For this climber-rapper from Indiana, life is about lyrical flow, crags and inspiring the next generation.
Devin Dabney is a routesetter and head climbing instructor at Hoosier Heights in Indianapolis. He's also an aspiring rapper who came to our attention because Mountain Project, a site and app owned by REI and ubiquitous among outdoor climbers, appears in the lyrics of "My Favorite Route," a track on his self-produced album called Tape.CLIMB.Repeat. (embedded below).
"...Drop the mic. Stop the hype. Actually half the team got magazines about my rocks and ice. So this discussion is a deadpoint. Let's move on to that new Red joint I found on Mountain Project. It's about to be my project...."
We shared it around our Boulder, Colorado, office, and one by one, heads began to bob to rhymes about diabase, donuts, Mad Rocks with black socks and clipping chains. I knew we needed to learn more about this guy, so naturally I challenged him to a rap battle. He declined (thank God), and we just had a cool conversation about music, the Red, heroes, how climbing can change lives, comps and pizza instead. Ladies and gentleman, Devin Dabney!
How long have you been climbing and rapping?
I’ve been climbing consistently for about five years now. I was awful when I started, but I stuck with it and eventually got hired to work part-time at the wall at Ball State University. I had an awesome group of co-workers there who I looked up to. One weekend, they took me to the Red River Gorge for the first time. After that, I fell in love with rock climbing and never looked back. That’s when I became a climber.
I started rapping when I was a preteen, so about 12 years. I’ve always loved hip-hop, and around that age, my peers were doing a lot of cyphers and freestyle rap battles at school, usually during lunch or in the hallways between classes. I never exactly fit in with my classmates because I was bookish and shy, so I saw rapping as a way to try to make myself seem cooler. I would record stuff in my estranged father's basement.
Since those days, I’ve updated the technology a bit, but not by much. I have a studio microphone and a good laptop, but I record in the closet of my childhood room at my parents’ house!
Top three rap influences?
Number one is definitely Kanye West. After researching where most of his samples come from for his beats, I branched out to a lot of new genres of music. I know he’s kind of a polarizing person, but man, when College Dropout came out, I didn’t look at rap the same anymore. He was the first person I remember rapping about real issues, not just idealized gang stuff.
Second is Eminem. I had a ton of his songs memorized when I was seven or eight years old, and I ain’t even know half of what it all meant! As I got older, I saw the genius in his rhyme schemes. He’s the gold standard for crafting a flow and weaving together complex rhymes.
Lastly, Lupe Fiasco. The Cool is one of the greatest hip-hop albums of our time, and Food & Liquor is probably right up there with it. But what really got me hooked on him was his mixtape. He would make the nerdiest, most obscure references, but that's what made the payoff that much sweeter. His lines are packed with allusions, metaphors, homophones, double entendres and just about every literary device you studied in English class. He is a lyrical savant.
How about climbing influences?
I’ve never had anyone ask me that! Jason Kehl, mainly because he is one of the coolest climbers I’ve ever seen—coolest and weirdest. He's a big source of inspiration for me as a setter, since he not only sets, but he shapes holds! How dope is that?
Kris "Odub" Hampton is my role model. I consider myself lucky to be friends with him now, but even before that, he was someone I looked up to because he’s built this amazing brand for himself as a climber, trainer, activist for climbers and, of course, as a rapper. Kris gives me something to strive for and also shows me that the unconventional, multi-faceted career I want in my lifetime is entirely achievable. I kind of think of him as my Dr. Dre, in the hopes that I could be his Eminem someday.
Next is my close friend Ryan. He, along with my good friend Neal, were the two who first hired me at Hoosier Heights. Throughout my maturation as a climber, setter, instructor and coach, he has been there to help.
What's your experience been as a minority in climbing and what advice would you have for young black kids who are interested in climbing?
It’s been a pretty adventurous one, I’d say! Honestly, I’ve never exactly fit in anywhere, so being the token black guy everywhere I went to climb wasn’t anything new to me. There have definitely been some more rural places I’ve climbed outdoors where I felt a little, uh, uncomfortable let's say, but I’ve never felt like any climbers I came across were judgmental of me because of the color of my skin.
I have developed a strong passion to introduce this sport to more black people—especially underprivileged, young black people. This sport has been great for me in so many ways; it’s changed me physically, but more-so has changed me mentally. My priorities have shifted in healthier ways, and climbing has helped me set better goals and push myself further in life. I want nothing more than to potentially create that positive shift in more people, especially people who need it most.
I think that we could be doing more to bring climbing to minorities and to find ways to make it more affordable to be a member at a gym. Honestly, if I didn’t work at one, I couldn’t afford a gym membership myself! I think we can all agree that people who climb are usually very passionate about it, and this passion can translate into other aspects of one’s life to positively fuel them to do better for themselves; I want that for as many people as possible, but I especially want it for black people.
My advice to young black kids who want to get into climbing is this: DO IT. I know it’s not the most accessible sport, but try to visit a gym if you can. I know it’s pretty whitewashed as of now, so if that makes you uncomfortable, seek out minority climbing groups like the Brothers of Climbing (BOC), and if there isn’t one where you are, start one! Also, if you’re like me and money is an issue, try to get something started through your school. Ask your teachers or school officials to make rock climbing part of physical education. See if a gym will offer a discounted rate. There is a lot of ground to be covered, but the more we fight, the closer we will get to making rock climbing accessible for everyone.
In the intro to one of your songs, you mention coaching. Tell us more.
I started assistant coaching for my gym’s youth climbing team back in early 2016. I’ve loved watching them compete at their highest abilities in various comps, and it’s also done wonders for my ideas as a route setter. But to me, the greatest part about being a coach is being a positive influence on the future generation of climbers, and that has nothing to do with how strong they are or how well they do at competitions, just seeing them grow as people. It really helped give me perspective on my purpose with rock climbing.
What’s your opinion on music at the crag?
When I go to climb outside, it’s to experience climbing outdoors, which means immersing myself in nature as much as possible. As hippie as this may sound, a huge part of climbing outside for me is connecting with the earth. Having someone play music at the crag would make me feel like I’m back at the gym. Silence is golden because nature is golden.
You rap about the Red River Gorge quite a bit. What are your favorite areas? Do you have a project going?
I love the Gorge so much, it’s hard for me to pick a favorite area. I feel like there’s still so much of it I haven’t seen or climbed in, but from what I have experienced, I love The Solarium, Left Flank, Military and Drive-By. All of those crags have some fantastic lines of varying difficulty. Again, it’s hard to pick favorite routes, but five that stick out to me immediately are Too Many Puppies (5.12a), Air-Ride Equipped (5.11a), Whipstocking (5.11a), Thrillbillies (5.10a) and Another Doug Reed Route (5.11-).
Honestly, I’ve never been much of a projector. Usually, when I come to a crag, I try the things I want to try, then if I fall on something and think I can send it in another burn—and want to—then I’ll try it one more time. Otherwise, I just keep moving. I have the most fun climbing when I try to get on as many things as I can. I’m looking to experience something new, just like I did when I climbed in the Red for the first time. I’m chasing the dragon known as rock climbing for the rest of my life.
Favorite toppings at Miguel's?
Ahh, the glory of Miguel’s Pizza! I’m a meat lover, so I almost always will get either bacon, chicken or pepperoni—sometimes all three, haha. Among the meats are usually green peppers, mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes and—here comes the shoe drop—pineapples. I love hot sauce on it, too.
Dude, wow. Lastly, let's put you on the spot. Freestyle a few lyrics for us—bonus points if you can include Mountain Project in another line!
You’ll be happy to know that I actually put on the Shady 2.0 Cypher beat, freestyled these bars, then wrote them down. I tried not to cheat!
Ever since I was a gumby, dreaming of 5.9,
Had a dream like Dr. King of working prime lines,
Chilling with a fine dime, all on prime time,
Looking for fun? Well, climbing is where I find mine,
The Red Gorge is my Taj Mahal,
You heard it here on Mountain Proj and all,
I’ma open doors, watch it all spark and fall,
You know it’s game on when I finally drop the ball…
I love climbing, I love rhyming,
I love doing things with perfect timing,
My new project’s coming out this fall,
You heard it here first on Mountain Proj, you all!
...So what's my score?
Five Stars for sure man! Thanks, Devin!
Follow Devin's Insta for news of his next album, out this fall.