Photo: Chad Kirkland
On Friday, Dec. 17, head down to the Urban Lounge (21+) to enjoy the lyrical stylings of Mark Dago and the live experience of Scenic Byway and DJ Chase One Two. As always, $5 gets you in.
here once was a magical time in hip hop music generally referred to as the “Golden Age” when iconic albums like A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang were being played for the first time on cassette and vinyl. Around this same time, a group of like-minded high school students from Provo, Utah were rapping over beats in various clubs around the valley, soon to be known as the Numbs. Mark Dago was one of the founding members of that group which consisted of himself, Gunnar McKell, Rooster, Daniel “Fisch” Fischer and DJ Shanty.
“For me it was Run DMC and Public Enemy and that was it. After that, I decided hip hop was what I wanted to do,” says Dago. “It’s strange to think that one guy in Provo, let alone four or five like-minded guys, would get together and start a rap group.” Dago’s rapping style is comparable to the high-pitched, high-energy rapping style of Beastie Boys emcee, Mike D, and is packed with clever alliterations and a solid lyrical flow. The music the Numbs were making in those early years was emblematic of the abstract, funky, bass-heavy rap of the era, and while hip hop was seen by many as a novelty, Dago and the rest of the Numbs crew couldn’t have been more serious.
Hooking up with rock bands like the Red Bennies, the Numbs were able to play shows around Utah before there were other rap groups to play with. Able to fund their first record, Metaphonic, with revenue from shows, the Numbs were officially a small blip on the map that was the hip hop industry in the mid–‘90s. Four full-length Numbs albums and nearly fifteen years later, Dago is now embarking on his solo career, collaborating with old friends like Fisch and DJ Shanty to create a sound much different than what Dago was making with the Numbs. “I want to keep doing things where I look back and think, ‘That was cool that time,’ but never do anything that sounds the same,” says Dago.
Self High Five came first in October of 2010, and Kill Screen a year later. The first thing the listener will notice when comparing Dago’s solo work to his work with the Numbs is the night-and-day difference in production and musical styles. Even with their 2011 release, Soulburn, the Numbs still maintain the scratch-heavy, funky style of the early ‘90s, whereas Dago’s first two solo albums move towards an electronic, video game-like style. This is most likely attributed to his collaboration with Fisch, who is known for his highly polished, layered beat construction.
On Self High Five, Dago collaborates with Ebay Jamil—who recently worked with Fisch on a project called Julio Child—Bad Brad Wheeler, who lays down a killer harmonica solo, and Lauren Hoyt, who also worked with Fisch for her project, Dani Lion. The album still features a bit of scratching and sampling, but contains an electronic synth element to it which accents Dago’s personal creative identity. “I like the group element because it’s like getting into a comfy pair of shoes. It’s kind of a canvas, when you approach it you know what you’re working with,” says Dago. “I’m not going to say it’s limited, but you know what you’re doing. With [my solo stuff] I’ve got no one else to fall back on.”
Kill Screen, Dago’s second solo album, serves as more of an EP and seems to have shed the musical elements of the Numbs altogether by going fully robotic. For the album, Fisch sampled Nintendo NES sounds and creates a soundscape of synth leads and beats that sound like they were written for an NES video game. “I told Fisch I wanted to do a video game album. It’s becoming its own little niche and it’s interesting what people take to sample. I want to take Punchout and make it fresh,” says Dago. Even the title of the album stems from a popular NES game. “There’s a specific level when you get far enough in Donkey Kong where the screen just goes dead and the Mario dude starts going in circles—they call it a kill screen.”
Dago also brought Hoyt back for the track “Magic Kingdom,” this time auto-tuning and harmonizing her voice to add to the albums already electric-heavy sound. “She’s one of those people that can just come in and nail things. You tell her kind of what you’re looking for and she walks in and does it,” says Dago.
Aside from various side projects like Rotten Musicians, a project involving Fisch and DJ Shanty, more music with the Numbs and a music video for the track “Dynamite Punch,” off of Kill Screen, Dago’s future in hip hop includes a third solo album titled Team Scanners based on the 1981 David Cronenberg sci-fi thriller, Scanners, in which a man with psychic powers makes people’s heads explode. “The idea is we’re going to make music that will make your head explode. It’s going to have a lot of heavy beats and bass lines,” says Dago. Dago is shooting for an October 2012 release for Team Scanners, so in the meantime, be sure to familiarize yourself with the fifteen years worth of music that this hip hop veteran has put out.
Nick Romer – Vocals, Keys, Trumpet
Tyler Reese (Nevermind) – Emcee
Dave Richeson (Genetics) – Emcee
Kiel Palmer – Drums
Wade Smith – Acoustic Guitar
Doug Overly – Electric Guitar
Scenic Byway began in 2007 when friends Nick Romer, Kyle Palmer, Dave Richeson (aka Genetics and Tyler Reese aka Nevermind)got together in high school for a couple of jam sessions. Lining up gigs and putting out their first album, New Sounds for an Old World, the group added guitarists Doug Overly and Wade Smith soon after. “Scenic Byway just came out of the earth,” says Overly. “I don’t think there was ever a blueprint on what we wanted to sound like. It was kind of just a conglomeration of people coming together playing music.” What sets Scenic Byway apart from other hip hop acts is their use of live instruments instead of a DJ, putting them in the same category as The Roots or Gym Class Heroes. “We’re more of a live band than recording artists, which is the goal. We try to portray that live feeling when [we’re] recording,” says Romer.
The energy of that live performance has landed them opening gigs for artists like Chali 2na, People Under The Stairs, Del The Funky Homosapian, Kool Keith, Zion-I and more. “People who see us live often give us the compliment, ‘You guys look like you’re having a great fucking time,’ and we are. I hope the crowd is having as much fun as us,” says Nevermind.
On stage, Genetics and Nevermind take the helm of the rapping, often including freestyles in their shows. During their first few years, Scenic Byway would often invite their friends up to try their hand at freestyling. “We used to do that at a lot of our first shows. We would play at the Broken Record. Every time we’d play there we’d have all of our homies come on stage and freestyle. Anyone that wanted to come up could,” says Nevermind. Romer sings the hooks, as well as plays keys and trumpet. Palmer is the group’s drummer, giving him a pivotal role on stage. “I’ve got to be perfect, because Nevermind runs a lot of loops, and if I mess up on a loop while playing the drums, everyone gets off,” says Palmer.
Nevermind met Smith through mutual friends a year after Scenic Byway was started during a chance jam session. “Tyler was making beats—he used to freestyle and if I was a little bit tipsy then I would at least try it,” says Smith. “Tyler invited me to come up to his house and Nick came over with his trumpet and we started playing. I had this riff going and Nick was like, ‘I like what you’re playing.’ That ended up being ‘Water of Life.’ After that, they invited me to the next jam session, and from there I pretty much just stayed and that’s how I got started,” says Smith. Overly joined the band in a similar fashion. Being neighbors with them, he would often head over, plug his guitar in and jam. “I would just try to put something funky together. That was it, really,” says Overly.
Now a six-piece band, their live shows are even more energetic and two guitars louder than before. But even with a lot of moving parts, the band claims the songs come to them easily. “We jam together a lot and sometimes Nick and I will get together and write little licks and bring it to the band,” says Nevermind. “We make songs fast and sometimes wonder if it’s too fast.”
Scenic Byway’s first album, New Sounds For An Old World, was released in 2008 and their sophomore album, Kinda, Sorta, Pretty, Really, in 2011. As a live band with two albums under their belts, Scenic Byway is hungry to tour. “We’ve gone to Steamboat Springs, Colo. a few times and Sun Valley, Idaho. But regardless of how much we’ve been on the road, it’s not enough,” says Genetics. “We need to get on the road more.”
All Utah natives, Scenic Byway take pride in where they’re from, even though Utah isn’t known by many for its hip hop. “Being from Utah, we love it. It’s hard to be successful and get noticed, but it just makes you work even harder,” says Nevermind. Romer notes that most of the hip hop coming from Utah is what they want to hear more of: “I hope that a lot more of this good, underground hip hop can show light on the world as opposed to this U92 bullshit.”
For now, Scenic Byway are doing their part to fly their flag and get the word out about their live music showcase. Don’t miss the chance to see Mark Dago, Scenic Byway and DJ Chase One Two play at the Urban Lounge on Fri., Dec. 17 for SLUG’s Localized.