I’m a longtime closeted beatboxer. I do it while walking around, doing household tasks, in the shower, pretty much anywhere except in front of other people. My wife is remarkably tolerant of it, bless her, and my infant son has no choice but to listen to me do it. I don’t expect to ever beatbox for audiences, but I still fascinating and delightful. It’s simultaneously modern and ancient — imitating high-tech drum machines, samplers and turntables, using the most ancient musical instrument of them all, the human body.
Growing up in New York City, I was exposed to a lot of beatboxing at the background level. The earliest track I can definitely point to as impacting my consciousness was “Make The Music With Your Mouth, Biz” by the great Biz Markie.
Back in June we went to see the incomparable Reggie Watts perform at Central Park Summerstage.
I think Reggie is one of the most exciting artists of our time, but it’s difficult to verbalize exactly what he does. His performances combine improvisational music and absurdist standup comedy into a free-associative yet oddly coherent and impactful whole. The best way to get an idea of what I’m talking about is just to see the man in action.
The other day Brian Eno was on NPR talking about his process. He likes to have people walk into the studio without any preconceived ideas or written out material. Then he has the musicians improvise within certain constraints. Usually these constraints are more about a mood or a vibe than a particular musical structure. After recording some improvisation, Eno edits and loops the high points into a shape. Miles Davis used this same process for some of his electric albums, like In A Silent Way.
Miles and Eno seem radical, but in a way, they’re just boiling the usual compositional process down to its raw essentials. Really, all composition and songwriting consist of improvising within constraints and then sequencing the best ideas into shape. Usually this improvisation happens in short spurts, inside the composer’s head or alone at an instrument. Using a recording device instead of a sheet of paper can make the process more bodily and immediate, and can help get at playful ideas that might not squeak past the mind’s internal judges and editors during the relatively slow process of writing stuff on paper. Michael Jackson wrote his best stuff by improvising into a tape recorder. There’s something about improvising a performance while being recorded that focuses the mind wonderfully.
Since 2004 I’ve been writing and recording with Barbara Singer in different configurations. The first version was her idea, a band called Blopop. She had some techno versions of pop songs programmed into her MC-909 groovebox, and the idea was that she’d sing and DJ, and I’d improvise guitar on top.
Lil Wayne and I have some differences of style and taste: about facial tattoos, about drinking cough syrup recreationally, about jewelry on one’s teeth. But we agree about music. He brags constantly that he’s the best rapper alive. I think he makes a pretty good case.