A Hard Road From Kansas

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

Over the course of his career, rapper Tech N9ne has recorded with all of the top names in hip-hop and rap, including Tupac Shakur, Xzibit and Eminem.  The vivid imagery of his lyrics together with the rhythm and power of his delivery have won him legions of fans from coast to coast.  His reputation is that of “rap’s first anarchist,” an artist that delights in breaking the rules.  His debut album “AngHellic” was a concept album in the vein of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” about a tortured angel experiencing hell on earth.  On Sunday, he will headline a five-artist show at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz.

Like many rappers, the often disturbing subject matter of Tech N9ne’s songs is often drawn from his own experience.  Born Aaron Yates, he grew up in Kansas City in a strict religious family, with a Muslim stepfather and a Christian mother.  “There was love in the house,” he said, “but there was also confusion.  We had to go to church every day and I started seeing the lies.  Women in church fighting over men, people having affairs within the church.  I worked at a restaurant where the Muslim brothers were dealing dope.”

Yates first discovered rap when an uncle gave him a copy of “Rap Dirty” by Blowfly.  He was immediately hooked, and began building a collection of albums by NWA, Public Enemy and others.  He had to keep the albums at a friend’s house, as his stepfather would not let him keep them at home.

A friend dared Yates to try writing a rap of his own.  He did, and the next day he performed it at school.  He realized at that moment he had found his calling.  Listening to music and writing his own raps helped to keep Yates away from the gang culture in Kansas City that had caught up many of his friends.  However, at age 17, he left home to live with an aunt and soon got a glimpse of the seamier side of life.  “I worked with one of my relatives dealing with a little crack,” he said.  “Our clients included preachers, politicians, firemen, professional basketball players… it was insane.”  Though he fell into the drug culture, both dealing and using, he continued to refine his performing skills, which would eventually provide him with a way out.

After several independent releases, Yates’ first break came when a girlfriend invited him to a rap convention in New Orleans.  “I’d never been off the block,” he said, “and there I was in New Orleans, meeting Tone Loc, King T, MC Hammer, L.L. Cool J.  I couldn’t believe this was real.”  He was introduced to Icy Rock, who would eventually produce “AngHellic.”  The road to the album’s release was not an easy one.  Several recording deals fell through, with backers pulling out and record labels folding.  Yates returned to Kansas City dejected, but there ran into an old friend, producer Don Juan.  The pair began working on some songs, and a contact at Rap Pages magazine in Los Angeles passed the demos to Quincy Jones III.  Jones signed Tech N9ne to Qwest records, where he released “AngHellic” in 2001 to rave reviews.  This was followed in 2002 by “Absolute Power.” Earlier this year, he released “Vintage Tech,” an 18-song collection spanning the past decade. 

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, October 6, 2005

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