While many rappers enter the game with goals of fame and superstardom, many lyricists do so with hopes of getting respect from their peers. Tech 9 had exactly that. When the news of his death surfaced on Monday morning (March 25), elite wordsmiths like Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco, Joe Budden and Lloyd Banks all tweeted their condolences and shared their appreciation for the gifts of the Philadelphia-bred battle rapper, who was known for his sense of humor and his lively on-stage personality.
“The MCs giving him props, they’re lyricists. They appreciate what we do because the basis of our platform is lyricism. It’s about being in a hostile situation and using your skill set to secure the victory,” said Eric Beasley, co-founder of Ultimate Rap League (URL), on a phone call with VIBE. “He expressed himself in a way that was so dynamic and original that anybody who watched him or listened to him would appreciate his contributions to the MC battle culture and helping to keep the art form alive.”
Philadelphia battle rapper Buttah From Da Block broke the news of Akhiym “Tech 9” Mickens’ death (not to be confused with Kansas City, Mo. indie phenom and Strange Music co-founder Tech N9ne) around 2:30 a.m. EST after confirming the news with Mickens’ father. His father has reportedly said that there’s no suspicion of foul play and that he died peacefully in his sleep. He was reportedly 32 years old and is survived by a daughter.
Tech 9 earned his stripes in Philly in the early 2000s, according to videographer Donnell Regusters, who shot Tech on a DVD series called Back 2 Basics Real Rap TV and remembers him building his name along with other underground Philly MCs like E. Ness, Gillie Da Kid, and Cassidy.
“Tech was one of those dudes that had bars, flows, and energy. He was making his bones spitting heat on the cameras,” Regusters told VIBE via Twitter direct message. “Those early DVD days laid the foundation for him to go on to battling and then really making a name for himself. I liked his flow and sense of humor that he used well in delivering certain lines.”
Beasley still remembers the first time he saw Tech 9 perform. He had already started buzzing in his hometown, but according to Beasley, Tech found his first real nationwide audience in September 2008 at an event called the World Series of Hip Hop, an event in partnership with URL.tv before it had grown from its SMACK DVD series. The event had notable names like Mysonne, E. Ness, Lady Luck, Murda Mook, Young Hot, and Tech 9 squared up against Harlem battler T-Rex.
What made Tech 9 different was his ability to make viewers laugh. Even though battle raps are usually nonviolent, the tone can still be on-edge. Tech integrated comedy and animated mannerisms that inspired the showmanship battlers would use in the years after him.
“Most of the time we were out on the streets, out on the corner, record stores, clothing stores. The vibe was always really intense and serious,” Beasley recalled. “To see Tech 9 command a room and make people laugh in a tense environment, was really unique. People would laugh in other people’s battles, but not the way that he had [them laughing]. … His delivery and his theatrics combined made him so entertaining to watch. He could say some of the simplest things, but the way that he moved his face and his neck and his body language and everything else, it just brings everything that he says to life.”
Some of his must-see battles include his bouts with Arsonal, Rich Dolarz, and Midwest Miles — one of Beasley’s favorites. He remembers it like it was yesterday: the battle went down at Summer Madness, which he says was the first battle rap event to truly have a massive stage. Around 1,600 people packed into Webster Hall in New York City. “The energy in that room was on a thousand,” Beasley recounted. The storyline: Midwest Miles had battled Shotgun Suge months earlier, and whoever lost would have to quit battling for a full year. Some fans thought Miles was on the losing end of the previous battle.
Tech 9 pounced on the drama early in the first round. “First of all, before we start this battle, I want to get some things clear. You said that if you lost to Shotgun Suge, that you would take off for a year. Is this motherf**ker deaf? Can this motherf**ker hear?” he asked, holding his hand behind his ear. He then repeated himself, with the crowd chanting along with him. “You said that if you lost to Shotgun Suge, that he would take off for a year.” He then stepped up to Miles, inches away from his face. “So why the f**k are you standing right here?!”
“If you watch that, it’s magic. Webster Hall just erupted. It was like no other. And then he just stood there, grilled his face up, it was a magical moment,” Beasley said. “He eloquently puts together this masterpiece of a rhyme scheme together in a way that’s just so masterful and entertaining, it drove the room crazy.”
Fans on Twitter also heavily quoted his battle against Arsonal, in a battle from the late 2000s. He had the crowd in the palm, fluctuating between harsh bravado and lighthearted jabs with perfect comedic timing, miming his actions along with his words. “You only speak when you spoken to, these ni**as is breaking the code. I guess I gotta choke a ni**a, twist his arms, break up his nose,” he raps, before stomping on the ground and folding his arms. “Stomp his a** with dress shoes, Kenneth the Cole!”
“That was probably the funniest battle ever. If you watch that you’ll be in tears,” Beasley said. “I’ll show that battle to people who don’t even watch battle rap, and they don’t even know what he’s talking about, but he’s so sincere about what he’s saying, you can’t help but be pulled in.”
“He had a perfect mix of toughness and realness, with his raspy voice and screwface delivery, and then the way he’d be cutting someone down was hilarious,” said hip-hop radio veteran and vlogger Jay Smooth. “Perfect stage presence and ‘crowd control,’ as they say in the culture.”
Along with being a pioneer as an actual battler himself (Beasley said he had another battle himself in summer 2018), Tech 9 also contributed to the culture in a different way: as a commentator. He and Jayblac hosted Champion, a YouTube show that keeps viewers up to date with the latest battle rap news. In the same way that retired athletes provide insight into the game on sports commentary shows, Tech 9 and JayBlac built a set, donned suits, and spoke about the ins and outs of the battle scene, upcoming matchups, and storylines. If he was excited about a battle, he’d famously say, “this is a microwave stopper.” If a battle wasn’t too promising? “I’m not stopping the microwave for this one.”
“He was one of the best battlers of his era, then built a whole second life as a commentator on the culture, and arguably became even more important in that role,” Jay Smooth said. “[Champion] set the standard for this whole generation of battle rap vloggers, and led the way on them becoming a vital part of the scene in their own right. Where others were basically doing vlogs, Jayblac and Tech really made a show. They set a whole different bar for polish, professionalism and dope entertaining commentary. Champion became the place to go for battlers or league owners.”
“I saw Tech’s evolution kind of like George Foreman, where in the ring he was so intimidating but as a commentator we saw this whole other cool, self-effacing side,” Jay Smooth continued. “Except I always felt like Foreman was just sorta putting that on to get paid. With Tech, it felt totally real.”
Outside of his contributions to the culture, Beasley remembers Akhiym Mickens as being just as funny off the stage, and someone who put a lot of importance in his role as a single father of a middle school-aged daughter.
“Just a real good guy at all times,” he said. “He was a great guy, a great spirit, he was an innovator, a legend and icon. He was someone who everybody respected and love, and the battle rap community is hurt by his loss.”