It’s around dinner time as I sit down with Dan Keech, also known as Height, a Baltimore rapper who’s played every basement, community center, legion hall, and comic book store between here and Santa Monica for the better part of the last 20 years. We ordered a couple pizzas and drinks while waxing nostalgic about the many weird shows we’ve played together.
Well over a decade ago, I joined Height for a full U.S. tour. One night we’re at The Spazz in Greenville, North Carolina, setting up to play in a rowhouse-size living room covered in bugs and broken glass while Johnny from Death Set wails on a busted SM57 in midair clinging to a tenuous chandelier. The next night, we’re at a sports bar in South Carolina, competing with blaring TV sets showing Nascar races and football games right above our heads while bored customers look past us to catch the score.
There were times where the whole thing just felt like one big ego-death-crawl through hell.
I remember one house show we did in Little Rock where a dude literally tried fighting the entire audience until he fell off the porch into a giant Rubbermaid garbage can, yelling “my brother’s on the way, and he’s worse than me!”
The other crazy thing I remember is how Height would insist on taking the floor at whatever strange hotel room we stayed at. We’d all plead: “Height take a bed. You’ve been driving all day, man.” He would plop right down on the ground between the beds and pass out. I never saw him take a sip of anything or a puff of anything for that matter. Height saw me steal a doughnut once and asked: “Hey, did you pay for that?” I said, embarassed, “No.” He politely said “I feel like it’s a bad look.” I immediately went back into Kroger and paid for my doughnut. As we rolled across the country, I deeply pondered how one could get up and do this every day with only the assistance of Pilot Coffee that tastes like burnt popcorn mixed with dish soap, Height’s drink of choice.
As we eagerly await our pizza, Height reminisces about the late ’90s and his Baltimore rap group Wounds, a threesome including friend and collaborator “Jones,” and Bob Sherin.
“We used to play at this place called Sushi Cafe. I have no idea why. It was a grimey spot on Frederick Road in West Baltimore.” On talking of an average show there he adds, “It would be us and three grindcore bands.”
As a chatty group of friends walks by, excitedly pondering which toppings they’ll get, Height and I talk about the complexities of race and rap. After gazing off in contemplation amidst the sounds of homogenized car stereos beating under air conditioned glass, Height raises his head.
“With rap, and white rappers in particular, you might not be self conscious as a performer, but the audience is self conscious. Like ‘oh boy what’s he gonna do?’” He chuckles. “There was something cool with those early shows about just barreling through. We used to do shows that were almost like performance art style. We’d be going so crazy that you would forget that it was even rap, or that we were white. I felt like in my mind that it was almost like a strong stance that ‘we’re not afraid of what you think of this at all.’ The audience’s worst idea of what it could be is so much worse than what it probably is. It’s like a fear of their own secondhand embarrassment.”
The first time I saw Height perform was with Baltimore rapper, comedian, and my former Golden West coworker, Mickey Freeland. They were there with my homie Dan Deacon in Buffalo, New York at a joint called The Sound Lab back in 2005. Including myself, a couple friends, the sound guy, and two dudes with glow sticks, the audience maxed out at about seven or eight people, counting one guy who just chain smoked at the front door who may or may not have been the doorman.
Height, at that time, looked like Tony Soprano’s bodyguard. He was an imposing fellow with a shaved head, as opposed to his more standard hippy shoulder length look we’ve all come to know him by. On the merch table he had a CD provocatively titled “I Have A Gun” (which he does not, in case you are wondering). At first I thought to myself what kind of hooligans has Dan fallen in with here?
My only time seeing Dan before that was at Suny Purchase, where I went to school for one semester until an incident with a broken box fan and an aggressive State Trooper. At Purchase Dan played a food co-op to me and five other people who were mostly watching because they had been walking by and heard some crazy s*** going down. However, after watching Dan work around 20 technical mishaps, joking “I’m literally singing along to a CD player,” and seeing Height and Mickey lay down sincere, heartfelt, and tastefully self-deprecating performances, I knew where my next ZIP code would be.
As for rap, my only experience at that point was the vague pastiche of copied CDs I’d accumulated with artists like Big L, every Wu Tang album, Del the Funky Homosapien, and Method Man and Redman’s indica-scented masterpiece Blackout. I gave Eminem a listen too and was impressed by how he utilized influences like Tupac in an innovative way that didn’t feel like he was straight up lifting the sound but rather folding it into the sonic batter of his own story in a classy, non-appropriating way that indicated a certain level of respect for the genre that you don’t get with some other white artists.
Height remains of this same elk and you can hear a Spartan approach in his delivery style, which harkens back to an even earlier era of rap. Think one part Run DMC meets Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill,” with a dollop of Jethro Tull jamming at the other end of the room. He will diverge from these primary foundations from time to time though, like on 2020’s very Prince Paul-sounding “Depressing Disco Dance,” which he performs with rapper Ardamus; or 2017’s “Gold Rush,” which sounds like he’s being accompanied by Squeeze and a Roland 808.
“Make Your Own Light,” which he released earlier this year, continues on the more rocky, flanged-out side of things, with deep existential reflections on the dark passage of these past two years where Height experienced the loss of multiple loved ones in a very short span of time.
He reflects with noticeable weight in his tone while sipping a soda.
“In the past couple of years I’ve had six people die who were pretty close to me.”
The waiter brings out my rather small personal pizza, which I thought would be way bigger. For seven bucks you really can’t whine, though of course I do. Height begins working on his much larger pizza as he hits upon a realization.
“When I look back on past albums, I would open up emotionally but I didn’t really have anything bad going on. With talking about death, it’s a little more heavy when it’s not just in your mind.’
I nod slowly at the painful truth of this, which became quite evident to both of us who mutually experienced the great loss of Baltimore drumming legend Kevin O’Meara in 2020. On the song named after Kevin on “Make Your Own Light,” Height captures the essence of this loss quite succinctly with some lines that admittingly hit the heart strings as they conjure Kevin’s spirit so poignantly. The track thumps into life with distant train-like sound bites, honking distorted guitar loops, and primal drum kicks. Height sings “No drinks on the bass amp suckers,” which immediately makes anyone who knew Kevin chuckle as he was not one to mince words when you messed with his stuff.
I was hosting a Whartscape one year and I tapped on Kevin’s snare for a second to get the attention of stoners and art school kids who were mostly swigging something or other in one hand and ashing an American Spirit on the floor with the other. Kevin came over as I was mid sentence, yelling to me over the packed audience and smoke, “Don’t f***ing touch my s***!”
He later gave that warm O’Meara smile and apologized.
“You’re all the possibilities in the warehouse every night,” Height sings later in the song, a line that Kevin would have loved. Kevin never did anything for kudos. He made art as a humble contributor to a larger conversation, a spirit which Height nails so well with the line “You would’ve been a monk in the old world.”
We touched on the broader subject of the inherent instability that one tacitly agrees to when making the decision to be a road dog, a life that has its ups and downs. While crunching into another slice, Height posits, “Most people our age are generally in a more secure position by this time compared to someone who’s just in a band, and I think that lends itself to your personal life getting out of control. I feel like we all do it because we love it, so like whether you end up having a sports car or with 10 teeth missing, we’re all in it either way. It’s like you have no idea what’s gonna happen until you do it.”
The cover of Heights new album was designed by Wham City alum and mutual friend Ben Furgal, who now lives in Philadelphia. It is a clever mock-up shot of Height looking a bit like the character who graces Black Sabbath’s album “Paranoid,” with Height holding a sword in the dark while rocking a black leather jacket and bandana. It is striking yet tongue-in-cheek, which really encapsulates Height’s vibe.
He laughs, recalling an adventure from his time touring Russia with some other folks where they were turned around before even getting to play the gig. At the border, they had to really think on their feet as things turned a bit hairy.
“We couldn’t even get a stamp saying that we were let in ‘cause the border guard was just a drunk dude in a chair and our promoter was like ‘If you try to leave out the other border without being processed in, they’re gonna be like pay us $500 to leave.’ We were advised to leave Belarus the same way we came, rather than play the show and leave through the western border to get to the next show with no paperwork.”
“Annihilation Twice,” another standout track on “Make Your Own Light,” finds Height veering into the political as he floats between patches of Chicago Blues looped over random siren jabs that feel a bit Ziggy Stardust ala “Five Years,” with lines like “Send us all $10,000 before this water starts to rise,” and “There’s nothing built into the program to keep these howling wolves at bay.” This conjures the neurotic newsflash culture of the past two years as our country traversed hardship and madness amidst a vague fog of anxiety that still hangs over us as we approach midterm elections. Yet Height’s stripped down approach allows each of us to fill in those blanks with our own Mad Libs, if you will.
As we mutually hit our pizza breaking points (Height was nice enough to share some of his), we talk about his surprising departure from Baltimore to the Bronx, where his partner is already living due to some recent family events which necessitated their move from Charm City to the Big Apple. Height finds himself coming to grips with prefixed notions he had early on when he was surrounded by a burgeoning Baltimore indie rock scene that seemed to reward those bold enough to put in the time on the road. He looks down into what remains of his soda, speaking in a reflective tone.
“I did reach a point where I was trying to establish myself locally as Height for 22 years. I did my first solo album, and shows in 2000.” He chuckles a bit. “At some point I thought maybe I’m just barking up the wrong tree and my original vision of what I thought was going to happen needs to adjust”.
As the waiter brings our to-go boxes and I kill the last drop of Pepsi (they didn’t have Coke), Height talks of finding himself home alone in the throes of self-analysis for a good part of these past two years while his partner was away in the Bronx tending to family matters. He came upon some deeper realizations.
“It’s funny I never wanted to move to another place. Like I love touring, but I never felt like I needed one more day in Portland. Anywhere we were, I always felt happy to leave and go to the next place. With these last couple of years, and nothing happening, and being in the house by myself, and not doing anything as far as shows, I thought alright, I think a change would be really cool.”
I ask Height what his 90-year-old self will look back and remember from these past 20-some years? He says after a long pause, “The idea of being a part of culture at all is just crazy, especially like pre-internet, like in the old era of D.I.Y. spaces. That time just seemed like it would last forever, but then it’s just gone. There’s just something about that feeling of you’re there. Like you see things start, and you see things end, then things begin again. To me, that part feels crazy.”