What’s the primary reason for Strange Music’s success? The great music? The incredible live shows and constant touring? The efficient way the business is handled from top to bottom? The extensive line of merchandise? According to Strange Music CEO Travis O’Guin the answer is none of the above.
Like it’s been stated time and time again, Strange Music’s primary focus has been with the fans since day one. The recent success of Tech N9ne Collabos – Strangeulation only goes to show how far the fanbase has taken the Snake and Bat, from a once industry underdog to one of the most talked about forces in the music business. As it turns out, Tech N9ne’s meaning behind the title Strangeulation is far from an overzealous proclamation: Strange Music does have the game in a chokehold.
To further explore the theme of Strangeulation, we talked to the brains behind the label that through 14 years of hard work, careful decision making and dedication has changed the way the music industry does business. Strange Music CEO, Travis O’Guin, sat down with us for more than an hour to discuss Strange Music, where it started, where it’s at, and where it’s going. For someone with as much business acumen as O’Guin, you’ll be surprised to hear that he considers the future of Strange Music to be out of his hands.
Why? Read on or listen below to find out.
Thank you for taking the time to do this. The first question is about the concept of the Tech N9ne Collabos album. It’s called Strangeulation, meaning having the industry in a chokehold. How much of that depiction do you think is accurate? It seems that in the past few years Strange Music has turned from an indie underdog to a legitimate force to be reckoned with, at least from public perception.
I think it’s extremely accurate and I think that’s why we called it that. If you look at what’s happened over the last 14 years that we’ve been in business and you look at what’s taking place – back when we started this, independent music wasn’t really that cool. Indies were looked upon and kind of frowned upon and looked at in a different light. Now, and in probably the last five years, the independent music push has became what is new, what is hot, what is being paid attention to and what is trendsetting. We were indie before it was cool and I think we had a big part of making independent music cool. I think we played a very big part in changing the perception of independent record labels.
I think Strangeulation is just a statement that says “This is how we feel,” but not only do we feel this way, I think the fans feel that way. We’re only reacting and stating things that the fans are doing and believing in. When you sell as many records as we do – this particular record just surpassed all of our other records for the most pre-ordered album that we’ve ever done on our store. When you look at that you say “Okay, we were right,” because the name obviously came before the pre-order. So we named the album, then we went out there and put together an incredible album. It’s the best Collabos album we’ve ever done. I like the idea of sticking with primarily Strange Music artists because I think they’re some of the most talented and that shows on this album. Plus now that we’ve made that statement and then you have the pre-sales be the biggest that they’ve ever been – I mean we ran out of autographed booklets. We’re sending 90 over to Tech tomorrow to pick up in St. Louis. I think it’s fairly accurate – but not only that, but when you have the rest of the industry calling you, meaning us, trying to figure it out, we must be doing something right, huh?
You said in a recent interview that on a scale of 0 to 100, we’re at the 35 percent point, in your opinion. I feel like if that’s true and if that continues to that 100 point or the furthest continuation of the spectrum, then that would result in an industry-wide reevaluation. I wouldn’t say shakedown – maybe that’s a strong word – but a changing in the landscape of the way things are done. Do you foresee that as a possibility?
It’s already changing. If you take a look at what other people in the music scene are doing – there’s some really successful independents out there. If you look at people who’ve been in it for the long haul like us, like Rhymesayers, they’re doing extremely well and continue to flourish. You look at other independent movements – with what they did with Mac Miller, that was really positive. I know that he’s now left Rostrum, but I think they had a tremendous success. Look at someone like Macklemore. I’m well aware of him using the Warner Bros. system for radio promotions – God knows that we probably would too if we had that capability, but the reality is that’s an independent success story. Look at Top Dawg and Top Dawg Entertainment has done. When we originally signed Jay Rock and all of those guys over there we believed in every one of them and they have done incredible things independently as well as doing a blend of their own independent movement with Interscope. So I think that the landscape is changing. I met yesterday with Tamba Hali for three hours about his independent record label. Everybody really wants to do the independent thing. If you look at Freddie Gibbs and ESGN. If you look at what Funk Volume is doing with Hopsin and Jarren Benton and Dizzy Wright, the independent movement is so strong right now that it can no longer be denied. The reality is that the majors who had so many things on lock are losing grip and that’s why they continue to downsize. Yeah there’s a major reevaluation that’s taking place.
The landscape changes daily, weekly, monthly. It changes because a lot of people realize, and not only that but a lot of people follow the model that we have constructed here and said “Listen, we don’t necessarily need to be signed to a major to be a participant in the music business,” and you don’t have to be. And I don’t wish the majors any harm. Lord knows they’re into self-mutilation themselves. I don’t have to wish them harm to see them crumble. They’re already doing it. There’s too much of a bureaucracy. There’s too much red tape. They are kind of self-imploding and self-destructing as we speak because the way that they do things and the way that they’ve done things simply doesn’t work. Now some of them are adjusting, bobbing, weaving, making the changes, cutting the staff, working more efficiently and I applaud that. That’s great, but they have a long way to go before they become an efficient model in today’s music game.
We are the exact opposite of that. We are an efficient model. We are profitable and I think we’ll continue to be so because we’re giving the fans what they want. That’s where the majors lost sight. They don’t pay attention to what the fans want. A few guys think they know what the fans want and they dictate what ends up coming out on those labels and it’s washed-down, non-lyrical, chant music that you have to be borderline brain-dead to listen to. The stuff that we give the fans is intelligent and insightful music with feeling. If we continue to cater to the fans and cater to what we believe people want, I think we’re going to continue to win. There’s no end in sight.
If there’s no end in sight then there comes a point where I would think majors are answering to you guys or that there would be a shift to where it’s like “I don’t know, man this isn’t going to cut it anymore because these guys at Strange–” Just little things like being responsible, answering phone calls and emails and stuff like that. Not being a flake and not being an idiot.
Yeah, and the thing is – and again I don’t wish any of them any harm. I have several majors right now calling us trying to get into business with us and I think what’s done that is our success at radio with the song “Fragile”. I think “Fragile” has opened a lot of people’s eyes, especially at the major label level, because that’s what they’re always looking for is a song.
If I ask a major label representative “What’s your plan for the marketing of this record?” nine times out of 10 they’re going to talk about a single and they’re going to talk about the radio campaign and that’s what we talk about last. We talk about the music. We talk about the album. We talk about the content then we talk about the videos and we talk about the visuals that we want to give these songs, then we take a step further and we go into the marketing and guerrilla marketing campaigns. We look at the street teams. We look at the amount of P.O.P. that we’re going to do. We look at the online side of things. We look at the viral attack. We look at the commercials and all those things. We do things a heck of a lot different and a totally different order than how one of these major labels are doing it. That proved true just yesterday in another meeting that I had. I asked this gentleman “What is your plan for the album?” Not “What is your plan for this song?” This guy’s of a major label background and he did exactly what I’m telling you right now. He went right to what radio format: “They’re going to go rhythmic and then they’re going to try to go urban and then hopefully be lucky enough to take it to pop.” In the entire 30 minute spiel about the marketing campaign for this album was only about radio and I’m just sitting there shaking my head the whole time like “Wow man. That’s your primary and nearly your only focus. There’s so many other things that I believe you need to do to build a solid foundation.”
You have to look at it too: these radio stations continue to be more intelligent. The way in which they go out there and survey the fans or survey the listeners is far more intelligent than it used to be with the M1 scoring and all of the different things for callout that they do. If you introduce a new artist with what is potentially a hot song and you do the necessary steps to get it played to death – which we won’t even go into the “necessary steps” part – but if nobody knows and there’s no foundation built and no real structure or buzz on the artist you may find yourself in an unlucky position of not having enough positive feedback for the station and that record’s going to fall off of the charts or fall off of the actual station just as quick as they added it. My belief is that you build all of the foundation.
To me radio is the sprinkles on top, you understand what I’m saying? I got the cake, I got the kick ass icing. Let’s see…I got a red velvet cake with some cream cheese icing and radio is the sprinkles on top. I’m going to enjoy the hell out of this cake regardless or not if I have sprinkles. It’s going to be a really joyous occasion. I’m going to enjoy my dessert. However, if I can sprinkle something on top and make it even better, I’m down. I’d probably do white chocolate shavings on top instead of sprinkles – but anyway, needless to say I do think that the majors have had to think differently. It’s happening right now. They have to because when people like Strange Music are the subject of your board meeting and your conferences weekly at the major labels and someone’s walking around pounding their fist and hitting a clipboard and hitting a stick to a wall that has statistics and sales on it and they’re saying things like “How in the hell did Strange Music beat this record and we spent this much money on it and they sold more than we did?” Those meetings are happening right now. They’re happening at major labels right now. I know for a fact they’re happening because I know people in those meetings who call me or copy me on the e-mails like “Man, y’all just got us all ripped. Everybody in this room just got smashed because of you guys. Thanks asshole.” I’m like “Sorry ‘n shit, but what do you want me to do? I’m trying to sell records.”
The fact that last year we had 11 records chart in the top 200 and the only other people even close to us in all of hip hop was Cash Money and they had four. So we had 11 records chart in the top 200 on Billboard and Cash Money had four. Don’t get me wrong, they sell more records than us because of the number of records that they sell of those four. I’m not ignorant and I’m not trying to slant or anything like that but the reality is that we’re having an impact with all of the albums we’re releasing, not just Tech N9ne. We’re having an impact with ¡MAYDAY!, with Rittz, with Brotha Lynch Hung, with MURS. The ¡MURSDAY! album coming out –it’s going to chart. We have so many records: Krizz Kaliko, Stevie Stone, the list goes on – Prozak. I hate to forget anybody, but there’s so many that we’re going to continue that trend and continue to piss people off in those board meetings. That’s a fun byproduct.
It’s interesting to think that a lot of people are discovering this song “Fragile” from this record Something Else when we were listening to it almost a year ago. So there you go with the reverse order.
One of the things too man, do we need to be in a little bit earlier with our singles? Sure. Do we need to be a little bit earlier with our videos or with our potential push at radio? Yeah sure, maybe, but I don’t regret the way we do things because I do everything else necessary to sell records without a successful single being the driving force. That means that we’re doing albums that have content that people love for different reasons. Let’s say that I go to the show this Sunday in St. Louis and I go to fans and say “Hey, what’s your favorite record off Something Else? What’s your favorite song?” and someone tells me “Oh it’s ‘Fragile’,” and then I go and ask the next person and they tell me a totally different song. Then the next person goes “Oh the song with Serj, ‘Straight Out The Gate’, and then I go to another person and they give me a different answer. That means that I’ve done my job because if indeed we can create a roller coaster ride of music that appeals to a mass audience and people take away from it different favorites and different things from this album, that means that we created a body of work that is really appealing and really important.
Now if I went to those same five fans and they all said the same song then I’m in trouble. I’m in trouble. They all said “Oh my favorite song is ‘Fragile’,” I’m in trouble because they’re all just gravitating towards one particular song. I want people to listen to the album. That’s why we put out albums. Now that’s another thing that’s different about independents from majors, they put out a song. We put out an album. They might have one or two follow ups to it, or if you’re lucky enough to be as incredible as Adele you can have multiple singles, but there’s not many Adele stories out there. So if I can create albums that blow people’s minds and different segments or songs from that album appeal to different audiences for different reasons that means we’ve created a little bit of magic. It’s not just about a single. That’s what we do, we try to create beautiful albums. The Strangeulation album is incredible for multiple different reasons. It’s my favorite Collabos album by far and I’m not just saying that because it’s new. I know how to evaluate things. As a matter of fact I went back and listened to every Collabos album that we’ve put out thus far just to make sure I’m not tripping. I’m not tripping. The cypher alone is exciting but there’s other songs that are just mind blowing on there to me.
I have a particular interest in the song “Fear” and people are going to think it’s because my daughter Mackenzie is singing on it. They’re going to say “Oh he loves ‘Fear’ because Mackenzie’s on it. That’s his daughter, I get it.” Not that at all. The lyrics within that song talk to me because I’m going through a very similar situation with my parents. I’ve had the times going to see my mother in the hospital after her surgery and her not knowing who the hell I am, so it’s like “Wow, I’ve experienced this exact same thing.” So when I went to the hospital with Tech and he had that experience it’s like man I can relate. I had to talk him through that and say “Hey man, it’s the medication,” or “Hey man it’s this,” and talking to him and trying to make him understand that he’s not alone in that.
I’ve been through it with my mother and I also went through it with my father. So when you listen to it and you listen to his touch on religion and praying to God that things get better and sometimes they don’t or “How do I know that what I’m praying to exists and is real?” We all hope that there’s a higher power, we all hope that there’s a God, but I think that deep down inside that we’ve all questioned sometimes “If that’s the case, how can someone walk into a school and kill a bunch of kindergartners and first graders?” and so on and so forth. So it’s like there’s a lot of questions and he touches on some subjects that I think we all think about whether we expose the fact that we all think about it. We do. That song is very meaningful, very emotional and those are the songs that I tend to gravitate toward. It’s a little bit extra because my daughter is singing the chorus and singing the harmonies and the melodic tones throughout the verses and that’s kind of exciting as well because I think she did a beautiful job.
It’s songs like that that get people through. I don’t think people who listen to hip hop have a lot of options for that kind of material. If you’re going to the club you have tons of options, there’s no shortage…
Yeah. If you’re going through a loved one dying, if you’re going through a struggle and all of that, hip hop doesn’t really offer you a lot of options in music to give you a release or associate with. When I was younger I listened to songs like – I listened to Ice-T at one point when I had a friend of mine at a very young age get killed. Songs like “Colors”, you would relate to that because at some point you really hoped – and you know, you’re 16, you think you’re invincible, you think that you can take over the world, you think you can do anything right? I remember that very clearly: riding around to that song playing on repeat looking for the dudes that did this to a good friend of mine and trying to seek revenge. I connected with some of those darker records. Whether it be that or Geto Boys – sometimes when you think you’re going crazy so you’re sitting in a four cornered room staring at candles. The lyrics from Bushwick Bill, Scarface, even Willie D’s crazy ass. Stuff that Ice T said, stuff that N.W.A. and Eazy-E said, some of the stuff that LL said – all kinds of things back then that you could relate to. I think that hip hop lost a lot of that. The stuff that 2Pac said. I think that we lost an incredible artist when we lost 2Pac. Not that everything he said was his own experience, he even said “Sometimes this is an experience of someone close to me, I just put it into words and put it into song form.” Some of the stuff Biggie said.
I think we lost a lot of emotional, connecting rap and I truly believe that we provide a lot of the connection, whether it be with Tech, Krizz Kaliko, or Prozak. He really tugs on the nerves and strings of our emotions with some of the songs that he does. That’s the kind of stuff that I like the most. The stuff that Krizz did on Kickin’ & Screamin’, those are long conversations that Krizz and I had to convince him, “Man, tell your story. Tell them how you feel. Tell people your battle with anxiety. Tell people your battle with the medications that you have to take for anxiety. Tell him about your vitiligo. Tell him about growing up a fat kid. Tell him all these stories man because those are the ones that are going to change people’s lives,” and at this point I feel very responsible. We can’t put out ignorant music. We can’t put out music with no substance. We have to have some sort of substance within our albums to connect to people to help them heal and to help them get through their lives and if we don’t do that we’re missing a huge opportunity and I simply can’t do that. I can’t watch that happen.
What was the ambition for you when you started this company and when do you think that turned into something bigger like “Holy shit.” From the very beginning was it always like “We’re going to do this and we’re going to take it all the way” where we’re at now or was there a point where you said “You know what? This could really go somewhere.”
I grew up on hip hop. I went to a Kansas City, Missouri school system and graduated Van Horn High School and 80 percent of my school was black so that’s what I was around was hip hop. All the way from the early stuff, the MC Shan, the Kool Moe Dee, Roxanne, The Real Roxanne, LL – then when we got hit with Eazy-E and N.W.A. That’s the kind of music I was around so when I grew up on hip hop – and I was probably the only one in my household that did because I was the youngest. My two brothers and two sisters are all older than me. I’m the baby of the family. That was the era when all this stuff really began to pop, like Run DMC and all these type of things. Growing up on hip hop I always imagined myself through my younger years being involved somehow, but I didn’t want to be a rapper. I had no desire to be a rapper. I can put words together wonderfully. Can I say them wonderfully? Sure. Do I want to be a rapper? No. That’s not what I desired to be, which I think is different from a lot of other music industry folks. A lot of people that are within the music industry in these companies and A&R, they’re all failed musicians or failed rappers or people that wanted to be that but couldn’t so they had to get in there and be around it somehow, so they ended up being executives and they’re not very good at it most of the time – but that’s a different thing.
I wanted to be a businessman so I went out and started a very successful furniture company early on. That grew. I started getting into properties. That grew. I got into urban apparel back when urban apparel was really huge. That grew and then that brought me into the music business. So when I started really studying it – because I had the means enabling me to do what I wanted to do in it and met Tech – I’m like “Wow here’s a guy that’s incredibly talented but isn’t there yet.” From the beginning we wanted to go out and sell a 100 thousand records and sign a deal like Cash Money and No Limit. That was the initial plan: “We’re going to go sell 50, 100 thousand records and then we’re going to go sign a great big deal and get millions of dollars and we’re going to be the next Cash Money and No Limit.”
That’s how Cash Money got their deal.
Pretty much how they did it, but the problem is that we started doing it in 2000, 2001. We started in ’99. We formed the company in 2000. We put out our first release in 2001, and by the time we did that the music business is in extreme turmoil, spiraling out of control downward and here I am starting into this business as it’s crashing. Pretty crazy that I would want to do that right? But if you look at some of the biggest, most successful companies in the world, they started during depressions. They started during tough times. Microsoft started during really tough times. Apple of course. There’s so many different stories out there of companies that started in the roughest of times. So hell, I just started to continue to push forward because I believed in it.
We did a couple of bad deals in the beginning because nobody would give us distribution so we had to go through somebody and that somebody wasn’t righteous. His name his Jay Ferris at JCOR. He’s a piece of shit and I state that today and fuck Jay Ferris. The guy didn’t run his company properly, he didn’t pay his bills properly and we ended up having to get out of that deal and get our record back. Then we move on to a guy named Mark Cerami who used to own Priority Records – him and Bryan Turner – and that deal ran its course. It wasn’t nearly as horrible as the Jay Ferris situation but it wasn’t a positive experience either. It didn’t end positively at all, although Mark did several of the things that he committed to doing, no doubt about it. I think he lost sight of it and got distracted by his yacht and being in places like Micronesia, yelling at us on the phone and then throwing his World Phone into the ocean. I don’t appreciate that shit. So it ran its course. We got out of that situation and then we looked up and said “Oh shit, just these two joint ventures that we did with these two different companies, we fucked around and sold a half a million records. So now let’s see what distributors have to say to us.” At the time there was that startup which was Fontana through Universal and we were one of their first labels. We were early in the process and now we’re their biggest hip hop label period and it continues to be light years ahead of most of my competition. It’s turned into something really good.
Honestly all of our success started with the album Everready in 2006 because that’s when we controlled every single facet. Before it was 50/50 JV with JCOR but they were in control. Then it was a 50/50 JV with MSC, Mark Steven Cerami, but he was in control – technically. Then when we go and did Everready and it was wholly us and we made every single decision and we were in control all the success happened. Everything good happened from that point on. Not discounting Anghellic‘s success, not discounting Absolute Power‘s success, but our first gold record came from a song we put out on Everready. A majority of our financial well-being has happened since 2006. Before that I was a couple of million dollars into this personally before it turned around. So when you’re two million of your own bread into something, you sure hope that something positive happens soon and it couldn’t happen soon enough, but once we got into 2oo6 and all the records that we’ve released since up until this point, that’s what’s made us successful. Our relationship with the fans is what makes this the most successful. Honestly man it’s not really up to Tech or myself. He’s going to continue to do his thing. The other artists are going to continue to do their things and the fans are going to be the ones that judge whether it’s good enough for them to spend their 12, 15 bucks on a CD or their 30 bucks on a concert ticket or their 175 bucks on a VIP Package or their 25 dollars on a shirt or whatever. They’re going to determine basically the level of success that we’ll reach. It’s all up to them. We just have to focus and do our part. They’re the teachers. They’re the ones grading us, so if I start making bullshit music then I’m probably going to get an F and I’m fucked. F stands for fucked. We’re done. But if we continue to make incredible music and music that’s important and music that they want to consume, then we’ll be okay.
You guys kind of have your good housekeeping seal of approval thing going on with the Snake and Bat. They come to expect a quality album with substance. Was it an easy decision to start Strange Music with Tech N9ne?
Was it an easy decision?
Nah, it was actually one of the more difficult decisions. It wasn’t an easy decision at all because the first time that I met with Tech I met a guy that was a little bit misguided, confused and didn’t really know what was going on because he was the artist, but he had too many people involved in his building. It was a really tough decision. In fact the initial decision was not to do anything at all because I thought it was too messy.
I wasn’t going to get into the music business based on my first meeting with Tech. I believed in him but I didn’t believe in the five or six or seven people around him who were seemingly in control, and I say “In control.” Obviously if you have more chiefs than Indians no one’s in control right? But needless to say everybody was claiming to be the manager. I think he had five managers at the time and with that kind of a mess and disorganization you can’t succeed. I had had to walk away at first. My first meeting I felt bad for the guy. I felt really bad for Tech when I first met him man because I could tell he was stuck. I was just going to give him some business advice. I didn’t want to get into the music business necessarily at that time. I was super-successful at other businesses and enjoying life man. Here I am, a young dude, I could’ve retired at 30. Did I need another job or something else to do? Hell no.
By the way, for all those people out there who are like “Oh yeah you must have met a rich boy.” Fuck that. Let me clarify something. I grew up in a 900 square foot house with a mom, a dad, two brothers, two sisters and I had to share a bedroom a quarter of the size of this office with my two brothers. It was a three bedroom house.
That was fun I’m sure.
Yeah, a fucking nightmare! I had to sleep on the floor all of my early years until I moved out. I didn’t get a bed until I was in junior high school, so needless to say for all of those people: kiss my ass. I earned every dime and I made all of my own money. All of my own moves happened because I did it not because my parents handed it to me. I didn’t get shit from my parents. They didn’t buy me school clothes after the age of 10. I had to. So needless to say coming from that kind of a background when I’d seen the struggle that Tech was going through, living from week to week, day to day and whatever, I felt really bad, but I felt like “He don’t need me. He don’t need advice. He needs a really great lawyer and a whole bunch of money to figure this mess out, because that’s what he’s in.”
He kept in contact and over the course of the next several weeks and months the song “This Ring”, I’ve said it before, the song “This Ring” is what convinced me to revisit the subject of a label with Tech because it was just that great of a song. I must have played that song a thousand times man. I really thought it was incredible along with other music that he did. I sat down with him again and erased my mind of all the bullshit that he told me before and I asked him what he wanted to do and that’s when he told me about his love for The Doors, his publishing company being called EGNarts. That’s when he told me that if he had a label he would want to call it Strange. I took a leap of faith man and went ahead and did it and obviously I would be a fool to complain about the results.
I’m very happy that I went ahead and did it but that was in ’99 and we didn’t have success until 2006. So that was a pretty rough six and a half years. If you stick with it, eventually you’ll succeed if you have the right tools in place, meaning your mind. A little bit of money didn’t hurt – a couple million in this case. I’m very pleased with the results. We’re not there yet, wherever the fuck “there” is. I don’t even know where it’s at to be honest with you. I don’t know if I’ll know – if that makes any sense – when I’ll get there. Is that possible to know? I’m not sure because I have no idea where “there” is. All I can do is keep pushing 100 percent, nonstop, day-in, day-out and continue to create incredible music and hopefully leave a mark that people go back and reference 50 years from now.
Tell me about your encounters with people in the industry and how we’re perceived, like people in LA and NY.
My experiences in LA normally aren’t that great because everybody uses words like “bananas” and “Oh my God” and they’re overly emotional and they react in ways that are very –
Yeah, it’s kind of crazy man. And I love LA. I have two homes out there. I love LA, don’t get it wrong. I love the beaches and the beautiful landscape. I love the weather. There’s a lot of things about LA that I absolutely love.
I only use those cities as a quick reference point.
Well nah, because LA or NY is where you primarily go, and Atlanta. LA people in the music business are primarily full of shit. There’s a few good ones out there. As a matter of fact I hired most of the good ones that I know, but they’re full of shit.
The difference between LA and New York is that New York they’re brutally honest, sometimes cutting. They’ll tell you what’s on their mind, but I like that. I don’t live in New York at all. I don’t have a home there but I love going there and conducting business because I leave with a sense of “Okay, I know what’s on that dude’s mind.” Bad or good. You could tell me “Fuck that, I hate this shit, get out of my office,” and I’m better with that answer than the guy in LA who’s like “Oh man! That’s really cool! That’s bananas!” and he has no intention of ever calling me back. He just wanted to be nice and get me out of his office. I would rather you tell me like it is because that’s kind of how I am.
Here in the midwest our word is our bond and what we say, we mean. That’s the problem that I have with LA. In New York at least you get the truth. Sometimes you might not like the truth but at least you get it. I haven’t taken one of those meetings in a really long time because I’m not too sure that we have anything to talk about. I’m not too sure that I have a whole lot to talk about with these major label dudes because we think differently. I don’t think like somebody who’s running these major labels. I think differently. We may have some things in common, but for the most part we approach the business of music a hell of a lot different, and that’s my role in this is the business.
I took a lot of those meetings early on and I would get frustrated. I remember meetings in New York with this clown Steve Gottlieb who used to own TVT. Man. I had great meetings with his staff over a two day period and he threw it out the window within 30 minutes because he was just an arrogant ass. Tech and I were just like “Man, we gotta get out of here,” and we bounced. It wasn’t a good experience. Barry Weiss at JIVE when he was at JIVE – I’ve met with a lot of different people and I don’t necessarily think that they get it sometimes. They definitely didn’t get Tech. I did all those meetings. I had all those experiences. I realized I was getting nowhere and I said “Forget it” and I came back here and we did it ourselves our way and I couldn’t be happier.
Do you think that you might be able to uplift Kansas City with this? Is that something you think about?
I mean I think we always represent home. Kansas City is what we are all about. I love it here. I’m from here. Tech is from here. Some of the other artists are from here. They’ve already been reaching out asking Tech to do things like go to special events that the mayor’s holding. Tech just lit the mayor’s Christmas tree last year. How many rappers do you know that are lighting the trees and being offered proclamations for the city?
There’s all kinds of incredible things happening here and I hope that we bring the spotlight to Kansas City so that other artists who we might not necessarily have the capacity to deal with, because we don’t sign very many things, but they can get on and they can get out there and make a go at it. I hope that we do the city well. I really do and I think that we do. Now I can’t sign every rapper in the city. We’ve only signed 14 acts in 14 years. That number just changed because of MURS, but we don’t sign a lot of artists here.
There’s a lot of people in Kansas City that deserve to be out there and to be heard and I sure wish that I could help them, but it’s physically impossible because I have the staff stretched out just on what we have signed already. As the company grows maybe we can help a few more of those guys be heard. But yeah I think we definitely uplift the city a lot. We put the city in a lot of our images. The new “Strangeulation” cypher is all with Kansas City’s downtown skyline in the background. We put the city on a pedestal every time we get a chance.
What’s the importance of “Fragile” doing so well on the radio and what it means to the label?
I think it’s important because I think it’s an incredible song and I’m glad that more and more people are getting to listen to it. That’s the extent of it. I don’t play the chart game. I know that I see e-mails all the time “Oh wow, we’re at the top 15,” or top 12. You notice I never respond. I don’t have anything to say. I’m like “That’s good, man I would love a top five record,” because all I’m looking at is I scroll down on the BDS reports and I look at the number of people who have potentially heard the record. That’s what I care about. I don’t care about nothing else. I don’t care about the fucking chart position. Obviously if it goes higher that means more people are listening, but guess what? I don’t look at that. I scroll right down and I look at “Total Audience”: how many people are potentially hearing the record? Then I look at Shazam and I say “Okay, how many people are tripping and trying to find out what record they just heard?” by looking at the Shazam numbers. When I see the Shazam numbers are really high: #1, #2 and #3 in the market, #26 in the entire country in all genres. Those are the types of things that are important to me. So I keep pushing. I keep feeding the beast that is radio and I love for it to be incredibly successful because I want people to hear this song. That’s really what I want. If they hear the song I think they’ll want to check out more music by Tech. That’s good for business sure but I want people to be infected by the music. That’s what I care about.
With that sort of success you’re going to get the whole “They’re going mainstream” accusation, but I think to you it’s more about “I want success so I can make more great music so more people can hear it,” and that’s the cycle.
I think that people say “Oh wow they’re going mainstream,” I think that those people are confused. I’m not mad at those people. Maybe they just don’t get it. When we did the album we had no idea that “Fragile” would be a potential single. We did the song because we loved the song. We reached out to Kendrick because we thought that Kendrick would fit the song. We loved the song that ¡MAYDAY! sent to us that had Kendall on it. That was more about the song. Tech really needed to get something off of his mind that that asshole in LA wrote and he used that song as a vehicle to share that emotion with people and that also turned into some visuals that I think are having an impact on kids that are bullied. The visual that we did for that particular song was very impactful. Those are the things that are important to us. The fact that the byproduct being a hit single: great, cool, whatever! That’s cool. That means more people are hearing that very important record. That is okay with us and that’s exactly what we want to happen: more people to hear these songs.
You don’t hear us going out and doing bubblegum rap and chant rap and then delivering that to radio. If I put out a bullshit song and took it to radio and had a lot of success, then maybe I would look at those e-mails and listen to some of those people saying that we’re selling out or that we’re going mainstream, but until I do that, fuck you, we’re doing exactly what we’ve always done and that’s impactful, important music. Great music: good songs with real content. That’s what “Fragile” is.
If you listen to that record and you don’t hear the anger in his voice – a lot of people don’t know that he did that song on the road with the worst cold that he’s had in a long time. He’s sick as hell, but he still spit that verse out because it was that important to him. He had to do it on the road or else he would’ve missed the deadline. Kendrick finally turned his in. He did a huge show in Cleveland and went to a studio after that big show in Cleveland and knocked that out for us at the last minute. Kendrick did that for us. I love him for that. Kendrick’s my little dude. I like that guy and Top Dawg helped make that happen.
That was important song to make the album. I never knew it was going to be the single. I didn’t do it because I thought it was going to be the fucking single. We don’t do intentional, dumbed-down single-type of music so that we can “go mainstream.” We put out important shit and if the mainstream comes to us, come on in! The water’s real good right here. Let’s go! While you’re at it let me hit fast forward and let’s go to a couple of other songs I think you’re going to like. That’s the goal. If they can listen to “Fragile” and say “Wow!” and Shazam that shit, “Tech N9ne? Who’s Tech N9ne?” and they discover Tech N9ne off that song, fuck yeah I’m into it. I’m all the way into it. That’s what’s supposed to happen, but to the people who are saying we’re selling out or going mainstream, that’s just silly to me. It don’t even make sense. You’re not paying attention.
How cool is it for you to hear it on the radio, but it’s surrounded by songs that all sound the same?
I think it’s really cool man. When you listen to Hip Hop Nation or Shade45 or if you’re in LA – I heard it play on Power 106. To hear that song come on and it be such an incredible contrast from what was before it and even what’s after it is a testament to us not trying to conform to participate in radio. I think that’s very unique. It’s different than most of the stuff that’s on those urban stations or those rhythmic stations. It’s completely different but it sounds so good. It’s such a great song so the fact that people are loving it and accepting it, even though it’s different, is really cool. That’s the definition of what we are man. We’re a little bit left of center, we do things differently and that song is representative of that. You can’t say “That sounds just like so and so’s song.” No it’ don’t. No it does not. “Fragile” does not sound like anything else to me. It sounds like “Fragile”, period.
What are some hurdles or goals you’re trying to jump over in the near future for Strange Music?
The number one hurdle would be staying alive.
Do you want to extrapolate on that answer a little bit?
Yeah man, this is an intense job that puts your health at risk. When you work 1o, 12, 14 hour days: myself or when you’re an artist who tours and does 78 shows in 83 days – I think Tech might even tell you the same thing. I’m not sure, but mine is staying alive and second to that is staying healthy. If I can do those things then I know I have the capability to take Strange Music to the next level. We have the talent and we have the business savvy to do that. So all I really got to focus on the most is staying alive and staying healthy. If I can do those two things, Strange Music will become even larger. I also need Tech to stay alive and to stay healthy. I need the artists to be here and participate in what is an incredible opportunity. That’s our goals man: staying alive and staying healthy. That’s mine anyway. Everything else – I feel like I’m still a student to this everyday. I learn something new everyday. I’m not ever going to think that I know it all. I’m not ever going to think that we’re “there.” I don’t see that, but what I know I need the most is my health and so if I can maintain that and not work myself to an early grave we’re going to be just fine. I have a pretty big problem with working entirely too much so I’m trying to make sure that I can stay alive, straight up.
Talking to Tech recently he revealed that Mackenzie is very interested in singing and possibly developing a career in that regard. Can you tell us about that being released under a subsidiary?
Yeah. It’s still in development. We actually have a couple of different acts that would be a part of this new subsidiary of Strange Music. Mackenzie would definitely be one of them and then we have another act that we’re finalizing a deal with right now that would be another and we even have the potential for one other act. Mackenzie isn’t a rapper, she’s a vocalist. She’s a singer so we would obviously have to create a lane for that type of music. A little part of me says I want Mackenzie to not be involved in this business in any way, shape or form because you look at the horror stories. You look at the Lindsey Lohans and you look at the Britney Spears and you look at the Miley Cyruses, but then I woke up and said “Oh wow, that’s because their parents are a big part of the problem.” The parents of those particular entertainers are a huge part of the problem. Look at Justin Bieber: it’s because his dad wants to party with him, it’s because his mom wants to party with him. So there’s a difference between the way Mackenzie would be handled in this business and the way a lot of these other people have been handled. I won’t let anything go wrong, period. I don’t give a fuck if she’s 18 or 25 or fucking 40, I’m going to protect her and her interests at all costs, no matter what. She won’t have the same exposure issues that some of these other artists have had at very young ages.
The next thing in the thought process for me is allowing your child or your children to do exactly what they want to do. I let that happen with my oldest daughter. She’s now a triple major in her fifth year of college and she wants to be a clinical psychologist so I’m there to do everything I can to make sure that she becomes that. If that’s what she loves to do I’m going to make sure she has all the means necessary to navigate to exactly where she wants to go.
Mackenzie actually wants to go to an Ivy League school. She’s ridiculously smart. She just took her ACT test again at the age of 13 and got a 33. A 36 is perfect and I would love to actually see her accomplish that because that’s one of her goals. One of her other goals is to be accepted to all 8 Ivy League schools. So she has a pretty ambitious goal and I’m there to try and help her do that. Now if she wants to be a singer and do music in between or to do music because it’s truly one of her interests and one of her passions and she loves to do it, I will kind of reluctantly support it in a very big way. I know that sounds like an oxymoron. I’m reluctant because I don’t want my little girl exposed to critics and shitty people, but I have to support it if she truly wants to do it, so I will do so. If she loses interest in it that’s okay. If she flourishes in it and records an incredible album then I’ll be there to support it.
A lot of people take interest in her. You know they’re trying to do another reality show on Strange Music right now. I won’t tell who all is involved in it, but the focus of the entire show is Mackenzie. For whatever reason this particular person who wants to do the show took this incredible liking to Mackenzie and really wants to follow her and the contrast of how her and I interact and how Tech and her interact and how this little blonde-haired 14-year-old girl is growing up in a circle of hip hop. Her dad owns a rap label. She’s around people like Tech and other artists all the time. It’s a crazy contrast. They’re taking an extreme interest in that to the point that they’ve been here shooting and all that other stuff. We’ll see what develops there but I’m not a huge fan of reality shows because I don’t think they’re reality. So the only thing that could be captured here is absolute reality. No manufactured bullshit. I’m still not a reality show guy though, you know what I mean? So we’ll see what happens there. This is time number 11. This is the 11th reality show that’s approached us, but this one has people behind it that are very, very good people and a very big network. One of the biggest as far as that goes so we’ll see what happens.
Where do you see this company in the next five years?
I have no idea. I don’t know where “there” is. The fans will dictate where we are in five years. Period! It ain’t up to us man. It’s important that we play our part.
I guess I’m asking if you have a vision of what’s bigger than this and if there’s any details you can share about that.
I do, but let me tell you this – this is actually very insightful for you and everyone else in these buildings. Early on when I started to come up with all the ideas on what I thought this company would be and how I would get it there I used to share those ideas with the people around me. I used to say “Ah man we’re going to do this and then we’re going to do this and then we’re going to do this and then I want to do this and this and this,” right? So I would tell those people around me – and I thought it was the right thing to do. I thought it was motivational. I thought it was important. I thought it was insightful. Unfortunately it backfired in a really huge way. What I mean by that is some of those people who I told those things to developed their own timeline as to when those things should happen. I never really stated a timeline I just stated what I wanted to happen. They would apply their own timeline to the things that they thought should happen within X amount of time and then when it didn’t happen they forgot that they’re the fucking people who put the timeline on it, not me, and they deemed me as a failure because those things hadn’t happened yet. So what I did is when I realized people were doing that and they’re saying “Ah yeah, he said this and look, you see that? He said we were going to have that and did that happen? Oh you said this was going to happen, has it happened yet?” Look you fucking assholes, I never told you when it was going to happen, I just told you that it’s going to happen. So what I had to do is make a conscious effort to not share with everybody all of my plans and all of my ideas because then they apply this false time frame to it that they put on to it, not me, and then if it doesn’t happen within this false time frame which they made up then I’ve somehow failed and that I’m full of shit. So all those people that were around me that were doing those things at that time I’ve since removed. I’ve gotten away from all those people because I don’t look at them as righteous, good, quality human beings. Straight up. I don’t want to put myself around people that I don’t like or that I don’t trust. Then as I continued to assemble new folks and new roles I simply didn’t tell them what the future was. I didn’t tell them what would happen in a year. I stopped talking about it and I just did it. I kind of stick to that today. I don’t really talk a lot about the future. I have a lot of ideas. I have notebooks up here that have ridiculous amounts of ideas. Have you ever seen this?
All of my ideas are in journals. (Opens cabinet which is stuffed with notebooks) And all of those and all of these are journals. There’s probably 5o journals up there.
You’re the kind of guy I always feel like your gears are grinding at a constant basis.
Yeah, I take pills to go to sleep, yes. I do, I do. But now when you ask me where I think we’re going to be in five years, honestly I’m going to leave that up to the fans. I’m going to let them decide where we’re at in five years. I’m going to leave that up to the artists. I know that I’m down for whatever, so if that means that the artists continue to produce incredible music I’m going to be there to push it as hard as I humanly can, as hard as humanly possible, to make them successful, to get their music to the rest of the world and to impact other people’s lives. That’s what I’m going to do. That’s my role in it, but they have to create the kind of music that moves people.
I’m going to be there pushing the buttons, having the conversations, trying to encourage the artists to do important songs and important music. I’m going to do all of that and talk to them about ideas. I’m not going to over-A&R. Tech and I signed these artists because we believe in them as artists so we don’t have to sit down. I haven’t had a single conversation to CES Cru about their new album. I don’t say “Hey, you should do a song like this.” That’s not my place. “Hey, you guys do what you guys do. I can’t wait to hear it. Let’s go.” That’s our A&R meeting – that’s it! If they want features they’ll come and talk to me. If they want beats from certain producers they’ll come and talk to me. Studio time arrangements they can come and talk to me. Outside of that, let’s go! Do you. That’s what I’m most interested in.
Krizz Kaliko and I actually have a lot of conversations about his albums. Tech and I have quite a few conversations about his, but I don’t try to over-A&R anybody. Tech is an un-A&R-able artist anyway. All you can do is plant seeds with him and maybe take and focus on a life event and make little comments that may stick with him later on. “Ah man, this is some serious shit. I can’t believe that this happened. Unbelievable. This is like out of a movie.” So when I say things like that I’m making him really think about what just happened and later on I’ll normally hear it in the music. That’s the only A&R you can do with someone like Tech is identify a really important moment or a really important incident and maybe make a bigger deal of it than need be so that he realizes the substance of that moment and he evaluates it. He thinks about it and you’ll probably hear it in the music. When you do, he’s done it in such a way that it’s incredible. It’s really like “Wow, he nailed that. He brought that moment to life in music.” If we can continue to do that, the answer to your question is, in five years we’ll be wherever the fans take us, however they react to the music. It’s about the fans first. It’s about making sure the music is above par and then it’s about those two things meshing into hopefully successful results.
Well that’s what you guys have done so far.
And we ain’t changing man. If the shit ain’t broke, do not fix it. Just continue to try and improve it.
I always close this out with asking if there’s anything you want to say anything to the fans, but in this case I want to know what you have to say to those fans that have been down with Strange since the very early days.
Thank you, straight up. Thank you. It’s honestly because of them that we’re able to continue to do music. Without them we can’t do it. I was two million in at one point. I can’t be 10 million in and just doing it because I think it’s fun. That doesn’t make sense. So the fans are the people that allow us to continue to produce the music and I think they really appreciate it. If I can continue to give you incredible music for a really reasonable price – if you think about the fact that a CD only costs $11.99 or for a deluxe $17.99 and something like that – if I can give you life-changing, mind-altering, really great music for 10 or 15 bucks, I feel like that’s a really great value. I hope the fans do too and that they buy the albums and come to the shows and maybe buy a t-shirt, because that money, Tech and I constantly reinvest in the company. Without it we wouldn’t be able to reinvest in the company and grow it. It’s important.
For the fans that have been down since day one, obviously we have to respect and love that fact right, and the fan that found out about Tech because they heard “Fragile” on the radio, welcome aboard. Come on, you’ve got a lot to catch up on. You gotta go back and get Anghellic, you got to get back there to Absolute Power, you gotta go check out Everready, you gotta check out MLK, you gotta check out all the different records we’ve done over the years. You have to check them out. All 6’s and 7’s – great album. Something Else, great album. Now let’s talk about Krizz Kaliko, go back to Vitiligo. Check that out.
I hope they become a fan of the music and it becomes a part of their lifestyle. That we can become a part of their daily regimen. You might work out to this music, you might feel fucked up, or you just got home from Iraq, or you might have just got home from Afghanistan and you listen to this music to help heal. That’s really what it’s about, for me. It isn’t necessarily about the money. I don’t think it ever was for me, personally, because I was fortunate enough to have a lot of success prior to the music business in my furniture business and my real estate ventures and all of those things. Those have treated me quite well so I take the majority of the money that we make here, Tech and I both do this, and we reinvest it back in the company. That’s why Strangeland exists on the next block over. We just dumped four million dollars into that structure, that building and those studios, because we want to continue to create music for a really long time. You don’t go out and dump four million dollars into a studio if you only plan on being in business a few more years. That’s a long-term commitment to ever make sure that it pays for itself. I bought the lot next door over there because I plan on building another merchandise facility over there and as time allows and as music continues to spread and we can make enough revenue to make that next investment that’s exactly what we’re going to do. It’s all up to the fans man. I just hope that they love what we do. They’ll show it by picking up the CD and coming to the show and if they don’t then we’ll obviously sell less CDs and they won’t come to as many shows and that’ll be the determining factor but I don’t see that happening. I’m going to make sure it don’t.
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