Like most other people who are pulled to Sin City kicking and screaming, I arrived as an invitee to a conference. My job at the time was as a "Personal-Ads Coordinator" for an altweekly. The conference was full of people with the same job, the only difference being that most all of them were well-groomed, obviously using personal-ad management as a stepping stone to being on The Apprentice.
On the second day I decided to call in sick, stay in the air-conditioned suite, order room service, and watch TV. "Maybe," I thought, "just maybe, ol' Lady Luck will shine on me and something decent will be on to make the time pass more quickly before my flight home." Frank Sinatra must have heard my prayers, because, oh Jesus, was something special on. In fact, my luck was so good, I really should've tried my hand downstairs in the casino, but nothing was going to get me to move from my bed once I saw these four words: Fat. Boys. Movie. Marathon. Yes, folks, a retrospective of some of the finest hip hop cinema never to have come out of France: Krush Groove, Knights of the City, and Disorderlies. Things this cool just never happened to me. Satori.
My second brush with hip hop satori happened last week, after slipping discreetly out of Slim's during a show by a guy with a harmonica and a guitar who was so archaic as to actually sing love songs. I wandered down the street and 'round the corner, hoping to chat up some freaks at a bar. On the way I passed the gallery/performance space Studio Z, and bombastic, old-school beats poured forth from the cracked doorway. What could I do but enter?
Inside, the assembled were enjoying the talents of a guy who looked like Popeye, sounded like a 12-piece drum kit, and riveted me to my spot. He was covering the Portishead song "Wandering Stars," each part "played" by loops of his voice that he created and then layered over one another like a full band. This wasn't rock, though, this was pure hip hop, as transcendent as the first time Grandmaster Flash decided to replay a break.
Apparently, while the rest of us were sleeping, beat-boxing moved into a whole new realm, with musicians using their voices in ways that are not only acrobatic, but surprisingly tuneful as well. The new breed of beat-boxing is some deep, powerful Shit That Cannot Be Named. "Is this for fucking real?" said the guy next to me, drinking a can of Budweiser out of a paper bag. It was.
The performer we were watching was Kid Beyond, aka Andrew Chaikin, a 34-year-old jack-of-all-trades who has been beat-boxing for the last 20 years. He's been written up here and there, most notably by the Chronicle, which didn't even know enough to realize that what he does has a name -- beat-boxing -- not "playing the drums by making sounds with his mouth."
Kid Beyond is part of the looping movement, using only effects pedals and his voice. For about a year now he has hosted a monthly event called "The Vowel Movement," showcasing beat-boxing of all varieties. I could have listened to him perform for hours. He is amazing, and the audience members felt like they were witnessing something new, something this jaded music writer could not entirely understand, much less put into words.
Unfortunately, other artists were scheduled to perform, the first of whom came onstage with a full beard and a flute. Oh fuck. Yes, his name was Tim Barsky, and he was putting the "hippie" in hip hop, with a beat-box flute that sounded like something from the international section at Amoeba. Then his pal came out with an accordion. AN ACCORDION. Look, if your last name ain't Yankovic, don't touch my squeezebox. The two musicians wove their patchouli spell on the crowd, and lo and behold a woman emerged in a belly dancing costume and writhed to their beatz.
Just when I had had enough, another accomplished, genuine beat-boxer got up onstage, Infinite (from the Felonious crew). He was more traditional than Kid Beyond, forgoing the effects pedals, but he threw together so many tempos, booms, and pitches that everyone was looking for whatever electronic device he had to be using. It was all him, though. The audience was reinvigorated after the funky flute fluff, and I reminded myself how lucky I was to be there.
That is until the guy with the beat-boxing hand puppets got onstage.
This dude was dressed in tight red pants, a tight red shirt, and gigantic hot pink moon boots. His hair was Björked out in a combo of dreadlocks and rosettes, all of which gave him the air of a raver Muppet. But his beat-boxing was uniquely good, full of odd little squeaks and burps, like a genial space alien. Then he reached for a clunky puppet theater, which he attached around his neck and which jutted out from above his crotch. He opened the curtain, shoved his hand up the ass of an emu-looking stuffed animal, and proceeded to pretend that it was making the noise, not him. For 10 minutes. With no plot structure. Just the puppet and his hand, opening and closing to the beat.
Half of the audience seemed to be good-naturedly laughing at the show, the other half was staring at the laughing half in disbelief. Then, after the puppet show went on and on, the laughing half began to fidget, and the dubious half -- my half -- began to laugh at the absurdity of it all. It was like that scene in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid when Steve Martin goes to make a cup of his famous "java," and proceeds to pour and pour and pour and pour the grounds into the coffee maker, pausing once, then continuing to pour and pour more. It was fucking ridiculous. I left.
Every month at "The Vowel Movement" there are different performers, and I can't say the whole thing wasn't entertaining on some level, so I encourage you to go to the next event (see www.thevowelmovement.com for info). I can't promise you satori, but who knows, you might get lucky.