Prism

Beatboxer Jason Singh: "If you can't sing, or don't want to speak about your issues, it gives you an ability to communicate something with your voice."

17 August 19 interview: Alex Motormouf Young
illustrations: Natalie Owen

In taking inspiration from the natural world, Jason Singh has established himself as one of the most innovative and well-respected beatboxers in the country, with his vocal recreations of birdsongs and entire forestry environments leading to his work being featured on BBC shows Imagine, Springwatch and CountryFile. We sent Notts beatboxer Alex Motormouf Young to catch up with Singh...

What first sparked your interest in beatboxing?
I was born into it. Drums were my first instrument; rhythm is something that’s been handed down to me from my people. It’s a generational thing; my dad is a drummer, and I come from people who are musicians. I grew up in hip-hop culture. Turntables were the first electronic instrument that I experienced, and through that I got into beats, vinyl and spent a lot of time around breakers. At that time - in the early 80s - it was a new culture, a massive explosion that everyone jumped on. 

Growing up I wasn’t really allowed to articulate myself through my voice. Ironically, now I’m an adult, my voice is my profession. I’d always been into beats and abstract sounds, so the two things just came together for me. When I first heard Public Enemy, for instance, it was the first time I’d heard the context of a loop with all of these weird sounds. That had always been how I’d heard things: washing machines, cars, radiators, electric lights, birds. All of these abstract sounds within a groove was musically what I grew up with. 

Who inspired you lyrically?
Public Enemy were the only people I heard who were speaking about the struggles I was feeling as a teenager. At the time you had Boogie Down Productions, N.W.A, Ice-T, all of those early hip-hop guys. But I was never into those MCs and rappers. There was just something about the poetry of Public Enemy. Fight the Power, Don’t Believe the Hype, Rebel Without A Pause. Those songs spoke to me. 

You’re known for taking inspiration from your natural surroundings. What are the main lessons you’ve learnt from nature for your beatboxing?
I’ve learnt a lot from observing bird songs, both in terms of rhythmical patterns and manipulating breath. Obviously a bird’s vocal structure is very different in how they produce their call compared to a human. But I’ve tried to understand how a bird’s diaphragm and vocal architecture work and apply that what I do with my body. You can also learn a lot from the sea, like breathing techniques, harnessing that ebb and flow of your breath. I spent a lot of time by the sea when I was touring down the East Coast of Scotland. Listening to those waves and seeing that movement on a daily basis makes you realise how emotions are dynamic, and that your breath is dynamic depending on your emotional state. 

Is there a specific bird that you identify with?
There are two. The lyrebird is the one I wish I could be, because it mimics its environment to enhance its mating calls. In a way, that’s what I observe in the beatboxing community; it’s very much, ‘here are my skills, here are my tricks, here are the things I’ve adapted into my repertoire, here’s what makes me unique to others’. In terms of my everyday life, it would be the blackbird. It’s birdsong is the most common one we hear, but it’s a very complex sound to make. The song a blackbird makes in the morning can be really different from the one it makes during the day or in the evening. Their songs also vary from region to region. 

Do you have a creative routine? If so, what does it look like?
The unique thing about the art form we’ve chosen is that you can practice wherever you are. There’s no rehearsal room. I’m talking to you now during a four-and-a-half hour drive to Devon, which I do most weeks. That’s the perfect time to play and to try out new things. 

You can hear sounds that you want to learn all of the time. Sometimes you don’t even know you’re doing it, it’s just happening. I feel very lucky and privileged to be able to do this stuff all the time. It’s not like it used to be back in the day where everything was just for the love and the fun of doing it. Now that it’s my profession, there's pressure to develop all of the time. Juggling your personal and professional life also poses certain challenges. Sometimes I want to be in the studio all day, but I’ve got to sit on a train answering emails and doing admin work. There isn’t a structure; it’s quite anarchic; I’ll just spent time tweaking or messing around whenever I can. But that means you’re constantly inspired – there’s no on or off switch, it’s just on or on. 

If you can’t sing, or don’t want to speak about your issues, it gives you an ability to communicate something with your voice. That’s a very, very powerful thing.

How do you think that beatboxing can influence the world?
One of the most incredible things about this art form is that it can empower an individual to express themselves with the skills they’re born with: their voices and their bodies. If you can’t sing, or don’t want to speak about your issues, it gives you an ability to communicate something with your voice. That’s a very, very powerful thing. It’s an infinite possibility of sound.

It isn’t just the power of the individual, but beatboxing can harness the power of a community too. A few years ago I was doing something in a village in Rajasthan, India. 8,500 people were all making kick and snare sounds together in a loop. The energy in that space was absolutely insane.

What are your plans for the future?
I’ve got a commission to create a sound installation at Wollaton Hall that’s all to do with plant blindness. Then I’m doing some projects in Norway with live film, as well as a two-year residency in Colston Hall, Bristol. Plus the usual live performances, gigs with my quartet and music education projects. Things are pretty busy! 

Jason Singh website

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