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Hip-Hop & Climbing by Luke

Luke Mehall describes his relationship between hip-hop and climbing: from metaphors for life to appreciating the struggle.

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The fringe is where the magic happens.
Four climbers pack into The Freedom Mobile, a graffiti-ed vehicle, spray painted red, white and blue. The sun is shining so brilliantly, its impossible not to be intoxicated by the Vitamin D it provides, even before climbing.

 by Luke Mehall, author of The Great American Dirtbags and publisher of The Climbing Zine 

(This piece was originally published in Volume 5, The Dirtbag Issue

The commute to the crag is filled with excitement, and hip-hop, the music of our generation. We are in Indian Creek, Utah, the red rock desert, our home away from home, or home to those that choose to not call civilization home. Red rock walls all around are where we spend our days. The energy of hip-hop is where its at. The lyrics are secondary, sometimes, it all depends on the mood, sometimes the lyrics are the most important thing. When we’re driving to the crag its all about the mood, the energy, hip-hop awakes us from the slumber, pumps us up, till people are so damn amped it must be time to climb.

The Freedom Mobile
The Freedom Mobile

This scenario unfolded for years, over and over again before I thought of the connection. Hip-hop has been a part of nearly every climbing experience I’ve ever had. We listen to it on the drive to climbing, the words get stuck in our head, and nowadays with iPhones and iPods, music anywhere, anytime that fits in our pockets, we even listen to hip-hop while climbing. I’ve been driving around a graffiti-ed car to climbing areas for years, and graffiti is the art that was born with hip-hop in New York City in the 1970s. And, the best of the big climbing parties in our crew of friends always end up in dance offs. Hip-hop is the soundtrack for my climbing experience, but does the connection just end there? Do hip-hop and climbing have a deeper connection than what is at the surface? Of course they do, but you’ll have to go to the fringe of your mind to believe.

Let me climb, let me climb….

Climb by Mos Def

Have you ever listened to the song Climb by Mos Def? The cry of the chorus is to, “let me climb, let me climb”. Yet Mos Def is not a climber, sitting at home in the depths of winter yearning to climb rocks, his yearning comes from a different place, from his soul. What is he trying to climb to, for? Here are some more lyrics from the song:

People climbed up in the night like green trees
They were hanging from the night like green leaves
Buzzing like queen bees

People climbed into the night like space suits
People stomped inside the night
Stomping and stomping and stomping and stomping and stomping

Where are they going?
What’s the rush?
Everybody in the place was so out of touch

These lyrics are beautiful, infinite, hinting at meaning, yet leaving the listener space to interpret her or his own thoughts on the song. Art. In the sixth months between when I first had this idea to write “Hip-Hop and Climbing,” I’ve listened to this song over and over again to contemplate the lyrics. Something is different each time, depending on my mood, or how much I try to analyze. My conclusion, is that climbing is a metaphor, there is no actual climbing taking place, but Mos Def is looking at the nightlife as people climbing out of the daily grind into a different metaphysical landscape, one where they change their clothes, into their “space suits,” into the night. The characters of the city are tired of the day-to-day consciousness, they want to be somewhere else, they climb into the night, buzzing like bees. Where does this buzz lead them?

Keith Brett (left) and Mehall in their b-boy stances after the first ascent of Tooth Pac (5.10+) in Indian Creek, Utah in 2011. The name of the route is a tribute to the late rapper 2 Pac. The climb is located on the Broken Tooth Wall. The splitter they are standing under is the namesake route of the wall, Broken Tooth, a classic 5.12-.

Nighttime is when the things get heavy
You feel alone and you want somebody
Loneliness whispers desperate measures
And your frantic all by yourself

Nighttime is when the things get heavy
You feel alone and you want somebody
Loneliness whispers desperate measures
Baby don’t make no fast moves
Baby don’t make no fast moves, tonight

For Mos Def, climbing into the night, leads him in the arms of a woman, perhaps one he does not know well. There with the woman is that possibility for change in consciousness, yet he is aware of the loneliness, the desperate measures that led the two together. And, then he pauses, wanting to bask in the safety and simplicity of the moment, having a woman in his arms as they sit in the green tree of love that they have climbed into. Then the song fades and again Mos Def makes the cry to, “let me climb, let me climb.”


Does it even really matter?

Cause if life is an uphill battle

We all try to climb on the same old ladder

 Both of Us by B.o.B.

Where does our desire to climb rocks and mountains come from, and why do we do it? That’s one question each and every climber might have a different answer for. Simplified, climbing makes us feel good. No one could argue with that. It is an uplifting activity. Like the change in those who “climbed into the night” in Mos Def’s song, there is a change that takes place in the body and mind when we climb. We take our existence in the horizontal, and go vertical.

Like ice, rock, snow and plastic there are several canvases on which the hip-hopper performs their art. When it began there was graffiti art, the music, and the dancing. B-boys and b-girls, more commonly referred to as breakdancers in the mainstream, also get vertical, by performing an endless repertoire of moves, and they started this still popular art form on the horizontal stone of the city, the concrete.

Standing on shaky grounds

 Too close to the edge

Let’s see if I know the ledge

Know the Ledge by Rakim

Hip-hop music is easy to be engaged with, just pump up the volume and there you are; breakdancing, on the other hand is difficult. First off, when you live in a mountain town in Colorado it’s hard to meet breakdancers, and second, breakdancing itself is really hard, like 5.13 hard, and if you’re really good, 5.14 or 5.15.

My climbing crew has always been infatuated with breakdancing, and five years ago, during a raining Thanksgiving at Indian Creek we decided to have a dance off. There were only two entrants to the competition, myself and my good friend and climbing partner, Mark Grundon. Both of us had learned our moves from watching breakdancing movies, and had a total of two or three each in our repertoire. The competition ended when I tried to jump over Mark in the middle of one of his moves, and he stood up. I kicked his neck with a brutal blow, and the competition was over with a major buzz kill. Despite its humble beginnings every year at Thanksgiving we have a dance-off. The rules are stricter, and each climber/dancer gets up to a minute per round to display their moves. Some of the climbers in our posse may be 5.12 or even 5.13 climbers, but when it comes to dancing, the best of us is like a 5.9 dancer, maybe 5.9+.

This last year I wanted to hone my moves some more for the dance off, and I’d moved from the small mountain town of Gunnison, Colorado to Durango, a much bigger mountain town. We have a couple dance studios so I called them up searching for breakdancing classes. The last one I called did in fact have a class, and at that studio I met my first real breakdancer, Skyhawk.

 Where the art form was once invented

On that hardcore pavement in New York

Hardcore Hip-Hop by Large Pro

With Tim Foulkes, one of my top climbing partners and fellow aspiring b-boy, we took some lessons from Skyhawk, and fumbled around on the floor to learn some basic moves. When Skyhawk would show us his moves we saw the dancer we wanted to become. After three months of classes I had maybe four solid moves in my repertoire. Then after that something very cosmic happened, I moved into a house with Tim and one of our new roommates was a breakdancer. His name was Cheo, and he was shy in conversation, but an animal on the dance floor. He could do windmills, front flips, freezes and another hundred moves I didn’t know the name of. His girlfriend, Jessie, danced as well, and both were into climbing. The universe answered my longtime prayer to learn how to breakdance.

Will (left) and Cheo in their b-boy stances.

Cheo has a maniacal drive for dancing. His face lights up when he talks about it, and when he dances he gives every move 110 percent. It is his passion, his favorite thing to do, and what gives him energy to live life. Through Cheo I met Will, another b-boy, with skills to pay the bills, and a very calm and collected demeanor. I got to ask them both many questions about breakdancing, and their passion and culture reminded me of hardcore, dirtbag climbers.

First off breakdancing takes countless hours of practice, with no financial reward, it’s a pursuit of passion, and dancers have to support one another in order for everyone to become better. “You don’t do it, you live it,” Skyhawk said. “I can spot a breakdancer when I see one on the street with their body language and movement.”

“Breakdancing helps me stay in shape, and stay out of trouble,” Cheo shared. “It takes a lot of discipline as well. Dancing makes me happy, and it puts a new energy in my body, gives me energy to stay alive.”

Will reminded me of a solo climber. He often practices on his own, and for his first three years in Durango didn’t even realize there were other breakdancers in town. He started dancing in his grandmother’s basement in Brooklyn, New York. “I’m committed to breakdancing, and I can’t live without it. I like having the community for motivation, but it’s a personal thing. I’m fine anywhere.”

With access to all these breakdancers you would imagine my dancing got better, and I was able to impress my climber friends with a wide variety of moves. While I do have a few moves, I learned how much time and dedication it takes to breakdance. When it came down to it I would choose climbing over dancing. That said, like climbing, dancing can still be enjoyed, even if you’re only at a 5.7 level. The enjoyment is in the energy, and both climbing and dancing have a unique energy, one that is transforming and empowering.

I’m Zen’d in and I’m zoned out

Tapped into my own route

Time Travel by Dead Prez

Energy. Passion. Dedication. These are some words that to come to mind when I think about climbing and climbing culture. The breakdancers I know embody these characteristics as well. In the last 30 years both climbing and hip-hop have grown, and are only more and more popular across the globe. Where hip-hop and climbing intersect has to be born in the imagination. Imagining, dreaming, these are essential characteristics to the artist, and also to the athlete that embarks in a creative sport that cannot easily be defined.

In modern day society there are those that remain happy with the daily grind, then there are those that have too much angst, too much energy to remain static. These people seek something else. We look beyond, some to the climbing gym, to the cliffs that lie outside of town, others look closer to home, or even within their home, to the homemade dance floor or to the cipher putting on a show downtown.

The fringe is where the magic happens.

Hip-hop and climbing will continue to define themselves and interact randomly. Like rock n’ roll did for the generation before mine, hip-hop has given our generation a voice of our own, our own swagger and style that declares: we are different and we have something to say.

And, in places too numerous to mention, more countries than we could even imagine, a climber might walk pass a hip-hopper, and look at each other probably unaware of the energies they share, a random intersection of music, passion, art and sport.

About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published two books: The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, both written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 


Meet Luke Mehall: American dirtbag, blogger, and author on Tuesday, October 20th for a special screening of his film “Last Thoughts On A Dirtbag”. He will also be sharing his experiences of traveling through Colorado and Utah, followed by a nice climbing session!

RSVP today for the free screening!