One of Baltimore's longest-standing
hip-hop recording artists, with a dense catalog built up over the past 12 years, is eating French onion soup in Hampden. He's wearing a Blondie T-shirt and his hair hangs down to his shoulders. Clearly Height, born Dan Keech, is unconcerned with being a star or even looking the part.
"Trying to make it as a musician, pushing yourself, I feel like it has a lot of negative consequences on someone's mind," he says. "Just thinking all the time about 'how do we get closer to this being sort of like a career?'"
He may not be thinking about it, but Keech, who records with collaborators as Height with Friends, seems closer than ever to achieving that goal. His new album,
Rock and Roll
, has earned attention from national outlets like
, and later this month, he'll embark on a lengthy tour as an opening act for Dan Deacon, one of Baltimore's most popular musical exports. Keech grew up steeped in the local punk and indie scenes, and has long been associated with Deacon's Wham City collective and label, which released the 2009 Height with Friends album,
Height's track record makes clear that he doesn't lack ambition or a work ethic. He's now released six albums (the first three as Height, the last three as Height with Friends) and several EPs, in addition to his work in side projects, which includes an album and tour with the group Shark Tank earlier this year. But even now, on the eve of releasing
Rock And Roll
, he laments that a whole two years have passed since the previous Height with Friends full-length.
"It took a lot longer than I had hoped," he says ruefully, in the slow, deliberate speech patterns echoed in his rapping. "I'm trying to get better with it."
Height says the title of
Rock And Roll
is an oblique reference to the outlook gained from his experiences on the road as an indie rapper. "I think it's interesting," he says. "A certain little faction of rap is kind of rock and roll, in a way. Touring around, you kind of see everything."
Some of Keech's most eye-opening touring experiences came last year during his first overseas trip, when he played shows in countries like Russia, Poland, and France. Often he shared the bill with more aggressive or political, local acts who wrote lyrics in their native tongue. "A lot of times, I would just ask people what they had just rapped about," he says.
Although it features guest appearances by members of Wye Oak and a cover of Wham City associate Ed Schrader's "I Can't Stop Eating Sugar,"
Rock and Roll
is nevertheless closer to a Height solo effort than his previous albums. The abundance of nature themes in the album also distinguishes it from his earlier work. He raps in a forest in the video for
Rock And Roll
's lead single "I Can't Stand To Be Refused," and the album is rife with references to mud, wheat, seeds, brooks, and "walkin' off the grid, wanderin' around."
Keech says that's not a deliberate pattern.
"I sort of feel like to unplug in that way, it's more powerful, intense now than ever in history, probably-to leave the internet or whatever," he says. "But I'm not some, like, hiking guy. It's kinda accidental, which is fine. I guess it's just subconscious. I honestly can't tell you why that's in everything so much. I do think that I'll knock that off with this upcoming album."
Keech speaks eagerly of his next album, already in the works. Inspired by live recordings of early rap groups like the Cold Crush Brothers, Keech is writing call-and-response routines to trade rhymes with some of his fellow MCs, and he is incorporating crowd sounds to recreate the charged atmosphere of a live performance on studio recordings.
Busy with his next album and the Dan Deacon tour, which will put him in front of some of the biggest audiences of his career, Height decided not to organize a 2012 All Rap Round Robin, the annual concert that had been held every August from 2007 to 2011, featuring hours of rotating performances by Height and other offbeat Baltimore rap acts. Last year's Round Robin featured several bands with live instrumentation for the first time. This helped inspire the new Height with Friends touring configuration, which incorporates a drummer and guitarist in addition to pre-programmed beats.
Though he focuses exclusively on vocals when performing live, Height plays guitar and writes many of the riffs on his albums, first recording rough demos and then creating loops and building tracks around them with longtime producers King Rhythm and Mickey Free. Height's albums have always been collaborative, but since rebranding his project as Height with Friends, in 2009, there's been a greater presence of other voices and ideas supporting him.
As Height's own music has become more idiosyncratic, fusing his unique delivery to homemade, guitar-driven production, four-man group Shark Tank has become his outlet for something resembling old-fashioned beats and rhymes. For years, Height and Mickey Free (also an MC) had talked about collaborating on a project, and the Baltimore-based pair formed a crew with two out-of-town friends, Canadian rapper Brendan Richmond and Lord Grunge of the Pittsburgh group Grand Buffet. Having already produced two Shark Tank albums in two years, Keech plans on reconvening the group for a third after the fall tour.
"It's cool, with Grunge, now every time we're around each other, we're just writing, and it leads to something," he says. "I feel like I have a lot of friends that also make music that I think is really good, and we figure out a way to collaborate now and then."