The distinction between a “climber” and “someone who climbs” has always fascinated me; it’s a nuance I’ve observed throughout a decade of routesetting, teaching, and exploring anyplace I could find rock. These observations started small, with friends who found the sport around the same time I did. Gradually, one by one, they stopped telling people, “I rock climb,” instead saying, “I’m a climber.” It was always an unceremonious switch and likely unconscious, but anytime I noticed it, I would ask them, “When did you decide you were a ‘climber’? What makes you one?” No one could ever really explain it. In retrospect, it’s evident what I was asking:
“What exactly is climbing culture, and what makes a ‘real’ climber?”
by Devin Dabney, published in Volume 20, now available
Banner art by Kris Hampton
That’s a question I implore us all to ask now—especially because experience has taught me the answer is unclear. I believe the climbing community has never truly considered its own identity and that what we deem as “climbing culture”—a bohemian lifestyle, antiestablishment thinking, and a flippancy regarding fashion or hygiene—is a rehashing of climbers’ past that we rarely stray away from and without much reasoning to back it up. I would also argue that climbing is at a defining moment in its history—a point where it must decide what its culture will represent. As more films like Free Solo receive public acclaim and this sport prepares for an Olympic stage, it won’t be long before the world starts asking that same question: What exactly is “climbing,” and who are these people doing it?
Currently, the idea of what makes a “climber” is a self-referential feedback loop, whose roots are roughly sown on the grounds of counterculturalism but not much else. Climbers at large are constantly looking at each other to confirm their shared beliefs, building their community and identities based upon commonalities. They often live what is effectively a photo negative of American culture, taking a contrarian view of the white–picket fence dream and seeking detachment from capitalistic society; each time they shun material wealth is an expression of their freedom, and each climbing-themed bumper sticker plastered on their van is a badge of a proud, self-imposed exile. But recently, the sport has been asked to develop this image of rugged individualism even further—namely, through a critical lens of inclusion.
As COVID-19 shut down climbing for many of us and the demand for representation of marginalized groups increased, what’s most powerful about the social changes happening now is these groups are not just asking to be part of climbing culture: they are creating it and have been doing so all along—largely without recognition, as they do not fit the stereotypical mold of a climber. So then the question becomes: If we are creating climbing culture right now, what exactly were we identifying with before? I believe this is best answered by analyzing climbing alongside another cultural phenomenon—one which grew from the same petri dish as climbing: hip-hop.
Before we get into that, I want to share a bit about my love affairs with both hip-hop and climbing so you can understand why I think they’re so similar. Hip-hop (and music in general) has been a mainstay in my life from birth. My mother is a die-hard music fan, and musicianship is literally in my blood; I didn’t meet my father until I was an adult, but we both grew up playing the violin, and he, too, is a musician, as is my distant half brother. I picked up rapping back in 2004, after I was inspired by two masterpiece albums—The College Dropout and The Black Album that previous year—and after a high school career of battle rapping, making beats, filling notebooks, and recording on 4-tracks in the laundry room of my apartment complex, I started creating my own songs. I was a pretty good lyricist, and I knew I wanted to be famous for rapping, but I didn’t really have a strong story I wanted to tell. Unlike what most rappers state in their songs, I wasn’t a gangbanger, women weren’t dying to sleep with me, and I wasn’t looking to start a multimillion-dollar cocaine empire. Despite having skills in writing rhymes, I felt really out of place in the hip-hop world and didn’t know what to rap about that felt true to me but would also compel people to listen. Rapping really well about an average, unexceptional life just didn’t seem to cut it.
At the time I was having a huge artistic crisis of consciousness—around age twenty-one or twenty-two—was when climbing came in, and thus I’d found a new obsession doing what my friends called “crazy white people shit.” I was ascending rocks, scaling university buildings, sleeping in tents or in the back of pickup trucks, trading weed for moonshine with the locals…all in these rural, wooded places most Black folks wouldn’t dare go to—certainly not alone. On top of that, a few years later, I would become a full-time professional routesetter. I was living an artist’s life with an artist’s wallet (which is empty, if you weren’t aware). It wasn’t the lavish rapper lifestyle I’d grown up coveting, but it definitely was a much more compelling lifestyle than my adolescent years. Yet it wasn’t until I came across Odub, the rap alter ego of mastermind Kris Hampton, that I understood the true power of climbing’s tall tales in the rap world. I mean, think about it: the specific lingo, “street cred” from doing dangerous things, designer (outdoor) clothes, tribalism, that us-versus-the-establishment mentality? Not to mention, the hood-rat shit I did with my (white) climber friends was eerily reminiscent of my childhood antics with the (Black) homies. I thought, Surely I could squeeze a few songs out of this. And over the next few years, I did just that: in 2016 I published a mixtape called Tape.CLIMB.Repeat. to Bandcamp, and once I got my first few purchases, the rest was history. Climbing became a part of my rapping repertoire, and it still is to this day—perhaps, in the less on-the-nose ways. I still do my best to pay homage to the OGs in both cultures—both the Jay-Zs and the Odubs.
At first glance, one might think there isn’t much in common between climbing and hip-hop. After all, climbing is overwhelmingly white and hip-hop undoubtedly Black. But, the social conditions that birthed them both are similar, and how they each represent a free-thinking rebellion from society creates ideals that are analogous, if not also perfect foils. When each saw their respective explosions onto the American scene in the ’70s, we witnessed a rise of masters—masters of stone (Stonemasters), and masters of ceremonies (MCs)—that would lay the groundwork for their respective followers. And due to hip-hop’s crossover and subsequent rapid commercialization period in the ’90s, its cultural development happened much quicker. These two siblings are in different stages of life, but both struggle from the same identity crises and thus could learn from each other. One place to start this learning would be their archetypal images of authenticity within each culture: the dirtbag of climbing and the gangster of hip-hop.
The first thing these two tropes have in common is their negative imaging. Despite what little clarity there is on what makes a “climber,” there are strong ideas of what a “real climber” is—or rather, what a “real climber” is not. This shows up as a practice of discrediting other climbers for choices that don’t fit the core culture; having a well-paying job, rarely taking outdoor trips, or even having another passion aside from climbing can all be demerits to your climbing track record. Invalidation also happens between subgroups of climbers—as outdoor climbers belittling gym climbers, trad climbers shunning sport climbers, and alpinists admonishing technical face climbing. It’s surprisingly commonplace for climbers to point out who they believe are the “gumbies” or “chuffers,” partly to justify they’re the “realest climbers”…but what’s even more surprising is how closely this trends with hip-hop culture—especially if you substitute the word climber with nigga.
I’m betting for some of you, the last word of that previous paragraph was jarring to read—especially in an outdoor publication and so close to the word climber. Normally, I wouldn’t do so much prefacing of my thesis, but I’d be remiss not to share with you the careful thought that went into my choice to say that word in this piece, as well as share my own feelings of discomfort in using that word in a climbing context because, well, I use it several more times in this essay—and for what I believe are good reasons.
In the following paragraphs, I’ve used the word nigga and its variations because I intend to draw a strong line between how “real climbers” and “real niggas” represent strikingly similar value sets in their respective, analogous cultures. I’m also doing this to highlight their shared theme of controlled rebellion—how climbers (and rappers) believe they are outsiders but ultimately are still beholden to a white capitalistic patriarchal narrative that filters and retells their stories. As a lot of you may already know, nigga is a very ubiquitous word in my world as a rapper, so with that, I want to emphasize to you that any following usage of the word comes from an academic lens of supporting my thesis. My goal is certainly not to say it because I think it’s “cool” or because I know it makes people uncomfortable. I’m very aware of the negative reactions that word elicits from some people—even Black people.
I actually dealt with it firsthand, when I originally wrote a version of this piece as a commission for a big climbing media outlet. After much debate and bouncing up the management chain, they asked me if I could take nigga out and replace it with another word, and I was initially open to the idea. But ultimately, after further reflection, I saw that removing it marred the clarity of my thesis, and I decided that the piece’s integrity was more important than getting it published. Thankfully, I live in a world where creators like Luke are willing to put out something polarizing in the spirit of artistic truth, but even so, I know the reactions will be mixed—even from Black people, because not all Black people are okay with that word. I expect shock, disgust, and even anger. But regardless of how you feel when I say nigga, it doesn’t change how important that word is to my story as a Black climber-rapper. I hope those of you who read on can see why I chose to keep it in, regardless of any personal feelings you may harbor for the word itself.
Okay, back to the topic at hand. Climbing culture and hip-hop culture have a common link of defining themselves through negative imaging. There is no clear definition of what a “real climber” is, but there are countless opinions on what it is not. If you replace the word climber with nigga, you will find that this trend also runs deep in hip-hop and for very similar reasons.
Hip-hop lyrics are openly obsessive over being a “real nigga.” It comes up just as often as the stereotypical tropes of money, violence, and sexual conquest. Rappers stake their claim in countless songs—such as Nas with “Last Real Nigga Alive,” Notorious B.I.G. and 50 Cent in “Realest Niggas,” or Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz with “Real Nigga Roll Call” (which held an amusing Guinness World Record). “I’m the realest nigga in it, you already know,” Jeezy opens in “Get Ya Mind Right,” after a brief aside on loving being labeled as such. Being a “real nigga” is a heavily coveted title in hip-hop, yet despite this, there is little consensus on what exactly that is—only on what it is not. Disloyalty, lack of conviction, and vulnerability and weakness (which are treated as synonymous) are traits that make it easy to weed out the “fake niggas.” But oftentimes, the only proof listeners are allotted for realness is a rapper’s own claims as such. Even recent odes to the subject, such as “Real Nigga” by 21 Savage, seem to lack clarity on what embodies realness. Savage raps that he “was raised to be a real nigga,” and is “accepted by the real niggas,” yet in the chorus, he asks himself in the third person, “how it feel to be a real nigga?” This is undoubtedly meant to call notoriety to his “realness” while forcing the listener into self-examination, but to what end? That question remains unanswered in the song, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because there is no agreed-upon answer in hip-hop—at least, not sonically. Perhaps 21 is subconsciously admitting hip-hop doesn’t have an answer for this question, but that’s speculation on my part.
The irony is not lost on me that “what makes you a climber?” and “how it feel to be a real nigga?” are asking the same question. Both seek validation of an identity in a world outside of normalized society—be it forged by racist infrastructure (as in hip-hop) or by rejection of the status quo (as in climbing). The crucial difference here, however, is that the starting point from which these two cultures emerge are polar opposites: hip-hop culture was born on the outskirts of American society, and (American) climbing culture was born in the throes of it. This is where we see the inherent irony of the dirtbag shine its brightest—that their resignation from society is a decision based upon their birthright to participate in it. We see this idea repeated in outdoor sports of living on the fringes and off meager means, without respect to the fact that a large group of people doing this have the financial means to live that way as a choice—especially in the twenty-first century. The #vanlife concept is an expensive logical paradox, yet #vanlife is the fantasy of many modern climbers. This illustrates a startling disconnect from what climbing culture supposedly values in purism and minimalism, displaying a profound disregard for the context that created these ideas and allowed them to flourish.
Such disconnects from “the dream” and “the means” make it tough to navigate either world as a newcomer—an issue further compounded by the implication in both cultures that you’re either all in or none at all, because “ain’t no such thing as halfway crooks.” You can’t be a “half-real nigga” any more than you can be a “half-real climber,” yet neither culture seems to understand what exactly that entails. Without a blueprint, newbies to either world will either repeat the past and/or seek what typically constitutes success in American culture: achievements, wealth, and stereotypically masculine traits such as domination, independence, and control. Climbing and hip-hop both suffer from the debilitating disease of contentment through power, and while they both parade a facade of alternative views through the John Muirs and Kendrick Lamars of their worlds, neither culture seems to support success without proving oneself “worthy” of success via false measurements of white capitalist patriarchal ideals. Muir was an outdoor visionary with racist motives, and Kendrick is an incredible mind with a street-smart edge; without their negative imaging, it’s hard for me to believe they would still be revered by their respective cultures.
This is where both cultures get their character archetypes (i.e., the dirtbag and the gangster). The dirtbag is the climber’s heroic image of a rugged individualist—one who dedicates his life to the sport of climbing with reckless abandon and survives however he can to continue the pursuit of his craft. The gangster is largely the same image, though he deserves his own explanation. (The use of male pronouns for both is intentional.) He stands for a marginalized group of people vying for freedom in a system that is designed against him; the gangster holds little regard for any obstacles between him and this freedom, including poverty, law enforcement, and even other gangsters. The dirtbag and the gangster each connote a strong mental image—a very specific look, temperament, and philosophy. Both supposedly represent rebellion from organized society, and both champion their culture, but both are often largely unattainable by those who idolize them. Climbers with the iconic image of Billy Westbay, Jim Bridwell, and John Long on their wall get the same inspiration as rappers whose walls adorn that classic photo of Biggie Smalls with an off-kilter crown glistening on his head. “If they made it, I can make it too. There is hope yet for me.” Conversely, those who buy into this concept of self-liberation that do not also buy into the means cannot be seen as part of the group, even if they are active participants in its culture. This is where the concept of “real” rears its head once more, in the shape of stark conformism to preset ideals. In both cultures, achieving “the dream” is meaningless without “the means” that are deemed legitimate to match it.
There is one crucial distinction between climbing and hip-hop that also links them inextricably: their racial context. Climbing is undoubtedly a product of white culture just as hip-hop is of Black culture, and when race relations are overlaid upon them both, it becomes clear that these two cultures are inverses of each other, dancing to the same societal bassline (baseline). The gangster symbolizes an escape from systemic poverty and societal anarchy for a life of selective comfort and privilege…and the dirtbag symbolizes the opposite—an escape from systemic comfort and privilege for a life of selective poverty and societal anarchy. Both seek to break away from what they were given at birth, and both covet what the other has as a symbol of escape. But are either of these dreams really an escape or a proverbial blue pill that redirects them back into the very matrix they seek to unplug from?
Dirtbag culture declares “the system” a lie and encourages people to abandon it in favor of a simpler life, yet the people who can do such a thing are the ones who have the privilege to do so. They are oftentimes coming from stable households and wealthy upbringings, progeny of a society that supports their rebellion. By using “the master’s tools” to rebel, they seem to unironically bite the hand that feeds them. Perhaps this could be seen as defiance, if not for the fact that if they stopped biting and asked to be fed again, the hand would gladly oblige. We saw this cognitive dissonance serve as a pulse for the hippie and beatnik culture, which surged around the same time as rock climbing: a culture of disenfranchised “outsiders” who were against the system, against capitalism and “the man,” while also (perhaps willfully) unaware their ability to opt out was a privilege in itself. The greatest proof of this ability to opt out is the fact that the historic golden age of Yosemite (roughly 1950 to 1970) happens at the same exact time as the Civil Rights Movement (roughly 1954 to 1968).
In a sense, this is true for rappers as well. They often pride their outlaw status, likely in spite of the society that deemed them as such from birth; 2Pac’s clique of rappers was even called the Outlawz. And in the way climbers parade their poverty and minimalism as a symbol of freedom, rappers do the same with their riches and loyalists, yet it could be argued these very symbols are what keep their own identities suppressed. Still, despite boasting of their freedom, rappers determine their worth via net worth, using qualifiers of the system that rejected them. These two cultures echo a sad truth: both dirtbags and gangsters believe themselves to be counterculture when really they are rebelling inside a system that permits their rebellion. Both are “coloring outside the lines” in a room lined with drawing paper.
In David Letterman’s interview of Jay-Z for the Netflix series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, there’s a moment where Letterman asks Jay-Z to confirm “hip-hop is biographical. Am I right about that?” Jay pauses for a moment, seemingly surprised by this question, then replies, “No…it pretends to be. A lot of guys are just telling stories.” Letterman is visibly puzzled and presses it further—“Even in the beginning when kids were just starting out?” But Jay sticks to his answer. “Yeah, they lyin’. Nine times out of ten.”
With that in mind, what story will we choose to tell as climbers? Will we continue to replicate or decide to innovate? My hope is we can cultivate a mind-set of open critique when we consider our sport, so we may intentionally develop its future identity and creeds…but with that must come an understanding that critique is not inherently negative. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard myself and others dismissed with a swift “well if you hate it so much, why don’t you just leave?” Both climbing and hip-hop are guilty of this—a false belief that questioning norms, challenging standards, and demanding evolution is a sign of hatred, a statement of disloyalty worthy of otherness, of being an “old head.” I would argue that those who harbor the deepest love and appreciation for a craft, culture, or pursuit are the ones who are the most critical—the ones who are most willing to outlast the sheen of newness, to peel back the gilded layers and discover a depth not allotted to those unwilling to look past the surface.
Neither climbing nor hip-hop is an exception to this process of cultural refinement. There is so much beauty to be found in both of these worlds—so many diamonds that are being left in the rough—but none of that beauty will be made “real” without thoughtful mining, heated debate, and intense cultural pressure. So as I ask, What exactly is climbing culture, and what makes a “real” climber? I ask it while believing the answer yet to be discovered. The good news is we have a chance to find it and the means to discover it—together—if we are willing to look deeper into our past, our desired outcome, and ourselves.
Devin Dabney is a rapper and climbing-industry professional who has worked as a routesetter, climbing instructor, youth coach, event coordinator, personal trainer, and marketing consultant. He currently is working with a team on the American Climbing Project podcast, as well as a joint music project with Kris “Odub” Hampton, and his first fiction book.
Check out Devin’s music: https://deuceishiphop.bandcamp.com