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The Music Man 

Beatboxer Yuri Lane sets the San Francisco story to music, using the only equipment he needs: his mouth

Wednesday, Apr 17 2002
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Yuri Lane is onstage at Spanganga in the Mission, and he's not alone. There's Jojo the break dancer, Mike the bike messenger, MC Pissed and DJ Wicked, Gerard the aerobics instructor, a party girl called Tiffany, and a homeless harmonica player named Leopold. There's also a bus, a Muni train, some hookers, the inner workings of a video game, and a whole bunch of tourists. Even though the stage is tiny, there's still plenty of room for Lane and his environs, for the simple reason that he's the sole person actually up there. Every Saturday, as part of his one-man musical Soundtrack City, Lane re-creates a whole world, full of multiple characters and the city around them. The only equipment he uses -- save for some slide projections -- is his mouth.

Lane is a beatboxer, aka a vocal percussionist, dubbed in hip hop circles the "fifth element" (the other four being MCs, DJs, break dancers, and graffiti artists). Beatboxers first gained renown in the early '80s, when people like Doug E. Fresh, Buffy of the Fat Boys, and Biz Markie faithfully re-created the sounds of drum machine beats, scratched records, and wailing guitars with just a microphone and a mouth. Now, with Soundtrack City, Lane takes beatboxing a step further, using his verbal gymnastics and acting skills to bring out the inner soundtracks of his native city.


Yuri Lane, 30, first discovered hip hop by listening to KPOO-FM (89.5) when he was in grade school. He and a friend would engage in break dancing battles to Egyptian Lover's theme song for hours. (At one point, Lane put "Egyptian Lover" on his home answering machine, thoroughly confusing callers looking for his painter father or violinist mother.)

"Beatboxing sort of came naturally to me," Lane says during an interview at his Western Addition flat, "with having heard hip hop and made sound effects with G.I. Joe and Army figures as a kid." He knew he was truly onto something when he began beatboxing in a sixth-grade math class and his teacher told him to turn off the radio.

By 12, he'd also picked up the acting bug. While attending the School of the Arts at McAteer High, he performed in plays at the Berkeley Rep and the American Conservatory Theater. His career didn't exactly take off, but he did nab a small part in a Jim Belushi exploitation pic called The Principal and just missed getting the lead in the TV show Doogie Howser, M.D. Although he continued to beatbox with friends, it wasn't until he graduated from college at the Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts in Santa Maria and moved back to the Bay Area in 1992 that he began to see sound-sculpting as a vocation.

"I was in rehearsal in this play five years ago and I wasn't in a scene," Lane recalls. "I was just beatboxing, and I started moving and started thinking, "Wait a second, there's something to this. I can beatbox and act at the same time.'"

Lane began doing small bits in bars, cabarets, and nightclubs, but didn't set his mind to a whole show until he got a full-time job teaching drama at S.F.'s Brandeis Hillel Day School. "I was living the life of a gofer, doing auditions and catering, until a year and a half ago, when I decided I had to put the show out."

With the help of his wife, Rachel Havrelock, Lane scripted the rest of Soundtrack City, based on the concept of "a journey through San Francisco using different modes of transit." The play begins on Haight Street with the amiable Jojo (an ode to Lane's best friend, who was killed during a carjacking on Potrero Hill in 1996) break dancing with his homies, then doing some graffiti tagging and being chased by a cop. Jojo escapes via the bus, which leads to Chris, who's on his way to a gym. After some "Step Move Push" aerobics with Gerard, Chris heads downtown via Muni, where we meet Leopold, blowing on his harmonica, and clubber Tiffany. The latter soon goes to a party, where she gives Ecstasy to tough guy MC Pissed.

The second act follows Mike the bike messenger through the Mission to the Financial District, where he passes Silver Man doing his shtick for some tourists. Mike drops off a package at a quickly failing dot-com, where Freddie plays Tetragrammaton, a video game in which "all your violent fantasies come true." After being downsized by the game, Freddie heads off to Starbucks, where he runs into Tiffany and MC Pissed -- who, thanks to the E, is considering changing his name.

Lane links all these characters with the sounds of the city, capturing everything from the dinging bell of a Muni car to the spray of pressurized paint to the slurp of steaming milk. He also litters the play with musical references that comment on or connect with the actions of the people involved. When Mike takes off on his bike, he sings along to Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," changing the words to suit his profession. As Chris steps onto a train, Lane slides into Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "White Lines," now "Muni Lines." A TV emits a hip-hopped version of the theme to The Godfather, a cab blares a bhangra beat, and kids throw dice to the tune of the soul classic "Money." But Lane really shines when he enters a party and plays MC Wicked, scratching and cutting and mixing all kinds of dance music. Close your eyes, and you'd swear you were in a club. (Lane says that sometimes when he performs, people come up close, trying to see where he's hidden the speakers.)

The length and breadth of Soundtrack City are what makes it work. Lane's continuous score of beats and rhythms is breathtaking, especially given that he's beatboxing while running from cops, doing sit-ups, and riding his bike through traffic. The arty slide show helps as well, adding the grubby subway feel of Muni or a woozy vibe to MC Pissed's E trip. While not every scene works -- for example, the simulation of the computer game goes on too long and is less inviting than the characterizations -- the piece is full of spot-on details and comic surprises. Lane's lampooning of a boy band called NTOUCH is choice, while his dialogue for the workout leader ("My soul salutes your soul"), the British DJ ("That was ... catastrophic"), and the MC ("I'm angry ... I'm pissed!") gently spoofs the characters' inherent silliness.

When Soundtrack City first began running at Spanganga in late February, the audience was made up mostly of hipsters. But now the crowd is decidedly more diverse, with middle-aged couples, performance art fans, and little kids showing up. "The word has been spread that it's a show that's not necessarily for everyone but something that people can identify with even if you're not listening to hip hop," Lane says.

In fact, Lane doesn't like to bill the show as hip hop theater, because the label "has this stigma to it -- that it's actors and singers doing shows about hip hop, as opposed to me using beatbox, but not necessarily doing a hip hop show. ... I'm not necessarily in touch with the hip hop scene, though I value it."

When pressed, Lane mentions modern rap acts he likes, such as Blackalicious, Roots Manuva, and the current beatboxing "King of Noyze" Rahzel, as well as genre-bouncing DJs Shadow, Cut Chemist, and Z-Trip. Lane's even trying to put together a beatboxing combo with Andrew Chaikin of the a cappella group the House Jacks, as well as lay down beats for Big Shawn, producer of local hip hop collective Bored Stiff. He's also working with a Bay Area film director on Mercy, a 30-minute romance in which he beatboxes his thoughts. "It's kind of what I do," says Lane, referring to the character's 'boxed thoughts. "I see somebody and I don't picture them; I see a sound and a movement. Like a character study -- when I'm on the bus it's like I'm in class."

Lane has already taken that class on the road. Last year he visited three cities in the Middle East and then turned his observations into From Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to Ramallah, a beatbox piece on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and peoples. (Having premiered the play at Cell Space last September, Lane hopes to take it to Israel when the current crisis lessens.) In June he'll move to New York for at least nine months, while his wife teaches biblical studies at Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College. Meanwhile, he'll see if Gotham is ready for Soundtrack City. "I have a producer who wants to do the show," Lane says. "I think it'll go over really well because hip hop is enormous there and New York is a theater town. Put those two together ..."

And you've got a show that's hard to beat.

About The Author

Dan Strachota

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