Bringin’ Beatboxing Back: Interview with Adam Matta
If you think beatboxing was an 80s fad, now essentially extinct and having gone the way of The Fat Boys, think again. Not unlike post-80s metal, beatboxing has continued to thrive underground and has become a more sophisticated, international art form. In fact, while it began in the U.S., beatboxing is now more popular in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe. Still, there are American beatboxing virtuosos, and, over the past ten years, Adam Matta has emerged as one of the best in New York City.
When I caught up with Adam on August 19, he was performing in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with Renaissance-style instrumentalist Sue Carney. Yep, that’s right: the pair had set Shakespearean texts to period-appropriate music and…beatboxing. And if that’s not proof enough that beatboxing is as relevant today as are the words of the Bard himself, read on…
OH: So, you’re accompanying Shakespeare. Are you beatboxing in iambic pentameter?
AM: Close, yeah. (laughs) It’s a good mix. I’m just doing beats with her. She’s playing her different instruments from that time period.
How did you get into beatboxing in the first place?
It started out like a nervous habit. You know, some people will hum or tap their fingers or tap their foot. I feel like that’s what I was doing, but vocally. I beatboxed as a kid, learning from Doug E. Fresh and doing his style when I was 11, 12 years old. But then when I was in high school, I kind of picked up my own style, which is very much more quiet.
(He demonstrates for a few seconds.)
I started doing that on my way to school and riding the train and what not. And then after college—I was in a program studying art—my roommate overheard me. The next day somebody else in the program came up to me and said, “Yo, I beatbox too!” as if it’s this underground clique. So that inspired me to start doing open mics, until I was 21, 22. That introduced me to more musicians, and then it just kept going from there.
Do you have any beatboxing heroes, so to speak? People you admire and look up to?
My favorite beatboxer is Kenny Muhammad. He’s an amazing, gifted guy. He has incredible beats that are so precise and powerful and funky. He really puts on an incredible show. We’ve been performing a little bit together over the past couple years, too, and it’s great to go on the same stage with him.
What’s the prevalence of beatboxing? Is it used in songs more often than people realize, maybe getting mistaken for electronic drums?
It’s still kind of underground, but once in a while you’ll hear a tune and be like, “Oh, that’s beatboxing!” But beatboxing is still very under-utilized. You’ll hear it in some Missy Elliot songs, in some Timbaland compositions. But there aren’t that many songs that use beatboxing. Most of the time it’s a drum track or a program track…But you can tell it’s beatboxing when you hear it.
What’s the foot pedal that you use when you perform?
It’s a BOSS loop station. It allows you to record in real-time and play it back right away. So you can loop layers. You can just tap it once, and it records what it’s hearing, and then you tap it again, and it plays it over and over again. So I can lay down a groove and then do my trumpet over it, and sing over it, and build compositions with it.
Is that pretty standard for beatboxers, or is it something you’ve picked up on your own?
I picked it up on my own a long time ago. I feel like it was my idea to start looping, but many other beatboxers had the same idea. (laughs) You can do three layers with it, so you can compose a real song, if you choose to. I also use delay pedals for my trumpet, just to give it that Miles Davis kind of spaced-out feeling.
How long have you been using that equipment in your performances?
For almost ten years.
I really love your piece about the day in the life of a New Yorker. How did you develop that?
It started out as a project with a singer, Philip Hamilton. We would do these programs for youth at Lincoln Center. I forget how it really started, but it just kept snowballing. He was like, “Wait—can you do a subway train? Ok, cool. Can you do a toaster? Oh, cool. Can you do a can-opener?” And finally, it just kept building until it was like all the sounds from your day. It just kind of organically came together. I started to incorporate it into my shows.
I think the taxi sound is my favorite. It’s so spot-on.
That comes from my early, early childhood, like with matchbox cars, playing in my room. The car sounds are probably the most ancient sounds I have. (laughs)
Does it take practice to come up with certain sounds? For example, if you’re going to do a toaster, does it just magically come out of your mouth? Or do you have to listen to a toaster and practice imitating it?
For most of the sounds, I can kind of hear them in my head for a split second and make my mouth do what it’s hearing. Sometimes I’ll have to go to the actual object and hit it, or press “on” or something, and listen to it. But most of the time, the sounds are in my mind somewhere, and I can just pull it out and do it with my voice.
Are there any women beatboxers?
Yeah, there are some. It’s definitely out of proportion, male-dominated. But there are some women who beatbox, and they’re really awesome. There’s a woman, Bellatrix, from the U.K., who’s really great. And Butterscotch, from the West Coast. She’s been on “America’s Got Talent” [in 2007 and made it to the final four contestants]. She’s really great. There’s a handful, like maybe six or seven that appear on the international beatbox scene, but mainly in Europe. And there’s Luckey Monkey from Florida. She’s really great. So there are women beatboxers, but it’s definitely more a male thing. Oh—and there’s Julia Dales, a woman in Canada. She had a really viral video. There was the world championships, and she entered her video, and her video got like millions of views. She really nailed it.
A world championship of beatboxing? I didn’t even know that existed.
(laughs) Yeah, there’s world championships. There are battles held in Berlin. It’s a little disorganized, in that sometimes they’ll skip a year, but there was a beatbox battle last year in Berlin, and a guy from Switzerland won. It was a great event. There were a lot of awesome, talented people there.
Did you participate?
Yeah, I did. I didn’t place. They selected 16 out of 50 to go to the semi-finals, the elimination round. I didn’t make the cut to the 16, which I was bummed about and a lot of other people were bummed about. People said I had the best drums of the event. But my style is not really a battle style. That’s a different muscle. A lot of international beatboxers have really extreme sounds, and they’re really dexterous. My sound is more musical. I’m more of an ensemble performer. Or when I perform solo, it’s more about building the dynamics and the subtleties. So that kind of thing doesn’t really translate into battle format. But I’m just glad I threw my hat in the ring at least once and just tried it out. It was really fun. And the finals were awesome to watch.
What is a battle like?
A battle usually consists of two beatboxers on the stage. There’s a coin toss to see who goes first. Basically, the first beatboxer does a two-minute routine, and the second beatboxer does a response to that one. Then it goes back to the first to do another response, and then another response from the second one. And all the time, you’re trying to put down the other beatboxer. If you’re doing a response, you can take what the first beatboxer did and flip it on him or try and make the other beatboxer look bad. You can do that by interjecting words or sound effects. There was this one battle in Berlin where there was this little kid from Asia battling this huge guy from Russia. The guy from Russia was really intimidating, just looking at him. And the kid battling him did this car sound, like, “Oh, look, there’s your sports car,” and he made it start struggling to get up a hill. It was hilarious. So it can be really funny and just really powerful. It’s an interesting art form.
How do those events get judged?
It’s a combination. There usually is a panel of judges, usually professional, accomplished beatboxers. And sometimes people from other parts of the hip-hop community, like producers and DJs will judge. But applause has a lot to do with it as well. There’s different criteria, like originality, musicality, technique.
We just had one in the states [on July 31, 2010]. The American Beatbox Championships. At that event and at the Berlin event, people always question the judges’ final call. But in the end, it’s important to have the winner really represent the best of beatboxing. So if the person is overly violent or overly aggressive or doesn’t have their musicality locked in, then they probably won’t get chosen. The judges want the winner to represent the most hopeful for the future of the art form.
For more on Adam Matta, including mp3s and videos, check out his website and blog. To learn about upcoming beatbox championships and learn more about the international beatbox community, go to Beatbox Battle.
To see and hear Adam being badass in Berlin, watch this:
One last note: this blog post is in lieu of my promised “part 2” review of a concert on July 30, 2010, at South Paw, where Adam Matta performed.