I met Dan Trub on Halloween night, 2005. He was wearing a 2-year-old’s pumpkin costume. I think he might have tried to make me wrestle him. The next time I saw him, a mutual friend begged Dan to do his signature trick, and after a few minutes of reluctance, Dan gave in and started singing “If Your Mother Only Knew,” a song made famous by The Roots’ Rahzel. Then he started beatboxing (for the uninitiated, that’s the vocal imitation of percussion and turntables that Justin Timberlake loves to do middlingly). Then he started beatboxing and singing at the same time. This is a talent I had previously only heard executed by Rahzel himself, on a bootleg recording of one of the famed vocal percussionist’s live performances, and it was a talent I’d assumed Rahzel alone to be capable of. I was impressed. Dan, it soon turned out, was in Remix, the hip-hop a capella group at UVA. When they had their fall concert a few weeks later, I went. I was surprised to find that it was, well, a hip-hop concert. A capella, the genre normally reserved for grinning white dudes “soulfully” crooning “Stacy’s Mom” to an audience of giggling freshman girls, had been made interesting.
This is the Remix edition: The members of UVA’s hip-hop a capella group turn rap on its head.
So how did Remix do it? It started in the fall of 2003, when UVA junior and eventual “American Idol” contestant Travis Tucker decided he wanted to start a new kind of a capella group at UVA. He recruited another singer named Eric Pilar, a pianist and arranger named Hagana Kim, and Matt Mariner, a guy who, by Dan’s account, “doesn’t sing and has no musical talent whatsoever” but just really wanted to see the thing happen. Together, the four of them put the word out and held auditions. Dan, a New Jersey native, has been beatboxing since he was 15, when he and his buddies would head into New York City on the weekends and, armed with the liquid courage of a few Flaming Cucarachas, lose freestyle rap battles to a homeless man outside the one bar that would serve 15-year-olds. Throughout his high school years, Dan had honed his freestyle and beatbox skills during those weekends. When he got to UVA and saw that Remix was holding auditions, he took it as his chance to use his talents in an organized group for the first time. By the fall of 2003, Dan was one of Remix’s seven founding members.
Remix would get together at Kim’s apartment to smoke hookah and sing. Once they had a few arrangements together, they hit up the dining halls at UVA with only a guitar amp for a speaker and enough confidence to act as though they were performing in a perfectly normal arena.
Remix moved on from its free dining hall concerts, and by the time I met Dan, the group was making $2,000-$3,000 selling out auditoriums on campus. Last month, Remix opened for Lupe Fiasco and Common at the JPJ. The group’s sound has advanced, too. The original seven members grew to 15, and almost every current member has a hand in the arrangements, which are largely covers and medleys of covers. In any given show, one of the group’s seven female vocalists—soloists all—might croon a Mary J. Blige song to a flustered male audience member, one of the guys might rap a Biggie Smalls classic followed by a recent hit by someone like J-Kwon, and there’s always time for a beat break courtesy of Dan and Remix’s other two beatboxers. Judging from the screams, the crowds love that mix of old school R&B and hip-hop jams and current radio-ready rap singles.
And yet, despite the glory of success, there’s a certain transience to the whole thing. The group has grown to 15 people, and Dan is the only remaining original member. He graduated on Sunday and is headed to the Navy this summer. Though he’ll certainly be missed—the audience’s chants of his alias “D-Nasty! D-Nasty!” were almost deafening at Remix’s April 27 end-of-semester concert—even Dan’s unique talents will be covered by the group. Beginning in 2005, he took a younger member, Carson Calhoun, under his wing and taught him how to beatbox. Remix also has a sound effects expert (think Police Academy), Brandon Luckett, who imitates everything from scratching turntables to sirens to Tweety Bird.
Being in a college group like Remix means dealing with the flux and change that define it. For the audience, that means a new experience each year. For Remix members, it means having to move on and accept what they’re giving up when they do so. Of Remix’s twice-weekly practices, Dan says, “It’s really therapeutic. Having that five hours a week where you just go and sing, surrounded by people who are immensely talented, who are your friends. It keeps you sane. I’m definitely going to miss that.”