Q&A With Tech N9ne

Tech N9ne talks to Pollstar about getting out of his comfort zone to work with producer Ross Robinson on his upcoming EP and how he considers himself a therapist to his fans. Fittingly enough, the title of the 7-song release is Therapy: Sessions with Ross Robinson.

Due out Nov. 5, the nu metal, instrument-driven EP features Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland and Glassjaw drummer Sammy Siegle. Tech N9ne discussed how the track “Hiccup” came to the rapper in a dream.

He also chatted about what it was like to collaborate with The Doors on his 13th full-length studio album, Something Else, which was released in July. Tech noted that he’s a longtime fan and even named his label, Strange Music, after the band.

Something Else also includes guest appearances from System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian, B.o.B., Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar and more.

Pollstar spoke to Tech last week before his show in Lancaster, Pa.

Photo: Chris Shonting

Forbes recently did a feature story on you, calling you “hip hop’s secret mogul.” It doesn’t sound like you need the money yet you’re still out there on the road. What’s your favorite thing about playing live?

To look out and see that everybody in the crowd is smiling at me, relaxes me. It’s like, nobody’s frowning. I feel like a comedian, but I’m not. Everybody’s smiling because the music is so wonderful. This is my habitat. I feel like I belong out here. The charge that I get when I’m on stage is like no drug I’ve ever had. I’ve been clean for over eight years but when I was on drugs it was nothing like the charge that I get when the crowd is totally into it. And I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that.

I just started tapping into the smiles a couple years ago. My show and my music is so intricate I’m worried I’ll stumble. But to see everyone smiling makes me smile, takes my mind off of it.

How long have you been wearing the face paint during performances?  

The first time my best friend Brian Dennis, rest his soul, painted me was 1994. I became the killer clown. I became what I feared as a kid – a clown. Always, it was like a mystique behind the face paint. … What’s behind the smile? What’s the intent? Is it actually a smile? [It] arouses suspicion and I became that.

Throughout the years it became more tribal and started looking more like my ancestors from Africa. It’s super tribal and super clownish and I’m with it. And in honor of Brian Dennis I’ll wear it until I’m not breathing anymore. … [The face paint] actually makes me feel like a superhero. … When you put on a mask for Halloween you feel like you’re that character. In my case … I feel energized when I have it on. I feel unstoppable.

Photo: Joey Foley / JoeyFoley.com
Egyptian Room, Indianapolis, Ind.

You have a new EP coming out in November that’s described as a “hard hitting instrument-driven sound that’s unlike anything you’ve ever done before.” What made you want to go in that direction?

You mean the rock direction? Well, the label itself is named after a rock band. All my fans know that it’s inspired by The Doors. I’m a big Doors fan from way, way back. From the beginning of this rock has been one of the things I do in all of my albums. “Tormented,” the first song on Anghellic, “Riot Maker,” the first song on Everready. So many songs over the years have the rock energy, even on my last album. Me and the Deftones on Something Else, my recent album. … I got to work with The Doors, the people that inspired me.

What was it like to work with The Doors?

Insanity. To be in the studio in LA and Ray Manzarek, rest his soul, was there. John Densmore and Robby Krieger [were] there and I’m in there like I’m Jim [Morrison]. You can imagine how that felt.

That must have been pretty amazing.

Oh my goodness, man. To work with the people that inspired you – that’s not written in blood. Everybody doesn’t get that. I got it. I’ll cherish that for the rest of my life.

I also did a song with one of my favorite people in the world, Serj Tankian. I’m a big System Of A Down fan. Rock has always been a big part of Tech N9ne. So it was only right that I hook up with Ross Robinson and bring another side of me out [for Therapy] … and do it all live. Wes Borland of Limp Bizkit came through and played guitar and Sammy Siegler came and played drums. … It was just wonderful, man, how it gelled. … And Ross Robinson is truly a wonderful therapist that got a lot of stuff out of me.

You actually started answering my next question. Why did you name the EP Therapy and what is your definition of therapy?

Therapy to me was me going to another place other than my comfort zone. My comfort zone is Kansas City, Mo., in my home where I like to write in front of my humongous TV on my couch. I needed something else. So I went out to Venice Beach, where Ross Robinson’s home is. I wrote and he talked to me, asked me what I felt. … Therapy to me is getting it all out of you before it eats you alive … however the music tells you to do it. It got all of those things that I was feeling at that moment, after the success of Something Else, my major LP. … Music is therapeutic in itself for me.

Photo: AP Photo / The Star Tribune, Jeff Wheeler
Soundset, Canterbury Park, Shakopee, Minn.

I received a press release where you’re talking about the song “Hiccup” and you say that it came to you in a dream. Did you wake up and write down lyrics? Or was it just the concept that came to you?

No, it was a dream. And in the dream, Ross Robinson – I was sitting at his desk, in the studio. And he was sitting right next to me and he pointed at a record cover and it had the word “Hiccup” written across it in white. And he looked at me and said “Hiccup.”

I keep this little Dictaphone recorder with me all the time so I won’t lose any ideas. I’ve been doing it for years. … I woke up a little bit, grabbed it off the mantel, and I pushed record and I’m like “boomp boomp tktktktk Hiccup boom boomp boomp tktktktk Hiccup.” When I got up in the morning I listened to it and I’m like, “‘Hiccup?’ That’s crazy.”

I told Ross the next morning, “Listen, I had a dream you came to me in a dream, bro, and said ‘hiccup’ and this is how it goes. And he had me do it on his phone. He recorded me doing it in front of Wes Borland and everybody. It was truly therapy because [I felt] so stupid doing it, you know, in front of other people in the room.  

So you just keep the recorder next to your bed in case you get inspiration like that?

All the time. I dreamt “Riot Maker.” [beat boxes] Got up and hummed that in my Dictaphone right then in ‘05 and it came out in ‘06.

Do you ever wake up and record something in a half dream/half awake state and then the next morning listen to it and not really understand what you were trying to say?

Some of the stuff I’m like, “What the hell was that?” And then it will come to me like, “Oh! That’s what it was.” [Sometimes] I’m like, “What is that? I’m whispering.” I’ll have to turn it up all the way, like “What am I saying? [laughs]

Going back to the quote about “Hiccup,” you say, “It’s about evil people in the world who think they’re going to get away with bad things, but there’s always a hiccup in their plans because evil shall not prevail over angels.” Do you believe in karma? Do you think good will always win over evil?

I totally believe in karma, [as] it shows in that song. I’ve learned in my 41 years of living, the things that I do that are really bad … years go by and you think you got away with it [but] something else [will] expose you all the time. I think that’s karma.

Based on your theory that evil can not prevail over angels, what do you say in response to criticism that your music glorifies the dark side?    

I don’t glorify my dark side, I just let my dark side loose. You know what I’m saying? Everybody has a dark side. The Christians who have something bad to say, they have a dark side, they just don’t speak about it. I feel like music is therapeutic. If I don’t get it out of me, it will eat me alive, like I said earlier. So my music is not dark but I do have a dark side.

I am a movie buff  and I love horror movies. I have on a Michael Myers shirt as we speak. But that’s not why I’m dark. I’m dark because I come from Kansas City, Mo. We were like the Bible Belt. Man, when you first get the teachings of Revelations, it’s like a horror movie, you know what I’m saying? The Holy Ghost and everything, they’re scary. Of course we’re going to be dark. Look at Eminem. Look at Bones Thugs-N-Harmony with the Ouija board. It’s like the Midwest’s crazy.

So you think growing up in the Bible Belt influenced your lyrics and outlook?

Yeah … but if the Christians who have something to say about Tech N9ne actually listened and not just looked at the imagery, they would see that I’m an angel.

The Forbes article pointed out that you’ve played more than 1,000 shows in the last five years and you’ve released a full-length studio album nearly every year on average since 2006. And Rolling Stone has said you “might be the hardest-working rapper on the planet.” What drives you to work so hard?  

What drives me is my fans. I love to do the music and make them smile and have them come to me and say, “You got me through the war in Afghanistan, you made it to where I didn’t commit suicide. Tech, thank you for your music.”

And my children … They motivate me to keep going. Because I’m keeping going, my daughter Aaliyah, she’s been in college for a month [at] Mills College in Berkeley. It’s because of the music I’m able to do that for her [and] for my son, Dontez. He just graduated. Lil Rainbow’s 14, she’s probably going to travel the word. She’s ambitious. Those things keep me going. My fans and my children.

You know, I wanted to be a psychiatrist before I started rapping. [laughs]. And it turns out, I’m my fans’ psychiatrist. I told you that they come to me and say, “You got me through and you helped me. That song really touched me … or ‘Low’ really let me know that you were where I was. I didn’t know you could get so low when you’re so popular.”

I ended up getting both of my wishes, being a rapper that everybody loves and being a psychiatrist.

My [friends] call me Donald Pleasence because I’m super pleasant to everybody. It’s funny, man. If you knew who Donald Pleasence was you’d laugh, he’s Dr. Loomis [in the “Halloween” series].

Is that a compliment?

He was a therapist … But they call me that because my nickname is Donny. So Donald Pleasence fits me. … I’m my fans’ therapist, I’m supposed to relax people.

So, what do you do to relax?

I like to sit in front of my television and watch the new Evil Dead or whatever I missed at the movies that out on DVD now, with somebody I love and drink some KC Tea or Caribou Lou and then go have sex or something.

Your most recent studio album includes a long list of collaborations. Are there any acts that you haven’t worked with that you’d like to team up with?

A lot of them. I’ve always wanted to work with Eminem. Still waiting on SlipknotCitizen Cope, Nine Inch Nails, Floetry – Marsha Ambrosius. I got a lot of them. Jay Z, Kanye.

Based on all of your recent special guests, I bet those collaborations will happen for you soon.

Oh yeah, man. I’m going to find everybody.

Photo: Chris Shonting

Upcoming Dates for Tech N9ne:

Oct. 29 – Indianapolis, Ind., Old National Centre     
Oct. 30 – Kansas City, Mo., Arvest Bank Theatre At The Midland     
Oct. 31 – Omaha, Neb., Sokol Auditorium / Underground     
Nov. 1 – Lincoln, Neb., Bourbon Theatre     
Nov. 2 – Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Hawkeye Downs Speedway

For more information please visit TheRealTechN9ne.com