Originally published in The Village Voice, December 5, 2006.
Hip-hop disrespects them. Subway patrons love them. Beatboxers make some serious noise.
On a sleepy Sunday evening, a Brooklyn-bound L train lurches to a stop somewhere deep beneath the East River. Strangely, nobody in the last car seems to notice. Not the old ladies clutching shopping bags, not the preening hipsters wobbling in ill-fitting heels, not the starched family men on the way home from church. The packed train is too busy craning its collective neck toward a noise wafting from the middle of the car:
Boom-boom . . . ghat—tssst . . . boom-boo-boom . . . crack! Brooklyn! Bring that beat back!
Out of a huddle of swaying bodies, a nimble kid in high-top sneakers drifts into view, sputtering improvised rhymes over a heavy beat. His verses are forgettable—"Keepin' it real/You know the deal," etc.—but the musical backbeat is not. Its underlying thump and stutter-step rhythms tickle tired feet along the car's dirty floor. More than just curious, the crowd of onlookers are confused, their quizzical faces all asking the same thing: Where are the drums?
The drums seem to be near Kid Lucky. But upon closer inspection, it's suddenly clear that Kid Lucky is the drums. In fact, he and a couple of motormouths on either side compose an entire rhythm section. Passengers press close behind, and Lucky, feeding off the crowd, huffs and puffs a deep bassline using only his mouth. With loose lips flapping and Adam's apple bobbing, the barrel-chested beatboxer barks out a Fort Apache–style breakbeat, a favorite of the two B-boys in attendance. Decked out in tank tops, tube socks, and headbands, they breakdance in the limited space between the handrails. Shockwave, a lanky, blond-haired beatboxer in his late twenties, steps up to the cipher, seemingly frothing at the mouth. His muscular percussion buttresses Lucky's raspy turntable scratches, and together they give new meaning to the expression "say it, don't spray it." Lucky draws a hurried breath and eggs on the crowd, "Now clap your hands to the beat!"
Only 20 minutes earlier his crew had boarded the train at Eighth Avenue, kicking off the latest edition of the twice-monthly Subway Series, an informal gathering of homegrown beatboxers, B-boys, MCs, and their ilk. In the last year or so they've taken over entire subway cars for freestyle performances. The L is their line of choice tonight, and as it rolls eastward, the rear car sucks in one unsuspecting rider after another. With the train fully loaded and stuck in the tunnel, the beatboxers now face a large and captive audience, something they hadn't had in a long time.
An old-school hip-hop throwback to a time when, as the lyric goes, "shoelaces were fat and Michael Jackson was black," human beatboxing first emerged on the streets of New York City in the early '80s. Pioneers like Doug E. Fresh and Darren "Buffy" Robinson of the Fat Boys began mimicking the drum machines—or beat boxes—popular with DJs. Such high-tech equipment wasn't cheap, so a few enterprising loudmouths started vocalizing their own beats. A minor craze ensued, culminating in the Fat Boys' appearance on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee. Always somewhat of an oddity, beatboxing came to symbolize hip-hop's early invention and innocence. Its proponents once rivaled MCs for mic time, but when hip-hop rose to cultural prominence soon afterward, their mouths fell largely silent.
Beatboxing never really went away, of course—it just went (often literally) underground. And that's where it's thriving on this particular night, in the steamy subway car. The mood may be light and jovial, but the beatboxers have something to prove. They fret about being regarded as charmingly nostalgic at best, and hopelessly outdated at worst. DJs, MCs, breakdancers, and even graffiti writers have long enjoyed deity status as the four official elements of hip-hop. But the culture's outrageous success has somehow left the "fifth element" behind. Beatboxers' quest to regain cultural cachet is odd in terms of the venues they choose (poetry clubs and subway cars), their opponents in the battles they fight (VH1), the now famous former collaborators they sue (the Fresh Prince, for one), and the bizarre schemes they hatch to steal back the spotlight (one plot involves dolphins). Their art may look funny in person, but this is no joke.
Lucky and his ragtag crew have long seen themselves as latter-day John Henrys fight ing an increasingly mechanical and soulless music industry. "It's the human mouth beating technology at its own game," explains veteran beatboxer Baba Israel. "Laptops can break down, and I've been at shows where the DJ didn't show up or the turntable stopped working. So beatboxers are always saving the day." As the beatboxers take their turn in the stalled L-train cipher, their only foe now is the computerized conductor, occasionally interrupting with a polite but insistent "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience. We apologize for the delay."
Kid Lucky knows a thing or two about delays. Abandoned on the streets of Youngstown, Ohio, as a baby, Kid Lucky (Terry Lewis, according to his birth certificate) started off life pretty unlucky. "My whole youth was taken from me," he says. "I was at Children's Aid in Cleveland when I was five years old. Then at 13 this guy adopted me but couldn't handle it—he didn't want me, plain and simple." Lucky rattles off the names of more foster homes. "I got to a point where I was too old to be adopted, but was still a minor. At 15 I was put into a mental institution for the next three and a half years."
His powerful voice is quiet now. He's sitting on a low ottoman in his unkempt Crown Heights living room, carefully rolling a blunt. "I was always making music with my mouth as a young kid," he says. "It just kept me really happy, doing it when I was alone." Lucky leans back and slowly exhales. "One time I was put into solitary confinement, and while I was in a straitjacket, I was beatboxing. And they told me to shut up or they'd take away certain privileges. Make me wait, you know, hours before I would eat my next meal." His eyes squint at the memory. "But I just stayed on making that music despite all that, and when I got out of there, you know, it was a constant companion."
The cries of Lucky's baby boy, Psyence, ring out from another room. Dad tries a little cooing to calm him down, but can't resist adding just a hint of hip-hop to his lullaby. Convinced that Psyence is awake for good, Lucky raises the volume: Buddha—boom-boom—dap! Boom-boo-boom—dash! The beatboxer's black-rimmed spectacles vibrate in rhythm to his mouth's bursts of sound. Save for his lips and tongue, he's remarkably still as he loops the same rhythm of snare, kick drum, and hi-hat cymbal over and over again. To the neighboring tenants, the strange noises coming from apartment 4K must sound something like a syncopated demonstration of kitchen appliances, a five-piece combo featuring a grinding can opener, groaning trash compactor, flowing sink faucet, crackling skillet, and spring-loaded toaster. But to Psyence it's simply how Daddy talks.
"He wakes up every morning at 6 a.m., like clockwork," Lucky remarks with a grin. "I just hope Tarsha fed him." Tarsha is Lucky's wife of eight years, a social worker with a degree in psychiatry and, as Lucky freely admits, "the love of my life and a grounding force for me." Lucky was a dope dealer when they first met almost a decade ago at an Alphabet City needle exchange where Tarsha volunteered. "She's helped keep me on the straight and narrow," Lucky says. With the birth of Psyence she's taken to calling him Papa Lucky, and the nickname has stuck.
It's an apt moniker, since Lucky, 34, is a kind of father figure to the restless community that shares his skill. Numbering around 20, they rely on his upstart production company, Beatboxer Entertainment, to provide an outlet for their eccentric talent. Long marginalized, this new generation of beatboxers often comes across like the X-Men of comic-book lore—freaks with a special gift who are often misunderstood.
Masai Electro, a country-club cook in his mid-thirties, says even his own mother didn't get it at first. "I knew I had something different when my mom thought I was possessed by the devil 'cause of the voice. She really thought something was wrong—'That boy got the devil in him!'" he recalls, imitating her shrill cry. "She thought I was kinda crazy. Then fortunately, around the mid '80s beatboxing came around, and it gave me a format to turn my raw sounds into something constructive." His specialty is an uncanny rendition of the Knight Rider theme, complete with the whoor-whooorl sound of David Hasselhoff's car, KITT. When Electro busted it out at a recent show, the crowd first whooped, then fell all over the place cracking up.
That reaction poses a problem Electro and his mates have never quite solved: Their crowd-pleasing antics sometimes come off as corny. Several beatboxers confess to idolizing actor Michael Winslow, better known to the public as that guy from the Police Academy films who makes bizarre and hilarious noises with his mouth—not exactly the thuggish image preferred by today's rap industry. These guys are sensitive on this topic. So it's with some astonishment that I listen to Kid Lucky's latest idea for Beatboxer Entertainment. He's as excited as I've ever seen him. "Yo, are you kidding me?!" he exclaims. "I was trying to figure out what would be dope, you know, the most far-out thing we could do. And I remember watching Flipper a few years ago on TV and I had this idea. And, really, it's not so far- fetched . . . " He arches his eyebrows, relishing the suspense until he breaks down and bellows with laughter, his Yankees cap falling to the floor. "I believe that beatboxers could actually communicate with dolphins!"
He pauses to let this sink in.
"Yo, I'm not kidding! I mean, I was nervous about it being a joke, but the research is serious. Look at the way the dolphins' lips are, the mouth. . . . I'm sure there's stuff we can't do, but they—the Dolphin Research Center— actually got back to me." He catches his breath. "It could really happen." He proceeds to spit out the clicking noise of a dolphin.
Located in the Florida Keys, the Dolphin Research Center is one of the country's top institutes for marine mammal research. "I'll admit, when Terry first approached us, well, it was unusual," says Mary Stella, media relations coordinator for the DRC. "But he was so sincere, so nice, so . . . earnest that I took my notes and ran it by my staff. Bottom line, it's not harmful and he's so enthusiastic."
Stella cautions that the idea is still in the early stages, awaiting a formal research pro posal. But she seems genuinely interested. "I didn't know what beatboxing was until Terry explained it," she admits. "There's not a lot of beatboxing in country music, which is what I mostly listen to." She notes that the center has tried out music before. "We've had choral groups, a cellist, and I even think a didgeridoo player before, but this is unique. Terry said they believe in 'edutainment,' and we are the same way. Our dolphins are always curious." In fact, she mentions one in particular—Theresa, or T for short. "T is a totally goofy show-off, and has an unbelievable repertoire of sounds," she says.
Maybe Lucky's onto something here.
"On the surface, people will think it's a gimmick," he acknowledges. "But from 1978 to 1984 there was research about dolphins communicating using verbal sounds like vowels and consonants. And human beatboxers are essentially trained to do just that. Plus, I got a beatboxer down in D.C. who's a high school science teacher, ya know? So I was like, let's try it."
But not all beatboxers are interested in the call of the wild. The more conventional among their ranks have eked out a living on tour, often revving up a crowd for the bigger acts to follow. Perhaps the busiest mouth around is Rahzel, a/k/a the Godfather of Noyze, who gained notoriety in the mid '90s with Philadelphia hip-hop crew the Roots, wherein he was joined by Scratch, another beatboxer known for his signature turntable sound. Rahzel was one of the first to create vocal beats while singing lyrics simultaneously, and he went on to a modestly successful solo career. Kenny Muhammad, the "Human Orchestra," has carved out a niche, once donning a tux for a gig with the New York Philharmonic. And then there's that crazy Orthodox Jew whose percussive tics became an Internet phenomenon— Brooklyn's Matisyahu may be an international reggae star now, but he got his start as a beatboxer on the same bills as Lucky.
Lucky likes to point out that several a cappella vocal groups now also tout themselves as beatboxers. He mentions Björk's 2002 album Medúlla, constructed entirely of human vocals, beatboxers foremost among them. And he's got special affection for Justin Timberlake, who dabbles in the art briefly on both 2002's Justified and this year's FutureSex/LoveSounds. In the meantime, Lucky has made it his mission to track down all the old-school greats, guys like Biz Markie, Jock Box, Wise from Stetsa-sonic, and Doug E. Fresh. He's held court with most of them—the only major figure to elude him was Buffy from the Fat Boys, who died of a heart attack in 1995 at 28 years old and 450 pounds.
But there was one other legendary name who, though still very much alive, was particularly tough to draw out. "I finally found him just outside Philly," Lucky says. "In fact, I was the first in the beatbox community to get his contact info. Dude eventually called me back on Christmas Day."
Long before he moved to the Philadelphia suburbs, acquired a beautiful wife and four rambunctious kids, was born again through Jesus Christ, and sued boyhood-friend-turned-superstar Will Smith for $2.6 million, Clarence Holmes, now 38, was simply Ready Rock C, the human beatbox. "I was always ready," he explains. "To do what? Rock. What's the first initial in my name? C. That's how it came about: Ready Rock C. Ready to rock a beat!" He's yelling all this while reclining in a plush leather love seat on a recent afternoon in his duplex's spotless living room. Ready's personal website lists his favorite color as "all of them"; he's just as magnanimous in person.
Like most beatboxers, he discovered his unusual gift early in life. A shy kid from the black middle-class neighborhood of Wynne-field in West Philadelphia, Ready liked making funny noises with his mouth. One particular routine he became known for was the Sanford and Son television theme, but with a twist: He pretended he was underwater. "That came about, me just sitting home in the kitchen with a cup of juice or something," he recalls. "I was drinking at the time, blowing bubbles, you know? And then God inspired me. I just felt it in my spirit. Like, OK, that's cool, now lemme see you do it and make a beat." Ready tries to resurrect the tune, but he's nursing a nasty cold and only manages to cough out a few frustrated notes before giving up. Embarrassed, he scoots to the kitchen and grabs a box of Clorox disinfectant wipes.
Around the time Ready's big mouth evolved into a booming beatmaker, he met a lanky rapper with big ears who called himself the Fresh Prince. "We played basketball together, went to the arcades, put change together to buy burgers from McDonald's," Ready recalls of his new friend Will Smith. The young MC needed to build his reputation as a freestyler, and it helped to have a mobile percussionist like Ready Rock C to supply the beats. Hanging out in West Philly, they were always looking to test their skills against other crews. "I mean, we would literally pull up on guys," Ready remembers. "If we seen them bobbing their heads on the corner or in a B-boy stance and it looked like they was rapping, Will was like errr!!, pulling over, out of the car, kachutt!! 'Yo, you wanna battle?!' And we're going at it." The scene is captured on the beatbox classic "My Buddy":
up4 Tryin' to beat us, that doesn't make any sense
In the rap industry we're ranked as first
"That's when hip-hop was fun, you know?" Ready says. "You could just go head-to-head, display your craft to one another, and no one gets offended or pulls any guns." The duo eventually brought in local DJ Jeffrey Townes, and the rest was history. Unfortunately, Ready was largely left out of it—"My Buddy" appeared on 1988's wildly successful He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper, credited to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Ready appears on a number of tracks from that album and claims to have conceived the idea for mega-hit "Parents Just Don't Understand." He says he didn't mind being left out of the group's name at first, because his beatboxing was often at the forefront. But over time the omission was telling. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince went on to sell millions of records, winning rap's first Grammy in 1988. At the awards ceremony Ready was asked to sit out the group's performance onstage, and shortly thereafter was booted from the group altogether.
Ready blows his nose clear of mucus and spits in a small Styrofoam cup. "I mean, I was kept in the background. 'Cause to be honest, I was a threat, and Will wanted the spotlight all to himself." He creases his brow. "'My Buddy' was written by Will Smith and composed by myself. In spite of how Will Smith treated me in the long run, that's how I know he felt about me. That song was about our friendship."
It's a friendship that's grown acrimonious over the years. A few years ago Ready filed a lawsuit asking for back royalties he contends never came his way. The case went before federal court but was thrown out due to the statute of limitations. Ready shakes his head. "He promised me and lied to me all these years, which is why I waited. He's very smart and manipulative." (Through a PR rep, Will Smith declined to comment.)
Ready is wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with his own "READY ROCK C" logo stretched over a pronounced paunch. He strokes his close-cut beard and sits forward in his seat. "See all of this?" he asks, gesturing with his brawny arms at the comfortable middle-class possessions that surround him. "None of this is Ready Rock C money. I worked hard, got an education, and made this through my IT company. Will hasn't done this—pulled himself up by his bootstraps, I mean." The burly beatboxer is a seesaw of emotions. "But I'm blessed— children clothed, roof over our head, meat in the fridge . . . " His voice fades out as his face tightens into a grimace. "Even though I pray for Will, I need my money. I need to get paid!" By now he's almost growling, but quickly laughs it off.
"Ready Rock C's a cat who got hurt," Lucky says. "No doubt." He's been trying to bring his childhood hero out of retirement for some time now. "But it's like he's trying to recoup all his lost dollars—crazy dol lars— at once. We can't do that, but we can give him a mic and a stage." At times like this Lucky seems more like a support group leader tending to his flock of bruised egos. He's bruised himself, but his optimism is infectious. "Here's the thing," he continues, clapping his hands together. "Why have we survived so long? Live shows! That's it. Our live shows are bangin'! I mean MCs just go back and forth, back and forth." Lucky mimics them swaying lazily from side to side. "But people are amazed and dazzled by our live shows. Cats are just bending and breaking notes all over the place—you'd think TV would wanna see that."
Sometimes TV does. A couple of months ago NBC approached Lucky's crew about participating in the next season of their hit reality show America's Got Talent. Andreas Thai-yan, Lucky's manager, says the beatboxers chewed it over but eventually turned NBC down. "The people who do these things are not taken seriously," he explains. "They're looked at as a novelty." Lucky concurs: "Some of the guys were worried about being pigeonholed. The issue of exploitation came up. Fact is, so much is going on now, we can afford to turn it down."
He's got a point. Despite their struggles in hip-hop, beatboxers are thriving elsewhere. They work fashion shows, peddle their own line of ringtones, and have inked promotional deals with everyone from Google to Verizon. "I like authenticity and originality, and beatboxers can really make the crowd go crazy," says Matt Herron, executive producer of MTV Networks, who hired Beatboxer Entertainment a few months ago. "We used them for an e-mail blast and an advertising upfront. They just had that certain . . . something." Thai-yan thinks he knows what that something might be: "Honestly, it's very nonthreatening. Hip-hop without the dirty words; just dope music that draws you in."
But it doesn't draw everyone. Though MTV showed them some love, sister network VH1 failed to do the same during its third annual Hip-Hop Honors Week in October. Sponsored by Mayor Bloomberg, this year's event was a citywide celebration of all the elements: rapping, DJ'ing, graf writing, and breakdancing. All but one, that is. Beatboxing was conspicuously absent. Martha Diaz, a leader of the grassroots Hip-Hop Association and a friend of Beatboxer Entertainment, says VH1 had pledged to work with them but later "brushed us off. They made promises and then reneged. Sad to say, I'm really not that surprised."
Neither is Lucky. "Do we get respect?" he asks. "No, we don't. VH1, they may not be giving the culture its own shine like the others, but at some point they're gonna have to. They're just ill-informed right now. I'll take the 'I told you so!' down the road, ya know what I'm sayin'?"
"Our decision of what to put on the calendar for the week was based on good old-fashioned research of what was going on 'hip-hop-wise,' " counters VH1's Wendy Weatherford, the station's VP of consumer and music marketing, in an e-mail. "As far as the celebrity talent involved in HHH Week is concerned, we tried to book talent that was also involved in the [televised awards] show. Actually, our Celebrity Basketball game on Sunday was hosted by the original human beat box, Dougie Fresh."
True, but in all the promotional materials for Hip-Hop Honors, not once was Doug E. Fresh billed as the "original human beatbox." Instead he was one of many "celebrity MCs." A pedantic quibble, perhaps, but a significant one. As hip-hop officially becomes History —enshrined in the Smithsonian and canonized by tastemakers at VH1 —will beatboxers ever get their proper due? The irrepressible Kid Lucky takes the long view. "'No' doesn't mean 'never,' it just means 'not now,' " he believes. "You gotta pick your battles. Besides, history books can be rewritten."
Maybe if spurned long enough, beatboxers will decide they don't need hip-hop at all. Or other human beings, for that matter. The last time I speak to Lucky, all he can talk about are his dolphins. "This is like some Nobel Prize shit!" he cries. "I'm very proud of this. I mean, I didn't go to college like a lot of people. After you've been locked up in a small room for most of your adolescence, done the 'Yes sir, no sir' thing in the military, been homeless, sold drugs . . . " His voice trails off. "Yeah, this is big."
Back on the sweaty L train—still jammed but now jamming in the tunnel—the smiles are as bountiful and organic as the beats. For just this moment, the beatboxers have everyone's attention. Then the robotic voice cuts in once more: "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience. We apologize for the delay. We will be moving shortly." In the space of four kicks, two snares, and six lip smacks, the train rumbles to life and rolls toward Brooklyn.
This piece is dedicated to Ellen Willis.