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Cover story: Tech N9ne’s haunted mind

Ink

Tech N9ne sits in the pitch-black corner of a haunted jail cell and waits.

He clears his mind and strains his senses. If there’s a ghost in here, he needs to see it, hear it. Maybe even feel it.

For Tech, encountering a ghost — a physical representative of the spiritual world — would prove the existence of God and snap the chains of doubt binding his soul.

He’s sweating now. His warm breath collects in the white mask he wore to keep out dust, making the stuffy jail cell feel hotter than it already is on this June night.

Tech’s heard there’s a ghost here in Independence’s 1859 Jail — a shadowy figure locked up since the Civil War. Some claim to have heard his footsteps or smelled his tobacco smoke. Others report feeling a heavy, oppressive energy inside this cell, the epicenter of the jail’s paranormal activity.

He wishes he had a story like that to tell.

“Just show me something,” he says to the dark cell.

“Let me know that something’s listening when I pray for my mom at night, you know what I’m saying? I just want to know I’m actually being protected by something other than man … something divine.”

Silence.

After a few minutes, Tech grows impatient. He takes out his phone, snaps a photo of himself, and tweets this to his fans: “Me in the pitch black cell by myself looking to feel something.”

But he’s not feeling a damn thing.

Not yet.

? ? ?

His mom was the first who tried to show him God.

He was just Aaron Yates back then. A kid who remembered how to spell his name by rapping it: “Capital A, little A, R-O-N.”

His mom, Maudie Yates, took him to church every day in Kansas City.

He didn’t always want to go. Sometimes he’d hide his nice shoes when he felt like staying home.

But most often, Tech did what his mom said. He wanted to make her happy, because there was so much making her sad.

Tech’s dad wasn’t around, so he was the man of the house — even when he was in elementary school. One of his most vivid memories from childhood was walking into the kitchen to find his mom convulsing on the floor. He ran outside in his underwear, pounding on neighbors’ doors, screaming himself hoarse for help.

At church, he learned that faith in God could fix anything. But at home, he watched the most faithful person he knew suffer from epilepsy and lupus. So he began to question God’s existence. But agnosticism — the idea that the truth about God is unknowable — wasn’t enough for him. He needed answers, and so he went looking for them in strange places.

When he was in his 20s, he crawled into vacant buildings in the West Bottoms with his best friend, Brian Dennis, and wandered around with a camcorder, hoping to capture a ghost on film.

“We’d take a couple girls with us, go act a clown and hope we’d see something,” Tech says.

They never did. In 2003, Dennis was shot and killed in Overland Park alongside Kimberly Lowe, the mother of his daughter. They were killed by Lowe’s ex, who then shot and killed himself.

Dennis’s murder only intensified Tech’s search for answers — to know for sure that there’s a heaven, and that Dennis is there. To know if he could hope to see his friend again one day.

He put his faith and doubt to music. Paint on his face and blood-red dye in his hair. As Tech N9ne fans grew in number, so did Tech N9ne critics. Some called him a devil worshipper, which he denied in interviews and in songs like “Devil Boy”:

I talk about the rain

I talk about the sun

I speak about the pain

I speak about the fun

I’m sayin’ that I’m bad

I’m sayin’ that I’m good

I’m saying this to the suburbanites and every hood

Ya’ll act like I’m sayin’ ‘I love Lucifer I will kill all of you’

Motherfucker I ain’t step into the limelight to devil worship in front of kids

Get yo’ mind right.

Despite the public condemnation, Tech continued searching for the ethereal.

Travis O’Guin, who co-founded Strange Music with the rapper in 1999, believes the search led Tech to overindulge in sex, alcohol and drugs. But those were all temporary distractions from Tech’s deeper mission, which continues to baffle those closest to him.

“Sometimes I wonder, ‘Man, is it really that important to you?’ ” O’Guin says.

The answer has always been yes. Tech has tried everything, even searching the country’s most famous haunt, the RMS Queen Mary. The retired 1930s ocean liner — now in use as a hotel in Long Beach, Calif. — is rumored to be haunted by a little girl named Jackie.

For a good hour, Tech sat in the dark in one of the ship’s empty swimming pools, which is supposed to be one of Jackie’s favorite hangouts. She didn’t show.

As Tech’s spiritual disappointments stacked up, so did his material successes. Strange Music has sold around 1.5 million albums, collectively. The label made $11 million in 2008 and $15 million in 2009, says O’Guin. And Tech performs around 200 shows a year for intensely devoted fans all over the world.

But none of that could help his mom when, in 2008, she almost died from pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas.

She was so sick that Tech canceled a show in Winter Park, Colo., and flew home to Kansas City to be by her side.

“She’s always been a beautiful, light-skinned black woman,” he says, “but her lips were totally black. She had a tube all down her throat, couldn’t talk. It appeared she was dying.”

She survived. But seeing his mom like that brought back a lot of bad memories and rattled him to his spiritual core.

“I was in a dark frame of mind, for real. I was deep in a hole,” Tech says.

Out of that hole came Tech’s 2009 album “K.O.D.,” which stands for King of Darkness. On the first track, “Show Me a God,” Tech asked to see something divine — specifically, a ghost— so that he’d finally know for sure God exists. But after the album’s release, his mom recovered, and he decided to sideline his search.

“I’m partying, I’m drinking, I’m having sex … I’m doing whatever feels good to me,” Tech says of that time. “Who knows where my life is gonna turn next, you know what I’m sizzlin’?”

In July, Tech released a collaboration album full of party songs called “The Gates Mixed Plate.” The album’s biggest hit was “O.G.,” an infectious ode to Kansas City barbecue king Ollie Gates.

On the outside, Tech appeared happier than ever. But inside, the darkness was re-emerging. So were his mom’s health problems — she spent part of the summer in an area psychiatric center. He won’t say what she was being treated for.

Last week, Tech released “Seepage,” a five-song EP that sounds like an angry companion to “K.O.D.”

The first track on “Seepage,” “Chokin’ From It,” is an audio recording of what happened at the 1859 Jail that night in June.

? ? ?

The 1859 Jail in Independence is supposed to be haunted.

The limestone lock box was once home to Frank James — Jesse’s brother — and hundreds of other men, women and children caught up in the Civil War. Most of the paranormal activity reported here takes place in one particular cell, says Steve Noll, executive director of the Jackson County Historical Society.

Noll says one of his tour guides felt something brush by him in that cell. He says that others report feeling a strange, heavy energy upon entering.

But Noll has never personally witnessed a ghost at the jail.

“I’m not big on the supernatural,” he says.

Nevertheless, the historian agrees to give Tech N9ne and his friends a rare nighttime tour of the jail.

On that night in June, Tech, in crisply rolled Levi’s and black work boots, follows Noll, in khakis and penny loafers, down the creaky hallway of the adjoining Marshal’s Home.

Behind the two men trail Tech’s posse: O’Guin, comedian Manzilla “Makzilla” Queen and publicist Korey Lloyd.

Tech walks silently through the stuffy parlor, past a rickety baby carriage, and up the narrow, creaky stairs to the bedroom. This is where one of the jail’s marshals was shot and killed during a jailbreak, Noll explains.

Tech scans the room, eyeing the sagging antique bed where the marshal died. He pokes his head into the adjoining rooms, searching every corner for a figure, a face, some unexplained movement.

He strains his ears to hear footsteps or voices, but it’s hard to hear over Makzilla, who’s nervously cracking jokes.

“Do you make the ghosts pay rent?” the comedian asks Noll. “Just kidding!”

Tech follows Noll downstairs to the cell block. He enters the first cell on the left, and leans down to touch a chain shackled to the floor. Outside, Makzilla announces he won’t be going in any of the cells and takes a seat in a wooden chair at the far end of the block.

Tech focuses on the prisoners who lived and died here. He asks Noll what they slept on, how they used the bathroom. Noll answers with enthusiasm and detail, explaining the jail wasn’t heated or cooled, so many prisoners died from illness and exposure. Then he points to the second cell on the left.

“This is where most people feel phenomena,” Noll says.

“How do they go about doing that?” Tech asks.

Noll doesn’t have an answer for that one.

“Either you feel it or you don’t,” he says.

You’d think that of all people, the self-proclaimed King of Darkness would feel it.

? ? ?

Tech steps into the cell.

Noll flips a switch, blanketing the cell block in darkness, and closes two heavy iron doors to lock Tech in. The rapper sits in the corner and waits for God to show him something.

Nothing happens. He begins to talk about why he’s here.

“This is the lady that taught me how to love,” Tech says of his mom. He starts to cough.

“This is the lady that taught me (cough) how to care. Yet she’s been tortured all her life (cough). And I was asking God, ‘Why does it have to be my angel that’s always tormented?’ ”

He has to stop.

“I don’t know why I’m coughing, dude,” he says. “Feels like something’s in my throat.”

He can barely breathe, and can’t figure out why. He’s wearing a dust mask, and has been sitting in this cell for a good 10 minutes … why is this happening now?

As soon as he stops talking about his mom, his throat clears up. That was weird, but was it supernatural? He doesn’t think so.

“I’ve sat in dark rooms like this before,” he says, “just to see if I could feel anything, if something would touch me.”

“And still, I sit in this room … and I wish I had liquor.”

He stands up and brushes the dust from his Levi’s.

? ? ?

Maybe Tech’s looking for God in the wrong place, says Kevin Taylor, aka Brother K.T., a gospel radio host whose prayers have appeared on “K.O.D.” and “The Gates Mixed Plate.”

Taylor feels that God is always close by. Inches away, even. When he finds out he first met Tech around the same time the rapper’s mom got sick, he takes it as a sign from above. His eyes widen, and he visibly shudders.

“I got a chill,” he says. “I just felt it. It’s Christ.”

Sometimes, Taylor leaves prayers in the rapper’s voicemail. He wants to help Tech feel close to God, convince him that he needs to look inside for the closeness he craves.

“Sometimes, we want something without realizing it’s right there,” Taylor says, stretching his arm out and gripping something invisible in his hand.

Tech’s got faith. Every time he boards an airplane, he stops to pray. What good is proof?

“I don’t know, baby,” Tech says.

“It’s real simple. Show me a ghost, and then I will believe in a spiritual realm … and don’t have no projector. Don’t be fooling me. This is serious.”

? ? ?

Tech’s over this jail.

He walks out of the cell block and into the front office inside the marshal’s house, where Noll, O’Guin, Makzilla and Lloyd wait. Makzilla and Lloyd have a story to tell.

They say that when they were wandering around the house’s parlor, they heard old-sounding music float up from beneath the floorboards. But Noll says there’s nothing in the basement to explain that.

“I ain’t never gonna forget that music,” Makzilla tells Noll.

The story only adds to Tech’s frustration. Why the hell didn’t that happen to him? He’s a few steps from the exit when Noll asks if he wouldn’t mind posing for a photo. Tech agrees, and the two men stand together briefly. Noll grins. Tech glares in a familiar pose — chin down, mouth tough, eyes burning deep into the lens.

He’s confused by God’s silence. But he hasn’t given up on God, and swears he never will.

Because the truth is, there’s nothing the King of Darkness wants more than to see the light.

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