When you take beatboxing back to its first utterings, there were only a handful of exponents of the technique. Shlomo and his mouth have played a crucial role in spreading the word and pushing the art form forward. In his latest one man theatre show The Human Geekbox, which is in Edinburgh this week, he explores his experiences as a father, a child and his fascination with space.
The idea of the show is that he’ll perform a live set each night and record a new song as part of the gig with a local collaborator. The track will then be made available as a download after the gig with all proceeds going to the charity War Child.
M quizzed Shlomo ahead of the gigs to find out how he first started beatboxing, his favourite sounds and why he’s finding his latest project ‘absolutely terrifying’…
What was your musical background like?
I grew up in a very musical environment. My dad is a jazz guitarist. On my mum’s side my grandparents are from Iraq so my earliest musical memory is my gran’s parties. They’d be these huge gatherings with an Arabic band, belly dancers and rich and vibrant sounds. I remember it really vividly.
How did you get into beatboxing?
By accident. I got drums young but wasn’t allowed to practice them after six in the evening because the neighbours would complain. I used to dream of playing drums on Top of the Pops which was on at seven. I used to watch it and then really want to do a beat from the number one single. As I couldn’t use the drums, I’d start doing it with my voice.
I didn’t know it was a ‘thing’. But I’d definitely seen Michael Winslow on Police Academy and remember thinking it was normal because of him. Someone sat me down and played me a tape of Rahzel in my teens and said ‘you’re beatboxing’. I was blown away. It was a way of practicing rhythm rather than recreating sound at that stage. It inspired me to start practicing properly.
The Human Geekbox is the new show – what inspired it?
I did one called Mouthtronica a few years ago which tells the story of my Arabic grandparents. I really enjoyed mixing the story telling side with beatboxing and had been wanting to do a solo piece since then. So now I’m focusing on my grandfather from my father’s side. He was a professor of astronomy called Professor Khan. He named a planet after him. Kahnia – Kahn is my surname so as a child I believed that this planet was ours. I hoped I’d get to live there one day. It’s my dad’s fault. He led me on a bit.
This show starts from there and leaps through the development of my life. How I believed we had a planet and then when I found out we didn’t how crushed I was. It leads into my role as a daddy now and how my little boy is obsessed with space. I’m not looking forward to the day he finds out not all the things you imagine are real.
You’re working with a new collaborator every night. Is it daunting?
It’s absolutely terrifying. It’s ridiculous. But that’s why I wanted to do it. I did it on the last solo show but there I made it a strict rule we had to improvise. I loved the idea of having a different guest each night as regional touring can be a bit lonely. And the sound of your voice for an hour every night can be a bit boring. It was really positive apart from the ridiculous challenge of trying to find someone to collaborate with for each show. Now I’ve made it even harder as I’m writing a song with each one of the guests. But you’ve got to have that fear or you won’t ever do anything. That’s what I find.
Have you any criteria for the people you’re working with?
They’ve got to be talented. Background and instrumentation doesn’t matter. They’ve got to be someone who writes music and who can collaborate. Apart from that, I’m looking for anyone exciting and different. And different to me. I want there to be a bit of contrast between the two of us.
Beatbox Adventures at the Wonderland is your Southbank children’s show. How’s that working out?
It’s an absolute joy to do. People say that kids are the toughest crowd because they have no inhibition so if they’re not feeling something they’ll switch off. They’re not like adults who’ll politely sit through it. They’ll let you know. So they’re the best crowd to test your stuff on.
I’ve been a daddy for two and a half years so I wanted to do things I could do in the day time and still be home by bath time. It’s basically an adaptation of a beatboxing workshop and two teams of kids have to do a beatboxing battle at the end of each show. It’s a bit like 8 Mile but with kids in central London. So it’s really silly.
What technology do you use? Is tech something which influences you?
I’m fascinated by it all and it is a big part of my solo work. I keep coming to redesigning my set up and I do feel the same limitations I know Darren [Beardyman] feels which is why he has done his own thing. But there’s certain draw backs. It’s taken him years to do and I get bored quicker than he does.
But I’m now using a new loop station which has changed what I’m doing. Long term I’ve got a plan to use much more powerful software. But every time you do change things, you’ve got to relearn what you use and how you use it. Redesign all your songs – so I tend to just do it before I do a new show.
How do you write songs?
I write a lot of songs on piano or guitar in the same way many songwriters do. But a lot of it will be done on the loop station because it’s a quick way to jot dot down ideas – it’s like improvising with a band where every member of the band is you. If you’ve got an idea, you can flesh it out really quickly.
Which part of your face do you use most when you beatbox?
The whole mix is important. Most of the sounds of the beats and percussion are coming from your lips. But the teeth, tongue, vocal chords – they’re the real workhorses.
I haven’t got them insured. If someone does drop a hammer on my throat and I can never speak again, I’ll have to get a new job.
Do you have a favourite sound?
My favourite sound is the klaxon sound I’ve recently worked out how to do with my voice. It’s brilliant to surprise people with. I use it to get kids to cheer.