ATLANTA -- On a phone call from jail last year, Lil Wayne told a radio show about one of the first rappers he wanted to collaborate with once he got free.
It wasn't a reigning chart-topper like Jay-Z or Kanye West. Instead, Lil Wayne blurted out the name Tech N9ne.
The Kansas City, Mo.-based rapper had steadily built a strong grass-roots fan base since releasing his first album in 1999. But Lil Wayne's name-drop breathed new life into his career.
"I had no idea that he knew of me," recalled Tech N9ne, who eventually met Lil Wayne while the best-selling rapper was serving his eight-month sentence in New York. He said the pair held a conversation for almost three hours before the warden stopped them.
After Lil Wayne's radio shout-out, Tech N9ne said he had an influx of artists and producers who reached out to work with him.
"It made everybody start to pay attention to me," he said. "It made people see what I was doing. Wayne is one of the greatest rappers of our time, so he gave one hell of a boost."
It showed in Tech N9ne's numbers. His 12th album, "All 6's And 7's," which was released in June, debuted at No. 4 on Billboard's Top 200 and topped the rap charts -- a major achievement for an independent artist. It features that collaboration with Lil Wayne, and he may appear on Wayne's much anticipated "Tha Carter IV."
For Tech N9ne, it's been a long journey. His popularity grew in the underground music scene due to his rapid-fire style and lyrical rhyme patterns. He became known for his theatrical and extremely high-energy performances. In concerts, he normally sports his signature red spiked hair and white face paint.
The 39-year-old Tech N9ne, who is also co-founder of his label Strange Music, carved a niche in the independent market with his heavy touring schedule, performing almost 200 times per year.
But for much of his career, Tech N9ne has struggled to crossover into mainstream because of his morbid lyrics and gothic-sounding beats. His music was dark enough that there were rumors about him being a devil worshipper -- an accusation he denies (he says he's been a believer of Christianity all his life).
People who have gotten to know Tech N9ne call him a "normal guy" with an abundance of musical creativity.
"There's a large amount of respect for Tech," says Kenny "Barto" Bartolomei of the production trio group J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, which produced two songs on Tech N9ne's recent album. "It's hard to do for so many years without the help of a major label, but he's stayed creative. That speaks volumes. Now, people are seeing the true talent that he is."
While Tech N9ne is currently experiencing the most success of his career, some of his faithful followers on blogs questioned whether he should have worked with Lil Wayne. Critics were also skeptical about recent collaborations with other artists like B.o.B., T-Pain and Snoop Dogg, worried he might alter his approach to cater to the mainstream audience.
But Tech N9ne says he'll never change to please others.
"I'm an innovator, not a follower," he said. "I was never in this to do what everybody else does to get money. It's a better feeling to do what you feel to make money. I will never conform to the way of anybody else. It's the reason I haven't broken through. ... But I wouldn't change this journey for nothing."