Rhyme Machine

Photo courtesy of the artist and La MaMa Kid Lucky, at the 2011 La MaMa World Block Party.
Photo courtesy of the artist and La MaMa
Kid Lucky, at the 2011 La MaMa World Block Party.

Kid Lucky and La MaMa celebrate ‘the art of human noise’

BY TOM TENNEY  |  In a 1913 letter to the composer Francesco Balilla Pratella, Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo declared, “The variety of noises is infinite…today we have perhaps a thousand different machines, and can distinguish a thousand different noises, tomorrow, as new machines multiply, we will be able to distinguish ten, twenty, or thirty thousand different noises, not merely in a simply imitative way, but to combine them according to our imagination.”

This letter, which became a known as “The Art of Noises,” advocated a new sonic vocabulary through the imitation of machines — and became one of the most important manifestos in the history of sound.

As technological advances at the turn of the century paved the way for a revolution in mass media, they also created new possibilities for individual expression. By mid-century, the computer had opened new sonic territory by permitting an unprecedented extension of sounds and scales, pushing the boundaries of music beyond what the Futurists ever imagined.

In 1983, 70 years after Russolo’s letter, a British avant-garde electronic group that called itself The Art of Noise (after the manifesto) released a song that mixed sampled sounds of car engines and industrial machinery with time-warped drum beats and orchestral stabs. This song would become one of the most influential instrumentals in the world of hip-hop, sampled by artists from X-Clan to Marky Mark. The name of that song was “Beat Box.” A year later, an 18-year-old rapper from Harlem by the name of Doug E. Fresh pioneered the art of imitating electronic drum machines using only his voice. The art of “beatboxing” was born, and the verity of Russolo’s vision was, once again, affirmed. As do all musical genres, beatboxing has evolved in the intervening three decades, spawning a variety of techniques — including the “human turntable” (a style invented by Wise of the group Stetsasonic) and “mouth drumming” (developed by Wes Carroll).

From May 24-26, the Third Annual American Human Beatbox Festival at La MaMa Theatre will give New Yorkers the opportunity to sample some of the most eclectic beatboxing styles by artists who make percussive rhythms with the human voice.

Photo courtesy of the artist Baba Israel, on the bill of May 24’s Beat-Rhyming battlers.
Photo courtesy of the artist
Baba Israel, on the bill of May 24’s Beat-Rhyming battlers.

This three-day exhibition of performances, workshops and film kicks off on Friday night with a battle, not of beatboxers, but beatrhymers — performers who beatbox and rhyme at the same time. Beatrhyming was developed and popularized by the festival’s curator, Kid Lucky, who coined the term, and who characterizes the new style as one that allows the performer to move beyond simply providing a beat. Beatrhyming adds language — poetry, rap, song, spoken word — to the vocal effects, freeing the piece to take off in new directions.

“Beatboxers listen to the beat,” Lucky explains, “Emcees listen to the words. With beatrhyming, we listen to the whole concept of the song.” Kid Lucky isn’t the first to beatrhyme, and readily acknowledges those who went before him — like Biz Markie, Darren Robinson of the Fat Boys and Rahzel of the Roots, who astonished hip-hop audiences by beatboxing and singing the chorus simultaneously on “If Your Mother Only Knew.”

For the most part, however, Lucky has seen beatboxers use beatrhyming mainly as a musical machination, a trick for cheap applause. Lucky, who began beatrhyming in the mid-90s, saw the potential to elevate the style into an art form in its own right. “People used beatrhyming as a trick, or a gimmick,” he says, “I saw it as something much more than that. I saw the possibilities to take the concept and push it beyond the boundaries of what anybody else is doing. That’s how you move from gimmick to art.” He’s also quick to point out that beatrhyming doesn’t necessarily mean rapping, but can include a number of vocal styles (such as singing and spoken word).

When La MaMa approached Kid Lucky to curate the first beatboxing festival in 2010, he saw an opportunity to challenge traditional notions of beatboxing, and bring his innovations to a wider audience, many of whom still maintain rigid definitions of beatboxing as a human emulation of technology.

Photo courtesy of the artist Rabbi Darkside, one of the May 25 Vocal Wars warriors.
Photo courtesy of the artist
Rabbi Darkside, one of the May 25 Vocal Wars warriors.

While he recognizes the cultural roots of beatboxing as “man-imitating-machine,” Lucky sees beatrhyming as an opportunity to reintroduce the human element, or “soul,” back into the art. “Beatboxing, which began by imitating the Roland 808 drum machine, is more concerned with the electronic aspect,” he explains, “but as beatboxing moves further, it emphasizes the soul and the feeling as opposed to the technical aspect of it.”

For Kid Lucky, the next step in the advancement of beatrhyming is handing his skills down to a new generation of performers. He teaches weekly beatrhyming workshops at Midtown’s famous Funkadelic Studios, and plans to develop them into a school of what he calls “Mixed Vocal Arts” — an institution that will teach not only his signature style, but also an entire array of vocal techniques including humming, whistling, scatting, vocal sound effects, singing, spoken word, yodeling, rapping and Tuvan throat singing.

The concept of the school was born of Lucky’s frustration with the limited number of styles represented in universities and professional training schools. Scat singing, for example, a uniquely American form of jazz vocalization popularized by Ella Fitzgerald in the 1950s, isn’t taught at most universities. “With scatting, Ella Fitzgerald became a whole entire instrument right there, and people went crazy,” Lucky said. “Why would you stop doing that? Why would you stop pushing that type of situation forward?”

Those who wish to experience this “pushing forward” in person should check out the beatrhyming battle on May 24, where the performers will include D-Cross, Kid Lucky, Kaila, Graffiti, Richard, Esalaah, Kenny Urban, Mandibul, Menyu and Baba Israel. Saturday morning, bring your baby beatboxers to the Kids Beatbox Workshop, and then come back for the emcee/beatboxer team battles at 10pm. Sunday offerings include “Nos States” — a documentary about French beatboxer Princeps, followed by a tribute to the late Steve Ben Israel. It’ll be a unique celebration of music, beats, words and the art of human noise.

Tom Tenney is a performer, producer, sound artist and founder of the annual RE/Mixed Media Festival in Brooklyn, NY (remixnyc.com).  He currently teaches media theory at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. Follow him on Twitter at @tomtenney, or follow his blog at