The Zen of Beatboxing
Bow-Legged Gorilla Reflects on Life through Meditative Jams
More info on
Leaning his bicycle against the wall inside a warm Charles Village house, 22-year-old Kenneth Johnston, aka the Bow-Legged Gorilla, unzips his beige coveralls, takes a seat on the sofa, and opens a can of Natty Boh. He is a hardworking young man strengthened by construction jobs and time spent outdoors--from his appearance alone, you can readily picture him strumming an acoustic guitar. It is the unexpected discovery of his skill and versatility as a beatboxer, however, that generates excitement.
In a calm, candid fashion, Johnston, who grew up near Curtis Bay, describes how he got hooked on beatboxing. "I started beatboxing when I was 13," he says. "I just got into it because it was a lot of fun, and I was really into a lot of drum 'n' bass music at the time. So I was doing it for a while, and then I saw Rahzel on MTV, and I was like, 'Holy shit! That could be me.'"
From that moment forward, he "never stopped" practicing his vocal percussion and would work on beats while working, skateboarding, or hanging out with friends. His dedication increased when, at 16, he encountered Shodekeh, one of Baltimore's most respected beatboxers. "We battled at this old open-mic space called the Carriage House," Johnston recalls. "And he was a serious beatboxer, and that was the first time I ever met a serious beatboxer, so he gave me a lot of inspiration to take it more seriously. And ever since then, I've developed a greater understanding of music and percussion."
Like Shodekeh, Johnston explores beatboxing's compatibility with many genres of music and dance. (Both beatboxers have served as accompanists for college dance departments.) But where Shodekeh experiments through collaborations with other artists, Johnston generally performs as an one-man show. In perplexing synchronicity, the Bow-Legged Gorilla will pick an acoustic guitar or play glassy slide while pumping a fresh beat through his lips and carrying a bass line with his nose. Beneath it all, his bare feet squeeze a mantra-like drone from his shruti box, a wooden, bellows-based instrument of Indian classical music.
"By playing the guitar and beatboxing at the same time, I'm not trying to create a culture-clash gimmick to get attention," he says. "I just want to create something thoughtful that is just pure music."
Completely self-taught, Johnston lets his own musical interests dictate the direction of his compositions. "On my own, I've studied polyrhythmic music, ethnic music, ethnic drumming, Middle Eastern drumming, etc.," he says. And this rich, eclectic pursuit of sounds and rhythms, with beatboxing as the principal voice, colors his 2008 self-released, untitled CD-R with a sense of creative life beyond the cliches of hip-hop, folk, and indie-rock.
What makes the album more impressive is the fact that Johnston recorded the 12 songs live at Scarey Studios, a show space in Southwest Baltimore that recently closed due to persistent noise complaints from neighbors. Capturing his performance on a small handheld digital recorder without any added effects, he claims to have enjoyed the "apocalyptic" conditions of producing a record with minimal electricity and no real post-production.
"I would set up in the middle of the dingy space and play, and boom that was it," he says. "In the past two years, I've gained more and more control over the instrumentation, and I'm not as much just doing it anymore, but actually meditating on everything that I do, so I can compose the beatboxing in a complex way along with guitar. In this way, I can create dynamics."
The songs on the disc are typically long meditative jams, with bass-sung lyrics delivered sparsely and occasional patches of poetic, sprung rap. But the main communicator of emotion and intensity is, of course, Johnston's experimental beatboxing.
For example, in one of the final crescendos of "Sweet Bean," he attacks with bestial noises layered beneath a driving drum and bass beat, and his finger-plucked guitar follows in step with a chiming melody somewhere between country and classical. "What I love about beatboxing is that while it mimics electronic noises and hip-hop music, it's also primordial and raw because it's something you do with your mouth and vocal chords," Johnston says about beatboxing's dynamic range.
His compositions not only reflect on personal experiences but also seamlessly weave the sounds of those experiences into the mix. One of the tracks, "Freight Train," includes a field recording he made of a freight train. "Freight trains bring a lot of inspiration to me," he says. "I love admiring the artwork on them, and I love riding them."
Then, in "Hanging Out with Some Kids from Southwest Baltimore," he captured the experience of neighborhood kids interrupting his recording session. "In the middle of a song, three little kids banged on the door and asked if they could come in, which was a very common thing--in that abandoned garage of a venue--for most of the junkies and neighbors and kids to do," Johnston says. "So, I let them in, and I beatboxed for them, and they beatboxed and sang their ABCs. One of the kids did his impression of a squirrel fighting a bird, which is what he told me he heard outside of his window that morning."
Complementing his artistic work is community pride. And Johnston is uniquely driven to share his musical talents with youth and adults. "I've done workshops for kids," he says. "I've played with a Turkish band. I've done street performing, accompanied belly dancers, and once I charmed my way out of getting hassled by the cops while I was hitchhiking through Montana by showing them how to beatbox.
"I've always joked with myself that at all the random jobs I've done since I was 13, I was getting paid to beatbox," he continues. "And now that I'm actually getting paid to beatbox, I feel like my hard work's paying off."