producer Don Juan, who handled several of the tracks on AngHellic. The two parted ways after a financial feud, and though that dispute has been settled, the wounds haven't healed. Tech needles his former beatmaker with this savage passage: Keep talking crazy/and I'm a let 'em know where you keep your baby, and where you stay, D. To those concerned that he may have gone too far with such threats, Tech responds in the chorus: Some say I should worry and watch where I walk/Yadda yadda yadda/That's just talk.
"I never scare," Tech says defiantly, but even though he won't back down on wax, he's also essentially harmless outside the studio. Unlike Tupac, from whom he says he learned the value of calling out enemies by name, Tech isn't living the thug life. "I'm the nicest person," he claims. "If you've got a problem with me, there's something wrong with you."
Still, behind Tech's easy smile and charismatic personality lie the tears of a killer clown. After an ill-fated collaboration with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis that led to a never-released album and another unreleased disc under the Qwest/Warner Brothers imprint, Tech became business partners with O'Guin, who freed the rapper from a maze of questionable contracts. After initially planning to release AngHellic independently, the pair thought they'd found a permanent home at JCOR, an Interscope-associated label. But months after that disc exploded on the home front and seemed poised to do so nationwide, Tech and O'Guin realized their deal was going sour.
AngHellic's signature tune, "It's Alive," is a thrilling hometown-pride anthem spiked with an adrenalized drum & bass breakdown. It could've been a smash to rival Nelly's "Country Grammar (Hot Sh**t)" and Petey Pablo's "Raise Up," but JCOR never delivered the video it promised, nor did the label come through with radio promotion. At the beginning of 2002, the label dissolved under allegations that owner Jay Faires, formerly the head of Mammoth Records, had been embezzling from his employees' retirement funds. Consequently, AngHellic was pulled from print, though demand remains high. Fortunately, Tech was able to retrieve the rights to the master copy, and he plans to re-release it, with three new tracks, within the next year.