Lights go up onstage revealing one man. The bass drum lays down the initial beat. A boom, chick, boom-boom, chick, punctuated by an explosive blow to the crash cymbal. It’s an orgy of percussion, and it's all coming from a single mouth.
Beatboxing the Hip-Hop Blues
Lights go up onstage at the Steppenwolf Theatre, revealing one man. The bass drum lays down the initial beat. The snare adds a layer of back beats. A boom, chick, boom-boom, chick, punctuated by an explosive blow to the crash cymbal. It’s an orgy of percussion, and it's all coming from a single mouth.
Yuri Lane’s face is animated as he rattles air in and out of his mouth. His checks inflate and deflate. His lips pucker, purse, and ripple. His head moves up and down to the sound of his own beat. He leans forward and sticks his left hand out as if he’s bracing himself to start breakdancing. He remains upright, though, as his feet sync up to the music in coordinated dance moves. Although his feet may be crip-walking, it’s hard for audiences to take their eyes off his mouth. His right hand reaches for his pocket, pulling out a harmonica and raising the instrument to his lips. It sounds like a drum machine spitting beats through the holes of the harmonica as the one-man oral percussion section finds its melody.
In a cross-generational, genre-blending art form, Yuri Lane combines impressive beatboxing skills with versatile harmonica playing to produce a sound unlike any other. Dropping old school beats all over Chicago, Lane’s got the hip-hop blues, and he’s got it bad.
A 5’7” white guy with blue eyes and a receding hairline, Lane does not look like hip-hop. The moment he opens his mouth, though, preconceived notions quickly evaporate. “White boy’s got rhythm!” is the response Lane frequently receives when he performs in hip-hop clubs across the country.
Sitting across from me at a coffee shop in Wicker Park, Lane’s eyes get wide and his hands wave around expressively as he tells me stories about his music. His right arm sports a white wristband. On his right hand, he wears a ring adorned with a big silver boombox. As he talks, every now and then he’ll spit out a couple of percussive beatbox sounds between words, as if they’re bottled up inside just waiting to break out. “Beatbox is a part of my daily life,” he says. “I beatbox when I’m walking down the street, when I’m doing the dishes. And sometimes my wife is like, ‘Shut up with the beatbox! Let’s have a normal conversation. Speak. With grammar and subject.’”
Beatboxing is the art of vocal percussion -- the creation of beats and rhythms using the human mouth. It involves the simulation of drum machine sounds, sometimes accompanied by vocal imitation of other musical instruments and turntables. Popularized by such musicians as Darren “Buffy” Robinson, Doug E. Fresh, and Biz Markie, beatboxing became an integral element of hip-hop in the 1980s. In 2000, Rahzel (formerly of the hip-hop group the Roots) brought beatboxing to the mainstream with his cover of Alliyah’s “If Your Mother Only Knew”.
Jazz and blues traditions heavily influence Lane’s work. He says beatbox was derived from jazz, from vocalizing trumpets, from scatting. With the harmonica, he’s able to introduce strong beats to traditional blues melodies. “I just did a little performance out at Lee’s Unleaded Blues Club, with the beatbox harmonica. And Stan, the owner, says, ‘You know what we caaaall that? We call that the Mississippi Sax-a-phooone.’”
“I consider myself a beatbox tenor,” Lane says. “I can hit the high notes, but then I can get the lower register as well.” When he adds the harmonica to the mix, the mechanics get a little tricky. He gives me a sample, explaining how it works as his mouth slides over the harmonica's airways, producing tones that range from shrill to dulcet. “It’s about trying to mix the inhale with the exhale,” he says, explaining that harmonica is more inhale than exhale. He shows me how he uses his diaphragm, like an opera singer, instead of his throat. And the lips are all-important with the harmonica, he says. He demonstrates with a few percussive sounds that come out of different sides of his mouth and blow through multiple holes in the harmonica to mix hard hip-hop beats with a soft bluesy melody.
Lane is not the only beatbox harmonica player around, but he’s the only professional beatbox harmonica performer with a measure of fame -- albeit mostly within the online community. His videos have gained attention on YouTube and MySpace, and helped launch a whole new generation of beatbox harmonica players.
Fellow beatboxer Tim Barsky says mastering the beatbox harmonica is no easy task. “It’s pretty rare to find someone who’s serious at both and who can reach the stereoscopic spect -- which means hitting something on the harmonica as a simultaneous beatbox line. That’s pretty tricky; that’s not musically easy.”
Barsky says that Lane manages to retain musical technique and sensibilities even though his performances are radically different from most hip-hop musicians. “Yuri’s a classic b-boy in that he’s a really proficient beatboxer,” he states. “He’s up on the sound effects, he’s up on a lot of the classic stuff. He’s got really great vocal dexterity.”
Lane’s fans definitely think he can battle it out with any of the greats. He receives mountains of emails telling him, “You should battle Rahzel!”
“I’d love to get down with Rahzel,” Lane says. “Not challenge him, because I respect him enough that we would do something like spar or collaborate. He is the Godfather of Noise, and I’m inspired by other beatboxers.” Although he’s not interested in making a career out of the competitive circuit, Lane says he’s always up for a challenge. “If anyone wants to spar with me or battle with me, I’m always down.”
Lane has lived and breathed hip-hop since he was a kid growing up in San Francisco. He started beatboxing in his sixth grade math class because he sucked at algebra. “Beatbox was always a great way to not get beat up,” he says with a laugh. In middle school, Lane and his friends would play Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at parties and teach breakdancing moves to the suburban rich girls who went to the private school across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Trained as an actor at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, Lane has worked in theater, improv, even miming. He created and stars in two plays that tour the country, Soundtrack City and From Tel Aviv to Ramallah. Soundtrack City is a one-man hip-hop play in which a street harmonica player on the brink of homelessness takes us on a journey through the neighborhoods of Chicago. From Tel Aviv to Ramallah tells the story of two young men -- one Israeli, one Palestinian -- whose lives intertwine despite their being separated by military border crossings. In each show, Lane’s beatboxing helps narrate the story.
Both plays are products of collaboration between Lane and his wife Rachel Havrelock, a Hebrew Bible scholar at the University of Illinois, Chicago, who wrote and directed both productions. “She was very interested in theater, so we combined forces,” says Lane. From Tel Aviv to Ramallah is based on their travels in Israel. The two had met at a baseball game in San Francisco, then Havrelock left to travel in Israel for the next year. “She said, ‘Oh yeah we had this love affair of the summer of ’97 but, by the way, I’m going to Israel for a year. Bye!’ So I’m thinking, ‘I gotta go out there! Or she’s gonna come back with some Israeli motorcyclist!’”
They traveled together from city to city in Israel and Palestine, meeting friends from both sides along the way. “At the end of each day, I would sort of rewind the day back in beatbox, all the different places we’d gone to.” Thus begat From Tel Aviv to Ramallah.
The play tours theaters, colleges, community centers, and synagogues all over the country. In universities, From Tel Aviv to Ramallah is often co-sponsored by the Muslim Student Association and Hillel (the Jewish student group on campuses nationwide). Lane sees this as a huge step in the right direction toward opening dialogue between Muslims and Jews both here and in the Middle East. Expressing his own views on the Arab-Israeli conflict, he says, “Oppression doesn’t work. Occupation never works. For me, the Zion is a state of mind. And the Zion is for everybody.”
In Lane’s plays, beatboxing drives dialogue and hip-hop becomes a strong force of storytelling. Dr. Daniel Banks is the director of the Hip-Hop Theatre Initiative in Undergraduate Drama at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He says hip-hop theater generally includes one or more of the five performance elements of hip-hop: emceeing (or rapping), b-boying or b-girling (hip-hop dance), writing (usually aerosol art), beatboxing, and DJing. Banks describes the genre as ritual theater for hip-hop culture.
Banks believes that Lane’s theatrical performances speak to the essence of hip-hop theater. “Yuri is this amazing performer who has an internal archive of knowledge and information and experience and beats and rhymes,” says Banks. “He’s an alchemist. He brings together all these elements of contemporary hip-hop culture, and he infuses them together in this totally unique art form.”
Barsky agrees. “For me, what’s most interesting is [Yuri’s] use of dialogue and beatboxing at the same time -- which is not a new technique. Rahzel made it famous. When I played with Rahzel, the thing I found really spectacular was not just that he did this trick, but that he was really saying something with it. And I think that’s what Yuri does. It’s an extended use of dialogue. It’s the ability to say something profound while beatboxing. So it’s not simply a circus routine.”
This is clear from taking one look at the somewhat bizarre makeup of Lane’s fan base. His audiences range from theater-goers to YouTube addicts to blues lovers to hip-hop fans. Regardless of where he’s playing, though, Lane knows how to rock the crowd.
Even if he’s just beatboxing outside on the street.
I ask Lane if he can give me a taste of the beatbox harmonica. He smiles. “Let’s take a walk.” We leave the coffee shop and walk down the street. Even now, in the midst of casual conversation, he unconsciously lets out a beatbox sound every couple sentences. He also slips into different accents to mimic certain characters, and sometimes imitates sounds that couldn’t possibly be coming from a human mouth. I feel like I’m hanging out with the guy from the Police Academy movies.
We find a spot in the shade on a side street, away from the afternoon crowds of Wicker Park. Lane pulls out his harmonica and stands against a brick building. He starts off slowly at first. The harmonica produces a melody. Then the beats join in. It sounds like accompaniment from a rhythm section, but sure enough both lines are coming from the same mouth. The tempo increases. Lane’s face is concentrated. He works his beatboxing around the harmonica, restraining the beats so they remain in the background, despite being prominent, distinct sounds. It looks difficult, to say the least. He finishes off with flair, pulls the harmonica away from his lips, and his face breaks out into a grin.
His playing is as soulful on the side of the street as it is on the stage of Millennium Park. His passion for the music comes across in his skillful execution and unwavering confidence. And it’s hard to ignore that his unique talents are pretty damn cool.