Ryan O’Donnell has hosted platinum rap and hip hop artists at his Missoula recording studio and recently produced an album for local artist Ambedext.
Photo by Chad Harder
The way Ryan O’Donnell tells it, Walker Byrd was a good-natured Helena kid. They were friends since late elementary school and O’Donnell remembers Byrd sitting in his car, rattling off the names of the rap artists booming on the stereo.
“We called him ‘Buzzard’ growing up ’cause he did this bird thing,” O’Donnell says, flapping his arms.
O’Donnell admired Byrd’s love of music and found inspiration in it. When Byrd was gunned down in his mother’s backyard on Jan. 6, 2000, O’Donnell knew what he had to name his new recording studio: Buzz Records.
“The name came perfect,” O’Donnell says. “And I’m still convinced that we’re getting where we are today because he’s working with us.”
In the last few years, Buzz Records has recorded with a growing string of platinum rap and hip hop artists, capitalizing on the musicians’ tour stops through Missoula. Producer Brandon Zimmer says out of town talent have all rolled up expecting a low-budget home studio, and their surprise is always visibly apparent.
“They seem humbled a little bit,” Zimmer says.
The catalyst for Buzz Records’ success is Missoula rapper Matthew Cullen, aka Ambedext. A studio friend and regular, Cullen drew the attention of Wu Tang Clan several years ago during a freestyle rap session at the former Missoula club, the Blue Heron. For Cullen’s latest album, The Dex Files, Cullen and the studio crew gathered an A-list of guest artists and enlisted the services of recording industry experts.
While kicking it in the cozy but hi-tech Idaho Street basement Buzz Records calls home, the trio agrees that networking was key. DJ Chill, a Portland acquaintance of O’Donnell’s, put the studio in touch with West Coast rap phenom Spice 1. The resulting Spice 1 concert in Missoula and subsequent recording session at Buzz Records opened doors for the group. Spice 1 recorded a track with Cullen for The Dex Files, and called fellow SoCal rapper C-Bo from the studio to see if he, too, could contribute to the recording.
“When the opportunity’s here, you have to go right now,” Cullen says.
And they did.
Hours after the call, Cullen, O’Donnell and Zimmer were cruising to L.A. in a rental car on an invitation from C-Bo to a CD release party. There they met other established artists who would wind up appearing on Cullen’s album and arranged for C-Bo to visit Missoula for recording.
“This is five-on-five, full-court NBA shit,” Cullen says of The Dex Files.
The snowball effect continued, as the trio gathered personalities like Grammy-winning sound mixer Tom Soares and mastering engineer David Kutch. O’Donnell trekked to New York to oversee work on Cullen’s album, and learned a good deal more about recording alongside Soares at Barbershop Studios.
On Nov. 14, Spice 1 and DJ Chill will rejoin Cullen at The Other Side as part of DJ Chill’s Talking Bad Tour.
O’Donnell and the rest are already a long way from humble beginnings. O’Donnell started the studio in 1997, moved the operation to Missoula in 1999 and renamed it for Byrd by March 2000. Judging from the photos covering the walls of O’Donnell’s studio/home—him standing beside industry legends like Phil Ramone and Les Paul—O’Donnell never breaks from his rap attitude for a smile.
In 10 years, Buzz Records has gone from a simple 8-track Roland digital recorder to a pricey collection of synthesizers and soundboards. Every sound is recorded in high-definition, compatible with professional industry formats.
“My intention when I make music is to make good music,” Zimmer says. “If you build a good frame, someone’s going to live in the house.”
O’Donnell and Zimmer credit their meeting to Byrd’s spirit. The two met at former Jay’s Upstairs, and O’Donnell asked Zimmer if his band, Sunder, would like to record at the studio.
“I think Buzz was looking out for that to happen,” Zimmer says.
Zimmer, too, has worked to better himself musically. He’s been drumming since the mid-’90s with jazz groups and rock bands, but developed an interest in music theory when he picked up keyboard about five years ago. He’s played with Huey Lewis and hobnobs with Missoula acts like Eden Atwood. The excitement in his voice as he talks about music is as catching as laughter.
“The practice of sound isn’t a tangible thing,” Zimmer says. “It’s in the air … it’s a concept.”
But rubbing elbows with the pros didn’t come as easily as all that, O’Donnell says.
“Coming from here [Montana], it’s hard,” he says. “And being white, I’m not going to lie.”
The group says color has definitely been an issue. At early shows in Portland, for instance, the three saw Cullen’s status as an artist challenged by black rappers from rougher backgrounds.
Cullen, who grew up in Maine and Massachusetts and first started rapping in Boston, worked through those days and now feels race has little to do with the music.
“It’s not a racial barrier anymore,” Cullen says.
With the connections they’ve made recording The Dex Files, the group says the future looks good for Buzz Records. They continue to cut albums with a diverse collection of artists, from local metal bands to mothers hoping to capture their child’s piano music in hi-def. But with more platinum artists coming and going, maybe O’Donnell won’t have to max out any more credit cards buying equipment.
“It’s been a long road,” O’Donnell says, “but I can’t see it not continuously, full-force rocking.”
Spice1, Ambedext, Young Jay, Koscher and World Famous DJ Chill perform at The Other Side Friday, Nov. 14, at 8 PM. $10.