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NICKELL’S BAG: Rapping it how he sees it - Missoula MC Traff the Wiz fills lyrics with references to life in Big Sky Country

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entmug Joe Nickell

In the video for his song, "Tellin' Me I'm Crazy," Missoula rapper Brian O'Neill - known on local stages as Traff the Wiz - wanders the streets and surrounding hills of this town he calls home, spitting tongue-twisting rhymes with a soft-pitch delivery.

"I keep it real for the people in the streets and I / Keep it real for the reason that defeats me and I / Wish I had a rabbit in a hat / So I could switch the planet back to a time when it was flat," he grooves in the song's chorus, adding finally, "But I can't."

Maybe he can't reverse time, but O'Neill, a 24-year-old native of Troy, nimbly flips the formula that has tripped up many MCs from MT. Throughout his debut, self-released and mostly self-produced album, "Revenge of the Spliff," O'Neill calls out to the people and places he knows as the music flows around him.

It all rolls along mercifully free of the gangsta posturing and hater-bashing (not to mention the canned beats and cheesy synthesizers) that have typified many Montana-made rap albums over the years.

"To me, rap should be a representation of where you come from," said O'Neill in an interview earlier this week. "Lots of MCs around here are talking about things that they don't do in their daily lives, and it just doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

That's not to say that O'Neill doesn't occasionally drift toward puffery. On the album's fourth track, "Perseus," a sparse keyboard riff blooms into a pseudo-orchestral groove that tumbles forward as he rhymes about heroism in a world of limp ramen and bad rap.

But just when it seems that O'Neill is about to take himself too seriously, he swaps out punches for punchlines:

"Spawned by my mom at St. John's hospital / Giving birth to me was almost impossible / An eight pound eight ounce big-headed obstacle / ‘We need to do an MC section' said the doctor."

Whatever the message of his individual songs, Montana is always there as the backdrop, namedropped here and there alongside references to camping, W.R. Grace, and other familiar signposts of this place.

"I'm trying to make hip-hop that's relatable to people in Montana, and keep a positive message there," said O'Neill. "I want Montana to be recognized in the hip-hop genre for what it is, rather than for music that sounds like it's from someplace else."

Since releasing his debut last January (and actually dating back before that), O'Neill has been working on a second record with local producer and keyboardist Shmed Maynes. Featuring a cast of live instrumentalists, the new tracks fall even closer in line with O'Neill's ultimate musical aims, he said.

"I feel like live hip-hop with a band is much more interesting than just an MC with pre-recorded tracks," he said. "I think that will really bring the whole thing together."

As he continues to work on the new album, O'Neill will detour to the stage next Monday, Dec. 20, for a gig at the Palace Lounge alongside fellow locals Encrypted & UA. The show is free.

Nickell's Bag is a column and a blog. Weigh in at NickellBag.com.

 

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