The Social Network

     

    When the Internet’s popularity rose, the music business worried that the proliferation of file-sharing Web sites like Napster and LimeWire meant the death of the entire music industry. A free, easy alternative to traditional sales, these companies felt that they threatened profits — and thus the very existence — of music; within years computer whiz bootleggers would demolish a decades-old record company infrastructure. Meet Aaron Dontez Yates, better known by his stage name Tech N9ne (pronounced “Tech Nine”), an Internet-savvy rap pioneer who has helped pave the way for accessible music.

    “Thank God for technology, man,” Tech joked, his voice made gravelly by a bad phone connection after 16 straight sold-out performances and a cold, wet night spent watching Kendrick Lamar after his own performance at the Paid Dues Festival. But he’s being serious, too. Without technology, specifically the Internet, Tech N9ne wouldn’t be where he is now. (Side note: During the interview, he is on his tour bus somewhere between LA and Sacramento.) Fermenting in rap-backwater Kansas City, Missouri, Tech had little access to the traditional media channels that helped his coastal colleagues’ careers. And when, after years of refining his craft in relative obscurity, Tech found the Internet which he co-opted, instead of fighting. In 2002, for example, he released “Absolute Power” and asked his listeners to download the album for free, legally.

    In a world now inundated with free mixtapes, that might not seem impressive. But at the time, it signaled a fundamental shift in the music industry. Technology was making rap music more democratic. Distribution costs were lowered, if not removed entirely. Success in rap didn’t require a deal with a major label; it required a computer.

    This had two important (if perhaps obvious) consequences for rap music, and both are exemplified by Tech’s career.

    First: Audiences have a wider selection of artists to choose from. So long as the only channels for finding rap music are the radio and physical records, the distribution costs associated with these channels would keep independent rappers from reaching a wide audience. Under these constraints, the rap selection is determined by those who have sufficient resources — large record companies. By opening a new channel for dispersing rap music, the Internet widens the range of offbeat rappers (like Tech) for listeners to discover.

    Conversely, independent rappers found wider audiences, both in and out of the country. Markets that were previously off-limits were suddenly (literally) within arm’s reach. With the Internet, rappers can spread wider and dream bigger.

    “The future holds world domination for Strange Music (his record label) … not just regional. Global domination — I haven’t touched every place yet, and that’s our quest,” he said.

    The second consequence of Internet distribution is that artists did not have to conform to record labels’ ideal types to be heard. Instead, artists can be eccentric. Tech N9ne is a prime example of this. Frankly, he’s a little weird. He’s had the spider leg hairstyle distinctive of Juggalos. He paints his face. He raps about drinking his own esoteric alcoholic beverage (the ever-dangerous Caribou Lou), not Ace of Spades champagne or Nuvo. He’s exactly the kind of rapper you would have never heard without the Internet. But you have (or at least, you have now).

    That’s not to say that the Internet has totally subsumed all traditional music media. Tech recently benefited from a verse on Lil Wayne’s “Carter IV” and an appearance on the BET Awards Cypher.

    “It helps people really see who Tech N9ne was, instead of just hearing his name all these years,” Tech said.

    He’s still touring every year, currently headlining the “Independent Powerhouse Tour,” a 55-event blitz of the United States with his label-mates. These traditional channels are still important, but they’re no longer restricted to more established artists. To get on the BET cypher or to book a profitable tour date, a rapper doesn’t need a major label contract. He needs Internet buzz. And Tech N9ne has buzz in abundance.

    To return to the second consequence, the Internet has democratized rap music by accepting and celebrating nontraditional artists. It has allowed rappers to gain notoriety without changing their style. And, again, Tech is a great example of this. Despite his appearances on MTV, BET and Lil Wayne’s album, Tech insists he hasn’t let his newfound popularity make him conform.

    “I’m still the King of Darkness,” he said. “I’m still painting my face. I will never conform…the reward is greater later when you do exactly what you do and still touch everybody.”

    And that’s true, to an extent. But he has changed — or at least evolved. It would be remarkable, and probably bad, if he were the same artist who rapped in the groups Black Mafia and Rogue Dog Villains in the early 1990s. The biggest change, though, is not substantive, but technical.

    “I’m more precise,” he said. “I’m better, I’m totally polished. I’ve always done me. Now, my music is bleeding over into the mainstream, and I didn’t have to do anything different, because real shit always shines — this is my music I do.”

    To belabor the point, the Internet has let “real shit” shine. And there are countless acts that are beholden to the path that Tech N9ne has blazed. For all we know, without the Internet, Odd Future, Danny Brown, Le1f, Lil B and any other antitraditional act could still be unknown.

    For balance, here are a couple issues with Internet-age rap music: The Internet has flooded listeners with nearly unmanageable amounts of bad rap. That seems unavoidable. For every Tech N9ne, there are 10 more rappers lurking on YouTube who shouldn’t be allowed near a mic. The triage needed to find rappers like Tech requires more time than most casual listeners have. Also, while the Internet has freed artists from record label conformity constraints, the artists are in no sense free from all constraints. They are merely beholden to a new media — the blogosphere. What longterm effect that will have on rap music is still unclear, but it should not be ignored.

    For better or worse, Internet gave us Tech N9ne — brutal, but sincere, weird and unorthodox, but unique. He is a rapper who’s different, but gloriously so, and for that, we have the Internet to thank.

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