This story is made possible by “Beatbox,” a new feature film now available on iTunes that follows one musician’s rise from underdog to national star, with an unforgettable soundtrack along the way.
Chris Celiz is the first Beatbox House member to arrive at Le Poisson Rouge in New York’s West Village, where the crew of six beatboxers and roommates recently secured a monthly residency. The lobby is fairly empty at 9:15 p.m., and the relentless rain has deterred concertgoers. Three people from California waiting to buy tickets at the box office ask Celiz what show he’s here to see and he tells them he is the show. To prove this, he starts to freestyle. The overlay of percussion sounds that vibrate from the depths of his throat and through his pursed lips, all timed to an internal metronome, awes the group. They nod their heads to his beats, clearly digging the performance.
“Wow! Okay, okay,” says one of the women, who looks about thirty and has hair cropped close to her scalp.
The Beatbox House formed two years ago after the six members met one another at the American Beatbox Championship, a battle held in The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn for the past seven years. Except for Celiz, 26, they each dropped out of school to pursue beatboxing, a path, for the most part, discouraged by their parents. To this day, Kenny Urban, 24, who grew up in Monroe, Connecticut, said he wishes his father would attend a show; maybe it would change his mind about this musical style the group has dubbed “the human instrument,” but what most outsiders still view as a street artifice from the 1980s hip-hop era.
“The beatboxing scene is still so underground,” explains Kaila Mullady, 24, the only woman in the group, and one of the more outspoken leaders of their mission to change the bad rap given to beatboxing. She won the female Beatbox World Championship in 2015. “We can show the world what this art form is.”
Other beatboxers have been able to bank off the Beatbox House’s success and goal as well.
“They’re spreading the art form more and creating more opportunities like myself by bringing it to the mainstream,” says Michael Lackey, a beatboxer from Texas who is “homies” with the crew.
“They’re definitely killing it,” he continues. “Anyone who knows beatboxing, knows who those people are.”
In what turned out to be a sort of “survival of the fittest” maneuver – they are all the top beat boxers in the country – the group banded together two years ago and rented an apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant where they now live with one other beatboxer not part of the official group. The six of them perform together as The Beatbox House, usually at Le Poisson Rouge, but also have separate careers. They aren’t accepting newcomers into the crew, though if a new kid is good enough, they might be willing to train him or her.
The Beatbox House refers to both the group name and their apartment, which is sparsely furnished, with a carpeted living room large enough to host after-parties until dawn. They ask visitors to take their shoes off by the door. The championship titles each person has individually received proudly hang on the wall like degrees in a doctor’s office.
“We are the Jay Z and Beyoncé of the beatboxing scene,” says Urban, sitting in the apartment on a cool fall afternoon, who himself is the 2016 Grand Beatbox Champion, among many other titles. He has shaved the sides of his blonde hair to resemble a Macklemore-style cut and wears black studs in each ear.
In an article for Fort Worth Weekly in November, Lackey confessed to the difficulty of finding top-tier gigs, and his quote alluded to the monopoly the Beatbox House has secured in the American industry.
“There is a group in New York City called The Beatbox House,” he said in the piece. “They are the most popular. They are on MTV, and they do that kind of shit all the time. That’s the top level.”
For an hour at Le Poisson Rouge, the Beatbox House sets up downstairs, checking microphones and assembling a table on stage – a platform not higher than six inches – for when they will use a looping machine to record beats and create an intricately layered song. A fog machine is placed off to the side. Their DJ, Andrew Steve, says it’s a “real treat” seeing them live. Last time he performed with them, they partied until six a.m. and then he went straight to work.
“They took over,” he says. “New York is theirs.”
By eleven p.m. the group assembles for a quick pre-show pow-wow near the bathrooms. They have the intro planned, but they intend to freestyle the rest of the set. They emerge from the back room, weave through the crowd and one by one take the stage. As they do so, they each add a signature vocal. Celiz clicks like a leaky faucet. Urban wails like a siren. Mullady raps. After ten minutes, their foreheads glisten with sweat.
Mullady grabs the mic and gives a pep talk.
“Yo. I don’t care if you want to be a ballerina, a chef or a garbage man. Get out there and follow your dream,” she says. “If you don’t know someone, meet each other. We’re family. Let’s have some fun here.”
Any imaginary wall between the audience and the Beatbox House dissipates. Throughout the night, they invite their friends to sing or play a DJ set. Someone flew in from Japan to beatbox. At one point, all the mikes go out and Mullady jumps into the crowd and persuades everyone to sing “Stand by Me” in unison.
“We don’t need no mother-fucking sound systuuuum,” she belts. “I don’t hear it! C’mon, we’re together now.”
Later her boyfriend shows up and the two engage in a partial battle, partial duet. The whole concert feels like an impromptu basement house party without adult supervision.
By 1:30 a.m. the crowd has thinned and the mikes refuse to cooperate. Urban feels disheartened over the mishaps and the small showing. He blames the rain. They also could have promoted the concert better, he says. They end the night early, before Urban, Mullady and Celiz can perform their solos.
He’s not disappointed enough to sit around and mope though. Urban puts his shades on, hops up on stage and tells everyone to come to the Beatbox House. By three a.m. on a Wednesday, the party is starting back up again.
Anyone who’s been at a party after midnight knows that not all of us can beatbox. Which is why several members of the Beatbox House were picked to dub the soundtrack of the new “Beatbox” movie. Hear their “human instruments” and get immersed in their world by downloading the film on iTunes.