Baltimore rapper Height — real name Dan Keech — hails from Catonsville, where, as a teenager in 1998, he started rapping as a member of the Baltimore County rap crew Wounds, a group that spawned several of Baltimore’s most interesting rappers and producers, notably Jones and Mickey Free. Since then he has released three records under his own name, two with an expanded line-up under the name Height With Friends, and one as part of the international — one guy is from Canada — rap group Shark Tank. This St. Patrick’s Day, he is opening for the wildly popular Pittsburgh-based mash-up artist Girl Talk at Power Plant Live.
Height’s body of work could be a guide for suburban rappers from economically comfortable backgrounds on how to take rap — a genre born among the poor and working class — and use it to tell their own stories, without falling into the trap of overly self-conscious irony or disingenuous posturing. Height’s even got a song called “Catonsville.”
Over the years, as popular rap has only gotten faster, his flow has gotten slower and more restrained, focusing on sharp, intense lyrics, rather than athletic showmanship, harking back to a classic style of rap that is otherwise almost totally unrepresented in current hip-hop. To potentially confuse audiences even more, he recently added guitar, drums, and trombone to his live show.
Increasingly, as Height has been soldiering onward amid an industry that doesn’t quite know how to receive him, his songs have focused on transmuting defeat into something paradoxically empowering and cathartic. Typical is this heartbreaking lyric from the Baltimore Highlands track “Travel Rap”: “Driving back into Baltimore to lay down these final takes. / My aunt is buying the album and my uncle is fixing my brakes,” or the Bed of Seeds track “Dreams Don’t Always Come True (Do What You Have to Do).” Such philosophical melancholy is common to blues and soul music — think Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” — but rare in the rap scene.
Height’s catalogue is also an increasingly detailed map of the Baltimore area; places like Prettyboy Reservoir and Druid Park Lake frequently make their way into his lyrics, endowing Baltimore’s nooks and crannies with a kind of monumentality usually reserved for cities like New York or San Francisco.
Height recently took a moment to answer some questions about his music and what it’s like to carve out your own aesthetic space in the underground music scene.
What prompted the switch to the “with Friends” format?
I’ve been doing the HWF format since late 2008. I never liked the idea that if there’s one guy rapping, he’s the star of the show and everyone else is a hired gun you shouldn’t even consider. Almost every rap album is a team effort with a lot of interesting people coming together to make it happen, and I wanted to imply that we’re a team, and that our creative process is worth thinking about… I also hoped this would subtly encourage the people behind the scenes to step out into the forefront, without totally making a new name and implying that it’s separate from our past work.
Your songs are often specifically rooted in Baltimore, I’m thinking of tracks like “Baltimore Highlands,” “Druid Park Lake,” “Catonsville,” and others. Is this deliberate? Do you feel the songs benefit from being regional?
The songs definitely benefit from being set in a time and place. I would probably try to give the songs a location no matter where I lived, but I think Baltimore has an endless amount of interesting places and names that I like putting in songs. Baltimore has a lot of personality, in an understated kind of way.
What’s your relationship with Girl Talk? When did you two meet?
I met Girl Talk on one of my first tours in 2000, when I did a show in his parent’s backyard. It was the last show before going away to college, for his band called The Joysticks. Shark Tank has opened for him recently, but this is the first Height thing opening for him since he’s become this world-renowned act.
How often do you perform on rap bills versus other types of bills? How do you navigate between worlds?
I started doing shows in 1999, mostly playing the punk/DIY realm. This fact seems to have been swept under the rug now, but at that time rap was still totally looked at as taboo, novelty music by that crowd. We made a tiny amount of headway in that scene with the first Height album, but the general feeling was that these rock people are never going to take us for more than a lark.
In the early to mid 2000s, there was an explosion of indie hip-hop, and suddenly every single town had open mics and battle nights, etc. We started to get pushed in that direction, but we felt like aliens for wanting to tour like a punk band and do our difficult music in an environment that’s all about battling, partying, local pride, etc… We weren’t able to make much out of that scene, and that scene’s bubble burst anyway.
These days, I think scenes matter less than ever, and that the Internet is the only scene, for better or for worse.
How are you received by these different crowds? Who “gets” what HWF is doing? (I’m thinking of your emerging aesthetic — kind of equal parts Cold Crush and Link Wray.) Can kids typically process it?
Almost no one gets what we do, yet. Not to sound like a sourpuss, but the majority of people in all scenes have an extremely limited palette. Cold Crush meets Link Wray is a perfect way to describe our last album, [Bed of Seeds,] but everyone I talked to didn’t really have a frame of reference for it outside of rap-rock they’ve heard on the radio.
The sound of Height has changed drastically many times over the years, and I’ve never felt that any phase we’ve gone through has been understood. If I had picked one formula and just pushed it for the past twelve years, maybe we would be accepted by now. That said, I’m always holding on to the hope that one day we’ll be doing the right thing at the right time and it will be our turn to be ‘got’ by some mass of people.
When’s the next album due out? Who’s working on it?
The new album will be out in June. We have a few special guests, but it’s mostly me doing the instruments and rhymes, Gavin Riley and Jen Rice doing back-up vocals and Frank Yaker and Mickey Free on the mix.
Height With Friends opens for Girl Talk at Power Plant Live on March 17 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20. They will perform at the Lit Show at the Creative Alliance on March 22nd at 8 p.m. — a live talk show hosted by Jen Michalski and Betsy Boyd. Tickets are $10; $5 for members.