T-Pain sings about strippers and partying, so you'll have to excuse him for keeping it real: Last night, for his 26th birthday, his wife rented out a strip club in Baltimore and heads didn't hit tour-bus pillows until probably 6 a.m. Now it's 3 p.m. the next day and a dead-eyed T-Pain is slouched in a hotel room on Long Island, New York, wearing all black, holding his new toy microphone called I Am T-Pain.
Then he accidentally hits the try me button.
"Hey, this ya homeboy T-Pain!" a recorded T-Pain shouts from the plastic. The real T-Pain winces; it's too early for this. Recorded T-Pain cheerfully plows on, now in a bouncy, digitized voice, teasing the $40 toy's payoff: "Ssiiingg like a prooo..."
The computer voice: It's more familiar than T-Pain's real one.
"People expect me to sound different when I'm just speaking," real T-Pain mumbles. "It's a gift and a curse, you know? But, hey, we're making money off it now, so it's more of a gift than a curse. It's my gift."
And for the first time that afternoon, he laughs.
In the beginning, which was 1997, there was Auto-Tune. It is pitch-correction software—you sing B-flat when you meant to sing in B and the program fixes your mess. But if you crank the correction for many octaves past its purpose, like making a copy of a copy of a copy, your voice distorts into a funked-up robot. You are humanish.
Cher's "Believe" used the trick in 1998, earning it the name the "Cher effect." T-Pain followed in 2005—an unknown rapper with a thing for top hats, who Auto-Tuned so consistently and colorfully that by 2009 he had three platinum records and had unseated Cher in Auto-Tune lexicon.
But by then, Auto-Tune had become commonplace in hip-hop.
"We were like, what the hell do we do? Do we tell Pain, 'Don't use Auto-Tune anymore?'" says his manager, Michael Blumstein of Chase Entertainment. (Note: When you're on a first-name basis with T-Pain, just call him Pain.) But no. The man had found a niche, an identity. "It just got to a point where, from a business standpoint, you've got to capitalize on it. It's sitting right there in front of you."
T-Pain couldn't actually profit off of Auto-Tune—it's made by a firm called Antares Audio Technologies—so Blumstein needed something else. First thought: a keychain with T-Pain's signature Auto-Tuned sayings—which would have killed if, you know, T-Pain was rolling with DJ Jazzy Jeff in 1989. Then Blumstein's chief marketing officer, Dan Roof, modernized the idea.
In 2009, they released "I Am T-Pain," an app that Auto-Tunes users' voices. More than 2 million sold at $3 apiece, earning T-Pain and Antares (who licensed the software for the app) a nice bit of change.
This made T-Pain very happy, because hip-hop is much like any other business: You might be a Kanye or a Jay-Z, and sell and sell and sell, but without a diverse revenue stream you're a Plies or Young Jeezy, maybe around long enough to rent out your first strip club. "Music isn't going to last forever," T-Pain says, "so you start thinking of other things to do. You broaden everything out, and you make sure your brand can stay what it is without having to depend on music. It's making sure I have longevity."
Before the app, it wasn't clear how to do that—to separate the musician from the music, to find its core, the Platonic ideal of T-Pain. Sure, fans could grow dreadlocks. Or wear a silly hat. Or earn millions and then spend some ludicrous amount of it on a big-ass chain with a pendant that says big-ass chain. T-Pain's done all of that, but still, none of it screams T-Pain.
Know what does? Sounding like T-Pain. Which is why, this holiday season, as he pushes his new album rEVOLVEr, he's also hawking a toy microphone inspired by the app.
But here's the great trick of it: Yes, yes, singers use Auto-Tune with their own style, but generally speaking, T-Pain doesn't sound like T-Pain. He sounds like pitch-correction software, which means he sounds like anyone who has used pitch-correction software. Which means he sounds like Cher. So when T-Pain invites you to sound like him, he's really telling you to sound like everyone, and by sounding like everyone you will sound like him. Which is quite a feat of marketing.
Still, T-Pain felt like his success was free advertising for Antares. The way he tells it, he wanted a formal bond—maybe a preprogrammed "T-Pain effect"—but Antares rebuffed him. Actually, the way he tells it is: "People are dicks, man." Antares doesn't concur: "Neither T-Pain nor his team have ever approached us with this request or any similar request," says CFO and COO Georganna Drayton.
Either way, a rivalry was seeded.
In June, T-Pain announced that he'd left Auto-Tune—and now uses the T-Pain Effect, software he developed with a company called iZotope, on sale for $99. "If you can't buy candy from the candy store, you have to learn to make candy," T-Pain says.
This led to warnings from both sides—no Auto-Tune references in T-Pain Effect marketing, and vice versa—and then a lawsuit. Team Pain filed it, claiming Auto-Tune improperly used T-Pain's name. Antares denies this. The suit is pending.
This isn't what T-Pain's guys planned, but they've embraced it: Now T-Pain owns his voice. He can market it as his own, sell it, outlive his albums—and so the team is planning more toys and software, turning a singer into a branded sound. "The way I think about it," Roof says, "there's echo, reverb, certain definitive sounds in music production. That's like the T-Pain Effect—a vocal effect."
But by now the term Auto-Tune has become a catchall verb, like Photoshopping. So T-Pain's task is to change the lexicon one more time, to own it outright. "I drop the software off to every studio I go to," he says. "I know Wayne's using it. Kanye's using it. Drake thought about it. There's a lot of people, man. I love it. I love it. It's all-out war."
More Fun Than iTunes
A version of this article appeared in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.