It goes without saying that rap opinions are subjective. Though as with any creative debate, there does exist a slight hint of objectivity — if only to anchor the discourse. It’s probably one of the reasons top ten lists tend to draw such a passionate response. Should one not match up with another, a hierarchy of taste is inadvertently created. It can lead to hostility at times, and perceived disrespect at others. Look no further than what happened the moment Snoop Doggclaimed Eminem was not included in his top ten. Sometimes, a snub can feel personal, though it is seldom meant to be. Yet what about an artist like Tech N9ne, who has been overlooked on basically every prominent list to surface in recent memory?
Still releasing music with a notable sort of youthful exuberance, it’s hard to imagine that Tech N9ne has been in the game for over twenty years. Boasting seventeen studio albums under his belt, many of which still resonate with fans — Anghellic, Absolute Power, Everready, K.O.D, and All 6s & 7s immediately come to mind — the sheer volume of quality music Tech has released should place him within contention in certain circles. Though some might be hesitant to look beyond his rapid-fire flow, a quality he has adapted more in recent years, few could ever criticize Tech’s content as shallow.
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The man’s music is as autobiographical as an artist can; his darkest moments are rendered with the same detail reserved for his triumphs. The level of brutal honesty he achieves in his music rivals Eminem, providing listeners with ample evidence for a compelling character study. While his early projects like The Calm Before The Storm and The Worst found him discovering his voice-over dark g-funk beats (not to mention honing his flow), Anghellic gave him a platform to open up. On “Devil Boy,” Tech addressed one of the many misconceptions that plagued him — that he worshipped Satan — decrying the accusation with a defiant tone. Album highlight “Suicide Letters” remains one of his most powerful songs to date, a melancholic yet oddly soothing reflection on the allure of his death; his weary cadence painting the picture of a man simply too tired to continue. All the while, Tech flexed sonic diversity throughout, the rapid-fire dexterity he’d come to be known for really only present on “Breathe.”
In 2002, Tech N9ne grew tired of the music industry, launching the appropriately titled Fuck The Industry campaign. A 2002 article from the Chicago Tribune paints the picture of a younger Tech inviting fans to download his fourth album Absolute Power off his website for free. The kicker was, the project had already been released, providing fans with a means of artist-approved “piracy”. He even ran a televised ad-campaign encouraging his fans to go through with the download. Speaking on the decision, Tech’s manager and Strange Music CEO Travis O’Guin claimed to be “banking on the fact that kids will buy good music.” A gamble that not only paid off, but emblemized Tech’s willingness to stand unwaveringly in his own lane. The pinch of salt added to the wound, with a flourish at that, was the passionate opening anthem “The Industry Is Punks.”
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Tech’s bold gambit, which in hindsight seems like a genius glimpse of the future musical climate, reveals the spirited confidence of a leader. One who would rally an army of loyal followers on the strength of his artistic output. Though he was never seen on MTV or BET during those early years, the word of mouth was elevating Tech N9ne into hip-hop’s cult leader. An underground emcee with untapped mainstream appeal. As the early millennium bubbled, Tech never suffered from outdated production — though his lack of major label support made securing high-profile producers a difficult task. Yet slowly but surely, his reputation as a top tier emcee began opening new doors. His fifth studio album Everready featured an appearance from E-40; it was also meant to feature Eminem on “My World,” though Proof’s sudden passing ultimately prevented that collaboration. Still, the fact that Tech had reached Eminem’s radar was a testament to his rise. His philosophy that quality would lead to upward mobility within the rap game was paying off.
The following years saw Tech building on the foundation he had laid. The Strange Music army was amassing as he brought like-minded artists into the fold. The ambitious double-disc Killer gave him ample space to explore his seemingly boundless creativity. His gravitation toward the world of heavy metal became more evident; while it would open doors to new fanbases, it would unfortunately alienate others. On paper, however, Tech’s versatility points continued to amass. His fan base grew exponentially, as did his reputation — sadly, tragedy had begun to rear its head in his personal life. His mother was in the middle of a difficult battle with lupus and epilepsy, a challenge that took a toll on Tech’s faith. No stranger to using the studio as therapy. It quickly became clear that the beloved rapper was in a dark place, as the resulting music culminated in an album many still call his magnum opus: K.O.D: King Of Darkness.
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While an album that is simply dark for dark’s sake will fall flat more often than not, Tech’s K.O.D. retained that same brutal honesty that endeared him to listeners. Only this time his emotions were laid bare, revealing anger, depravity, and unbridled hedonism. It’s not the first time Tech has reveled in the whims of a sinner, but this album drove him headlong into the depths of horrorcore. The end result was at once disturbing and cathartic, though an admittedly difficult entry point for curious new fans. Yet the sheer emotion imbued within the project solidified it as a crowning achievement in Tech’s discography. When we spoke about the project, Tech elaborated on its creation. “ I didn’t know that I had that many dark stories to tell that were real,” he confessed. That album took a lot of my energy, of my light. I didn’t like it. But I loved the music.”
From there, it became impossible to deny the unstoppable force that was Tech N9ne. In 2011, Tech connected with Lil Wayne on All 6s & 7s, validation that he was playing in the big leagues; Lil Wayne returned the favor on Tha Carter IV, giving him an interlude collaboration with Andre 3000. That same album found him collaborating with a young Kendrick Lamar, as well as another TDE alumni in Jay Rock. In 2015, Tech secured his first collaboration with Eminem on “Speedom.” The “Worldwide Choppers” movement brought some of hip-hop’s dexterous heavyweights into the mix, including the legendary Busta Rhymes and Twista. All the while, Tech kept his metal-inclined fans satisfied with an increasingly wide breadth of prominent artists; Serj Tankian and Corey Taylor are but a few.
Though his output is showing no signs of slowing down, it feels like now is the time to start putting due respect on Tech N9ne’s name. A self-made man who built an empire off the strength of his creative vision, trusting in his fanbase to spread the good word and never losing sight of his hip-hop roots. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the sheer volume of his output, though patient listeners can and should familiarize themselves with his canon’s essentials — Anghellic, Absolute Power, Everready, K.O.D, and All 6s & 7s are all great starting points for newcomers. And while there’s absolutely no place in which a given “best rappers alive” list is considered gospel, perhaps more critics should welcome Tech N9ne into the conversation. Because in all honesty, only a few emcees have accomplished what the Kansas City chopper has accomplished. All things considered, where do you place Tech N9ne in the hip-hop hierarchy — and for those willing to answer, on which albums are you basing your assessment?