Let's get one thing straight: I don't dislike Tech N9ne.
But recently I made him very angry, which is not ideal, considering he's an aggressive, independent rapper who paints his face, has hordes of hardcore fans and has named himself after a semi-automatic gun.
It all started in March, when I reviewed his show at the Paid Dues festival. While it was a mostly laudatory review, it also said that his delivery “can feel redundant and gimmicky.” I didn't think Tech would ever see it, much less be affected by it.
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So, the review far from my mind, I set up an interview with Tech for this story. But the morning I'm scheduled to talk with the Kansas City rapper, who these days lives in the Valley, his A&R rep and publicist, Richie Abbott, tells me to listen to “Fragile,” the Kendrick Lamar-assisted single from Something Else, Tech's just-released 13th LP. Driven by hard drums and a somber guitar riff, “Fragile” is a poignant offering from two artists feeling sensitive about their work, targeting critics who misinterpret it. “It's about you,” Abbott tells me. “You inspired the song. Congrats.”
Yes, it turns out I'm the “amateur writer” in the song, the “beginner” who “has never been at a [Tech] show.” To clarify, I'm a recent college grad who just started getting paid to write. But I'm also a longtime Tech fan who has paid to see him twice before. Which Abbott says he'll tell him.
Still, I'm quite anxious for our dinner meeting, at James Beach restaurant in Venice, near where Tech has been recording. Walking in, I see the 41-year-old self-proclaimed “king of darkness,” dressed all in black, right down to his boots. Arriving with Abbott, the broad-shouldered Tech also wears a transparent face mask. There aren't many people in the restaurant yet, but everyone's looking.
Tech smiles as he extends his hand. “I'm the amateur,” I say, my face undoubtedly bright red. As we embrace, he says, “Thank you for 'Fragile.' I have the same Doors shirt.”
The ice broken and drinks ordered — Tech has two Cadillac margaritas — we bond over our love of hip-hop and The Doors. “People Are Strange” inspired the name of his Strange Music record label, after all, and Tech recorded a song on Something Else with the remaining Doors members before Ray Manzarek died.
I ask him why he wears the mask, which he takes off to eat. “It just reminds me to be transparent,” Tech says, “to let everything out and to not hold back.”
In our 90-minute conversation, he does very little of that, and his eyes rarely leave me. Every word is delivered with the intensity of his songs; syllables are accentuated and stacked rapidly. In between, he raps entire verses several times, doing them over if he misses a word.
There's much I already know about him, but much I learn. For instance, the makeup is actually a nightly dedication to his deceased best friend, Brian Dennis, the man who first painted his face.
“Can you tell that the things I say are pure?” he asks at one point. I can't help but nod and agree. But I find myself straddling the line between critic and fan. The journalistic aphorism of Philip Seymour Hoffman's character in Almost Famous comes to mind: “You cannot make friends with the rock stars.”
I do my best to stand my ground and defend the critique, telling Tech that those unfamiliar with his lightning-quick cadences might not understand them or find them completely compelling. “I don't expect everybody to get it,” he says, half-joking, “but I expect everybody to get it.”
I ask him why, after all his success — according to Forbes, he made $6 million last year — and his 20-plus years rapping, he still cares so much about what a critic like me has to say. “I will never not give a fuck, because I give too many fucks about what the fuck I write,” he says, both fists clenched on the table. “I'm inside out. I'm transparent. I'm open for the world to see. And I need motherfuckers to understand that.”
Our interview over, Tech puts his mask back on. Before we depart, he pulls me in close. “Thank you for 'Fragile,' ” he says again, adding: “Thank you for having the balls to say something about Tech N9ne.”
As he leaves, more words from Hoffman's character come to me: “You want to be a true friend to them? Be honest and unmerciful.”