Stay-at-home and homesickness help shape the new album from rapper/producer Dave Zup

‘Vignettes’ releases digitally on Sunday, Feb. 21

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Dave Zup

Rapper and producer Dave Zup recorded his new slice-of-life album, Vignettes, while living through extraordinary times.

Up until recently, Zup and his wife, a traveling healthcare worker, lived in Seattle, where she aided in the pandemic response for nine months. In early February, the couple relocated to Lander, Wyoming, where she’s slated to assist at facilities there through May. Following that, the two might head south, or perhaps west to California, before again returning to Ohio, where Zup and his wife, both native Clevelanders, were born and raised.

“We’ve traveled before, but never like this, and never to areas that are completely unfamiliar,” Zup said recently by phone from Wyoming. “Then on top of that, there’s this extra layer of confusion [living in the COVID era], and maybe some frustration, as well. And aspects of that bleed into other parts of life. I’ve noticed some people acting different, even people I know. I think a lot of people are reaching their breaking points, if they haven’t gotten there already.”

The impact of the past year can be heard both in Vignettes' more inward turn (the volume on life somewhat dialed down, the rapper found himself in a more reflective headspace), as well as in its strong Ohio ties, with Zup reaching out to locals such as Joey Aich and Elijah Banks for guest verses in an effort to maintain a long-distance connection to his home state.

“Living in Seattle was great, but everything was closed down [due to the pandemic],” said Zup, 28, who lived in Columbus for two years and maintains a deep connection to the city’s musical community. “You couldn’t go out to eat or grab a drink, or do some of the touristy things. Even the Space Needle was shut down for a while. Obviously you want to uphold the rules and make sure you’re being safe, so I think working on the music was a way for me to not only cope with having that downtime, but also with feeling somewhat homesick.”

While past recordings skim the surface, Zup favoring clever wordplay over incisive personal storytelling, Vignettes, which is due out Sunday, Feb. 21, offers a richer, more three-dimensional portrait of the rapper, who reflects on everything from issues of faith and loss to exploring the type of person he’s become and what that means living in this particular country and at this particular moment in time. 

“I’ve never tried to suppress those things, but I think having the extra time to sit at home and reflect allowed me to open up that much more,” Zup said. “I’ve always struggled with writer’s block, and I noticed that writer’s block always hit when, subconsciously or not, I wasn’t being myself. This was the first time in my career where I didn’t have any trouble writing. The lyrics just kind of flowed.”

Zup can trace his musical interests, as well as his name, back through his bloodlines. His father, Dave Zupkovich, who died when the rapper was 7 years old, was a singer and guitarist who played in funk and soul bands through the 1970s and ’80s (like his son, he also performed as Dave Zup). Going back another generation, the rapper’s great uncle, David Zupkovich, was a renowned tamburitza player and band leader.

“[Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back] Walter Payton actually grew up on Serbian music, so there’s this news clip of him from the 1980s talking about my great uncle’s orchestra,” Zup said. “It’s going on like four generations now of just straight musicians.”

Zup discovered hip-hop at a young age, introduced to the form by his older cousins. He recalled visiting the Cleveland Public Library as a child and checking out every rap CD he could find, immersing himself in the words and beats with an almost scholarly intent. These deep dives have since combined with Zup’s family history, and in particular the soul and funk he was introduced to via his father, to help shape the lush, immersive musical backdrops populating Vignettes

Moving forward, the rapper intends to further explore these family connections, too. He’s already sampled his great uncle’s orchestra on a couple of tracks, and he envisions creating an entire project in a similar vein once he gets a better hold on how to manipulate the music, which has a unique time signature that can be challenging to adapt to hip-hop. “If you’re sampling something that’s in 5/4, or a waltz, it can be really hard to line up in a 4/4,” Zup said. “And that can make it sound kind of wonky at first.”

The rapper also has a handful of vocal recordings made by his father, which he has been hesitant to incorporate to this point, waiting until the weight of his own words can match the importance of the source material. “He’s been gone a long time … so I’m treating these recordings very delicately,” Zup said. “I want to make sure if I’m putting his voice on [a song], it’s done well and with complete respect for him. I can’t put something half-assed out there.”