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Cyborg Music – Beatboxing and the Irish Scene

You may know beatboxing mostly from YouTube, where people show off their abilities to mimic instruments and styles with amazing speed and precision.

Doppler is a musician, a beatboxer, a member of the band Ded Beats, and organised a couple of Cork’s hip-hop gigs as well as the Irish Beatboxing Championships 2017. (He’s also my brother; not the hardest interview I ever organised.) As one of Cork’s few prominent beatboxers, I asked Mark “Doppler” Calthrop to talk me through the art and the Irish beatboxing scene.


Q: Can you tell be about beatboxing as an art form?

 Beatboxing is, at its most basic form, a vocal sound used to create music. A lot of people’s exposure to it is about drum sounds, percussion sounds, it’s about imitating a drumkit or whatever.

Certainly the way it originated was in the 70s, in New York. You had all these kids in the Bronx who didn’t have enough money to use, say, the Rolen Beatbox, which was a little drum machine that could get all these cool sounds out of. So they were like, “let’s do this with our mouths!”, and that’s why it’s called beatboxing. It’s kept that idea throughout history, I suppose. It’s always been about imitating sounds- mainly electronic sounds, sounds that you hear around you, same way music has come from DJs and hip-hop beats, disco beats. It’s come from that, all the stuff that’s come out in recent years from techno to house- all the modern day stuff, beatboxing has travelled with that and copied those sounds. But yeah, essentially just vocal music.


Q: So there’s a big relationship between beatboxing, hip-hop and rap?

Yeah, so where hip-hop started, rap started, breakdancing, graffiti, DJing, all that culture in that same place and in those same communities, beatboxing has come together as well.

Imagine a bunch of guys on the street, none of them famous, that scene before it was really big, and you’d have a guy beatboxing for a guy while they do a rap battle or whatever. That’s how it started, but from there it’s become its own thing, its own art form. It doesn’t necessarily limit itself to just hip-hop music any more, it will embrace other genres; really any other genres you can think of. But mainly electronic stuff, so it’s kind of grown.


Q: Can you tell me about the beatboxing scene in Cork and Ireland?

 In Cork there’s not that much of a scene- well- apart from the one I’ve created! With friends, we get together and jam, all that stuff. There’s a few people about.


Q: Where can I see Cork’s beatboxers, then?

 Nowhere yet, we’ll see. We’re thinking of holding an event actually, hopefully in January/February, maybe have a little championship here in Cork- maybe bring some people down from the rest of Ireland and show Cork what’s it all about. In terms of the actual Irish scene, there’s a fair few of us, maybe 30-40 beatboxers- at least on social media- in fairly consistent communication. There’s the big guys, which I’m fairly proud to say I’m up with there now, kind of well known with those people! We try and organise jams, post our beats, whatever we’re thinking of in the group chat, and kind of communicate in that way. Try and grow together, and keep things going.

People are doing gigs, maybe not as I’d like myself, but…y’know, it’s there. It’s always going to be an underground thing, that’s just the way it is. Those viral videos and stuff on YouTube, that’s where most people consume beatboxing. But you always have this community that’s really committed to it and doing it for themselves more than anything.


Q: You helped organise the Irish Beatboxing Championships this year. Can you tell me more about that?

 My first time going to the championships was last year. Funny story, actually- I’d never heard a beatboxer live on a microphone before. I was walking around Electric Picnic last year, and heard the sound of beatboxing in my ears like,“What’s that?! I know this sound!”. Even though I’d never heard it live before. I came up to this little stage and Amaron, who’s the 2015 Irish Beatboxing champion and Magic, who is now the two time champion- and another guy, Quam, as well- and I was amazed watching them. I came up to them after- “Hey, I’m a beatboxer too!” and they were really happy to meet me, and…there’s this thing with beatboxers where they’re all really friendly. Three other beatboxers, you know, you don’t even have to know their names, but you just have this connection because you all do these weird mouth noises all the time! So, they were just really friendly and nice, and they invited me to the championships. Which was on in a week. Which I hadn’t even known about. So I went to that, did an elimination, didn’t get through, but it’s still a really good experience that exposed me to all of that.

But I came back this year, considerably more preparation done- which still wasn’t enough- but y’now, I tried my best.

It was on October 6th, Dublin, The Wiley Fox, really great event- we had some international judges, you know, professional beatboxers, big guys- fly over and it was a really really good event.

It has this format kind of like rap battles, if you know them. Rapper does his verse, and then the other guy does his verse, and whose verse was better, who brought out the best rhymes. It’s kind of the same with beatboxing. You have two beatboxers on stage and you have a beatbox battle where one guy does his best beat for a round- a one minute-thirty round- and the other guy does his, and the judge decides, oh, that guy was better, and the crowd decides who’s better, who will move on. It’s kind of a tournament like that. I actually managed to get second place this year, which was really amazing. I never thought I’d get that far with the amount of preparation I did! But it was a really amazing event, really good fun, and just standing there up on stage- no cheating, no falsehoods, just, everything you’re doing is coming outta your mouth, it’s really obvious to see there’s no lies there and you get to make a crowd dance and stuff…It’s a really cool thing, to have people dancing or even just enjoying what you’re doing, and it’s all being produced by just what you have organically.


Q: You’re working on a beatboxing performance right now. Can you tell us more about that?

 So I’ve got a final year project where I’ve got to construct a gig, pretty much. There’s this cool idea, the idea of beatboxing as, it kind of sounds robotic, it sounds electronic, but a human’s doing it. So I was like, oh, it’s like a cyborg. And there’s been some academic work where they’ve kinda made that connection as well. So my idea for the gig is to just explore how beatboxing is something that’s obviously produced acoustically, or organically, and tries to sound electronic, and how’s that’s kind of this…representation of a lot of music. Music is about voicing intention, the intention of a person. Music is someone’s voice coming through, they’re speaking their thoughts and their ideas through music. So I think there’s an interesting idea there to make a statement about- here’s my music coming from my voice- I’m not speaking through my music, I am literally speaking my music. And maybe I’m gonna play with that idea in that gig. It’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s the basic premise anyway.


Q: You said you have plans of holding a gig here in Cork in the next year. Any plans for making Cork a centre of beatboxing?

Haha, that’s an aspiration! But it’s pretty not-feasible at the moment. I think the main thing I wanna do is expose Cork to these things more. I mean, as a city, in my opinion, there’s a kind of thriving hip-hop scene and hip-hop related activities, but it’s kind of underground. You don’t have the big main events going on in clubs and stuff. It’s just, with a few exceptions, kind of rinse and repeat acts and music. You don’t often have these kind of hip-hop-centric gigs. There’s a few people, there’s the Cutting Heads collective, that will kind of do that thing. But it’s maybe as prominent as I’d like, and again, with beatboxing as something that’s connected or related to hip-hop, I want to expose Cork in some way to something they haven’t seen before. There’s a lot of talented beatboxers in Cork and in Ireland as a whole, and to hold an event here would just be kind of making a statement about how this is something that a lot people in our country are practising and a lot of people are enjoying, and I want a place for those people to be. I just want to expose what beatboxing is to the world in part, but also just to the city.

I mean, I’ve been exposed to these events, and maybe I’m biased- I mean, I’m definitely biased!- but they’re some of the coolest live events I’ve ever been to, because you’re there, in the crowd, like, “Wow, this guy is doing this with his mouth?!” I still get that same feeling, even though I’ve been doing this for six years or whatever, I still get, like…wow, these guys are so crazily talented. Seeing an event curated that’s all about that, it’s a really invigorating and enjoyable thing and I want to bring that to Cork. At the very least it can get a following and just get some people to be like, whoa, this thing is not what I thought it was. That’s the aim, really, it’s just to educate people and be like, hey, this isn’t just a gimmick, it’s actually a really promising live event. So yeah, watch out for that! I don’t know exactly when it will be but it’ll happen, yeah, definitely.


Q: How’s the hip-hop scene in Cork, in general? Emerging, waiting to emerge, promising?

It’s had it phases, I think. In the nineties, it had artists. There was a kind of scene in cork for that stuff, but it’s kind of lulled a bit in recent years, and it’s become less of a focus. There are people of course focused on it, like Cutting Heads, but for the most part those people are just in their thirties now. We’ve been in contact with those guys, and there are other people around, but we’re all kind of fragmented, and… It’d be nice to see more hip-hop centric culture in Cork. You see the odd gig on Poor Relation and stuff- Outsiders, if you don’t know them, IP- those guys are doing some good stuff too- but it’d be nice to see us all come together and just work to make more of a community about that. Because there are communities of other kinds of musician in Cork, but I don’t see the kind of prominence I would like. Obviously it’s still there, but it’d be nice to see more gigs. Because there’s obviously a craving for that, people listen to that kind of music, but where are the local artists in Cork creating that kind of music? There isn’t that many. There’s a lot of pop-punk bands, metal bands and what have you in Cork, so I think there should be some hip-hop collectives and bands going on too because there’s some good people here, they just need the exposure.


Q: Where do you think I should start if I want to get into the hip-hop scene?

The Poor Relation is a good place to start. The Cutting Heads collective, if you know of them, they’re always holding gigs. There are some really good DJs, there are some cool rappers in there too. And, obviously, the DJ society in UCC, too, probably has relations with them, they regularly hold stuff too. It’s a cool thing to go to that’s maybe a little bit different from the average Thursday Night in the Bróg or Voodoo where you hear the same pop songs again and again… I dunno, I think that there’s some real gems out there in Cork, but not a lot of people go to them.

You can find more of Doppler’s music on https://soundcloud.com/mark-calthrop/.