More Than a Mouth Orchestra
Kid Beyond works to prove his pony knows more than one trick
Andrew Chaikin wanted to be a drummer. But he didn't have a kit, so the rhythm just started using his mouth. That's how San Francisco’s beatbox master known as Kid Beyond describes his high school days, back when his stage time was spent with the glee club or in musical theater. Chaikin's voice is hoarse as he travels to New Orleans to play the House of Blues, the ninth performance on his 28-city tour with Imogen Heap. The nonstop shows are taking their toll. "I never in a million years ... if you said 'What are you going to be when you grow up?' professional beatboxer would not have crossed my mind.'"
Kid's insistent that his music is not all about the trick of beatboxing, the novelty of mouth music. That pony gets maybe 15 minutes of interest from an audience. He defines himself as existing somewhere between a songwriter and a DJ. "It just so happens that I make all my music with my mouth and these looping machines."
It starts with a phrase, a chorus, a groove, a beat. "I let something get into my body, and it sort of infects my brain and I sort of walk around with it for a while," playing with the riff in the shower or while he's driving. He's always got the current of a potential track running through him.
A producer once told Kid that unless the beatbox schtick is immediately apparent to the listener, his whole marketing angle disappears. But Mr. Beyond isn't having any of it. "If I'm relying on the technique to hold people's interest, that's not going to be enough. My aim is to make great records, to write great songs that people love, and it doesn't matter how they were made, ultimately."
But a discussion of artistic tension misrepresents Kid Beyond, a mellow, patient guy and a Buddhist. Beatboxing, he says, can be spiritual. He describes moments during the beatboxing classes he teaches--20 people in a circle, working together as a big, bad, beautiful percussive orchestra. "It gets real primal," he says. He's been instructing classes and workshops for eight or nine years. All kinds of students come to his sessions, beginner beatboxers, poets who want to incorporate some aspect of vocal rhythm into their work, singers from a cappella groups. Even an elderly woman who, after suffering a stroke, came to his class to try and regain some of the musculature in her face. "I always tell my students if a half-paralyzed 65-year-old lady can learn to beatbox, you certainly can."
Kid Beyond breaks down the art of beatboxing on page 50.
Six Steps to Beatboxing
Kid Beyond, San Francisco's favorite mouth-music maker, gives us some tips on the tricks of his trade
Kid Beyond broke down the step-by-step the process of beatboxing for us, as he describes it to the newbiest of noobs. A lot of this information is hard to understand unless you’re trying it out as you go, so make sure to flip off the people around you first (or smile meekly at them--whatev.) if you’re in a public place.
Step One: Start With the Low End
You have all this incredible equipment in your body. Your diaphragm is the motor that generates sound, which resonates through your chest and throat. Basic bass comes from a syllable like "uh," open-mouthed, from deep in your chest. Learning to propel that air forward is what creates a good bassy tone. Closing your mouth while using the same air-pumping technique develops another bass drum sound. Putting a consonant on it, say a "dm" or an "ng" makes yet another kind of drum. Adding a "bm" creates a rounder, kick-drum tone.
Step Two: Work Your Mid-Range and High-End
"K" sounds make up a large portion of the mid-range. They're usually followed by throaty, compressed air to sound like larger cymbals. Hi-hats and shakers come from more nasal combinations with some "sh" noises on the end. "It's all just vowels and consonants," Kid Beyond says. On a blackboard it would look like "Bshhhhhhh" or "Tss tss."
Step Three: Put It Together
Practice with basic beats, like the famous "We Will Rock You." It doesn't have to be fast, but getting all your tonal areas, diaphragm, chest, throat, tongue and lips working together can be tricky.
Step Four: Don't Die
After you're working on some beats, you may find the breathing a little tricky. Rule number one, says Kid Beyond, is don't die. "I've never had a student die one me, and I'm not going to start today, man," he jokes. Make sure you breathe wherever you need to at first. Don't worry about it too much. As you progress, start trying to put your breaths in the same part of the phrase every time, maybe at the end of the rhythmic pattern you're repeating.
Step Five: Make Breathing Part of Your Beatboxing Sound
Eventually, breathing becomes second nature and can fall to the back of your brain, just like it does when you're talking. Sophisticated beatboxing begins to add that inhalation as yet another instrument within the rhythm. An electronic snare sound works while you're inhaling. You can breathe in on tongue work like a hi-hat sometimes, too. Or restrict the flow of air with your tongue and the top of your mouth, like you would in a moment of nerves (say when you're driving with your mom and do something odd and she inhales sharply). "Once you can do that, you can make all sorts of sounds, and people watching you will say, 'Where's he breathing?'"
Step Six: Homework
Even the best beatboxing breaks down to basic syllables—vowels and consonants expressed in new ways, Kid Beyond says. Your average name is probably more difficult to say than these patterns, so don't be intimidated. Repeat the following using your newly discovered instrument and all the areas of your vocal apparatuses, beginning slowly and increasing the speed over time:
Diba diba baba diba
Tipa tipa papa tipa
Tika tika taka tika
Digi digi ga digi digi ga (This one can become a drum and bass riff)