One of the problems of being a drama critic is that you cannot watch a school play without wanting to tell a kvelling parent that their 12-year-old has the stage presence of a bar stool. So when beatboxing star Shlomo asked me if I enjoyed the show — not a school show, but a mind-numbingly dumbed-down Christmas version of Channel 5’s already dumb The Gadget Show which took over Earls Court last weekend, I didn’t say the first thing that came into my mind. That was that I would rather taser myself than go through it again. I chose the second, more diplomatic response.
“I enjoyed your bit,” I said. And I had. Shlomo, the slim, rather nebishe 30-year-old grandmaster of beatbox — the cousin of hip hop that uses only the mouth and voice to create its electronic, drum machine and vinyl “scratch” sounds — had enthralled the 3,000 crowd with impossibly fast rhythms. He then used one of the show’s featured gadgets — something called a Boss RC-50 Loop Station for gadget geeks — to record the audience’s collective voice. The results were immediately played back and used as a multi-layered backdrop to Shlomo’s beatboxing finale. The act was terrific, if all about rhythm and technique. It’s in his touring solo show, Human Geekbox, where Shlomo brings his heart to the fore.
Along with other Jewish beatboxers such as Beardyman and the female artist Bellatrix, Simon Shlomo Kahn has forged a career as one of the genre’s finest. He holds a world record — for directing the biggest beatboxing group of 2,081 people — and few if any other beatboxers have formed their own orchestra, and worked with artists such as Bjork, Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker and Martha Wainwright. But he wears these achievements lightly.
“Human Geekbox links together four generations of male members of my family,” Shlomo tells me as we walk past a phalanx of techies and tech backstage. “It includes my grandfather, who was a professor of astronomy and moved to London from Berlin just before the war. He had a planet named after him. And I talk about my dad [a jazz musician], who told me that one day we would all live there.”
The planet — actually it’s an asteroid — became part of the family lore. But in Shlomo’s solo show it becomes a metaphor for home, a place he lost sight of as he pursued his career. The story in Human Geekbox describes how when, as a child, he realised that the Kahns would never live on their own planet, his “world came crashing down. Then I finally become a dad and it all begins to make sense. I realise that you can still fly to the moon, but through a child’s eyes.”
Shlomo leads me into his backstage cubicle, a prefab with no ceiling. It’s already occupied by a man wearing headphones poring over an iPad. This is composer and arranger DJ Walde, Shlomo’s collaborator on yet another show he’s working on. This one is for Bristol’s Old Vic theatre — a musical version of The Little Mermaid.
“The schedule is ridiculous. There’s just not enough time so every spare moment we’re scribbling away,” Shlomo says. Is this most pressure he’s been under? “No. I’ve had way less time than this. I directed a show last year, The Vocal Orchestra [seven mouths, seven mics, no instruments] and we had one week to rehearse it. DJ’s scoring now. He’s got notation software on his iPad.”
He describes himself as hailing from a line of geeks — at least on his father’s side. His maternal branch of the family moved from Baghdad to Jerusalem where his mother was born. Geekiness is part of his stage persona. With his black-rimmed glasses and skinny frame, he looks like the kid who gets bullied at school. Although here at Earls Court, at a major event in the geek calendar, he fits right in.
“When I was touring with [hip hop and dubstep band] Foreign Beggars, I had these huge trousers and little glasses. I just felt out of place.” There are YouTube videos of that period. They show a skinny kid in his early 20s standing a little shyly on stage. The crowd are shouting “Shlomo, Shlomo”. He seems unfazed by the expectation. But he also seems unlikely to fulfil it. Then he raises a mic to his lips and a sound like a thousand fuses blowing in quick succession rips across the room. The crowd roars. The drum-machine rhythms are so convincing Shlomo has to insert the phrase “all from the mouth” into the act, lest people think he’s getting help from technology.
It may seem strange that Jews have embraced an art form invented by American black hip hop culture. But it’s not just beatboxers. “Yeah, quite a lot of hip hoppers as well. It’s horrible to generalise but a lot of Jewish people I’ve met are driven and focused and put their hand to something and do well.” The Leeds-born performer’s talents were honed at night in the Buckinghamshire home where he was raised. He could not play his drum-kit after six for fear of upsetting the neighbours. And as Top of the Pops began at 7pm, he had no option but to copy the rhythms of the week’s hits using sounds made from his mouth.
Although he now appears to be where he wants to be, he experienced “a massive wobble” a few years back. “I was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe. My child was very small, I was away for a month, I went home for one night. And that’s when I realised that this wasn’t what I wanted.” Seeking alternatives, “I thought: ‘I can direct a show, I can compose music for other people, I can teach and still be home for bath time.’”
But the work is still coming in as fast as a beatbox drum roll. He has been commissioned to write a beatboxing piece for the National Youth Choir, he is working on pieces for contemporary theatre and dance and there is going to be a new Shlomo work written for beatbox and organ which will be performed at the Royal Albert Hall. But bath time with his two-year-old son George is the priority. “Before I was obsessed. Now I’m happy.”
Human Geekbox is touring the UK until December 10.
The Little Mermaid is at the Bristol Old Vic from November 28