Listen to this article
From a studio in a converted garage comes a relentless noise, like a wasps’ nest trapped in a dishwasher. It pounds up and down the harmonic range, at once thrilling and aggravating. The sound is generated by a contraption called a rig station — a jumble of switches, sensors, keyboards and screens that was built and coded by Simon Shlomo Kahn. The lanky 32-year-old, better known as Shlomo, calls it “a machine of endless possibilities”. Much the same could be said for his mouth.
Shlomo is one of the world’s leading beatboxers and the rig station is the centrepiece of his live performances. It samples the implausible sounds he creates with his voice and mouth, and plays them back in a repeating loop. He starts with beats, throws in phrases and melodies, then invites the audience to join him in building a composition from human voices. He describes the process in bish-bash-bosh terms: “Sample voice, loop sound, manipulate, mangle, sample the audience and turn them into an instrument. Mash it up, then . . . Woooowwwww!”
Beatboxing — the art of creating percussion, synthesiser and other instrumental sounds with the voice and mouth — emerged from the Bronx and outer boroughs of New York in the mid-1970s, according to Angus Batey, music historian and author of Rhyming & Stealing: A History of the Beastie Boys. “It was part of early hip-hop before the first rap records in 1979. It was born of necessity. If all you had was a microphone, that was how you made a beat,” says Batey.
Shlomo came to beatboxing more than two decades later and a long way from the Bronx, while growing up in Buckinghamshire. He has since collaborated with artists such as Björk, Mad Professor and Foreign Beggars, and performed to a crowd of 100,000 at Glastonbury.
Today he is going to teach me some basic beatboxing skills. “We’re going to make a little beat, and I’m going to put the metronome on. So you’ve got to try to keep your beat in time,” he says.
There is a lot to learn. First, beatboxers do not grab microphones any old how. I hook my thumb around the domed top to create an airtight chamber. This, Shlomo explains, is “abusing the mic” to create a bigger signal. Next, I make three sounds that mimic elements of a drum kit — the kick, the hi-hat and the snare — a “p”, “t” and “k”. “For the ‘p’, get your lips real loose. Bring your bottom lip down, get a nice strong sound. Hi-hat is teeeee, with tongue behind teeth. Snare is like a ‘k’ with an ‘h’ after it.” I make a dogged purh — thh — kh sound and, although I keep rhythm, I lose my breath. The rig station emits a pitiful puff.
Shlomo says that the secret is similar to circular breathing, a technique used by players of wind instruments. “Let your body relax, no tension. Make sure your snares get as much love as your kicks.” Beatboxing, I quickly realise, is more than a party trick. Even keeping a basic beat is a struggle. But for Shlomo, it appears effortless — which he puts down to the fact that he has “just always done it”.
As a child, he studied classical and jazz percussion and played in youth orchestras. Shlomo’s father, a jazz guitarist, encouraged his teenage son to join his jazz quintet. “Throughout my school life I was gigging and performing most nights — London, pubs, little festivals.”
He was beatboxing before he understood the term. “It was a way to articulate and practise rhythm. I never thought of it as performance. It was, how does that beat go? Oh yeah — t . . . ttttsk-h!”
“All the time I had rhythms in my head but I didn’t have my drum kit, or I wasn’t allowed to practise after dark because the neighbours in Buckinghamshire complained.”
He had no idea that others from a hip-hop background were performing vocal rhythms before a live audience. “A friend played me a tape of someone beatboxing on stage; the crowd was going mad. I remember thinking, ‘Hang on, that’s what I do. Maybe I could make crowds go mad.’”
He tried a “safe plan”, studying physics at Leeds university. But Leeds in the early 2000s was full of distractions such as gigs and open-mic nights. “I wanted to be up on stage, exciting audiences, so I didn’t really go to the physics degree at all.” How did his parents react? “Well, they weren’t too impressed when I said I was going to drop out of university and be a beatboxer.”
I confess that as a parent I might have agreed with them, but Shlomo points out that he was no slouch. He stayed in Leeds, working in a temporary job typing up lonely-hearts advertisements in an office during the day, performing at night.
In 2004, Björk called. The Icelandic artist wanted a beatboxer to perform on her track “Oceania”. Could he be in London the next day? The lonely-hearts people gave him four days off to record with the superstar.
A solo performance in 2005 on the BBC’s Later . . . with Jools Hollandbrought his talent to mainstream audiences. In a YouTube clip from that show, a young and slightly gawky Shlomo bounds around the studio, astounding fellow performers with his vocal gymnastics.
Shlomo has been a professional beatboxer for more than a decade, putting on live shows and corporate events. The classical music establishment calls on his skills as a way to engage young audiences — he has been an artist in residence at the Southbank Centre since 2007 and is working on a commission for the Bath International Music Festival.
His aborted physics studies don’t appear to have been wasted: he launches into explanations about amplified noise and the speed of sound waves. He spent seven months on the coding to build his rig station.
I ask him to show me how to make my favourite beatboxing sound: a low, dubstep-style woofy noise — like a distorted speaker. “You do an impression of Miss Piggy — ‘Oh Kermy!’”
I follow his instructions, adopting a squeaky, scraped voice. Then I’m told to drop an octave, with the mic close to my lips. The desired woofy noise is there — but it’s painful. “This is one technique that’s really bad for the throat,” says Shlomo, proffering peppermint tea.
When asked to perform his favourite track, he chooses Massive Attack’s “Paradise Circus”. He conjures the entire composition to order, somehow producing what sounds like two simultaneous drumbeats, a chiming hook, melody and vocals — all at the same time. The FT video crew and I are speechless.
But while Shlomo leaves audiences in no doubt about his astonishing talent, he has given up making the case for beatboxing as art. “I stopped obsessing about trying to prove it was valid,” he says. “It’s just an expressive way to get musical ideas from your head to a crowd. The tools you use are not that relevant.”
Shlomo will be performing at the opening evening of the Bath International Music Festival on May 20; bathfestivals.org
Photographs: Jack Latham
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published