(written two weeks ago, during my first stop in Prague. I'm now finishing up my second stop, and am headed to Berlin for the World Championships this weekend.)
I arrived in Prague, got money out of an ATM (one crisp 1000 crown note), apologetically bought a 35 crown sandwich and got change, bought a ticket for the subway, and was at my 9PM appointment at a hole-in-the-wall hiphop club by 9:20. The guy I was meeting with, an American beatboxer named Kid Lucky, showed up around 10 with a smiling Czech girl on his arm.
Kid Lucky spent a long time developing a beatbox scene in New York, and is now doing workshops and concerts in Europe, basing his European life out of Prague. I'd heard a lot about the perceived differences between American beatboxing and Euro beatboxing, and so I really wanted to hear Kid Lucky's perspective on the question. Once he showed up, he did not disappoint. I pulled out my notebook and tried to catch the best quotes, wishing I could record (it was a bit too loud in the club for that).
Kid Lucky starts from the position that beatbox and hiphop are inseparable. Beatbox may have spread throughout the world along with hiphop culture, but it is still (or should still be) tightly connected to its roots, the beatboxers who created the art form in the early 1980s. He thinks that's what gets lost a lot of the time in Europe. "You have to know history, so you don't think you're so great," he explained. "What [European beatboxers] are doing isn't new."
That took us into a discussion of terminology. His problem is not with musicians who want to use similar techniques to beatbox to create new forms of music. It's more a question of those people appropriating the name 'beatbox' to describe what they do. If you're not based in hiphop, Kid Lucky insisted, "Stop calling it beatbox. Beatbox is within the realm of hiphop."
Many beatboxers in Europe, Kid Lucky continued, would better be termed 'vocal percussionists'. The real pioneers of beatbox, he explained, rattling off a list of the godfathers of the art, had more going for them than just drum sounds. "Every beatboxer was an emcee. Every single one of them."
Lucky's own style derives from this view of beatbox. He coined the term 'beatrhyming' to describe what he does. It combines freestyle rap with vocal scratching-- taking words and mashing them up like a DJ would do with a record on a turntable-- and just brief moments of vocal percussion. It lets him, without any loop pedals or backing tracks, create solo performances that carry clear messages along with a beat. "The whole thing about beatbox is doing it all," Kid Lucky says. "You are a one man hip hop show." He says he created the style mostly to use in battles with other beatboxers, to bring something to the table that no one else was doing.
Beatboxers today, most of whom can't put together their own lyrics, suffer from what Lucky calls 'Kenny Muhammad syndrome'. Muhammad is a top beatboxer who emerged in the late 1990s, and whose most famous routines are frequently copied by novice beatboxers. Kid Lucky has a bit of a grudge against Muhammad, whom he blames for creating the notion that a beatboxer could do nothing but drums and sound effects. He also has little respect for many of the big names in European beatbox (it's worth noting that he excepted the French), whom he sees as derivative acts at best, copycats at worst. He took a dig at the UK scene, saying, ""All those cats are biters. Every single one of them. And now there's this new crop that's biting off of them!"
I felt compelled to rise to defend Europe, pointing out what I saw as a much stronger community of beatboxers, all helping each other get better and learn new things. He responded that the top beatboxers in the US are still a close bunch, but they just show a sense of community in different ways. "We're not all online all the time, but we'll phone each other, and if you have a gig somewhere you can come crash at my place."
The major difference, he said, is that the European community looks inwards first and foremost. Beatboxers seek to win the approval of other beatboxers, which leads to them developing routines that can be fully appreciated only by other beatboxers, who know how hard it is to do the things they do. Conversely, in the US, beatboxers aim to make it big with a wider audience. "You're trying to prove yourself to other beatboxers," Kid Lucky says. "We're trying to make money."
Kid Lucky told me that the future of solo beatbox is in words-- in creating routines that offer new, original lyrics that carry a message. There's nowhere left to go in increased technicality, he suggested, and the logical place to go is back to the roots of the artform. Whether this becomes accepted among the broader community of beatboxers, he says, "depends on who wins the PR war." He's doing his part, spreading the gospel of hiphop to would-be beatboxers across Europe, and serving as a kind of hiphop guru here in Prague. I'll write more about my experience with his Hip Hop Subway Series, which is putting on regular, mobile ciphers (jam sessions) in the Prague metro. The most recent one, this past Sunday, drew a crowd of around 80 people.