Shlomo is a world champion beatboxer who has won global acclaim and worked with some of the music industry’s biggest names. As well as performing at venues and festivals across the world, he has moved into composing, formed the Vocal Orchestra and started a charity which helps young people learn the art of beatboxing. He spoke to iSing about his love of rhythm and his upcoming appearance at the London A Cappella Festival.
iSing: You initially trained as a classical percussionist and jazz drummer tell us what got you got into beatboxing?
Shlomo: I was eight years old and my parents bought me a set of drums but kept asking me not to play them because it was too noisy. So I invented a style of rhythm practice using my voice, it was kind of instinctive. I was vaguely aware of beatboxing, I saw it on Police Academy as a kid, but it wasn’t until I got a bit older and saw other people doing it that I realised it wasn’t just an annoying trick. So I developed it into something more musical. I entered a few competitions and won them. It was great – I realised I was more talented than I thought.
iSing: When did you realise you could make a living out of beatboxing?
S: I went to Leeds University to study astrophysics but to be honest I never really gave the course much of my energy. Leeds is a very musical city and I would be out every night playing gigs and getting connected with bands.
I was asked to join the (hip hop/dubstep group) Foreign Beggars and I went on tour with them. So I barely went to any lectures. In music you really only get one shot, so I thought I better take it and give it my all.
iSing: Who are your musical/artistic influences?
S: I have a background in jazz, but I enjoy all different types of music. I love anything with rhythm – rhythm has been part of my day since I was a child. I love people like Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. I also quite like some of the pop music that is being created at the moment. I think pop music gets a bad rap. People can be quite snobby about it, but some of the pop music being produced today is really listenable and well crafted. I enjoy people like Disclosure, Rudimental and Sam Smith.
iSing: You’ve worked with some amazing artists including Björk. Tell us more about your collaboration with her. How did it come about, what was the working process and what did you gain out of the experience?
S: Björk was working on an album called Medúlla, which was made using only voices and she used Rahzel, a well-known beatboxer from the US, on much of the album. She had created a song for the opening of the Athens Olympics in 2004 called Oceania which she wasn’t going to use on the album. But then she decided to use it at the last minute but it needed to be re-recorded with all vocals. So she literally phoned me up and said she was in London and asked me to work with her. The next day I was in the studio with Björk! It was an amazing experience. She really saw beatboxing as another interesting way to create music and to express yourself rather than an impressive party trick. I hadn’t really given it that much respect but I realised you can take it so much further.
iSing: Do you have any other ambitions to work with a major music artist/person?
S: It would have to be Stevie Wonder. He is the greatest. He is music. He can’t open his mouth without creating music. I’ve always loved him and my dad loved him. My other love is Glastonbury, so when I saw Stevie at Glastonbury a few years ago it was like my two meccas coming together. If I am feeling a bit flat I can always put on a burst of Stevie and that gets me going.
iSing: Do you do any specific vocal warm ups or exercises to get ready for performance?
S: There is a routine to looking after yourself if you want to be a professional performer. It’s about taking care of yourself, a bit like an athlete. When I am touring I am giving it my all on stage at night and travelling all day. It is a physical endurance test. You have to be physically ready – eat well, work out if you can and stay active.
Beatboxing is less dangerous (in terms of vocal health) than singing and obviously what I do is different to what a singer does. I had never had any formal voice training and I used to really abuse my voice as my shows can be quite loud and I often wound up shouting over the top of everything. But I have had some vocal training in recent years so I can take better care of myself – the larynx is a thing of great beauty and fragility.
iSing: Do you have any other performance preparation strategies?
S: In terms of gearing up to go on stage, some shows I do are really all me, and I have to be ready for it. If I am playing on my own at a festival my goal is to steal the entire stage, to move and command the whole stage from the outset. So I use the adrenaline. People worry about adrenaline but I think of it as something that is useful, that helps me perform and gives me an edge. Before I go on stage I visualise everybody loving it, and start jumping around to get my heart pumping and the blood flowing.
iSing: Can you tell us about your outreach work, where you use beatboxing to encourage young people into music?
S: Beatboxing has turned out to be a brilliant way to help kids who have been exclude or dismissed as troublesome. I started the Beatboxing Academy with Battersea Arts Centre about ten years ago. We went into schools (in south London) where kids were having a hard time, where they felt like people just assumed they would never go anywhere in life. The thing with beatboxing is you can instantly own it. There isn’t a right and wrong, you can create your own sound. It’s really rewarding to see young people enjoying it. I used to look at how music was taught in schools and think ‘In this modern age is that the best way to try and engage young people?’. But I feel like things are improving now.
The lovely thing about it is some of the kids we worked with when the academy started are now big men, and they come and do the teaching. It is great to see the exchange of ideas. The minute they start work the bravado drops. It becomes just about the beat, it doesn’t matter what colour your skin is or how much money you have.
iSing: You will be performing this month at the London A Cappella Festival with the Vocal Orchestra. Can you tell us more about the Vocal Orchestra and why you started it?
S: It started out as a bit of an experiment (back in 2007) with the Swingles. I had seen the musical Stomp and wondered ‘What would happen if you combined discipline and beatboxing?’.
It was a ramshackle experiment. We were going to perform at the Southbank Centre, and the gig sold out before we have even met up. It went really well and we performed at lots of festivals, it was really busy, and then I moved on to a couple of other projects for few years. Ronnie Scott’s asked us last year to reunite the Vocal Orchestra and it has gone from there. Even though the Swingles aren’t in the Vocal Orchestra any more it is nice that we will be performing at the London A Cappella Festival which is curated by the Swingles.
iSing: What can festival goers expect from you at the London A Cappella Festival?
S: It starts off with just me and a microphone, then we bring in two mics, then we have the tech stuff – I have created a machine to warp my voice and sample the audience. I basically create a huge tech mess. We will bring out extra voices, and eventually there will be seven of us on stage and maybe even be a bit of Stevie Wonder in there.
iSing: What is your ultimate message with your music?
S: For me musical has always been a saviour. It brings me joy and now I have two boys of my own, it is great to see it bring them joy, it sort of brings it full circle.
I love the feeling you have as a kid when you just want to clap and laugh. I want everyone to feel that, I still feel it when I perform. The world can be a miserable place at times it’s great to do something which is positive.
iSing: What is in store for Shlomo in 2016?
S: I have a crazy 2016 in store. Obviously there is the London A Cappella Festival. I am also building this whole new rig for my solo tech show. I have a studio at home where I can do my composing and play with my kit and I decided to write the software to create my own machine because I was fed up with the commercially available hardware. I am going to give a TED talk to unveil it. It has to be fully working by summer for the festivals because I will be busy performing then. I should be focusing on just that, but I have accepted a few composing commissions, that is something I have been getting more of in the past few years. So it’s going to be busy.