Beatboxers are incredibly sexy. "You know, there are definitely, um, you know, uh, how should I put this delicately?" asks Andrew Chaikin, a 34-year-old beatboxer, live-looper, and professional namer who has professionally named himself Kid Beyond. "Um, uh, um, women, um, appreciate, uh, you know -- women see the value of an agile tongue. Let's just put it that way."
Beatboxers are incredibly annoying.
"I got fired from a job, and it actually says on the termination letter, 'Employee is either unwilling or unable to stop making percussive noises with his mouth,' recalls Tim Barsky, a 27-year-old beatboxer, battle flutist, and unprofessional namer who consequently has yet to professionally name himself. "It can drive people, you know, nuts."
Together, Andrew and Tim conspire to build an Empire of Phlegm. The duo hosts the professionally (we assume) named Vowel Movement, a monthly beatboxing showcase night entrenched in SF's Studio Z for the past half-year. The crowds both onstage and in the audience have grown exponentially, so much so that the Movement has now slinked across the Bay. On a recent Friday night the beatboxers took over Ashkenaz in Berkeley, commanding a large and rapturous crowd that may help make an East Bay Vowel Movement a monthly or bimonthly event.
"It's startling," Tim says. "It's really starting to explode, I think, in the same way you saw turntablism take off in the '90s. There's a repertoire that's being established, a variety of techniques."
The Ashkenaz hootenanny certainly bore that variety out. The Schmaltzen Drops -- three appealingly nervous young dudes, the middle one dressed to the nines in a sharp, bright blue suit stolen from the Dick Tracy set -- kicked things off with a cappella potshots at the Beastie Boys, Run DMC's "Rock Box," and, oddly enough, a tune from the musical Guys & Dolls. Beaming parents cheered 'em on.
Infinite and Soulati -- both MCs with SF's Felonious crew -- jumped on next and explored beatboxing's huge potential for physical comedy, imitating techno beats, tap dancers, basketballs, and telephone answering systems before climaxing with a Ping-Pong battle and a motor-revving hot rod getaway. At least that night, these guys were the most hip-hop-oriented among the Vowel Movement's patchwork collection of beatboxers, slam poets, and experimental musicians; they also were the funniest.
The sweetest? A dude named Vocal Wax, who sheepishly dedicated his ten-minute set to his girlfriend (it was their two-year anniversary). He then vacillated wildly between different beats and rhythms and approaches, frantically searching for the killer groove that would turn the crowd into his own personal cult following.
Nice effort, but he never quite got there. Still a fascinating process, though -- like watching someone trying to start a temperamental lawn mower.
This is not easy. I used to believe that stand-up comedy was the toughest gig imaginable entertainment-wise, but beatboxing might be tougher solely due to the additional danger of slobbering all over yourself.
In fact, how do you avoid slobbering all over yourself? Tim and Andrew have the same answer: "You don't."
The Vowel Movement tries to avoid the adversarial battle vibe beloved to most hip-hop-heads, promoting an open exchange of ideas and you-show-me-yours-and-I'll-show-you-mine beat swapping. This can be a tough sell. "Beatbox is a very secretive art," Tim says. "You'd be like, 'Show me how to do that, man,' and people would be like, 'Hell no.' And you'd have to, like, wait in their shower, and be like, 'Can I hand you the soap? Will you show me that beat?'"
Tim doesn't have time to think of a less culturally loaded metaphor because he's busy honing his "battle flutist" chops. Hear this: The man beatboxes and plays flute at the same time, perfectly balancing his flute-centric upbringing -- "I'm a Jew from the suburbs. I don't know from hip-hop" -- with the sudden realization, while studying at Brown University in Rhode Island, that he could perfectly imitate a club DJ simply by going "UH-chh UH-chh UH-chh."
He's given this beatboxing thing a great deal of thought. "Most people, especially youth, feel like they're being lied to, consistently and constantly," Tim says. "That every time somebody in the government or the system basically opens their mouth and speaks, they're lying. I think there's a veracity in oral prestidigitation. That is to say, there's a truthfulness in sleight of mouth. That's at the center. You make the sound with your mouth, and it's almost like a circus thing. It's prestidigitation. It's an illusion, but it's not mime, it's not performed with the hands. It's performed with the mouth."
"I don't know," he adds. "I could be pontificating too much. It's the consequence of being a neurotic Jew."
Andrew, by contrast, is an ebullient Buddhist with a chin so sharp it could open a can of soup. He's also clearly the Vowel Movement's home-run hitter, a fiercely charismatic beatboxer with a secret weapon: live looping, in which he beatboxes specific parts into a foot pedal -- designed especially for him by a friend at Emeryville's Expressions Center for New Media -- that records, loops, and slowly pieces his beats together until he has created an aural army of clones onstage.
Watching him one-man-vocal-percussionist-band his way through Portishead's "Wandering Star" is truly mesmerizing. "That's the best live thing I've ever seen," the dude behind me pants when it's over.
Kid Beyond is a New Age Renaissance man, deeply religious -- a year or so ago at a ten-day silent Buddhist meditation retreat, he became acquainted with the Connectedness of Everything -- but also an Internet whiz, word game and puzzle freak, and yes, professional namer who is paid big bucks to name the latest Oreo clone or erectile dysfunction pill.
But mainly he's just transfixed by the noise one man's mouth can make, just like the rest of the Vowel Movement crew. "Walking down the street beatboxing, you definitely get looks," Andrew admits. "It's almost an obsessive-compulsive thing. It's almost like some sort of oral fixation, like some sort of nervous tic, like Tourette's. I can't not do it. So I've turned my obsessive-compulsive tics into an art form."
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