Tech N9ne

While crafting what would be one of the most important albums of his career, Tech N9ne thought back to some of his early material. Before Strange Music became the No. 1 independent rap music label, the Kansas City rapper released The Calm Before The Storm. The acclaimed collection included songs that hinted at the type of artist he would become, from the conceptually rich “Questions” to the devilishly clever “Mitch Bade.”

So for The Storm, Tech N9ne wanted to revisit and build upon his musical foundation. “I knew if I named it The Storm, it would push me to do the best music I’ve ever done,” Tech N9ne explains. “I’m coming off of Special Effects, which featured songs with Eminem, Krizz Kaliko, 2 Chainz, B.o.B and T.I. But it’s not just the features. It was a big record, period. I just couldn’t come with a title that wasn’t going to push me. It actually pushed me to do some damn good music, man.”
The resulting The Storm features Tech N9ne delivering 20 stellar songs that fit into three sonic worlds. The Storm kicks off with the “Kingdom” section, a showcase for the rapper’s narcissistic side. He then travels to “Clown Town,” which finds him at his darkest. The set closes with the “G. Zone,” a nod to the gangster side of his personality.

Longtime Tech N9ne fans will recognize this type of layered artistry, something he introduced on 2001’s Anghellic, his first national release and the first album released on Strange Music. Anghellic features Tech N9ne navigating through “Hell,” “Purgatory” and “Heaven.” The conceptual master later explored his “The King,” “The Clown” and “The G” personas on his 2006 album, Everready (The Religion).

With The Storm, Tech N9ne reintroduces “The King,” “The Clown” and “The G” to his longtime listeners. He also introduces them to his new fans, people who may have become Technicians thanks to his more recent material, including the gold certified singles “Fragile” with Kendrick Lamar and ¡Mayday!, as well as “Hood Go Crazy” with 2 Chainz and B.o.B.
The Storm’s first single “Erbody But Me” fits perfectly in the “Kingdom” section of The Storm. On the kinetic cut, Tech N9ne deflects detractors and salutes his swag, while the percussive “Wifi (WeeFee)” trumpets Tech N9ne’s status as a plug as he delivers some intricate alliterative rhyming. Elsewhere, the raucous “Sriracha” features Logic and Joyner Lucas, both of whom asked Tech N9ne to appear on the cut after hearing an early version of the Michael “Seven” Summers-produced cut. Thanks in part to his guests on the song, “Sriracha” evolved into something different from how Tech N9ne first imagined it.
“It was not mean to turn into a chopper song, but Joyner Lucas, whenever he gets on anything, he has to kill everything,” Tech N9ne explains. “Almost nobody ever sends me tracks for real, so the people that send me ones are brave. Joyner Lucas sent me one because he’s a brave soul. That’s cool ‘cause I’m usually the one always sending tracks out. So what I did on ‘Sriracha’ is what the beat needed.”

Things get confrontational on the mesmerizing “Get Off Me,” a collaboration with Problem and Strange Music’s recently signed new artist, Darrein Safron. The three showcase their braggadocio side with high-powered lyricism, something that was of particular importance to Darrein. Tech N9ne says that because Safron in known as an R&B singer, people don’t think he can rap. “He’s a product of his environment,” Tech N9ne says. “He’s not trying to act like nobody. He’s like, ‘These people don’t think I can rap.’ So he rapped and he killed it. I love that. Problem did what he does and he killed it to. Everyone’s going to love this song when they hear it.”

Tech N9ne descends into “Clown Town” with “I Get It Now,” the darkest portion of the album, which details the rapper’s longstanding struggle with not fitting into the traditional rap world, while “Hold On Me” features him taking a sobering look at his relationships with women. Then there’s “Poisoning The Well,” which showcases a bluesy sound. As Tech N9ne emerges into the “G. Zone” section of the album, he laments that he’s not as successful and acclaimed as he should be on “The Needle” and he imagines getting away to find peace on “Anywhere” with Marsha Ambrosius.

Tech N9ne’s creative prowess shines throughout The Storm, as does the work of primary producer Michael “Seven” Summers. “We’re a great team,” Tech N9ne says. “We bounce ideas off each other all the time. Seven is just so diverse that he can do a song like the one I did with Jonathan Davis on here called ‘Starting To Turn,’ which is super metal, and then turn around and do ‘Get Off Me’ with Problem and Darrein Safron. He’s also able to do ‘No Gun Control’ with Gary Clark Jr. and Krizz Kaliko and then do ‘Buss Serves,’ the Too $hort remake of ‘CussWords.’ If I had a word for Seven, it would be ambidextrous.”

For his own work, Tech N9ne has a high standard. “I have to rap against Tech N9ne every time I do a record,” he says. “And that’s hard to do.” Tech N9ne has been doing just that since he emerged in the mid-1990s. Subsequently, the visionary rapper has become as one of the genre’s most prolific and acclaimed artists. He and business partner Travis O’Guin have built Strange Music into the industry standard with robust music, touring and merchandise components. Even though Strange Music remains fiercely independent, Tech N9ne still enjoys major label level success. He earned his second and third gold certifications in 2016 for his “Fragile” and “Hood Go Crazy” singles, testaments to O’Guin’s and his dedication to the company. “Reinvest, reinvest, reinvest,” Tech N9ne says. “That’s how you build. That’s how we built this empire.”

As Strange Music grew into a music industry force, it developed a reputation over the last decade-plus as one of the only reliable businesses in the field. All of that made the The Storm so striking to Tech N9ne’s fans and Tech N9ne himself, but the workload is not easy. “It’s hard, but I make sure that I have some happiness around me at all times” Tech says.

Revisiting his roots and overcoming adversity helped shape The Storm, Tech N9ne’s most powerful musical moment. Brace yourself.

Krizz Kaliko

There are two kinds of crazy in this world — crazy you stay away from and crazy that manifests itself as brilliance. Krizz Kaliko knows both ends of that extreme, whether by design or not.

Born Samuel William Christopher Watson, at age two — well before becoming musical co-conspirator to Midwest rap legend Tech N9ne — he developed vitiligo, a skin disorder that causes loss of pigmentation. His eyelids and lips are splotched white and he cuts an odd figure; in a crowd or alone, he’s impossible to miss.

“Growing up, kids would pick on me and kids would bully me,” he says. “They’d throw rocks at me and chase me home, because I looked different. It hurt. It changed me. Made me sad. But then, also, it made me do things to alleviate that sadness. I learned to sing. I learned to dance. I learned to rap. I was a fat little kid that didn’t look like anyone else — naturally, that became my biggest asset. Somehow, I became pretty popular.”

Kaliko was reared in the racially-diverse suburbs of South Kansas City, Missouri. His mother was a singer of local renowned gospel group; father, the superintendent of a Sunday school. He first stretched his vocal cords in the choir, and, had it been up to his parents (they divorced when he was just 4-years-old), he’d have gone on to a fine career as an attorney. After two years at Penn Valley Community College he quit school. Something else was tugging at his soul. Something from his youth.

“My stepfather used to whoop on me,” Krizz says, “He was fresh out of the pen, and he was a terrible dude. He was physically abusive and crazy, institutionalized crazy. Not only was he crazy, but also a criminal. He made his bones robbing banks and committing other serious crimes. For Kaliko, step-pops is an enduring source of much psychological pain.

“He terrified me” he says. “When people weren’t around and my mother wasn’t there, he’d abuse me. And nobody believed what I said. It was like I was the crazy one. I thought about killing him all the time, I’d think about it endlessly. Visualizing it, how I’d do it, I was that mad. I would get weapons from my friends — bats, knives, or whatever it would take. I thought: I will kill him in his sleep. And then miraculously the boogie man disappeared, he and my mother split up.”

Carrying his childhood scars, Kaliko spent his teens and early twenties drifting, not especially successful or unsuccessful at anything, he opted to not continue with college. He went on to hold a series of odd jobs. He was a grocery store clerk, corrections officer and even a customer service rep for VoiceStream (later to be known as T-Mobile) meanwhile, he quietly pursued music by rapping and singing, not hewing to any conventional standard for what it should sound like.

“I was just a fan,” he says. “And that allowed me to go in many different directions. I could identify with country songs, gospel songs, Christian rock songs, songs that were meant for dancing, commercial songs, non-commercial songs. I was and still am, a liberal thinker. I enjoyed everything, and through music I could do anything, be anything. Most importantly, I could be myself.”

One artist who appreciated Kaliko’s approach was rapper Tech N9ne. The pair met in 1999, through DJ Icy Roc, who once dated Kaliko’s sister. After paying Tech the whopping sum of $500 to feature on his solo album, the Strange Music co-founder discovered Kaliko’s diverse skill set. He asked him to appear on “Who You Came To See,” from his 2001 album, Anghellic, and then they began performing together locally. It lead to a years-long series of collaborations — Kaliko writing, producing, featuring on, touring with and generally being a musical wunderkind in the Strange Music family.

“It was like I was his musical muse, and he was mine,” says Kaliko. “We learned from each other. On stage, in the studio— nobody has believed in me, wanted more for me, wanted the entire world to hear and know and understand my talent, more than him.”

In 2007, Kaliko officially linked with Strange Music. Since then he’s released five albums, each one more confessional, more expressively oddball than the previous. Songs in his oeuvre include: “Bipolar,” “Misunderstood,” “Freaks,” “Rejections,” and “Scars,” as well as appearing on many others, endearing him to society’s misfits. In recent years, he’s also become more clear-headed about who he is and what he wants to do musically.

“For years I rapped and rapped well,” he says. “The fans enjoyed it, I enjoyed it. I made some good music, but it was time to try some new things.”

That much is clear from his new album, Go, where he ditches rapping almost completely. Instead he commands listeners to the dance floor, belts out melodies, softly croons, plaintively coos while generally seeming to enjoy himself more than he ever has before. Yes, nearly a decade into his career, Krizz Kaliko is rebranding, rebirthing — or as he’d say, returning to his roots — as a full-fledged singer. Pop, rock, R&B, trap, funk, no genre is off limits, no scale unsung.

“I just wanted to make timeless music, songs that could play twenty years from now,” he explains. “Go is a roller coaster ride. It starts out as dance, but then there are other parts where one might listen on a pair of headphones, because it’s very meaningful. Other songs you might turn up in your car. Through it all, I’m speaking from the heart.”

The album is chock full of earworms, songs both aesthetically-appeasing, yet also immediately captivating and catchy. Case in point: the brooding “Stop The World;” folky anti-depression ode, “Happy-ish;” or the shout-along “Didn’t Wanna Wake You.” Not completely abandoning hip-hop, songs like “More,” featuring labelmate Stevie Stone, and “Orangutan” — with Strange Music all-stars Tech N9ne, Rittz, Ces Cru, JL, and Wrekonize — invoke the crew’s knowing, trusty Midwestern flavor. Mostly though, Go is a new sound; all frenetic, inspired energy. It’s the biggest, broadest, most accessible project Krizz Kaliko has ever made.

“The truth is I’m an unlikely guy to be a pop star,” he says. “Look at me— I’m a big dude, I have vitiligo, I get anxiety attacks, and I’m bipolar. But Top 40 radio and a global audience, that’s what this music is worthy of. I’ve always been an unlikely dude to do anything, whether it’s music, working with Tech N9ne or even being alive. Frankly, the odds being against me, that’s good, I like that. I have trust that the music will ultimately reign supreme.”

Stevie Stone

Steve Stone felt it was time. Now that he’s released several projects on Strange Music, collaborated with several of rap’s most prominent acts and traveled the world, he wanted to return to his foundation.

For Malta Bend, his third Strange Music album, Stevie Stone drew inspiration from Malta Bend, the tiny Missouri city in which his mother was born and where his parents met.

“If I wasn’t for this small, segregated, little-bitty town, there wouldn’t be no me,” Stevie Stone explains. "I wanted to take it back to my roots. I wanted to let the people know exactly where I come from.”

The results are 20 stellar songs that are the most compelling collection of cuts of the veteran rapper's career. On the stirring, piano and string-accented title track, for instance, Stevie Stone documents his mother’s journey, one that featured her overcoming segregation and poverty. “It’s about my mother,” he says, "what she endured, what she went through. It’s about overcoming and, eventually, motivation.”

The song “Malta Bend” is featured in a section of the album that showcases Stevie Stone’s growth as a songwriter and storyteller, a suite of songs that includes “Ambition And Motivation,” an ode to what drives him to be successful, and “Legacy,” his mission statement made into a song. The latter, in particular, signals Stevie Stone’s newfound personal and musical maturity.

“It’s a tie-in to my previous records like ‘My Remedy,’ ‘Outer Lane,’ ‘My Life’ and even ‘Ambition And Motivation’ and ‘Malta Bend’ on this album all tied into one,” he says of “Legacy." "It’s something that’s been instilled in me, to write my legacy. No one said this road was going to be easy. You’ve just got to overcome and that’s what I feel like I’m doing by writing these records. I’m taking it into my own hands.”

As Stevie Stone charts his own progression, he also pays homage to those who helped him. With the kinetic “The Homies,” he raps about the familial bond he shares with his long-term friends. “It’s giving a shout out to the homies that’s been there since the beginning,” he says. “We’ll be on the road so much that I don’t get to sit back and kick it with the homies like we used to.”

While on the road, Stevie Stone has experienced new sounds, new styles and news ways to look at life. Those experiences made him open to make “Fall In Love With It,” a club-ready collaboration with emerging crooner, Darrien. Stevie Stone says the song stands out because it marks new stylistic territory for him.

“I loved it because it was a different swing than I’m accustomed to doing,” he reveals. “That’s what everything’s about on this album. I wanted to evolve, stretch myself and do different types of records that I haven’t done before, but still fit the mode of everything with me. That was one of those records.”

Another one was the hypnotic “Rain Dance.” This song pays sonic homage to both Stevie Stone’s and guest Tech N9ne’s Native American ancestry and also features an explosive guest appearance from platinum rapper, Mystikal.

“We already knew that we were going to get Tech on it, because that was the whole plan,” Stevie Stone explains. “Seven, who produced the track, came up with the idea, like, ‘Man. I could hear Mystikal all over this.’ I was like, ‘Wow. I grew up listening to Mystikal.’ We gave it to Travis and we shipped them the record and they loved it. It’s a blessing.”

Stevie Stone has long been a student of music. His mother played a steady diet of gospel and blues music, as well as the material of Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross, in their home when he was a child.

Stevie Stone’s love for music evolved into a vocation once he signed with the late Eazy-E’s Ruthless Records in the 2000s. After spending time on the same label that launched the careers of N.W.A and Bone thugs-n-harmony, among others, Steve Stone went from one iconic independent label to another, signing with Tech N9ne’s Strange Music. His first project with the imprint was the acclaimed Rollin’ Stone album, which was released in 2012. Later that year, he released the Momentum EP and followed that up in 2013 with 2 Birds 1 Stone.

The momentum Stevie Stone generated on his releases led to several opportunities, including his stint on E-40’s “Choices Tour 2015.” After touring extensively with Tech N9ne and the rest of the Strange Music family during the last several years, Stevie Stone relishes in the chance to hit the road with one of rap’s most revered artists.

“We’re getting in front of a different demographic because 40’s got a different demographic than Tech does,” Stevie Stone states. “It exposes us to a whole different demographic of people, which is the plan. That’s what it’s all about.”

As he continues expanding his music, his experiences and his mind, Stevie Stone finds that he’s able to reflect that through his art, most notably Malta Bend.

“I’ve gotten more mature and become a better artist,” he says. "This is more of a concept album, which you can see with the narration. I wanted to evolve all the way around. It’s important for me to go back and let people know where it all comes from.”

And for Stevie Stone, that’s Malta Bend.

Ces Cru

Ces Cru knows that drastic times call for drastic measures. So the duo of Ubiquitous and Godemis decided to focus its third Strange Music LP on the chaos consuming the world, everything from the United States’ recent presidential election and the mindset enslaving millions of people to the rap industry’s state of flux. Hence the title of the Kansas City duo’s new album, Catastrophic Event Specialists.

“It felt like the right time based on the situation with the world,” Ubiquitous explains of the album’s title and theme. “It feels like what time it is. There are so many things going on. There’s some political stuff and some worldview stuff in the music. It plays into the theme of the album.”

Catastrophic Event Specialists is anchored by “Purge,” a scintillating song on which Ubiquitous and Godemis discuss police brutality, terrorism, international wars and the internal power inherent in each of us. The piano-accented track soars thanks to its intriguing mix of negative and positive imagery when depicting the state of the world.

“I didn’t want to pose questions without answers,” Ubiquitous says. “Not saying that I necessarily have the answers, but I didn’t just want to paint this situation and then just leave you there. I don’t want to drag people into the darkness and just let them sit there. There’s a route out.”

But the suffocating progress can, at times, feel almost too overwhelming to overcome, even for the most optimistic among us. Ces Cru addresses what it sees as America’s unfortunate status quo on the gloomy “Gridlock.” Here, Ubiquitous and Godemis take the government to task for incarcerating innocent people, for running fixed races and for allowing the fat cats to rule without taking the needs and desires of the underclass into consideration.

“It’s polarizing that the one side, rather than focusing on trying to do what they can to work with the other side, is more intent on stopping the other side,” Ubiquitous opines. “They’re sort of working against each other than with each other. That causes the gridlock, so nothing gets done. It’s a frequent situation and we’re coming into a time with this new administration where everything went red, all the branches of government. A lot of stuff is probably going to happen because the blue side won’t be able to stop it for a little while, for two years. But gridlock is the state of rest for the government. It’s almost always in gridlock.”
This system creates a group of people that Ces Cru believes is under mind control. On the solo song “Slave,” Godemis examines the role the media plays in conditioning this segment of the population, as well as the role the government has in the process.

“I was speaking to the whole narrative of a person who advocates voting and the belief in a ruling class of something and are really quick to say, ‘If you don’t vote, whatever transpires after that,’ then that’s what it is,” Godemis notes. “There’s a lot of people that say, ‘Well, if I don’t vote, then I absolutely can complain based on my not taking a side.’ It’s just a weird little mind game people use to win that argument.”
Ubiquitous and Godemis shift thematic gears on Catastrophic Event Specialists with “The Process.” Backed by a darkly atmospheric soundscape, the Kansas City rappers pay homage to De La Soul and Jeru The Damaja as they examine the way rap evolves by placing Biggie Smalls and Iggy Azalea in the same category.

“I think that there’s a lot of purists that are like, ‘If Biggie Smalls or 2Pac were alive, rap would be better,’” Ubiquitous says. “They want to wait on 2Pac and Biggie, but they can’t save us and Iggy can’t save us. The Iggy portion paints the other side of the picture to me. I feel like those are the two sides of the game and that the one side doesn’t accept the other side and that it’s very similar to the government. The popular hip-pop or whatever you want to call it, that side is as relevant as the pure side, the underground side, the lyrical side. They co-exist. I acknowledge both sides. It’s all relevant and necessary.”

Ces Cru remains focused on the rap world on the funky “Average Joe.” On this cut, Ubiquitous delivers a testament to his lyrical acumen. Elsewhere, Ces Cru and Strange Music labelmate Rittz partner on the melancholy “Rubble” to examine people who criticize music they don’t like without taking action of their own.

“If you are better, then don’t just say that,” Godemis says. “Rap better. Outrap these fools. I wouldn’t tell these mumble rappers that they can’t do their thing because I don’t want anybody to say that I can’t do my thing. I encourage people to just make a better song and get more views, move more units. I think it’s really important to not only say that, but to display that at the same time.”

Since Ces Cru began making music in the early 2000s, it has made a point to make the type of music that can propel rap forward. As break-up treatise “DYT,” the braggadocio “Float” and the politically-minded “Teeter” bubbled in the Kansas City area in 2009, Ces Cru caught the ear of Strange Music co-owner Tech N9ne. The following year, Tech N9ne featured Ubiquitous and Godemis on his Bad Season mixtape, paving the way for the duo to join the imprint in 2011.

After dropping the 13 EP in 2012, Ces Cru released its debut Strange Music album, Constant Energy Struggles, in 2013. Singles such as “When Worlds Collide,” “Seven Chakras” and “Juice” established Ubiquitous and Godemis as artists who represented classic rap and who could make the potentially esoteric relatable to the masses.

With 2014’s Codename: Ego Stripper, Ces Cru flexed its remarkable rapping abilities on “Sound Bite” and examined socio-political issues on the astounding “Axiom.” This type of artistic balance and superiority is again demonstrated throughout Catastrophic Event Specialists, an album brimming with creative excellence.

“Just doing us and outrapping fools, that’s what I came to do,” Godemis details. “Outrap everybody. That’s what I’m into doing now, making good music, man, that we can stand behind, convincing people to buy music that I have fun performing, music that they don’t have a problem spending their money on. People work hard for their money, so they deserve quality material from the album to the stage.”

With Catastrophic Event Specialists, Ces Cru has certainly met its goal.

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