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Tahj Kjelland in the Day of the Dead parade

Tahj Kjelland reaches out for a knuckle bump during the Festival of the Dead in 2013.

On Friday night, Tahj Kjelland will head down to the Elements board shop on the Hip Strip with his 15-year-old son Diego.

They'll hand out free copies of "Sweatshop Sneakers," Kjelland's new album, to the first 20 people through the door and then perform a set of the new tracks together.

It should be over before 7:30 p.m., which will give the spoken word and hip-hop artist a little time before he heads over the Top Hat for a CD release party with Mudslide Charley, the long-running delta blues-inspired group with whom he plays bass and shares vocal duties.

The following evening, he'll be back at the Top Hat. This time, he'll be handling half the vocal duties with Guerrilla Radio, using his tongue-twisting lyrical delivery in service of the newly formed Rage Against the Machine cover band.

By the next Friday, Kjelland, a master in social work grad who works as a peer recovery coach, will be heading to the Kicking Horse Job Corps. It's for yet another one of his projects, "Express to Speak," a Humanities Montana-assisted program. He's worked with thousands of children around the state and on Indian reservations to help them with "emotional intelligence," the ability to use language to express themselves and develop critical thinking.

He sees the diverse projects as one piece, tied together by a sense of social justice and community.

"I realize that I definitely have a plate that's full at times, and I realize that if each of them aren't feeding each other in some capacity ... then something's gotta come off the burner," said the Missoula native, whose mother was also a social worker and musician.

"What I like about everything I'm doing – social work, musicianship and 'Express to Speak' – and my spiritual path is they all feed each other," he said.

In that light, "Sweatshop Sneakers," a 14-song, 44-minute album he began conceptualizing about two years ago, could be a useful primer on his myriad activities.

He points to the album closer, "You're Not Your Pain," a story-song about young people transcending troubled social and personal circumstances, backed by a Latin rhythm, horns from the local Soul City Brass Band and piano by Ryan "Shmed" Maines, one of the producers on the album.

"'You're Not Your Pain' is a song that basically ties in to 'Express to Speak' work. People being able to tell their story," he said.

In those sessions, he helps children learn to express themselves through spoken word and hip-hop.

"You start teaching some kids spoken word, and a lot of kids feel, 'Oh I can't speak in that way. That's not my style,' " he said.

He'll respond that adhering to an elaborate rhythm isn't the point, only using their individual voice.

"You don't need to follow a particular slam poetry cadence or hip-hop cadence. The way you speak is your style, that's your energetic imprint," he said.

They can then transfer that message to other aspects of their lives, a lightbulb he can witness going off right during class.

"I can see their synapses are firing in different regions of their brain," he said.


Like the other tracks on the album, "You're Not Your Pain" was whittled down from 20-some hours of tracks that Kjelland initially recorded with live drums and his own bass playing. A Jamaican drummer, Ross Congo, was present for many of those jam sessions, contributing to a reggae feel on many tunes.

The songs on "Sweatshop" were recorded initially at the studios of Maynes, the mastermind behind local rock band Secret Powers who's worked with local hip-hop artists such as Traff. Kjelland said Maynes' musical input and keyboard skills were critical on many tracks, "You're Not Your Pain" included.

While some hip-hop artists use fully formed beats sent to them by producers, Kjelland likes to have his hand in every aspect of his productions, with an assist via cloud computing and ProTools recording software – what he called a "hodgepodge" approach.

He'd take the tracks home from Maynes' studio on a hard drive to tighten up the freestyle lyrics and overdub vocals.

"As it became more refined, I would work each particular verse at a time and make sure it was set to the feel and the flavor I wanted," said Kjelland, who long ago stopped keeping notebooks upon notebooks of rhymes. 

Then he might send them via Dropbox to his brother, Max Allyn, a producer in Los Angeles, who'd tweak and twist them and send them back to Kjelland. The process would repeat until Allyn mixed and mastered the final tracks.

Kjelland cited "Alchemy," another track featuring horns and piano, as a tune that displays how his career and music cross over.

"Time to chill, regroup and take a rest, decompress, to take another flight up out the nest," he says in a strident tone.

Its lyrical style and messages harken back to his early influences like Rakim and KRS One, while the horn section and Autotuned backing vocals help skirt the "backpacker" image that some rappers get sidled with.

"A lot of people dismiss conscious rap because they feel that it proselytizes too much, and I don't feel that I proselytize. I might, but how can we not speak about what's going on right now?" he asked. "I'm so tired of hearing about the material. Anything in pop culture anymore is just so surrounding the egoic material consumption of humanity, and it's just so old," he said.

And the lyrics themselves aren't far removed from the methods he tries to impart on students.

"Sometimes the tunes that I'm doing, I'm reiterating things to myself. And then I say them over and over and over in performance, and so I'm training my own brain. I think," he said with a laugh.

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