With Mackenzie Nicole's Debut, Kansas City's Strange Music Adds Pop To Its Rap Empire
Strange Music, the record empire that's home to the rapper Tech N9ne, has entered a whole new realm with Friday's release of Mackenzie Nicole's debut album "The Edge." The pop record, by the teenage daughter of Strange Music co-founder Travis O'Guin, is a dramatic departure from the label's abrasive and hugely successful hip-hop.
It seems Nicole was raised for this moment.
"The label started in the basement of my childhood home in a suburb in Blue Springs," she recalls. "We spent every single waking moment on Strange Music my entire childhood."
She had a remarkable role model in Tech N9ne, whose new album "Planet" is his 19th to claim a spot in the Top Ten of Billboard's Top Rap Albums chart. He's been an integral part of Nicole's life for as long as she can remember.
"Tech is like my uncle," the 18-year-old explains. "Tech and I are extremely close personally, and he's my mentor professionally in a lot of ways."
But her musical education wasn't limited to hip-hop. She started opera lessons when she was six years old.
"Learning how to sing technically correct and accurate is a huge, huge skill that I think really colors the way I experience music now," she says.
Vocal lessons were just one part of Nicole's unusual childhood. She witnessed her father build a music empire.
While conceding that she was "raised around gangbangers and thugs," Nicole suggests that her formal education at St. Teresa's Academy gave her the confidence she needed to apply her talent in the recording studio. She considers her contribution to a 2016 song by Tech N9ne as a turning point in her career.
"One of my favorite things I've ever recorded is the hook on 'We're Not Sorry,'" she says. "It's very hard for me as an artist to ever have these moments where I go, 'OK, I earned that and that was really good.' And that was one of those moments."
The menacing song reflects the theme of intense loyalty within the Strange Music family.
"It's like 'The Godfather,' but with rappers," she says. "That's really kind of the environment and the general relationship network that we all share. It's very much a familial mob-type mentality and that was something in 'We're Not Sorry' that I wanted to bring to light."
She hasn't embraced every element of Strange Music's culture. Much of the label's output requires warning labels due to graphic content. Nicole acknowledges that the off-color tone extends to water cooler talk at the label's headquarters.
"Imagine that when you go to work every day, like all your brothers and uncles, like tell you their entire sex lives," she sighs. "It's very uncomfortable. That's what it feels like and I hate it."
Nicole rose above the bothersome environment to sing the hook of "Habanero," the lead track of Tech N9ne's "Planet." She notes that "it was such a meaningful thing for me and Tech to get to do together to be the first track on the biggest album of his career."
A very different sensibility informs "The Edge." The album's lyrics were inspired by the pop staple of teen angst.
"All the songs are in part about one relationship," she recalls. "It was a two-year on-and-off thing in the course of the three months the album was recorded. We were broken up, got back together and broke up again. So you're actually hearing in real time me breaking up with this guy."
Even if the songs of heartbreak on "The Edge" don't perform as well as the old guard at Strange Music hopes for, Nicole has another claim to the empire. She's earned the role of the heir apparent, especially after an upbringing that gave her the hip-hop version of an MBA.
"I sat in on every meeting, I was packing merch on the pallets when I was eight, you know? Every part of these offices I've worked in, I've been a part of," she says. "And I followed the tours my entire childhood. And there's nothing there that I haven't done, witnessed or been a part of as much as I've been allowed to be."
All of which has given her a strong sense of ownership, one that she defended when a sibling was born.
"I have a brother who's 12 years younger than me, and when he was born, people had this inclination to say, 'That's the next CEO right there.' And it's like, 'No, you're late. That's been me.'"
For the moment, Nicole is balancing art and commerce.
"There's this running joke in the industry (that) every exec is trying to be an artist," she suggests. "I'm an artist trying to be an exec."
Nicole readily acknowledges the commercial calculations that informed "The Edge." She hopes that a hit pop record could "give us the resources to expand further." Consequently, she realizes, "It's my job to make sure that my record is commercially viable — it's my job to make sure I do a solid pop record."
The sound doesn't come naturally to her.
"I don't necessarily listen to a lot of pop music and don't know a lot about it," she concedes. "I'm an opera singer, signed to a rap label that was inspired by a rock band. There's everything but pop in my blood right now."
Even so, she's proud of her work, insisting that "The Edge" is "a solid debut album and a really, really good pop record."
Some Tech N9ne fans are likely to reject the mainstream sound of the record's 13 tracks. But at 46, Tech can't be expected to successfully compete against artists less than half his age forever.
Whether she ends up as an unconventional pop star or a music mogul following in the steps of her father, one thing's guaranteed: Mackenzie Nicole has an extremely Strange future ahead of her.
KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City's jazz scene at Plastic Sax.