Words by Billy Goat G. Pictures by Jeff Metal.
Standing in the crowd, supping a pint with my main man Donny Rambles at Breakin' Bread, Whitechapel's finest breaks night, I decided that this straight up report should run the risk of being boring. By this, I meant to convert the reams of notes I wrote during the convention into a report that mentions virtually everyone who went up on stage on this groundbreaking day. This is the only way I could show my personal respect for everyone that gave me so much to write about during this, the first ever Human Beatbox Convention. While Kope was throwing people off his stage, I was thinking about how this report would bring salty tears to my rheumy eyes when I flip through it in ten years' time and marvel at the humble beginnings of such a talented crop of beatboxers, way back in 2003. Sniff. Here we go...
In a Student Union in the nicer part of west London, the most inspiring set of sound checks I have ever heard are playing out. Soon after, head teacher A-Plus switches on his microphone and gets up on the stage in front of the seated assembly. I've never seen the world's greatest collection of beatboxers look like so many starry-eyed children. A few late ones sheepishly creep into seats around the edges, but teacher has noticed and will be talking to their parents later. A-Plus then highlighted today's most travelled punter, (TU TWELVE representing Sydney, Australia) and set the running order, usually two pairs of beatbox showcases with a talk in the middle (or vice versa) and then a brief break. With little further ado, the master class in mouthing music began.
Sinister Sicilian ALIEN DEE gave us a heavy start with some downright scary alien invasion vocal premonitions, reminiscent of the Future Sound of London at their darkest. I shifted uneasily in my seat as the sound system processed his thunderous bursts of bass drum and the eery echo of his hollow snares. Thankfully, he moved to more friendly and relaxing noises, akin to the lilting tones of tyres burning themselves to blisters on a tarmac drag strip. His beaten up version of Dawn Penn's 'You Don't Love Me (No No No)' was massive, and got a demented reaction from both the convention audience and the Breakin' Bread crowd later on that evening. A most excellent smorgasbord of slow chilled and fast jungle beats. A great start to the day.
Now it was wingman BEATMASTER G's turn. I first saw this little-known Ibizan beatboxer a few months back, at a King's College open mike night in London. Back then, the sound system let him down and yet he still managed to turn a tough, lukewarm London crowd to his favour. This time round though, we were just waiting to be impressed. BEATMASTER G demonstrated perfect timing control and looked every inch the professional, placing beats with the accuracy of a cake maker plopping Smarties onto...some cakes...that are very small and difficult to places Smarties on. Progressing from punting Wiseguys-style big beats to fading in clear and crisp up-tempo dance music, it seemed to me a great sample of the Ibizan music scene. I could feel the need for a King of the Beach Jam already.
We then enjoyed the first talk of the day, conducted by US beat-MC and beatbox production guru KID LUCKY on 'The Past Present and Future of American Beatboxing'. A friendly and engaging speaker, the congregation paid due attention and respect to KID LUCKY long before he flashed us his Doug E. Fresh, Ready Rock C. and Kenny Muhammed credentials. There followed a most educational rollercoaster recital of the beatbox scene and its development from a tool that metalheads used to diss hip hoppers to the disenchantment over the lack of respect and recognition that US beatboxers are currently experiencing. And, just in case we were getting beatbox withdrawal symptoms, he finished off with a hefty non-stop unique showcase that combined beats and rhymes in equal measure. I was picking up on a definite 'Knightrider' beat vibe as I tapped my foot and the BBC 1xtra minions scuttled closer to the stage.
Hot damn, that Swiss family man NINO G and his busy bee impressions were spot on! This charismatic compact cheeky chappy flew around the stage delivering Word Up beats, MC Hammer -style craziness, and some mad shake-your-head-from-side-to-side cheek-straining scratch and rewind sounds. I was half expecting him to finish with a stuttering, "T-T-That's all folks!" But he didn't. That would be silly. I mean, he's worked with Slide Buddah from Saian Supa Crew and they don't make silly noises...
Easily the best dressed trio in town, the Swiss BOXSTYLE BERN crew led by 3B smiled their way onto the stage once the crowd had stopped loving NINO G'S mixture of comedy and skill. There followed some most excellent bouncy Deejay Punk Roc-style beats with intelligent interplay and inspiring distressed donkey braying between the three of them. I particularly liked it when HAWK pulled out a saucy 'Push It' beatbox. T-Bone kept it tight 'n' meaty, whilst performing the 'Knees Up Mother Brown' dance routine. Absolute class. After all, it's not every day you see performers enjoying performing just as much as the crowd enjoys watching them. The end of their performance heralded the first brief break in the proceedings. The auditorium emptied out into the bar across the hall or into the square outside the building in order to...yes, you guessed it, in order to do some more beatboxing! It was so nice to see people coming straight off the stage and mixing it with the crowd. Not surprisingly, mad props were as infectious as SARS at a flute-sharing competition.
Sound engineer and all-round good guy TYTE kicked off the second session with a techno talk on recording beatbox and mic choice / technique, supported by audio clips and a classic schoolboy crib sheet for the audience that took me back to the days of weekly French vocab tests. Judging by some of the traffic on humanbeatbox.com forum I reckon this talk was much needed and appreciated by all. See the convention site for the audio (crib sheet not included).
Probably to give TYTE a rest before doing his showcase with A-PLUS, the enigmatically named BEATBOY took his showcase slot first. This one time National Beatbox Champion from Denmark slid over some seriously slick kicks and tasty tempo changes, looking relaxed and happy all the while. A great stage performance which is something that beatboxers too often forget to think about (people are looking at you guys, there's no excuse not to move around and look cool). BEATBOY finished off his tight set with a truly original skit that made me wanna go and buy the man a Carlsberg Export. He expressed a 'beatbox love story' by assigning a certain rhythm and pitch to each gender and then skilfully intertwining the two and bringing the crowd to a frothy climax. If this kind of skit goes down a storm with other beatboxers, an uneducated club crowd would surely go insane. Absolute genius that seems an obvious idea in hindsight.
Without further ado, (very much a prominent characteristic of this convention) fast-rolling excellence came on stage in the form of A-PLUS & TYTE. The convention organiser proved he's more than a control freak and media megalomaniac by pouring fast drum 'n' bass beats straight into our ears whilst wearing his trademark angry face. And who could forget his other trademark, the 'witness the fitness' take-off. Great stuff, well performed. The work that these two beatboxers have done together really came through, as A-PLUS laid the beats down which enabled TYTE to showcase his unrivalled echo, Scooby Doo, and Doctor Who plays to maximum effect. Perhaps not surprisingly for a sound engineer, TYTE's beats and clicks were crisp and pristine, created with little apparent effort. And that was despite him covering his mic with his hand, which I swear he told us not to do in his talk...
Now it was BEE LOW's turn to do a talk on the German and European human beatbox scene. Having provided his musical credentials (hosted 2002 ITF Championship and organised first German Beatbox Championships) BEE LOW proceeded with the dubious honour of giving his talk in English, describing the scene in Germany and his aspirations for his home country. BEE LOW's upcoming projects include a DVD / magazine hybrid and setting up a national and international network of beatboxers. The crowd may not have understood every word in his talk, but he came out loud and clear in his beatboxing, for sure. And anyway, how many other beatboxers can say they've graffed their name on the Berlin wall? We all filed out of the venue for a ten-minute break, scratching our heads a little bit but somehow still feeling impressed.
'Are you ready for ZLEP?' was the hook for this jolly man from Germany. Unfortunately, I managed to miss this set due to poor interview time management. (I may be able to modify this when all the audio is up on the site). However, if his set at the Breakin' Bread after party is anything to go by, it musta been absolute quality with plenty of nice vocals. Grapevine props and apologies in equal measure to the only showcaser I managed to miss.
Swinging onto stage next came shaven raver MOWGLI, a young man from York who surely has a bright beatbox future. In the past year, I've seen him progress from an eager and inspiring kid at the first King of the Jam to a serious and skilled performer who always seems ready for a beatbox battle anywhere, anytime. His deep, soulless 'killer bees' vocals unsettled me on more than one occasion and set me thinking about whether a 'Night of the Beatboxing Dead' film featuring him would become a cult classic.
Next came a talk from someone hitherto not linked to the beatbox scene but who still managed to get the biggest round of applause since the start of the convention, two and a half hours ago. It was none other than throat healer and cousin to SHLOMO'S mum, Doctor RUTH EPSTEIN, sporting a fetching Mic(ism) hoodie. She told us how it is, with no disapproving, 'what are these guys up to? Shouldn't they be getting proper jobs?' tone that I half expected. Sound advice on everything from body posture to vocal exercises was dispensed, backed up by slightly sickening fleshy video visuals of some seriously throaty throats. The main down side of the talk was the news that curries, alcohol, late nights, tabs and talking in clubs are banned for the professional vocalist.
As the crowd produced a few self-conscious coughs and gurgles in the light of their new-found knowledge and perhaps thought that ignorance is bliss, MONKEY MOO quietly adjusted a microphone over a set of decks in the corner. He then managed to completely confuse me with his unique scratch 'n' beatbox routine. My mind completely packed up because it directed my eyes at the MONKEY MOO hands, only to find that they were creating more sounds than they should have been. My mind then focused on the MONKEY MOO lips, and again encountered the same problem. Relief came with his switch to the mic proper. There followed some beautifully tight and mesmerising scratchwork, voluptuous breakbeat and finally some tantalising pre-teen Japanese vocals. It always seems to be the more self-deprecating performers that get the crowd going, and MONKEY MOO smashed it on that score.
The polar opposite then came on stage. With a possessed but assured style, ANOINTED S the bling-blinging baseball kid bulldozed the crowd into absolutely loving him. Snarling snouty bass, clipped click rolls, hi hats like a rattlesnake shiver and sweet vocals were all packed into one talented, and diminutive, American teenager. But that wasn't the sole reason for his success that day. His stage presence contributed greatly, with every little snare click seeming to move him an inch across the stage. And who could ignore the wagging finger? Not me. And then the sudden rush across the stage accompanied by the order, 'throw your hands up, up, up, up!'? We duly obliged.
With sore arms, we wandered outside for...more beatboxing in front of the 1xtra and RI:SE crews and, in some cases, a quick perusal of the Arsenal - Bolton Wanderers game. Then we had some more overseas action from a cappella aficionado, IO. Supported by useful audio aids, IO outlined the a cappella scene in America and how college groups are taking it forward, as well as the history of the music form as shaped by bands such as the House Jacks. It was obvious that the snob in the beatboxing crowd rose to the surface, with many punters believing a cappella music to be easier than beatboxing due to the advocated use of technology to layer the various human sounds. Therefore, it was extremely gratifying to see IO shut them all up with some fantastically clear and fast-paced riddims. His trip from the West Coast had not been in vain.
Mobile phone sex gags, tight click rolls, Justin Timberlake skits, and a perfect American accent, who else could it be apart from German national champ ZEERO? This bulldog beatboxer was definite hit with the crowd on his first performance in the UK. For some reason, I couldn't shake the chorus to Michael Jackon's 'Thriller' out of my head after his set. Must've been the high notes ZEERO manages to hit, without even a single vein popping. A confident and energetic performer that people were talking about all weekend.
We'd now got to the point in proceedings where the winner of the Radio 1xtra beatboxing competition, judged by A-PLUS, gets to have his own showcase and jam with 1xtra DJ RODNEY P a bit later on. The colourful and crazily dressed B. B. BURN was the competition winner. Together with his emcee sidekick, they worked the stage like dope versions of Batman and Robin, with a well-timed and practiced set full of lyrical 'pow' and beat-based 'blam!' Robin then switched to the decks and passed all the stage pressure onto the incredibly hunched shoulders of B. B. BURN, who still had enough energy to blaze a furious drum 'n' bass set with plenty of chord-ripping vocal distortion thrown in.
Next came MARK SPLINTER's talk on DIY music culture. That is to say, all about doing your music yourself rather than signing your creative whims and skills away to a record label for a packet of crisps and promises of more crisps later on. Given the educational nature of the convention, I think that this was a useful reality check for many of the beatboxers in the audience. Very few of them will become household names in the beatboxing scene (assuming of course that they want to become household names in the first place). Drawing on his experiences while managing Killa Kela's album launch last year, MARK dispensed handy advice on how to cultivate your own unique image through the use of logos, websites and, most of all, a hard-working performance ethic. More important, however, was the discovery during this talk that quite a lot of beatboxers out there like the odd Justin Timberlake tune...
After MARK'S heartbreaking speech, we had a brief break and then on to the next act. Four and a half hours into the convention, I was expecting everyone, me included, to be a little bit fatigued, but the love was still there. The only reason for anyone not coming back was that they were too busy beatboxing outside in the intermittent sunshine. SHLOMO was on next. The Next Step for UK Beatbox made his excuses about having a sore throat, blah, blah blah, but he was as good as ever. From double mic 'tranceboxing' to Prodigy to Daniel Beddingfield, SHLOMO did it all, proving that beatboxing isn't just about hip hop. This guy even makes tripping over your mic lead look cool. Whether it was deliberate or not, it was great to see a performer who has taken to heart what MARK SPLINTER had just said in his talk about cultivating your own image and stage ethic. SHLOMO worked the crowd well with his customary few bars of crisp beats and then the question, "was that alright, yeah?" He would probably also win the award for saying his own name in the coolest way (scratched up), possibly followed by fellow UK beat specialist MOWGLI (soooo deep).
Some lucky girlie then won a Shure SM58 microphone in the prize draw, she didn't seem to be to eager to give us some of her beats, but it will go to a good mantelpiece no doubt. And although he couldn't be there for the day, Kenny Muhammed sent a video for our collective delectation, just a shame there wasn't a lot of volume on it. Hell, just the sight of the Human Orchestra's Human Orchestra was good enough for me anyway.
B. B. BURN's final competition-winning privilege took the form of a fat but brief beatboxing session to RODNEY P's lyrics, both of them bouncing off the edges of the stage and reminding us again how well emcees and beatboxers can gel. RODNEY then continued by hosting the open mic, the last event of the convention. There is no way that I can précis all of the open mic beatboxers, but shout outs and respect must go to Sino, Arro, the Dragon, a French dude in a pure black Rocawear tracksuit, Mic Spawn, Braz, S.J, Yason, LouiseLouise (yes, girlie!), A-Plus and all those whose names I couldn't make out.
What a day, there won't be many like it ever again. Remember, this all started out with a guy who decided to create a decent beatbox website, and another guy who decided to organise a beatbox session in St. James' Park, quirkily called the King of the Jam, which five people attended...
I wiped my eyes and continued to sup my pint with my main man Donny Rambles as the beats broke over me at Breakin' Bread, the best after party I'd ever seen there. Can't think why.