A Small But Vocal Local Scene Looks To Revive The Ancient Art Of Beatboxing
The young man alone onstage at the Ottobar with just a microphone looks like a wayward roadie, not an opening act. From the lip, he urges a skeptical handful of hipsters to come closer and “check this shit out.” They decline. But then he opens his mouth, and out spills a car engine, a police siren, and an entire drum kit. Suddenly disinterest becomes disbelief.
The dance studio at Towson University’s Center for the Arts probably isn’t the first place in town you’d look for a human beatbox. Neither is Wham City, the Copycat Building’s party space for art-school kids, or the opening slot for Japanese manga superhero troupe/punk band Peelander-Z. If you ask Shodekeh, born Dominic Earle Shodekeh Bouma, he might ignore all that and say that the highlight of his career thus far was collaborating with rap legend KRS-One on a version of the Blastmaster’s “Return of the Boom Bap” at a show in Connecticut. But really, as his eclectic résumé suggests, he doesn’t care where he is as long as he’s beatboxing.
“I try to take it anywhere and everywhere I can,” says Bouma, 28, while lounging on a sofa in his Reservoir Hill apartment. An energetic, compact man who frequently substitutes the word “ridiculous” for “awesome,” Bouma eagerly shows off fliers from his recent performances. He more than occasionally breaks into impromptu beatboxing by way of illustration while talking about his art.
“In this town, I’m such a whore,” he says. “I’ll perform with anyone. It isn’t so out of the normal realm to see a DJ accompany a rock band or a jazz ensemble as a featured artist. I see my stuff as the same kind of thing.”
Bouma has made music with his mouth since he was a kid in Prince George’s County in the mid-’80s, back when acts like the Fat Boys, Biz Markie, and Doug E. Fresh were first making an international impact. He started out a fledgling filmmaker, winning two NAACP ACT-SO awards, a program designed to encourage African-American high school students to pursue careers in the humanities and sciences. But he became a serious beatboxer in 1997, claiming his second middle name—meaning “warrior” in the Yoruban language of Nigeria—as his stage handle.
Like most beatboxers, he’s self-taught, picking up everything he knows about rhythm from hip-hop. Able to emulate a staggering range of beats and instruments—including didgeridoo, bass guitar, horns, turntable scratching, and samba whistles—and maintain a steady rhythm at tempos of up to 316 beats per minute, Bouma likens his talent to that of a DJ, cutting and pasting sounds together. And like a DJ, Bouma juxtaposes sounds from several different genres, including hip-hop, techno, jazz, and soca, a Trinidadian form of dance music that combines calypso and Indian rhythms.
He picked up the soca influence from his mother, who hails from the West African country of Sierra Leone, where the music gets radio airplay. “I hated it [as a kid], but I’ve found that I’m able to do those rhythms very easily, probably because I’ve been hearing them all my life,” Bouma says. “I’d like to form a soca band, with beatboxing as a major part of the music.”
Bouma performs solo at local clubs, accompanies spoken-word artists at the Charles Village coffee shop Xando’s Monday night “Slamicide” events, backs up open-mic performers at Fells Point sports bar Cheerleaders on Wednesdays, and collaborates with Walkout, a local experimental band. Thanks to his manic schedule, he’s at the forefront of Baltimore’s tiny beatbox/vocal percussion scene, which includes just a handful of performers who make their living with their mouths.
“It’s a rare thing,” says Kenny Liner, 27, about his craft. Liner is a beatboxer and mandolin player with Baltimore jam band the Bridge. Like Bouma, he’s been beatboxing since elementary school, where he used to get kicked out of class for making strange noises. “You know how musical fads are,” he says. “[Beatboxing] died out, and the real people kept it going and believed in the art form. Shodekeh’s very shrewd and smart about his work, and doing very well for himself. He’s the Baltimore beatboxer.”
“There’s not that much here in the city, beatbox-wise,” Bouma says. “There’s a guy called the Bow-Legged Gorilla who plays a harmonica and beatboxes. There’s a vocal percussionist named Starbuck, who’s also a professional whistler. And then you have the guys from [local spoken-word performance group] the 5th L. And Kenny—sometimes Kenny Liner impresses me so much I get jealous. But I can count them on my hands. I can’t count them on my hands and my toes. I wish I could.”
Beatboxing’s low profile isn’t just a Baltimore phenomenon, and so beatboxers must band together. Bouma, like many professionals, is a member of the International Beatbox Association. An online union of sorts, the IBA (www.micism.com) is a way for show promoters to get in touch with beatboxers in their area—provided the promoters are willing to pay. But for the most part, mouth music is viewed as a novelty act, something for practitioners to trot out on demand and without compensation.
“I guess that’s natural,” Bouma says. “I know poets and singers get it, too, but what I do, I kind of feel that it’s seen as a party trick, instead of a musical instrument. I don’t always do it when people ask—sometimes I just want to chill. Another way I address it is by [asking]—’Am I getting paid? How much am I getting paid?’ It’s more difficult than being in a band, I think.”
For his part, Liner works hard to make beatboxing an integrated part of a five-man band. “My life is dedicated to the Bridge,” he says, clearly enjoying the challenge of translating a hip-hop form into a rock setting, composing songs that prominently feature beatboxing as opposed to using it as a tacked-on gimmick. But Bouma views his career as a kind of one-man crusade. To that end, he’s landed gigs at Towson University and Patapsco High School, providing accompaniment for ballet and modern dance classes.
“I think a lot of musicians who are practitioners of more traditional art forms can get bored with working as an accompanist for dance programs, but . . . it’s exciting for me, and will probably stay exciting as long as I’m doing it,” Bouma says. “There’s a lot of improvisation. I try to keep a steady metronomic rhythm, while at the same time complementing the movements and choreography.”
Typically, the dance instructors suggest a rhythm or sound, such as “ocean waves,” or “waltz time.” From there, it’s up to Bouma. “The difference between ballet and modern dance is like the difference between spoken word and rapping,” he says. With spoken word, “the beats kind of float over the music a little bit, and then with hip-hop, the rapper adheres more to the rhythm, and there’s a definite syllable count that keeps him in steady sync with the beats. With ballet, I feel like I have to be precise, because their movements are so precise. With modern, I’ll do a melody with a rhythm. Sometimes I’ll add a pan flute and beatbox over that. I try to keep it from being a novelty at the schools.”
Though used to working with live musicians, at first ballet instructors and students at Towson were skeptical about combining classical movement with sounds that they felt were more suited to modern dance. Bouma confronted the class directly. “Some of them thought that it wasn’t appropriate with ballet,” he says. “But some said they learned that now they can do ballet to any kind of music. So that was kind of cool.”
Bouma wants to explore the biology and anatomy behind beatboxing, in the hopes that he can pass his knowledge on to young people. When talking about his craft he sounds a bit like My Fair Lady’s Henry Higgins, discussing syllable counts, intonation, and the difference between hard and soft palates with scientific precision. He’s already offered one-off workshops at Patapsco, the Baltimore International Rhythm Festival, the Boys’ Latin School, Coppin State University, and Penn State University, to name a few.
“If you’re a [dance] accompanist, it’s almost natural for schools to say, ‘Would you be interested in doing a workshop to show how you do this?’” Bouma says. “I think learning more about how a lot of sounds are made [by the body], and executed, and being able to teach it is important. There are some sounds that are so intuitive—I couldn’t even explain how I do them. But I’m getting better at it the more that I teach.”
Once as passé as break dancing, beatboxing is making a slight return. The internet has provided a huge boost, connecting thousands of professionals and curious enthusiasts through message boards. Hip-hop and reggae still boast a few big-name stars, like the Roots’ Rahzel and the Japanese artist Dokaka. And then there’s Kenny Muhammad, known as “the human orchestra,” who has played with the New York Symphony Orchestra and is slated to host VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors show this fall.
Liner also attributes some the skill’s rising popularity to Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu, who beatboxes as part of a live show that’s become massively successful with college students across the country. “High school kids today don’t know Doug E. Fresh and Fat Boys,” he says. “But they know Matisyahu, and if they’re into hip-hop, they know Rahzel.”
But even if beatboxing remains an underground phenomenon—and it probably will—you get the feeling Bouma will press on as long as there are new sounds to make. “Seeing beatboxers who are better than me inspires me,” he says. “Like Kenny Muhammad, who’s like a force of nature. Part of me feels like I can’t get as good as him. And part of me thinks, Fuck that, I’m going to do it.”
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