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Boundaries of the Human Voice: An Interview with Beatbox Champion Ball-Zee

1 June 2016 | Tom Faber

Ball-Zee has won some of the most coveted beatboxing championships in the world, but he’s not content to rest on his laurels. Besides his work with super-group The Beatbox Collective he now appears in Gobsmacked, an a cappella musical coming soon to the capital. We caught up with him before the show’s London debut and talked style, practice and the future of beatboxing.

London Calling: Tell me about Gobsmacked!

Ball-Zee: It’s a groundbreaking a cappella show made up of world-class singing and beatboxing. It’s got a great cast of seven from all over the world. It covers every genre so there’s something for everybody in the show, from the 60s to pop classics to rock and roll songs.

 

LC: Has it been an unusual move for you to go from the underground hip hop scene to move to the shiny world of pop a cappellas?

BZ: I listen to all types of music – not pop that often I must say – but I appreciate all types of music. It’s quite a change for me but also something I’ve wanted to do for a while. To be honest the reason I agreed to this job is because I sat down with the producer and I wanted to really push what we could do with beatboxing, combining that with a cappella to create something new. If it had been just me sitting there and doing vocal percussion, which lots of beatboxers do in a cappella groups, I don’t think I would’ve taken the job. But they’re challenging me, giving me really complex arrangements. So it is a little bit different but I like being out of my comfort zone.

 

LC: Do you think different beatboxers have different styles because they grew up listening to different music?

BZ: Totally. I grew up listening to UK Garage, drum and bass, lots of UK hip hop, and that had a huge influence on my style. Also where you’re from is important. If you’re from the North of England, where grime isn’t very popular, you’re unlikely to do grime. When you come to London it’s totally different. When you go to the world beatbox championships it’s funny that all the UK guys are doing dubstep and drum and bass, the German guys are doing techno and minimal, the French guys do hip hop. It shows where you’re from. I have so many followers from places like Indonesia and I’d like to go there and see what styles they have from their own culture.

 

 

LC: People often comment on how ‘clean’ your style sounds.

BZ: Lots of people ask me how my sound is so clean. When I started Youtube had just come about but I couldn’t find any tutorials online. I’d spend hours, years even just working on clean sounds. Then I went onto arranging stuff. Beatboxers today learn off Youtube, they can do all the sounds that I can but only half as good because their learning is too rushed.

 

LC: What would you recommend to someone who was learning now?

BZ: Listen to others for inspiration but not too much. There are so many beatboxers now, kids who are starting out listen to them and then can’t help but copy them. You want to start trying to do original stuff. To make a name for yourself ‘battling’ is very important. If you turn up to a beatbox battle and you’ve got somebody else’s style then the judges will know. Also just keep practicing your basics. Kids today will learn a sound and be so hungry for more sounds that they’ll move on and that first sound is not quite there yet.

 

LC: Are there any sounds you’d love to be able to do but you can’t?

BZ: There are a lot of instruments that are hard to replicate. It’s almost impossible for a human to do chords, to replicate the sound of a piano key times three to make the chord. Another thing that’s hard for beatboxers is high stuff like bells, triangles, cymbals. But I think with the right mind state you can do anything. So I’m going to practice my cymbals.

 

LC: Do all the new sounds you add to your repertoire come from existing music made on instruments?

BZ: No, the beauty of beatboxing is that it’s a blank canvas. You can try doing instruments or you can just completely go for broke on a brand new sound that nobody’s ever made with their mouth before. A lot of my sounds are completely random, I’ve just found a way to make this crazy sound, or they’re combinations of existing sounds I already had that use a similar part of the mouth.

 

 

LC: While there are often comparisons between beatboxing and electronic music, it seems beatboxing is a more organic process. It’s easier to improvise.

BZ: That’s by far the best thing about beatboxing – you don’t need money, you don’t need to come from any particular family or background. You literally don’t need anything. Anyone in the world could learn to beatbox and it’s a beautiful thing.

 

LC: In terms of their abilities anyone can?

BZ: Like anything, anyone in the world can play football but not everyone’s good at it. Some people can do the basics and won’t progress past that. But others, you teach them the basics and then come back after a couple of years and they’re amazing.

We’ve started workshop groups across the UK. One’s at the Battersea Arts Centre. We started it six years ago, and a friend of mine taught there. He went in and taught kids who were shy and not fully committed. Seven years later one of them got to the semi-finals of the UK beatboxing championships.

 

LC: When you were coming up as a beatboxer there were no schools or teachers, so you’re able to usher in a new age.

BZ: It’s great to start spreading it all. Over the past ten years it’s spread so much. Not just that more people are doing it and it’s recognized more, but the level is insane. If you listen to beatboxing from the 80s and compare it to now it’s a completely different thing. It’s amazing the boundaries of the human voice that people are breaking. In the past five or six years it’s changed so much so I can’t imagine what it’ll be like in about twenty years.

 

LC: What’s the way forward?

GZ: Things like Gobsmacked, where you combine two world-class elements, beatboxing and a cappella. Working with the Gobsmacked guys helps me so much. Sitting in a room with these guys who are writing these beautiful riffs and harmonies, I get so much inspiration from these guys.

Gobsmacked! is at Underbelly Soutbank from 16th June to 17th July. Book tickets online.

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