Game of raps 

Wormwood brings the literary to mixtape culture

Taylor McAnally, a Missoula rapper known as Wormwood, is a massive fan of "Game of Thrones." His latest album, Reconnaissance, has a track called "You Don't Want to Wake the Dragon," which begins with a sample from a scene between the chilling Viserys Targaryen and his sister, Daenerys Targaryen. "You don't want to wake the dragon, do you?" Viserys sneers. "No," Daenerys replies. "Waking the dragon," is a metaphor for rousing Viserys' anger, which is a perfect concept for any rap album that deals in braggadocio and chest-puffing. After the sample ends, McAnally busts out, "We got that gameplan take it from the lames / Distribute the wealth, no more watching thrones, observe the expanding bands / like a belt on a fat stomach / my agile shadowcat style kills obstacles, so fuckin' run it."

It's literate gangster rap from an imaginary fantasy land.

Reconnaissance is the second album in a series of mixtapes McAnally is working on. He's shooting to put out one album per month, each of which he'll post on his Bandcamp page. Last month he finished the first in the series, called Artemisia Absinthium. (That one includes a reference to "Black Lodge and killer Bob," from another television series, the cult classic "Twin Peaks.") Next month's album, No Mulligans, is with McAnally's rap group The Orators, which includes his cousin, Eddie, aka Mephistopheles, and his brother, Dave, who goes by the handle Semiotic D.

McAnally, 25, grew up in the small town of Poplar, where he wrote short stories and concocted his own comic book heroes. He wrote poetry, too.

"It was a lot more macabre and gothy back in those days," he says, laughing.

At the University of Montana he wrote short, short stories and pages of poems, all of which led him to a degree in poetry three years ago.

"I thought maybe I'd eventually write short fiction," he says.

Secretly, though, he'd been making beats on his Nintendo 3Ds and crafting rap lyrics. On the day he graduated from UM, he and his housemates threw a party at their house—weirdly enough, located on Poplar Street and dubbed the Poplar House. Late in the evening he rapped to a crowd of about 40 graduates. The performance was amateur, he admits, but the experience hooked him. "It was a rush," he says. Since then, he's mostly veered from poetry to rap.

click to enlarge Wormwood - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Wormwood

In mixtape culture, artists push out as much material as they can in a short amount of time. Sites like DatPiff get inundated with hundreds of rap songs, each with a producer and often guest rappers. The content on these sites expands daily and rappers like McAnally takes pride in not only adding to the snowball of tapes but listening to as much of it as possible.

"When I was in school I was certain I was going to write short fiction, but I don't have the stick-to-itiveness to expand an idea to 30 pages," he says. "I do have enough energy to do a lot of songs. Doing this music thing has been a creative boost for me. I can be prolific."

Still, McAnally admits that poetry, and specifically the love of language, is what has led him to his new passion. On page, rap lyrics don't always hold up without the help of ad libs and beats. They often come off as cliché at best and horribly puerile at worst. McAnally's poetry background, however, seeps into his writing. It's like what the late Montana poet Richard Hugo wrote in his book The Triggering Town—that language should conform to music. In his song "Fine Central (death styx)," for instance, the menacing mood is more Edgar Allen Poe or Emily Dickinson than anything:

"Death sticks to the roof of your mouth / nobody alive can really tell what it's about / we'll have to wait for the end no spoilers / until then remain in the dirt you toilers / death sticks to the sides of your ribs / nobody conscious could tell you exactly what this is / they exaggerate the importance of their place / as death hits then sticks to the sides of their face."

"A lot of the lyrics stem from having fun with language," he says. "I'd love to give you this deep reasoning for each song but really a lot of it is what goes along with the beat." And yet, as a rapper, he still partakes in just a little bit of bragging. "A lot of it is about being awesome," he adds.

These days if you ask him, McAnally can name a few of his favorite poets—e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Ken Koch but his string of favorite rappers is a million times longer. Flipping through his iPod he starts at the beginning of the alphabet with Antwon and into the Bs with Binary Star, Blackmarket Militia and Boldy James. The "L'ils" are seemingly endless—Lil Rob, L'il Wayne, Lil B. When it comes to hip-hop, McAnally is voracious. "I like everything. Absolutely everything. From Kanye to regional acts." But he hasn't completely dismissed poetry. Every day he tries to write a 101-word prose poem.

"Creative writing will remain a part of what I do, but not the main part," he says. "Although, who knows? Tupac published a book of poetry."

The Orators plays the Palace Sat., June 15, at 9 PM with Traff The Wiz and other hip-hop groups. Free.

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