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Quick-witted beatboxer making music from ‘noises’


In beatboxer Beardyman, THEO PANAYIDES finds a neurodivergent, restless and impulsive musician using technology to augment his human reality

Greenland, notoriously, is not very green – and it must be said, by the same dubious logic, that Beardyman doesn’t have a beard, or only a very thin stubbly beard. The British musician ( Darren Foreman), one of the world’s foremost beatboxers – in Limassol for one night only, courtesy of the good folks at Cloud 10 Music Agency – recalls how the name came about, back in his 20s when he did have a beard, a kind of box beard that his friend Nick would always rag him about. “A mate of mine said, ‘What d’you want to be put down as on this poster?’. It was the first poster I’d ever been on, I needed like a stage moniker… And then Nick texted me and he was like ‘Oi, beardyman!’ – and it was funny to me because it sounded like Beenie Man, or some kind of superhero that has a beard.” He shrugs: “I didn’t think it was going to be my career, so I was like ‘Yeah, fuck it’… And now everyone gives me shit for not having facial hair.”

It’s a cute story, but not very representative. For one thing, it suggests an easily satisfied, rather slapdash character – whereas Beardyman is actually a tech nerd and notable tinkerer, currently spending “a lot of time in the lab making stuff”. Beatboxing means using the human voice to mimic noises, including drum machines and other instruments (a TED talk he did nine years ago has him vocalising everything from buzzing flies to crying infants) – but his work is on a whole other level, using music technology to loop and enhance his ‘noises’ so they don’t actually sound like the human voice at all. So then what’s the point? “What’s the point of anything?” he counters. “I think you’ve got to do what you’re driven to do. I mean, what excites me is technology, and how you can augment your abilities with technology… I’ve always made noises, since I was a kid – but I just got to the point where I felt I’d found all the noises my voice could make comfortably.”

beardymanThe other reason why the Beardyman origin story isn’t representative is because it makes him sound very laddish and anything-for-a-laugh – and he is, he admits, “a goofball” but also quite a bit odder, and more impressive. The reason why he didn’t think beatboxing was going to be his career, for instance, was because he’d already studied Philosophy at the Centre for Cognitive Science at Sussex University, with a focus on Artificial Intelligence. His face is thin, the eyes rather deep-set; his personal style is unusual. He takes a while to make eye contact, plunging instead into restless, almost manic conversation, a stream of humorous patter and dizzyingly quick holding-forth on everything from pre-Christian religions to our own epistemic dilemmas. “How do I know you’re real? You could be an AI. You could be a thousand microbots operating in a sort of human-like machine!” He thinks about this stuff – and other stuff – a lot; the future, the approaching Singularity. “Small talk does my head in,” he admits later. “I’d much prefer to imagine eschatological scenarios. What happens when the robots take over?”

In a way, he’s a challenging interview. He won’t talk at all about his wife and family. He won’t talk about his lifestyle. “I’m not going to answer about things that I do from day to day. I can answer conceptual questions.” Yet it’s also an exhilarating interview because he’s so quick-witted – and indeed good-natured, a goofball, a performer. He won’t talk about hobbies and leisure activities, for instance, “I don’t think it’s of any consequence what I do in my spare time” – but then he laughs, starting to riff on the idea: “I could lie! I could make something up… I do a lot of horse riding. I trade camels. I make my own cheese. I’ve recently been experimenting with human trafficking, which is very lucrative”. He roars with laughter; never a dull moment with Beardyman.

336527837 118109107850703 659717206389218599 nBeatboxing comes from the same restless impulse, the urge to mimic – hence encompass – the whole world. It’s an urge every child has, though how it relates to language is an interesting question; does our ability “to form phonemes for linguistic purposes” grow out of an ability to mimic sounds generally, or does the latter hijack the former? One thing’s for sure, most kids tone down the mimicry as they become more socialised. “The epigenesis of language in children,” as he puts it, “takes this form where a child will experiment with noises, and then you guide the kid towards the phonemes that are acceptable in the given phonemic lexicon of your language.” A young mind will naturally filter out those noises it deems to be useless, or unnecessary. His own mind didn’t, though?

“Yeah,” he agrees – “and there’s a large over-representation of neurodivergents within the beatbox community, I think.” That said, it’s by no means a fringe community. Beatboxing may have been something of a novelty when he was starting out, but now – enabled, of course, by the internet – “it’s this huge global movement with funding, and huge numbers on YouTube, and a very active community, and thousands of kids who are desperate to be the next big thing in this community”. ‘Beatbox battles’ now include a category (known as the producer category) for the kind of tech-augmented looping he’s famous for, the new kids catching up to his own obsessions. “I happened to have been one of the first,” he says, “but there are multiple people now who are just staggeringly good.”

Many of these newcomers may be doing it because it’s trendy, learning to beatbox as a technique. For young Darren Foreman, however, growing up in north London in an ordinary-sounding Jewish family – his mum was a teacher, his dad an accountant – “it would just come out of me”. The boy was musical in general; he wrote a 10-part symphony for the school orchestra at the age of 10, and performed on the piano at his bar mitzvah – but noises would also tumble out, a cascade of unfiltered mimicry.

“It was a thing which I actually sublimated for years,” he recalls, “because people had told me to stop, it’s annoying. I’d be like drumming on the table, doing these kind of musical stimming behaviours.” (Stimming is a kind of repetitive “comfort motion”, often associated with autism.) “It was like a bad habit, that I was told to stop – until I was about 15-16, smoking weed in parks with friends, and then I’d start doing it, I’d be beatboxing the drum-and-bass tracks that we were listening to, and people would start MCing over it. Before I knew it, people were encouraging me to do it!”. Even so, it was only in his early 20s, after being crowned UK beatbox champion two years in a row (2006-07), that he thought about trying to make a career out of it.

mv5bmjjhzwmynmetmzi3my00ymy0ltk2nwqtnzm3otdhodnjmdayl2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynti5njiymw@@. v1 fmjpg ux1000 not webHis parents were presumably concerned, having “actively discouraged me from getting into music”. Their hope for Darren and his younger brother Jay was that they would get “proper jobs, but we [were] just – I dunno, not necessarily best optimised for the working world”. In fact, Jay is also a celebrity, a YouTuber with 1.36 million subscribers – and much of what he does also has to do with linguistic phonemes, performing comedy songs and the like. “He’s phenomenal,” raves his brother. “You can click your fingers and he’ll switch from perfect fluent French to Spanish to English, like that… Jay is an absolute genius. Jay was writing books when he was four.” (Then again, he himself was writing symphonies at 10, I point out.) It seems unlikely that one rather commonplace family could produce two such models of neuroplasticity by accident. Might there be a genetic component to his talents?

Maybe; though it’s also worth noting (again) that he’s come a long way from just ‘making noises’. Not only has he played some of the world’s biggest festivals, not only has he worked with huge names like rapper Harry Mack (nearly 2.5 million subscribers on YouTube), not only has he appeared on TV shows including popular-science programme The Infinite Monkey Cage – but he’s also worked extensively on the software side, indeed tech may be even more important to him than the actual music. “It’s hard to explain to a general audience,” he demurs when I ask what he does in ‘the lab’. “If it was like a music tech magazine I could go into detail, but there’s no point.” Those who want to know more should visit his Patreon, where he actively solicits collaborations with fans; meanwhile, he assures me as we sit in the Crowne Plaza a few hours before the show – I with a coffee, he drinking orange juice diluted with water – “there’s stuff I’ll be doing today which I couldn’t do a few months ago. Which, I would argue, no-one can do, at this point”.

In a way, raising his game is a necessity. All those younger beatboxers are nipping at his heels – and neuroplasticity does decline with age, however much you try to take care of your voice: “I find it very hard to learn new noises”. He turned 40 last May; how did that feel? Beardyman cackles at the question – “What a horrible question! ‘You turned 40, how is that? How’s that going?’” – then grows pensive. “There are two ways to age, I think,” he offers, speaking more slowly and deliberately than his usual breakneck patter. “There’s one where you gather fears and paranoias and defeats, and you collect and curate things that you decide are ‘not for you’, and you can get grizzly and wizened and cynical, and you can grow tired of the world and of yourself, and the place in [the world] of struggles to be hopeful… And there’s another way, which is to actively fight against that.

“It’s the easiest path of least resistance to just find things to be cynical about, and to let the magic leave you,” he goes on. “It makes me really sad when friends of mine say they don’t have time to listen to music, or they’re not interested in music – but this is very common. As people age, they focus on things which lie outside this kind of magical, fantastical area that they did when they were younger.” That’s why most “Trump and Brexit people” tend to be older, he says, equating those developments with hate and cynicism – and unlike the other people, the good guys, those “who’ve kept the wonder of youth, the idea that you can be friends with anyone, that we’re all essentially the same”.

In the end, it’s a bit of a paradox. Beardyman may seem slightly closed-off – swathed in compulsive mimicry as a child, obsessed with futuristic tech and ‘conceptual questions’ as an adult – yet his deepest craving seems to be for the kind of torrential, all-embracing human connection that floods all barriers. “I feel like rave culture is important,” he muses. “Raving is my religion, essentially.” It’s the notion of transcendence, an imaginative rush befitting his visionary side, the same enraptured side that revels in the heady promise of AI and the magic of music. (No wonder small talk does his head in.) “You’ve got the world as-is, where it’s easy to form factions and take joy in petty victories… Or you can take a bunch of Ecstasy and you can be flooded with love hormones, and suddenly you just love everyone around you – and the music is there to help you do that. That’s my religion.”

Beatboxing is a kind of self-affirmation (which presumably explains why kids are drawn to it), the human voice creating its own private world: you can sound like an orchestra, or the whole of Pink Floyd, or a symphony of buzzing flies and barking dogs – yet it’s all just you, one lonely voice, an act of pure creation. “It takes a certain kind of person,” shrugs Beardyman. “I think in the arts generally there’s an over-representation of neurodivergents – people who have the ability to hyper-focus on certain tasks, they have a slightly different way of seeing the world that they’re all desperate to express. Maybe they don’t quite gel with normal society… So they end up going into the arts, because they’re much more comfortable there”. He keeps his focus, tinkering and clowning and innovating and creating. Maybe he should grow his beard back, though.

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