The Portland Sound: Zebulon Dak

WW’s producer profile series continues with a PDX hip-hop mini-mogul.

  1. Most treasured studio item: Avalon 737 preamp.
  2. Admired producers: Smoke, DJ Premier, J-Dilla, Dr. Dre
  3. Required listening: Iame’s Noise Complaints, Smoke’s Bleed, The Chicharones’ When Pigs Fly.

Up a flight of stairs in a nondescript inner-Southeast Portland warehouse, the longtime home of Momentum Studios has been stripped down to bare burgundy walls and a broken '70s pinball machine. Momentum—the music wing of which is in the process of relocating to downtown—was once a bustling hip-hop cooperative, home to video production, promotions and audio recording. One by one, the tentacles have moved off-site. "Now it's pretty much just me," says Zebulon Dak, the defensive lineman-sized dude at the studio's front door.

Dak, born Michael Berglund, could almost pass for a biker with his thick beard and bandanna. The 30-year-old hip-hop producer sports a color-coordinated green and blue outfit—likely a nod to his beloved Seattle Seahawks—and a few sizable rings that sound like wind chimes when he cups his hands together. He walks me into a smaller room with a work bench stacked with wires, removable hard drives and recording equipment. Two monitors, displaying a scantily clad Scarlett Johansson and blueprints for the studio's new space downtown, sit above the stacks. A Yoda action figure, dressed in Santa clothes, looks over at Dak (who borrowed his nickname from an obscure Star Wars character) as he explains his somewhat unlikely career path.

Dak's first run-in with hip-hop occurred at age 8, when he happened on DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. He began to MC shortly thereafter, under the guise of "Coca-Cola." ("It just seemed like a good name to rap under.") His MCing career came to an abrupt end when he met the original members of Oldominion in 1997. "They were just so good," he says with a laugh. "I was, like, 'Why am I doing this?'"

Despite his relative amateurism as an MC, Dak became fast friends with the Seattle-based Oldominion crew. "We just became a family," he says. "Eight or nine of us living under one roof. Somebody like Sleep would get a house, and the next thing you know, we're all there. They'd cut our electricity off because we couldn't pay the bill, so we'd steal from the neighbors to make beats."

While working a string of office jobs, Dak spent nights making beats on an obscure computer program called Making Waves. At the time, making hip-hop with all-digital equipment was heresy to some people. "There was even a record label that told me that they wouldn't put out anything I had made on a computer," Dak says. "I wouldn't call myself a pioneer, but nobody that I knew was doing [beats on a PC]."

Nowadays, Dak's clientele reaches far beyond the Oldominion crew. While he's contributed production work to releases from such stalwart Northwest artists as Grayskul, Soul P and DJ Wicked, he admits Momentum can't afford to be choosy about its clientele. "I'll record anybody," Dak says, "and oftentimes it's not something I would listen to or even can say is good. A lot of times it's kids." Occasionally, that means clients who want to smoke weed in the control room (Dak doesn't smoke), receive blow jobs in the studio ("that's against the rules") or record dis tracks aimed at other local MCs .

Though Dak is a cornerstone of the Portland hip-hop scene, he says he's hardly a hip-hop consumer these days. Aside from old-school favorites like Black Sheep's A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing and the occasional guilty pleasure like Flo Rida's "Right Round," Dak largely avoids listening to rap when he's off the clock. Smooth divas like Norah Jones are more likely to pop up in his rotation than contemporary hip-hop albums. Still, one has to keep up on the trends if they want to keep up with the kids. "I just recently got [Auto-Tune] not too long ago," he says of the robot-voice craze that's sweeping the nation. "I hate it. But I broke down, I got it, and it is fun. It's so fun. People will sit there for hours if they're stoned and just sing into it."

Asked whether 30 was too old to be entrenched in hip-hop culture on a daily basis, Dak holds his thoughts at bay for a moment, then releases: "I don't think so. But maybe sometimes [young artists] do. Every once in a while I get a look, like, 'Man, you don't know what you're talking about.' But then a lot of times I surprise them."