Focus: Devin Dabney Interview

Focus: Devin Dabney Interview
_The album cover for Dabney's newest release, Tape_._CLIMB_._PerfectRepeat (B_-_Side).jpg

Devin Dabney is busy. In addition to route-setting and periodically helping to coach the youth climbing teams at Indianapolis’ Hoosier Heights, he gives private lessons to gym patrons and is hard at work on a training book. He also loves to MoonBoard—so much so that he regularly takes over Hoosier Heights’ Instagram page for a popular campaign labeled #moonboardmondays. But it all coalesces into a larger personal objective for Dabney, which is to get people—young or old, novice or long-time dirtbag—increasingly stoked on climbing. And the aim is not confined to the indoors. Dabney makes frequent trips to Red River Gorge, the hotspot that first got him hooked on the sport years ago, and recently returned from bouldering in Fontainebleau. 

Yet climbing is only part of Dabney’s story; much of the praise and interest he receives—from fans, from fellow climbers—revolves more so around his music. Dabney is a hip-hop artist in the truest sense: He creates beats, he samples tracks, he writes lyrics, and most importantly, he crafts a wholly unique persona through his songs. The fact that so much of that identity—and lyrical content—actually has to do with climbing means that Dabney authentically unites niches that rarely come together so overtly. Consider that his most recent album, a mixtape collection of “B-Sides” titled, Tape.CLIMB.Perfect.Repeat, contains track titles like, Boulders on the Boards and Damn, It Feels Good To Be a Climber. The mixtape’s cover art features a pair of hands, ragged in their post-send throb, calloused and coated in chalk. Amid all the climbing anecdotes, the ubiquitous swagger of hip-hop is always paramount in Dabney’s tunes: “We actin’ so reckless, sends on a checklist, a chain of Neutrinos—my Black Diamond necklace,” he raps on V4

In fact, it’s challenging to accurately define Dabney’s music for those who might be unfamiliar with his work. He cites Drake and Kanye West as key influences, and parallels can certainly be heard. But neither Drake nor West have ever toted such hefty toolboxes of monothematic references the way Dabney does with climbing. How, then, should one describe Dabney’s lyrics? Well, imagine RZA referencing boulders and beta instead of swords and samurais. Maybe? Or think of Eminem being fixated on climbing gear instead of family drama. Maybe?

Admittedly, such iffy comparisons don’t do justice to the uniqueness of Dabney’s work. It’s better just to say that he’s carving out a thing that is entirely his own. And that’s what makes his craft so damn compelling.

You’ve said previously that you truly fell in love with climbing upon traveling to Red River Gorge. What was it about climbing, and that specific place, that hooked you? 

Ultimately, I think there were several major reasons. For one, sport climbing outside helped me experience this amazing emotional balance between confidence and fear, between pure adrenaline and pure calm. I had discovered a sport that challenged me in ways no other sport had before, or ever could really. Another thing that drew me to it was how fun it was, even though so much can (and does) go wrong. In addition to the constant failing I was experiencing before coming outside, some would call my first trip outside a disaster—especially for a new climber. It rained a lot, we got miserably lost on an approach for hours, we hangdogged a lot of miserably hard things, and we did some pretty sketchy/scary things that I won’t go into detail over. That all being said, it was a freaking blast, and I loved every minute of it. I couldn’t wait to get outside again. Also, I still have yet to find something that matches the feeling of being atop a sport route, cleaning off gear while listening to the birds chirp and admiring the scenery.

Do you consider yourself to be a climber first, and then an artist? Or is it the other way around? 

That’s a tough question. Honestly, my first reaction is to say I’m an artist first because I’ve been an artist in some capacity for as long as I can remember. However, rock climbing is less of a hobby for me and more of a lifestyle. My job is in the climbing industry, my free time is spent climbing, and as of recently, my other most important passion—music—has revolved around climbing. The creative energy that fuels my drive to make music is the same thing that fuels my drive to climb, so as a result, those ideas are pretty much inseparable. I guess if I were hanging with a group of climbers, I would identify as a climber who is an artist, but if I were hanging with artists, I’d call myself an artist who is a climber—so I guess that means my real answer is "neither". I’m a climber first and an artist first.

Tell me the story of when you first realized you could blend your love of hip-hop with your love of climbing. 

That was when I consciously decided to make the first mixtape—Tape.CLIMB.Repeatbut there was a lot leading up to that point. At that time, I was very disillusioned with hip-hop. Ever since I started rapping in my pre-teens, I wanted nothing more than to be the person who changed hip-hop for the better, being inspired by a hip-hop world that (at the time) worshipped unskilled gangster rappers and looked down upon the likes of Kanye West, who was my favorite rapper after he dropped his debut album. But I sadly realized that in this current age of hip-hop, my goal was an obsolete one, so I had actually stopped making music for a couple of years.

In the meantime, I was getting more into climbing—particularly route-setting—and while setting, our crew would jokingly make climbing-related lyrics to rap songs, and they knew I was a rapper, so they would always coax me to make them into real songs. So one night, I finally made a rough draft of one of the songs—good crimps, m.A.A.d. techy—which inspired me to make drafts of Dirt Off Your Boulder and one or two more songs, and I would sometimes show them to my climbing friends. My friends lost it over those songs! They kept telling me I had to make a mixtape, and I don’t think I started making it until about two years after that, and that was because I had so many ideas come from the same evolution of joking around with friends and coworkers.

Almost every song on that first project were results of good-spirited fun amongst friends and positive energy, which is why Tape.CLIMB.Repeat is so special to me—and the fact that I was having so much fun doing raps about climbing (as opposed to banging my head against the wall trying to save hip-hop) is what made the thought click that I should keep doing this "climber rap" thing for a while.

Photo: Brody Sipos

Photo: Brody Sipos

One of your new tracks, No [Boulder] Problem, features Kris "Odub" Hampton (currently the host of The Power Company podcast). He has also found success populating his hip-hop with climbing content over the years. Would you mind telling me how you first met Kris, and whether your journey of navigating the waters of climbing and hip-hop has been aided by him at all?

Absolutely! My first time meeting Kris Hampton wasn’t one of my brighter moments because I didn’t even recognize him. I knew who he was because some climber friends had shown me his music when I first started working at Hoosier Heights, but I had never seen his face before. He came to the gym to do an Evolv demo, and I did end up talking to him, but it wasn’t until after I first met him that I realized who he was. I felt ridiculous, but I did end up getting his email, and I kept corresponding with him, which is how I learned about all of the other amazing stuff he’s done in his career. Needless to say, he is my biggest professional inspiration, and my dream career in rock climbing would be really similar to what he does now; personal training, interviewing pros and climbing experts, doing clinics and demos around the country, working with USAC, being a rapper, the list goes on!

I want to show people that you can be confident in yourself, while still being humble and open to learning from others. But most importantly, I want to show people that it’s okay to unapologetically be who you are, no matter how weird that is. And we all know how weird rock climbers are.

In addition to showing me that I wasn’t alone in the climbing hip-hop world, Kris has undoubtedly been a mentor to me, and is one of the people I look to when I need help with something climbing-related or music-related. And since those are my two biggest passions in life, he’s definitely a pretty big deal to me. I’m honored to know him and be able to have him work with me on my projects.

Walk me through the process of writing a new song. How does it get from an idea, or just a concept, to the end recording? 

Most of my songs come from overarching concepts. I’m very much a "big-picture" kind of artist, so I rarely come up with individual songs. I usually create an album idea, then a hypothetical track list with concepts for each track, and then try to zoom in on the details more and more to get the song ideas, lyrics, and so on. I also have a huge notebook full of clever lines, cool rhyme schemes, song ideas or punch lines that I sometimes pull from. Occasionally, I get lucky with a massive wave of inspiration, and certain songs/beats will practically write themselves; sadly, that never happens when I want it to.

The timetable for how long they take depends on a lot; how complex the song is, how much production I need to do, how many takes I need to get my vocals right, etc. To give you a frame of reference, some songs on the B-Side mixtape took me several days from start to finish, whereas some songs only took me an hour. It’s relatively unpredictable.

Photo: Angie Brown

Photo: Angie Brown

How has your sound and style evolved over the years? Particularly, how are the new B-Sides different from, say, the original Tape.CLIMB.Repeat tunes? 

I think I’ve changed a lot over the entirety of my time making music. I’ve shifted from trying to make music that proved I was the best technical (and clever) rapper out there to being more of a storyteller, though I still like chances to flex my rapping skills. Though, in terms of climbing rap, I think it’s the opposite; originally, I was just telling stories about myself and the lifestyle I lead. But as my music progresses, I think I’m aiming to create songs made for people in certain scenarios, or to elicit certain feelings—things like confidence, focus, frustration, love, etc. I also think that by doing these mixtapes, my rapping style has changed significantly, as I’ve learned a lot from parodying raps of many styles, tempos and moods. It definitely has made me feel like I’ve improved at what I do.

In a number of your songs, there’s a very obvious degree of swagger (“My beta’s right…my way’s the best…” from Boulders on the Boards etc). Frankly, I find it refreshing to hear that kind of self-assuredness related to climbing—because climbers so often psyche themselves out too much. So often they say stuff like, “This problem looks too hard,” or “This route is above my grade.” So, a question arises:Aare climbers—as a whole—too humble? Does climbing need more swagger?  

That’s one of my favorite topics to talk about in climbing! In general, yes—I believe that far too many climbers don’t see their own potential, and could certainly use more confidence. I’ve especially seen this during my time as a climbing instructor, where almost everyone that I’ve worked with is much better at climbing than they think, or in some cases, better than they allow themselves to be. We’re in an era where we’re constantly bombarded with news of the latest groundbreaking send, some badass death-defying expedition, or the championing of some high-powered competition. So when you pair all of that with expectations, ego and friends to compare ourselves to, I think it’s really hard to see our own potential. For me, I think it’s much easier to believe that I’m weaker than I really am because it makes me less accountable when I don’t achieve my goals, and I think that’s partly why in my music, I exude a ridiculous amount of confidence—in the hopes that it will translate into my personal life. I’m basically trying to rap my swagger into existence. 

All that being said, there are certainly quite a few people in climbing I’ve come across who do not need more swagger because they have far too much.

As an artist, you have an automatic degree of influence. Your content is getting downloaded and listened to by climbers all over the country, most of whom you’ve never met. Is there something, in particular, that you hope people take from your music?   

I want nothing more than for my music to positively impact people, climbers specifically in this case. I want to encourage them to live life fully, and to find all of the great things in climbing that I’ve been lucky to find; things like strong friendships, a passion that connects you with the world, and a strong community that will embrace you wherever you find it. I want to show people that you can be confident in yourself, while still being humble and open to learning from others. But most importantly, I want to show people that it’s okay to unapologetically be who you are, no matter how weird that is. And we all know how weird rock climbers are.

You can find all of Dabney’s music here.

You can follow Dabney on Instagram here.


A writer, traveler, and professor. He is the author of a book, Why We Climb: A Dirtbag’s Quest for Vertical Reason