Tech N9ne Evaluates Role Of Cyphers & Talks Next Solo Album (Interview)
Tech N9ne crams as many words and ideas into his energetic bars as he possibly can. It is this feat that has made him one of the most revered MCs of the last 15 years. He has become an independent deity, simultaneously skyrocketing in status, wealth, and respect, while much of the music industry that once shunned him looks for its parachute chord.
When you speak to Tech N9ne, that same fervor, energy, and ecstasy claws its way into every sentence and idea. To say that Aaron Yates is exuberant is a drastic understatement. Repetitive, profane, and profound, he is part Muhammad Ali, part Bernie Mac, and yet completely original. This is a man who loves rapping better than most who ever attempted the art. Sitting in a studio within a compound that looks more like a Bond villain’s lair than a record label—Tech N9ne laughs, he jokes, he expertly plays the part of a man living the dream.
But this is no act. As a few questions about the just-released Strangeulation, Volume 2, Hip-Hop, and Strange Music lead to greater discussions, Tech N9ne’s story is something that’s always present. He tells it, again and again, and it never gets boring. The man who has erected a Rap monument in the Midwest provides hope to all our of dreams, and the meritocracy that skills can actually pay bills. In speaking with Ambrosia For Heads, Tech speaks about the state of the Rap cypher, his status within his fan-base, and opines on Rap’s greatest album of all-time.
Ambrosia For Heads: Peace Tech.
Tech N9ne: What’s up, brother?
Ambrosia For Heads: How you been, man?
Tech N9ne: Man…signing 5,000 pre-order booklets of my new Strangeulation, Volume 2. I just finished yesterday evening.
Ambrosia For Heads: Your wrists gotta be tired. I appreciate you taking the time to speak to me.
Tech N9ne: All good…it’s more like my right shoulder. It’s like a machine that does [its job] 5,000 times. After a while, you get a little cramped up.
Ambrosia For Heads: We posted up the first cypher on Ambrosia. You made a really strong point in there: They laugh at you ’cause you paint your face, but it’s a reflection of your ancestors. I’ve had the privilege and honor of spending some time with you, and I know that you have a lot of rituals, especially when it comes to performing — and I’m sure [equally] when it comes to writing and just living your life. How many of those rituals do you find are in touch with things like your ancestors, heritage, and even your own family and relatives?
Tech N9ne: Well, just putting the face-paint on when it’s time for battle… my ancestors, when it was time for battle, [used] face-paint. When I go on that stage, I’m trying to prove myself every night—to those who are just seeing me for the first time, those who called me corny once upon a time and then wanted to come see. When I throw that paint on, I’m a different person. I go to war on that stage. That’s why we sweat like we do—like we’re going to war.
Krizz Kaliko feels the same way, it’s just that he don’t [have to] put on face-paint. He has natural face-paint: it’s called Vitiligo. [Chuckles] While people steady callin’ me corny ’cause I don’t look like the average brother from the hood… Like, I was born in Wayne Minor Projects…the fact that I don’t look like that on stage, this, that, and the other—it makes me “corny” ’cause I paint my face, when our ancestors did that when it was time of war. It is like a ritual, because when that face-paint goes on me, bruh, whatever I wouldn’t say in a normal form, comes out of me. Whether it be vulgar, forceful, whether it be degrading to other people, I don’t know…whether it be like super-mean. Naturally, I’m an overly nice person. It is like a ritual; I have to transform into that superhero that I feel like on stage, man.
Ambrosia For Heads: These Strangeulation albums have cyphers, which are really cool. It’s interesting: the first time I ever saw Tech N9ne on television was Sway & King Tech’s “Cypher” video. I remember, “Oh, I’ve heard this guy. This is who he is? Cool.” People talk a lot about the evolution of the freestyle. You’ve been doing it for more than 20 years, how do you think the cypher has evolved in Hip-Hop?
Tech N9ne: Well…this is what I’ve found to be how it changes: I don’t think it’s changed at all, brother.
I think that there’s a beat, and there’s a chance for you to show your flow. Generation after generation will bring their flow. The flow that stuck out to me in this latest BET [Hip Hop] Awards [Cyphers] is Joyner Lucas from Worcester, Massachusetts. Like, “Whoa!” And Redman just murdered everything as well. It just keeps goin’, man. It’s a different beat, every year. The year I did it in the BET Cypher it was James Brown – “The Big Payback.” [Mimics beat] And I went on it! It’s the same, but everybody – generation after generation, gets to express what they feel over that beat—whether it’s written, whether it’s freestyled. Most of the time, what I’ve learned, is even the freestylers jot things down and remember. So everything is written is what I found out when I did the BET Cypher.
When I posted my [lyrics] to [this] cypher, one dude said, “Cyphers are supposed to be freestyles! This ain’t no cypher!” I’m like, yo, if you can show me a nigga that can flow like me and bust like me, and that’s a freestyle? This mothafucka should be a billionaire. [Laughs] [That’s] what I say! I didn’t want to kill his idea of what a cypher or a freestyle would be. The only dude I never saw write nothin’ down is [MC] Supernatural. [Chuckles] And you can tell those are freestyles; [spectators] are handing him things and he’s just goin’ [on rapping about them]. But when you have a style like Tech N9ne’s, that’s technical like that, you ain’t freestylin’ that shit, my nigga. Whether it be Kendrick Lamar or Joyner Lucas or whatever, no matter if it’s written or [freestyled], if it’s fly or dope, it’s dope!…whether written, or freestyled.
Ambrosia For Heads: You mention lyrics being written down. When I first heard Tech N9ne it was on the Gang Related soundtrack. Your name stood out to me, and then “Questions” just jammed. At that time, in 1997, I don’t know about you, but nobody in my family had a computer. So it was just listening to music. Nowadays, Hip-Hop—in many ways—lives on the Internet. People can go online and see just how beautiful, and intricate, and technical your rhymes are. Your status has risen so much in the last 20 years. Do you think sites that post Tech N9ne lyrics have helped cultivate your following?
Tech N9ne: Oh yeah, man! Everything I did back in the day… especially “Questions.” “Questions” was a turning point. That was the first time I was on something that sold millions of copies. I was the only guy on that soundtrack that wasn’t on Death Row [Records]. A lot of people remember me from “Questions.” The only thing I say about that… the curse to me now—since ’98, “Questions,” Gang Related soundtrack, Tupac [Shakur]’s last screen performance before his death—everybody wants me to rap like that when they send me a record. [Laughs hysterically] That’s the curse I have. They want me to chop. When people say, “Aw, Tech N9ne got the same flow every time I hear him.” Nigga, you heard my features, ’cause that’s what [the artists] want me to do.
Listen to my albums, and it’s everything I do: I slow it down, I do everything. But if Twista sends me a record, what you think it’s gon’ be? If Bone Thugs-N-Harmony send me a record, what you think it’s gon’ be? If Busta Rhymes sends me a record, what you think it’s gon’ be? If Eminem sends me a record, what you think it’s gon’ be? It’s always been that way, because of “Questions.”
Every once in a while, I like to just rap. Like, Havoc just sent me [some] Mobb Deep [for a feature]. I get to rap! I love it. [DJ] Kay Slay just sent me one. I did one for him, and I got to rap. I love it. You know what I’m sizzlin’? I’m not saying that to say I don’t like to chop. I do, it’s just very hard to write. But I’m very good at it. I’m from the Midwest, and that’s what we do.
So you brought up “Questions,” and I know for a fact that the things that I did back then are the reasons why I got my fans in the first [place]. But I’ve been able to keep my fans… every once in a while a mothafucka might get mad at me for being on Tha Carter IV. “I ain’t fuckin’ with Tech N9ne no more, ’cause he’s mainstream, ’cause he fuck with [Lil] Wayne,” or shit like “Hood Go Crazy” with 2 Chainz and B.o.B., “I don’t fuck with Tech N9ne, ’cause he’s mainstream!” But as soon as I do something with Corey Taylor of Slipknot, “Oh! Tech N9ne’s back!” Or I do dark stuff like [“MMM”], “Oh, Tech N9ne’s back!” When you’re three-dimensional, like I am, bro, when you got the gangsta shit, and you got the sexual shit, and you got the dark shit, and got the Rock & Roll shit, and got the sentimental shit—and you got everything—because I created Tech N9ne to be the MC that had everything. [He is] my perfect MC that does everything: Rock, Rap, Jazz, Blues, [and so on]. When you have all that, you’re gonna have people that don’t agree. The gangsta mothafuckas don’t like the Rock & Roll shit. The Rock & Roll mothafuckas don’t like the gangsta shit; they don’t understand it. The sentimental mothafuckas probably don’t like the sexual shit. It just happens that way. I know everything I’ve done thus far, I’ve been able to keep my fans, and keep increasing—and I’m blessed, no matter who the fuck falls off because of who I work with. They mad at me. “Aw, he’s workin’ with T.I. now! It ain’t the Tech N9ne I used to know.” Yeah, ’cause nobody didn’t wanna fuck with me back then! They thought I was too weird. They saw that face-paint, they got used to it, and the like, “but the nigga can rap. I think he’s talented.” So the mainstream started to respond after all these years.
Ambrosia For Heads: My favorite record on the new album is “Blunt And A Ho.”
Tech N9ne: [Laughs loudly] Oh, you heard the new album?
Ambrosia For Heads: Yeah, yeah. Richie sent it to me, so I got to hear it.
Tech N9ne: Whoa! That’s beautiful!
Ambrosia For Heads: What I love about [the song] is the message. I think it’s the best collaboration of you and Murs—two MCs that I’ve loved on your own for 15-plus years. This is like the track that I always imagined—and Ubiquitous does the damn thing too. What I love is…the beat and the chorus are one thing. In actuality, what you’re talking about is self-deprecating as hell. Tell me a little bit about this, ’cause so many of your songs have always enjoyed that sort of juxtaposition, as have Murs’. It has a great interlude to jump it off, and I think it’s one of the singles; we put it up on Ambrosia today, actually.
Tech N9ne: The thing about it is…I know when I’m looking at a sheet and says, “Okay, I gotta do a couple with Murs.” I said, “I want it to be more of a Hip-Hop feel. And I want to put [Ubiquitous] on it, ’cause CES Cru is more of a Hip-Hop feel.” Murs is part of the back-pack [movement], and CES Cru are super-lyrical guys. When I constructed the beat in my head to give to my producer Seven, I was [mimics the chorus on a drum beat]. That’s from me bein’ a dancer back in the day, dancin’ to A Tribe Called Quest and shit like that and Black Sheep’s [“The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)”]. [I had] the flat-top, wearing the [M.C.] Hammer pants and all that, the patent leather shoes, with the Kwamé streak through my [hair]—everything. That’s me, back then. So the tempo is not trappish, and the flow is not trappish as well [whereas] “Chilly Rub” might be.
I told myself I wanna get Ubi’ and Murs on one—I knew “Blunt And A Hoe” was the one. We can speak about our problems that we’re going through, but just sayin’—and this is such a Tech N9ne idea—’cause everything’s fucked up, but all you need is a blunt and a hoe. That’s me—even though Murs don’t smoke. So when I sent him that [interlude voicemail], that’s a real message I sent to him. It was his idea to put it on the album. He sent it back to my engineer, like, “I think you should use this message before the song, so people can hear how Tech sends us ideas.” So that’s a real message where I say, “Murs, I know you don’t smoke. But I’m gonna get you high today!” That’s real shit [between us]. He told me, “Yo Tech, I’m goin’ through some shit right now. This couldn’t have been more on time, dude.” Ubi, he can adjust to any musical situation, just like me. He’s gonna be alright; he can find something to talk about. But the beat [and part of the drum pattern] came from my head. I just send [all that] to my producer Seven, and he’ll come up with everything else for that song. It turned out fuckin’ beautiful! We shot a video, it’s gonna be comin’ out soon. I had no idea that this was gonna be a single. It was just talkin’ about my problems, like I always do—but I shared this with my artists. Them being elite artists, they were able to mesh with my idea of havin’ a blunt and a hoe.
Ambrosia For Heads: This is a Collabos project. You mentioned Death Row earlier, and you can look at certain labels and watch them evolve. The roster changes, the styles, the tone of a label changes. With this album, it’s a great here-and-now for what Strange is like approaching 2016. How do you look at this [Strange Music] compared to some of the lineups that you’ve had five or 10 years ago?
Tech N9ne: Well, this is what I know: Now, the roster is truly totally elite. We’ve always gave quality music with the [artist] that were on Strange. We’ve always prided ourselves on giving the people quality music. But to be about to put out a Strangeulation 2 and say, “Fuck y’all, we got y’all on a tighter choke-hold,” ’cause we’re doper with the beats, and doper with the flows. The roster is murderers. I’m blessed to be in the position to say, “This is me showcasing all of my artists, and I’m proud of these mothafuckas, man.”
The ones that fall to the wayside is ’cause they couldn’t hang—I’m sorry. It was fun while it lasted. What I’m trippin’ on is how many different styles is on this album. We got Darrein Safron doing R&B/Trap shit, kinda, Prozak doing the dark shit, CES Cru doin’ the super-technical shit, Stevie Stone doin’ the hard-hittin’ club-bangin’ shit, [Big] Scoob doin’ the gangsta shit, Krizz Kaliko doin’ the Jazz/the Gospel/Country/EDM shit. Tech N9ne adjusted to every musical situation, even Mackenzie O’Guin, Travis [O’Guin’s] 16 year-old is doing some Pop music on here. I’m proud of her, and what she’s become, musically. I’m on there with her, as well. Tyler Leon with the Metal shit, with “Tell Me If I’m Trippin'” and “Torrid.” I’ve adjusted to every musical situation.
I just had my 44th birthday, November 8, and there’s no signs of getting wacker, only better with time. I just moved into a $3.3 million home. I’m just lookin’ at it like, “Look at what’s goin’ on this late in life.” I’ve seen mothafuckas be up, and come right back down and nobody cares even more in the Rap game [and] the music game. And we’re still on the incline. [Mimics Big Sean’s “Blessings”] I feel way up; I feel blessed! When I come in the studio right now that I’m sittin’ in, Strange Land, and I’m seeing a building being built next door that’s bigger than both of our buildings at our headquarters, I [remind myself] that I’m so blessed to be a part of something that’s still growing—when the music business is plummeting because of streaming, and [artists] don’t make as much money as we used to make. We can still make money by getting out of here and fuckin’ touring, and taking my artists on tours. And our built-in fan-base still buys our physical copies, they buy digital copies, and everything. We still found a way to stay afloat, and I’m so blessed.
Ambrosia For Heads: You mentioned Mackenzie. I’m not saying this because you and Travis have been so kind to me over the years, but “Actin’ Like You Know” is another record that I love on there. You said Pop, but it reminded me a little bit of Jay Z & Linkin Park. To me, this belongs on every radio station that plays Paramore or Evanescence.
Tech N9ne: Me too!
Ambrosia For Heads: We’ve watched Gnarls Barkley tip the scale of independent—we’ve watched Macklemore do it. Do you think a record like that, whether it’s this specific one, or five albums from now, can get the recognition it deserves, even from Rock or Pop radio?
Tech N9ne: We’re trying, man. Krizz Kaliko’s new album with Darrein Safron and Mackenzie [is] trying to expand and put Strange everywhere—like have a Strange nation, my nigga. I mean it’s like, why stay in a box? I’ve never been in a box. That’s why you heard me on the songs with Deftones and with The Doors, and Slipknot, and System Of A Down, and shit with Mint Condition, and with T.I., Wayne, 2 Chainz—where’s the boundaries, my nigga? Why should we just stay, that? Can’t we expand and do Jazz and Blues too? Like me and Krizz Kaliko gon’ do. Why can’t we do Rap music like me and Krizz Kaliko do? It’s strange that some rappers could do it, so we here are at Strange Music. We are hiring new people and new teams to do this for us, and help us do this. We want to be here. When everyone is plummeting, we still want to be on the incline, and at the top, my dude. We’re showing no signs of slowing down.
Ambrosia For Heads: Two quickies. My favorite album of yours is All 6’s & 7’s—it has been since it dropped. But you’re in touch with your fans more so than any artist I’ve ever encountered. What do the Technicians tell you? ‘Cause right now, on Ambrosia, we’re asking over one million people on Facebook, “What is the greatest Rap album?” So when you’re talking to [fans], what do you tend to hear most within your catalog?
Tech N9ne: I hear Everready, 2006. I hear Everready a lot. I hear All 6’s & 7’s, but I mostly hear Everready. But how the fuck dare they? When there’s something like Something Else, when there’s something like Special Effects, how the fuck?—You can have your favorite, but how the fuck dare they, when I’m polished as fuck on Special Effects!
It’s like this: You know Eminem can rap his ass off. After a while, it’s no big deal! And they say, “Aw yeah, we expect that of him.” “Oh yeah, Ubi killed it, Murs killed it, but we expect it of Tech.” They used to me! Okay, I ain’t givin’ you more records, mothafucka! I’ll give you all my artists and then they’ll be fiendin’ for my ass again! See that when I drop something like “He’s A Mental Giant” I’m bustin’ on every mothafucka. Or, I drop a song with the greatest rapper that’s ever done it—in my eyes—Eminem, and me and Krizz Kaliko drop a song called “Speedom” and ain’t nobody trippin’. Okay, okay—they used to us, my nigga!
A lot of mothafuckas say, on social media, “He ain’t made a dope album since All 6’s & 7’s.” I’m like, “That’s your opinion, bitch-ass, mothafucka! That’s cool. But let me tell you, I’m getting better and better.” So when I drop ‘MMM,’ they’re like, “Oh! The Tech N9ne is back!” I ain’t went anywhere, you’re just used to me. I give too many albums a year. These mothafuckas are used to me, and Eminem, and Busta Rhymes, and all these niggas that kill everything all the time. They used to us. We need to lay back on these mothafuckas for a minute and let our people go and get they money, and then they’ll be beggin’ for us to go and do shows and do flows and everything. ‘Cause we are always [responsible]. So when you hear a song like “Slow To Me” with me, Rittz, and Krizz Kaliko, and we show mothafuckas how to hit that staccato flow—mothafuckas don’t know what staccato is. You young, nigga! We tryn’a show people [mimics flow]. I’m trying to show these mothafuckas how to flow and it goes over they head ’cause they used to us! Yeah, that’s cool. Just know that I fight for this music [especially my newer albums].
After this one, where I show ’em that I can adjust to any musical situation—which I’ve done through my whole career, I’m gonna do this album—October, September—9/9 maybe—I’m gonna do this album called The Storm. It’s gonna be my next LP, called The Storm. I’m gonna show mothafuckas that I ain’t even slowin’ down. I’m gonna show mothafuckas—and everybody that’s on Worldstar talkin’ shit—”he corny, ’cause he paint his face”—”he makes music for kids who shoot up schools”—aiight. Aiight! I got somethin’ to prove to all these niggas; it’s all good! I ain’t relaxed. I don’t care that I’m in a $3.3 million house. I don’t care, nigga. I got somethin’ to prove! ‘Cause these mothafuckas is used to us! [Chuckles] And I’m sure Eminem’d say the same thing.
Ambrosia For Heads: My last question is an easy one. We’re asking [our readers] on social. What is, in your opinion, the greatest Rap album of all time?
Tech N9ne: The greatest Rap album of all time…would probably be between Public Enemy’s It Takes Of Millions To Hold Us Back or Niggaz4Life by N.W.A. Hmmm. It’s been some more. It’s been some more… The Blueprint, Jay Z’s [album]. There’s been more. But my era—I’m 44, my nigga—I might feel like I’m 22, but I’m not. So [I choose] mothafuckas that made me want to rap: Public Enemy.
Ambrosia For Heads: Tell me why that album, for you, means so much.
Tech N9ne: Man, from beginning to end, mothafucka! You know what I’m sayin’? “Don’t Believe The Hype” is on that mothafucka! “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” is on that mothafucka! How many songs that showed people how to use the James Brown “Funky Drummer” [sample]? It showed mothafuckas how to do Rap music! It showed N.W.A. on how to mix samples and everything. [Hank and Keith] Shocklee, with their style of music, showed [Dr.] Dre, I’m sure! He’ll say it. Say it! These mothafuckas was like in cahoots. That’s why Ice Cube [is on] “Burn Hollywood Burn,” because he was a fan—of Big Daddy Kane and all them other mothafuckas. Chuck D [and] Public Enemy, and made them want to do that shit, man. [They] made them want to be conscious. Fuck yeah! Where did Ice Cube go when he went on his own [with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted]? He went to the mothafuckin’ Shocklees!