words by Jake Heinitz as told to Eamon Whalen
photography by Austin Fassino
“What the fuck is that?” Travis O’Guin had stopped dead in his tracks upon entering Studio B. We were just nearing the end of our tour of the Strange Music facilities in a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. The facilities are made up of three multi-million dollar warehouses that serve as headquarters for the most profitable independent record label in hip-hop. Since O’Guin began running this record label in 1999 with co-founder, fellow Kansas City native and the label’s flagship artist Aaron “Tech N9ne” Yates, he’s built a hip-hop empire that brings in nearly 20 million dollars a year in revenue from 10 different artists, almost completely removed from major critical acclaim or mainstream attention.
But none of that mattered now because the boss had seen something he didn’t like, prompting his assistants to attempt to stammer out an explanation. Amongst the hand-carved cherry wood interiors, Brazilian granite counters, “SM” logoed floor tiles, premium leather office chairs and the $40,000 diamond SM pendants placed behind glass in each recording studio, a set of small, unassuming black curtains hung in a tucked-away window near the back of a recording booth had just set O’Guin off.
“Is it weird that that freaks me out so bad?” said O’Guin, only somewhat self-consciously. It’s precisely this close attention to seemingly minute details that make SM the well-oiled machine that it has become. “My daughter says I have OCD,” he said. Whether it’s a disorder or simply a mindset, the former furniture salesman is focused on stream-lined efficiency, applying business 101 to an industry in transition away from the all-important major label. The crux of his strategy? Let the creatives be creative, take out the middle man and keep everything in-house.
“When people said, ‘Tech [N9ne] doesn’t fit rap music or hip-hop. We don’t even know what section to put him in the stores,’ I was like, ‘Okay, motherfuckers, we’ll build this shit and make you come to us,” said O’Guin.
And the operation that Travis O’Guin has built is simply astonishing. Upon entering the first building I met a few of the nearly twenty full-time Strange Music employees that oversee SM’s three part business model - merchandise, touring and music sales. All three of which O’Guin estimates to pull in at least six million dollars a year. While he’s in a meeting, O’Guin’s assistant Korey lead us on a tour of the first building.
First there’s the social media team, one guy for youtube, one guy for facebook and one guy operating the SM blog, who at the time was interviewing New York rapper, R.A The Rugged Man, in another room. They mention that Tech [N9ne] is in the process of an “Ask-Me-Anything” fan-led interview on the mega-popular website Reddit. Korey estimates that they release “full-on albums” from one of the SM artists about every three weeks, which coincide with new merchandise lines and new tours. The relatively new online component has led to an international fanbase. A world map on one of the walls is tacked pinpointing where SM has toured, or received orders from. It expands far beyond Kansas City and the U.S, including Saipan, Dubai and Kuwait.
Next is the merchandise warehouse, where every online order comes to be processed, verified and shipped out no matter where it’s ordered from. A tour had just gotten back that week, so Korey was in the process of taking inventory and counting what had been sold. The team was also preparing for their fifty percent off “Strangegiving” sale, during which O’Guin estimates sales are somewhere around one million dollars worth of merchandise in a week and a half. The walls are lined with shelves that stretch almost all the way to the ceiling. Most of the boxes are filled with promotional materials for their street teams in different cities that assure they never have a dull tour. “[Street Teams are] a really grass roots strategy but it changes the attendance at concerts. It changes the retail awareness and definitely keeps us relevant in independent record stores,” said Korey.
In the center of the warehouse are shelves stacked with clothing mostly in their red and black color scheme and adorned with the SM logo. “T-shirts, sweatshirts, that’s basic stuff,” says Korey before listing off an exhaustive amount of merchandise including, but not limited to, socks, sunglasses, keychains, scarves, jewelry, neckties, flags, iron-on patches, water bottles, playing cards, flasks, backpacks, thongs and even baby onesies. “Our fanbase is so broad, it’s like literally eight to eighty [years old]. I’ve actually seen a fan in Denver dancing with her walker,” said Korey. He makes clear that they try to walk the line between meeting their fans requests and quality control. “We definitely want to maintain the integrity of what we’re doing with still being mindful of who we’re marketing to.” Rifling through one of the merchandise containers, Korey stops and laughs. “I had an idea to do placemats and they took off. You’d be surprised how many people want their house Strange Music-themed. For this next line, we’re doing branded light switches.”
Shortly thereafter, O’Guin entered the warehouse and asked what I think of the facilities--but not before politely asking some of the warehouse employees to not let the drawstrings of an SM sweatshirt hang off of a nearby shelf. Dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved brown tee shirt--that looked like it was taken fresh out of one of their new merchandise shipments, save for the SM logo--and sporting a sharply trimmed buzz cut and beard, the forty-two year old O’Guin’s imposing, extra-large frame made him look more like a Kansas City high school football coach than a hip-hop record label executive. Even with his unassuming manner and lack of desire for mainstream recognition, his success has begun to be noticed by those outside of SM’s cult following. Earlier in the year Forbes Magazine came through the SM headquarters marveling at the operation, declaring O’Guin “Hip Hop’s most mysterious mogul.”
“That’s what happening right now. Everybody is coming to us. Billboard Magazine will be at our Kansas City show, and Rolling Stone was just here. For so long, it was kind of like Fight Club. An underground society. You know about Fight Club? First rule of Fight Club: don’t talk about Fight Club,” said O’Guin.
O’Guin and I headed to the next building in his luxury pick-up truck, which is about a five minute drive from the first. As we drove he motioned out his window to various lots and buildings on the side of the road. “I bought that lot, and I just made an offer on that building because it’s vacant. So, we’re growing, I know exactly what’s going to be in them,” he points out calmly.
Though O’Guin lives comfortably now, he’s about as working class as they come. He’s a product of the Leeds neighborhood of Kansas City, where a large General Motors assembly plant of the same name once stood. He expresses himself with soft-spoken midwestern sincerity, rarely raising his voice even when declaring that “90% of people in the music business are subpar, intelligence-wise.” He balances that candor with humility that may seem surprising coming from someone who has experienced this degree of success. He’s quick to say “I’m not the smartest motherfucker in the world, I just try to learn something new every day. I evaluate things, and then trust my gut instinct.”
He attributes his work ethic and business acumen to his father, an owner of several businesses himself. The most prominent of those was a sod company that exposed young O’Guin to the ins and outs of owning a small business at an early age. “I was gone from six in the morning until ten at night, every day. Those were my summers. I started working for him when I was five, doing patchwork at the sod jobs. And during school years, after school we’d go off to work. That’s what life was, he paid us, but we didn’t have a whole lot to say on the matter,” said O’Guin, who visits his father twice a week at his assisted living home. “I think my Dad fucked us up!” said O’Guin with a chuckle. “I hated him at times, but I truly appreciate it now, I learned a lot from him.”
However, growing up in Leeds didn’t come without bumps and bruises. When he wasn’t working or at school he was in his family’s 900 square foot home with his four siblings. “I grew up in a very violent environment, so if I’m not fighting with my brothers, I’m fighting [at] my school. My school was eighty percent black, and sometimes they didn’t like the white boy who was better at sports than them, so I had to deal with the locker room fights and all that,” O’Guin recalled. As one of the only white kids at his school in the late 80s, O’Guin also grew to have a strong appreciation for hip-hop during its “Golden Age.” He lovingly reminisces about being the “coolest motherfucker” as a sixteen-year-old with NWA’s Straight Outta Compton tape.
Though he loved it, a career in music didn’t so much interest O’Guin. Before long he was repurposing the steadfast work ethic from his father into his own furniture business. At 18, Travis opened a furniture store [Furniture Works], which eventually grew to thirty-two locations in eighteen different states. At 20 he purchased his first home and by the time he could legally have a beer, he had made his first million.
Fast forward to the end of the 90s and O’Guin is living comfortably after making a transition into real estate. He’s approached by a friend requesting his help in funding and structuring the business model of a streetwear clothing startup called Paradise Originals. O’Guin had his eye on Tech N9ne for an endorsement deal, an emcee from the area with a rapid-fire flow and an intensity and intelligence that O’Guin gravitated towards. As he began to become more familiar with Tech, the wheels started to turn. “I thought, I want to meet this guy and find out why he’s not bigger than what he is,” said O’Guin.
What he realized was that Tech’s career had become entangled in a complex web of artist mismanagement and confusingly overlapped record deals. Seven different people claimed to manage him and O’Guin wasn’t completely sure which of four record label deals he was really signed to. “All I wanted to do was meet with him to see if I could give him some business advice; I didn’t want to be in the fucking music business— I was cool. As a matter of fact, I planned on retiring at thirty five. The first time we met I was like ‘good luck dude.” But then 6 months later, Tech asked if he could send O’Guin a song. It was one with very personal subject matter, dealing with the tug of war between career and marriage. O’Guin felt an immediate connection to Tech, as they were the same age, and couldn’t stop playing the song, as he was in the midst of his own marriage. “I couldn’t leave it alone,” said O’Guin. Soon after he called Tech and said “Fuck all that, dude. What do you want to do?”
With little pre-existing knowledge of the music industry, O’Guin soon found it was largely based on smoke-and-mirrors. “The big problem I found is that you don’t have to really be legitimate to say that you’re in this business. You could wake up one day and say, ‘Oh man, I want a record label. Check my logo out, I got a business card and everything.’ All of a sudden, you’re in the fucking music business,” said O’Guin without a hint of exaggeration.
Soon thereafter they had negotiated a 50/50 split of what was to be Strange Music, a name that Tech chose in tribute to his hero Jim Morrison of The Doors and their songs “People Are Strange” and “Strange Days.” For Tech’s latest album “Strange 2013” he was able to collaborate with the surviving members of The Doors in a reworking of “Strange Days.” O’Guin and Tech chose a snake and a bat to form their SM logo, symbolizing their round-the-clock, nocturnal approach to music. “This is how we started this business,” said Travis. “Up all night, every night.”
O’Guin speaks tenderly of the substance within Tech’s music, and makes sure to note that the “Strange Music Saved My Life” tee-shirts are far from hyperbole. A song of Tech’s called “The Noose,” examines the issue of PTSD and military veteran suicide and deeply resonated with a number of former soldiers. “I get messages like ‘man, before Tech came, I was going to blow my fucking head off.’ I’ve probably seen eight flags sent to us by different soldiers,” said O’Guin.
The second building houses Travis and Tech’s personal offices, a dining room and kitchen, two recording studios and several video production studios. There’s a four by eight foot painting of Tech done by Marvel Comics artist Rob Prior that O’Guin estimates is worth upwards of a hundred thousand dollars. The interior is considerably more luxurious than the first, with the floors and walls paneled with cherry-wood. Naturally, O’Guin had all of the wood sent and then milled, treated and stained it in-house. “I’m very much into comfort and interior. If I’m here twelve hours a day I want it to feel like home,” said O’Guin.
O’Guin leads us to the parking lot, where the fleet of Strange Music semi-trucks, conversion vans and coach buses number around a dozen or more, depending on what tours are happening at that time of year. He reflects a bit on a simpler time thirteen years earlier, when they had one van and could barely book a show. “It was me, Tech, Chris [SM artist Krizz Kaliko] and Cory, and a van. Our first paid show was in 2000 in Blue Springs, Missouri [The small town where SM headquarters stand today]. We got five hundred bucks for that show and we were excited about it.” Building their fan-base in middle America wasn’t the easiest task at first.
“Do you know how many white venue owners I had to argue with? I had a rap artist by the name of Tech-fucking-N9ne. I literally cut deals with some dudes, and I said, ‘If we have one single problem at my show, you keep all the money,” said O’Guin with the reserved confidence that I’d grown accustomed to throughout the day. Now, Tech regularly headlines gigantic sold-out tours, and the semi-trucks return to headquarters to refill on merchandise sometimes two to three times per tour. Even if he’s not present on stage, O’Guin’s attention to detail and blue collar ethos permeates Tech and other SM artists’ live performances, as most of their shows they wear spotless SM work uniforms, like the ones O’Guin probably saw growing up in Leeds.
SM tours have also become common places for other rising independent acts to build their fan bases, including a rapper from Watts, California named Jay Rock. In 2010, Rock was in a crisis with his label Warner Brothers and saw his album stalled for four years. O’Guin took a liking to Rock, and after seeing the “same pain” he saw in Tech years before, he signed Rock to a multi album deal. On Rock’s first tour with SM he brought a slight of height hype-man by the name of Kendrick Lamar along with him. What has gone unreported was that O’Guin also signed all of the other artists on Rock’s label Top Dawg Entertainment to a First Right of Refusal contract, which included the aforementioned, now seven time Grammy nominee and platinum record selling Lamar. “I know Kendrick’s big now, but he’s my little dude,” said O’Guin. Once Dr. Dre and Interscope head honcho Jimmy Iovine took interest in Lamar and TDE, O’Guin saw what the opportunity could be for them, but like the shrewd businessman he is, wasn’t going to let him go without compensation.
“I won’t hold somebody up if they have a great opportunity,” said O’Guin. And now, a few years later, Kendrick is doing phenomenal things,” said O’Guin. He speaks very highly of TDE president Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith and CEO Terrence “Punch” Henderson and out of respect for them, declined to disclose details of their business dealings. “All of those guys are really good people, and I saw that the first time I met them. The whole team at TDE, they’re doing their motherfucking thing,” said O’Guin. O’Guin casually mentions that fellow TDE artist Schoolboy Q has been upstreamed, but led on that he and TDE still have “a lot of business together,” concerning Jay Rock, Ab-Soul and Black Hippy as a group. In a recent interview with Hip Hop DX, Henderson acknowledged SM for laying out a blueprint for TDE’s independent success. Even with his peers emulating his formula in such a competitive industry, O’Guin remains his humble, calculated self. “I just continue to study, and continue to apply, and now here we are thirteen years into it, and we’re the biggest independent hip-hop label in the world, period. And I feel like we’re only like thirty-five percent of the way there. That’s the bizarre part.”
In a year that saw Strange Music receive the most national attention yet for their independent hustle, Seattle rapper Macklemore became the first independent artist with a Billboard number one single. It should surprise no one that O’Guin used to have Macklemore open for Tech on his Pacific Northwest tour dates, it just might be surprising he didn’t sign him when he had the chance. But don’t think for a second O’Guin is bitter about the success of Lamar, Macklemore and future independent success stories that follow the SM model. Looking around at his operation, O’Guin turns to me and says, “I want to see independents win. That shit tickles me to death.”