Born Aaron Dontez Yates almost 40 years ago, Tech N9ne has slowly, steadily built a career for himself from a combination of raw talent, hard work, and evolving maturity. After several false starts in the early ‘90s, his first solo album, The Calm Before The Storm, arrived in 1999, when he was 28, and almost twelve years to the day later, on November 8, 2011, he’s celebrating his thirteenth release, Welcome to Strangeland. And during that time, he learned a lot of tough lessons not just about the music business, but life in general, and he’s applied them to his art and used that art as an outlet for his thoughts, feelings and experiences.
Crave Online spoke to Tech during the Los Angeles leg of his current tour, which is promoting both his last album, June’s All 6’s and 7’s, and the forthcoming Welcome to Strangeland. In addition to discussing the “Nightmare Before Christmas-ish” sounds of his upcoming release, he talked about translating his studio work to the stage, and offered some insights into his creative process, and more importantly, how it provides a catharsis for him in his personal life.
How do you translate what you do in the studio to the stage?
I don’t even have a DJ any more, man. I have a computer called Instant Replay, and I go into the studio, I choose the songs that I want to do, and I link them all so they’re nonstop. Our show is like an hour-and-something, nonstop, and then we do the last six songs manually. I plan it like that, and I make sure it’s explosive all the way through. I make sure my guys, Kev Calhoun and Chris Calcutta, have three songs apiece within the show. The show is like an hour and 30 minutes, and this one that I do, I gave myself breaks, which I usually never do. I usually never give myself breaks to sit down in back and have some water; I usually go all of the way through, and I kill myself – it’s insanity. But this time I gave myself breaks, to sit down and then come back, and it’s wonderful. I love the new show.
How difficult is it when you’re using a computer program to be able to interact with the crowd or improvise?
It’s like a lot of the fans know the music, so when I’m in the studio I do punch-outs on the choruses so they can say it. I learned a lot from the old school how to really put together a show, so crowd participation is a must so that they’re with me the whole hour and 30.
When you start work on new material, how do you rekindle your creativity each time? Or are you always recording or working, even when you’re on the road?
I actually get the beats sent to me when I’m on tour. Like I’ll tell the producers exactly what I want – like “I want something enchanting and Beetlejuice-ish, and Nightmare Before Christmas-ish.” I’ll tell me producers that, and they’ll start sending me beats, and I’ll select them one by one. And most of the time I’ll select like three or four of them with the intent to use every last one. And that’s pretty much how we do it; we do the choruses while we’re out here on tour. It’s almost impossible to write out here on tour, because it’s distracting, and when I get home, I go right into the studio with all of the ideas. That’s how Welcome to Strangeland came about, and that’s how all of my albums come about.
What does “Nightmare Before Christmas-ish” mean?
You know – if you listen to the music, “some-thing’s-up-with-Jack/ some-thing’s-up-with-Jack” – it’s like sinister, but it’s cartoonish. So it’s like Danny Elfman, he’s wonderful, and just that orchestra that he had [was great]. My show start off like that, with [the music from] Beetlejuice, you know what I mean? I’m into that shit, so that’s what I wanted Strangeland to feel like, and my producers, I think they nailed it.
Is it prohibitive to actually sample that music or do you prefer to create something more inspired by that?
It’s prohibitive to use that music, because we hate paying for samples. They take forever, and sometimes they never come through, especially with the stuff that I want. Luckily, we got, “I’m a playa, I’m a playa” from Falco’s “Amadeus” – we got that years ago. We got that and they took 50 percent and shit and everything was cool and they gave us something wonderful. But we enjoy originals, so we don’t have to be in court with anybody; I don’t want to go through that. So we tell our producers to try to stay away from samples, unless it’s something humongous that Tech wants, and then we’ll try to go after it. But it’s a headache, man.
At this point in your career, what inspires your songwriting? And where do you draw a line between being honest about your life, and adopting a persona for the purposes of telling a story?
I don’t draw a line at all, man. I’m inside out. That’s why fans love me. My wife says, people party through their pain – well, this was before we separated – and she said, “you say too much!” and I write my life, so I have to write it as it happens. But if I were real about everything, I would break everybody’s heart, so I know exactly what to say, but I hint around to a lot of stuff. And what inspires me is life – that’s why I don’t believe in writer’s block, because the cure to writer’s block for me is go out and have something to happen to you, or read a fucking book. And I don’t have time to read the books that I used to back in the day, like The Celestine Prophecy, The Illuminati back when I was younger – I don’t have the time to read that. So I let life happen to me, and I write my life. And it’s a beautiful thing to make a living off writing what you know and people actually liking it. Because who’s to say your life is that exciting that people want to know about it? But they do; like when I’m on the road doing shows, I’m away from my children, and then I write a song called “The Rain,” and the whole world feels me. They don’t have to be a rapper, you know what I’m saying? There’s other occupations that have them away from their families, so when I’m writing my life, somehow it touches other walks of life.
What do you think is too far, or where do you draw the line between telling a story and complete personal candor?
Like if you fucked your woman’s best friend, you’re not going to say that on a song. But you’re going to say, “while you’re loving me, I’m loving your friend.” It’s vague, but you still get it out. Like you don’t say, “my girlfriend’s best friend sucked me down.” You don’t want to break any hearts, so there’s certain things you just don’t say. But me, I have to get it out of me.
How much freestyling do you do?
I don’t do any freestyling at all. I’ve taken too many drugs to think quick like that, but to do that and have it connect is a wonderful thing. I paint beautiful pictures with rhyme, you know, Tech Van Gogh – I am a murderer with a pen, I’ll tell you that. But it hits me like a freestyle. Like I don’t really know what I’m going to say, I know one word, and it’s “narcissistic,” and I’ll wait for something to rhyme with “narcissistic,” and I’ll wait for a minute and get, “hard to grip it,” “dark and wicked,” and it just keeps coming. It just comes out, and you don’t know what you’re going to say next. It’s such a weird process for me, because I didn’t know I could rhyme “narcissistic” that many times when I wrote it, and I challenged myself. And every time I do it, I end up being able to rhyme it, and at the end of four bars, I say thank you Jesus, because I had no idea I could rhyme all of those words like that.
Do you tend to start with an idea or a rhyme or the music first?
I start with the music first – my producers send me the music – and we’ll come up with the chorus, because the beat tells you exactly what to do. If the beat is sad, then we’re going to talk about something sad, like, oh, this is what happened, my mom is going through this. It’s like life happens on those beats, and they tell you what to do. So we do the chorus first, and then from the chorus we’ll have the title of the song. Sometimes I come up with the title and I say, “I want this song to be called ‘Overwhelming’, because it feels like the love I get from my fans is so overwhelming that I’ve got to have this song saying that.”
What comes easier for you, the faster rapping, or the slower stuff?
[Rapping fast] is hard as hell, man. And that’s my specialty, being from the Midwest. You have to count it, and it’s hard as hell – triple-time and double-time takes you longer than just like a regular rhyme. It’s like I love to just be an MC, but everybody wants you to go [fast]; I did it to myself, and it’s a curse. But I do it well, but it’s extremely hard to write it. There’s a technique to it, and it’s hard as hell to write, and I hate writing it, but they love for me to do it.
How tough is it to remember all of these verses? Presumably you’re reading lyrics you’ve written down when you’re in the studio – do you have to do a lot of work to memorize things for when you go on tour?
Yes, you have to rehearse. That’s something that happened on this tour, because we had no rehearsal time. So where I started this tour I was doing the old show prior to this tour, and the places I went didn’t see that tour. But the show that I constructed for this tour was too intricate and we had to have rehearsals because we didn’t know the songs. Here are a lot of new songs, so we have to rehearse those things, and make sure the guys that are behind me know the words that they’re supposed to say. It’s hard to do what I do up there, man, because there are a lot of lyrics, and you have to rehearse.
I wish that they automatically stayed in your head when you write them, but when you write them, we’re reading them. We write them on the spot, because we don’t have time to really sit at home like I would like all of the time and write these, so we’re writing them on the spot in the studio and then we go in there and we read them off the paper. And after we do that one, we go to the next one, and we have them at the end of the night put them on CD and we listen to them, going, “wow – that’s beautiful.” But then we’ll be on to the next song the next day, so you have to go back and study that.
How much do you learn from the process of writing songs about your life? Do you get a greater sense of perspective on things that happen to you after you rap about them?
Well, what it does is it’s like therapy. When you write your life, and you talk about a lot of messed-up things that happened, it’s therapy, because if you don’t let it out you’ll explode. This is a great vehicle to get things out to people, like, you know what? I’ve got to get this out of my heart, I’ve got to get this out of my brain, because it’s tormenting me. So I’ve got you let y’all know it, and it is liberating, man. It’s like the best thing you can do.
Chris Calico is suffering from anxiety, and his number one song is called “Anxiety,” which people love. They love it! And he got it out, and it’s a beautiful thing for him to do that. Or like, you know, my mom was suffering from pancreatitis in 2009, so I did a whole dark album called K.O.D. – King of Darkness. And the first song was called, “Show Me Your God;” it’s like me telling God, please show me a ghost or something to let me know the spiritual realm exists, so I’ll know if what I’m praying to is a real thing. If it’s a He or a She or a thing, I don’t know – all we know is what the Bible says, and man wrote that, so it’s misleading.
So it was like me talking to God, like, please show me something other than human beings. So when I see a baby born, that’s amazing – that’s a miracle. But Creationism and Darwinism exist, so it’s me talking to God, and it’s crazy when you can get stuff out like this. And people can comment on it, like, “oh, he doesn’t believe in God,” but no, I did not say that. I said, let me know something is listening when I’m down on my knees. So I get to get those things out, and it’s most beautiful thing ever.
As an elder statesman in an industry that prioritizes youth, how hard is it to stay passionate, especially since to stay in it you have to focus on business as much as art?
Dude, I will be 40 years old Novermber 8th, 40. And it’s like the older I get, the younger my fans get; they’re starting at two! It’s like they’re young-ass Technicians. Or the little young girls in their miniskirts that are 18 years old, I’m like, what am I saying to get all you sexy motherfuckers in here? It’s the craziest thing – I talk about partying a lot, and that might get them there. I talk about sex a lot because I’m a Scorpio male. But I talk about grown-up shit too, like owing the IRS, and this, that and the other. So the older I get, I think I’m getting better, and when you listen to All 6s and 7s, it’s a leap, and with this new one coming out on my birthday, November 8th, Welcome to Strangeland, you’ll hear it from start to finish – it’s like super elite. It’s like practice makes perfect. And I don’t think I’m at the hilt yet, I don’t think I’m at the pinnacle. I don’t think I’m at the top yet. I have a lot more to go. So I listen to myself, and it sounds like I’m getting younger on my songs, so it’s like, am I going backwards? I don’t know.