Party in his mouth
By Ben Davey
Updated: 2007-05-26 07:03

Killa Kela, one of the foremost practitioners of beatboxing from London, is set to hit Beijing and Shanghai early next month.

Dyed-in-the-wool rock fans might argue that electronic music is an imitation of the real thing. A collection of bleeps and beats spat out by machines devoid of the requisite emotions inherent only in real music. But what would these Rockists say about a performer who imitates electronic music using his mouth and microphone alone?

Introducing Killa Kela, lauded as one of the foremost practitioners of beatboxing, which essentially means to make beats and copy the sounds of instruments by spluttering into a microphone. Kind of like a virtuoso entertainer but not in the way that Leo Sayer envisioned when he wrote the song One Man Band. Think more in terms of, there's a party in his mouth and everyone's invited.

Still, any ordinary Joe Blow with breath in their lungs can make drums noises - admittedly, some with more rhythm than others.

But Kela is possessed of the rare ability to make it sound as if he is mimicking several instruments simultaneously. He can even sing over the top of beats he spits out at the same time. It's an approach that Kela refers to as "multi-vocalism".

Kela, AKA Lee Potter, is the leader of a London group (or "soundsystem" as he calls it) appropriately named Spit Kingdom.

"We started back in 2002 and set a club night up called Spit Kingdom HQ. Since then, we've been touring, making music and ripping up shows," he said.

But where did Kela's passion to burp out these noises originate? Couldn't he access a drum kit when he was a kid, or was it just a way of not having to lug around a lot of equipment? Nope, says the 27-year-old; his musical direction was just a matter of a little family prompting.

"What inspired me was my dad. He was a drummer when I was young. Plus my mum, who was into 80s soul," he said. "Hip-hop and drum & bass came along in my teens, as did groups like The Prodigy; then Grime came along late 90s. It all created an influence for what I do," he said.

"That's why I beatbox the way I do. I don't stick to one style. That's been the problem with beatboxing: they only restrict it to hip-hop. Being able to roll on any style, that's how you enhance your skill and ability."

And in the spirit of spreading the message of mouth-molded music and sharing with new audiences the skills that led to appearances with stars such as Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams, Kela is set to hit Beijing and Shanghai.

"Me and the crew are so, so excited! We're coming 'cos we want to meet China face-to-face and party man! Brap!" Kela said.

For those of you not acquainted with the latest hip street slag, "brap" can mean either the sound you make when a great song comes on at a rave or something that is said to add endorsement to a statement or observation. Killa Kela, not shy of showcasing his mastery of an urban lexicon, is also fond of the title "man".

For instance, in answer to the question: Have you had a chance to hear much of what Chinese beatboxers are doing? Kela replied: "Na, I haven't, man. Apart from Hong Kong, this is gonna be the first time I've been to China. I'm excited to hear some new and amazing talent you guys have to offer, plus taking the good vibes back to London."

Hopefully during his travels on the mainland Kela might get to visit Yanji, in Northeast China's Jilin Province. It's a city of 400,000 people - a relative village compared to metropolises such as Beijing or Shanghai. But a filmmaker named Liu Feng recently discovered that Yanji boasts a vibrant underground beatboxing scene.

A trailer of Liu's documentary, Yan Bian Box, shows dozens of teenagers showcasing their oral dexterity, even appearing in the city's own beatboxing championship.

Yanji's geographical location may provide an explanation for how a subculture such as beatboxing thrives in a place with such a relatively small population. The city's proximity to South Korea, with all of its Western pop culture influences, is given as a reason by a few of those featured in the documentary preview for why beatboxing is so popular there.

Nationally, the musical form may remain largely unknown. However, China does have its very own beatboxing website - www.bboxcn.com - and a quick trawl through YouTube reveals various clips of local beatboxers busting out for the camera.

Moreover, vocal mimicry is an art form with a rich tradition in the Middle Kingdom. In fact, China may be credited as the birthplace of orally replicated percussive sounds.

Kouji, which was conceived during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), saw artists making sounds like crying babies, animals, snoring sleepers and crashing buildings. OK, it's not exactly in keeping with the hip-hop influences of beatboxers, but it's not so far removed from what come out of the gobs of Yanji kids and Killa Kela.

For a musical style that remains on the fringe of the mainstream, amateur beatboxers can take heart in the major record company interest generated by stars of the genre, such as Killa Kela. His 2005 album, Elocution, was released through industry giant BMG.

"I'd been doing shows for a long time, and we had a concept idea for an album; they put us on a development deal to build the album," Kela said.

BMG's subsequent merger with Sony saw the artist part ways with the record label for reasons he cites as "company issues". Still, Kela insists that the exercise was worthwhile.

"I'm not at all bitter about any experiences I had at that time, 'cos I learnt so much. And the fact is, if someone had turned around to me on the day of signing and said to me what the future held, I still would have done it all. A lot of doors opened for me and I'm grateful."

The Englishman is not so pleased about tabloid journalism. This issue riled him so much that he felt the need to address it in his 2007 release, Reveal Your Inner Self.

"Society loves to gossip, and not only are they prepared to pay money for those magazines that write lies and scandal, but the writers and photographers are more than just ignorant to keep writing lies about people for crazy money."

Chinese B-boys and B-girls can catch a glimpse of the sensationalist news-rag remonstrator Killa Kela when he hits Beijing and Shanghai next month. Kela will perform at Beijing's Star Live on June 1 and Shanghai's Absolute House on June 2.

(China Daily 05/26/2007 page5)