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Feature Mon May 19 2008

An Interview with Yuri Lane, Human Beatbox

Oh, the life of a professional beat boxer: bookings in the UK, filming commercials in Australia, performances in Long Beach -- and daddy duty in Chicago? Such is the life of Yuri Lane, a performer whose vocal gymnastics defy easy classification. Internationally known as a harmonica-playing beat boxer, Lane is also a professional actor and the star of "Soundtrack City" and "From Tel-Aviv to Ramallah," beat box plays written and directed by his wife, Rachel Havrelock. Lane was kind enough to find a few moments to let GB know how he does it all, what he's doing next, and why he prefers bananas to shawarma.

Thanks for doing this, Yuri. Is this an all-right time?

Yeah, I'm pulling daddy-duty right now. I've got my girl all set in her stroller and we're having a nice walk. This is perfect.

Ha! Great. I suppose you probably get this a lot, but how did you find that you could beat box in the first place?

Basically, I figured out I could make noises with my mouth when I was not paying attention in math class. I was goofing off, and the teacher was like, "Turn that radio off!" So I figured I had something there.

Think you'll share this story with your daughter if she grows up to not like math class so much?

Ha, yeah, sure. Well, I usually just use this story whenever media people ask how I got started, but there's more to it than that. Music was just always -- always -- a part of my life. My mom played the violin, and my dad was really into jazz. Not that he was a professional jazz musician. My dad was a visual artist. But there was always music in the house, and he was always playing these great records or playing congas. I think I had a drum put in front of me before I could even sit up -- my mom said that I would kick to a beat when I was still inside her. My parents were friends with Thelonious Monk and Leonard Cohen, people who just had a tremendous impact on me at a very young age. So there's all of that.

I grew up around Haight-Ashbury, so the environment was incredible. Everyone really had their creative juices flowing. In high school I started to hear these new sounds, started listening to Doug E. Fresh and the Fat Boys and imitating them, really getting into the hip-hop scene that was going on around me. A little later, I became a professional actor. It's been that performance aspect that has really helped my beat boxing. Honestly, it wasn't until after college that I became really passionate about beat boxing and started to get more creative with it. Everything has really just gone from there. So there are many answers to that question.

Understandably so. How did people react when you first started doing all this? The beat boxing, that is?

Well, when I first started it was all part of that school yard fun, you know? Boys fool around and make a bunch of sound effects, and this was what I did. It was a good way of not getting beat up.

I will tell you that the sound effects coming out of the boys I went to school with were not like this at all.

Like I said, beat boxing didn't really become a passion, you know, something I really worked at, until after college, when I got tired of doing the same old theater and wanted to work with something new, making music and dancing and seeing what I could do.

When did the harmonica get involved?

I'd been playing with the harmonica for a while on my own. One time in class, we were split into sections, studying Hamlet, and I started messing around with beat boxing and harmonica at the same time, and people dug it. I used harmonica in my performance of "Soundtrack City: San Francisco" with the character Leopold the Prophet and people loved it.

When I moved to Chicago my harmonica playing took on a whole new meaning because, in a way, the harmonica represents Chicago. This is the home of the blues, and I decided that if I was going to be working with this that I would go out and experience that, really learn it. I went out and started listening to some serious blues players, harmonica players, and learned from them.

This one day someone contacted me through my website all like, "Hey man, I want to make a music video for you." So, we got together and each did our thing and put it out there. It really took off in YouTube world, which on the one hand, is great, because you suddenly have hundreds of thousands of people seeing you and hopefully liking what you do. But then on the other, people see something, they like it, and they replicate it. You can put your art form out there, but people will try and take it. So, you've got to be better. I'm a master beat boxer -- I know I'm good. I'll battle anyone. That's not what I set out to do, but everyone's got their own style, and they want to see how they measure up. And you know, bless them, because everyone's got to come from something that came before, and I know I've had a lot of different people and things influence me, but I also know to give props to the ones who've come before -- whether it's Monk or Rahzel, the Godfather of Noise, god bless him.

How do you gear up for your shows? Do you have any special rituals or some sort of regimen?

I practice beat box the way any artist would practice their craft, which can be strange, because for me beat boxing is second nature. It's an extension of my voice. It's communication. But I do practice vocal exercises, like an actor or a singer would. Before shows I drink some throat coat tea, I eat a banana. OH! Some advice: NEVER eat a lamb shawarma before a show!

Excuse me?

Shawarma. No lamb shawarma. Man, I did this one show, and I had an enormous lamb shawarma before hand. Ten minutes later I was, like, heartburn city. I was walking back and forth backstage, popping Tums like Tic-Tacs, and my girlfriend, who is now my wife, was like, "Yuri! You're pacing!" and I'm yelling at her, "I ATE LAMB SHAWARMA! I HAVE HEARTBURN!" Always bananas over shawarma. Always.

I'll keep that in mind.

Good.

So, you've lived all around. How has Chicago served you artistically as compared to other locations?

Well, I've traveled a lot, but I've really only lived in three places. Chicago has been great for me as a performer and as a beat boxer. I've gotten some great reviews here, been covered by the media, and I really don't see myself moving anywhere else anytime soon. It's super-cold here in the winter, so you've got to get your bear on, socially hibernate and get those creative juices up.

Chicago can be tough because you really don't make your living here. At least I don't. It's all traveling. When it's Chicago versus New York, New York has all these producers throwing money around, and that doesn't really happen here. There aren't a lot of movies being made, there's not a lot of TV, so for a performer, that can be tough.

The racism here has been a shock, I can honestly tell you that. Growing up in Haight-Ashbury, you're not exposed to that sort of animosity, that hate. It was hard for me to make that sort of a switch, from a place that was really welcoming to all types to a place where everything is so segregated. But that's part of what I love about music -- it breaks down these walls, it pulls on people. You go out to the clubs, yeah, and maybe this group of people has this spot and another has theirs, but when it comes to shows and music, you get everyone. All these different faces come together, and that's great.

You've written two beat box musicals: "Soundtrack City," sort of a performative audio-tour of a city, and "From Tel-Aviv to Ramallah," which deals with conflict in the Middle East. What inspired these?

I wouldn't really call them musicals, actually, because I hate musicals, and I don't believe that these performances are theater in that musical-theatre sort of way, though there certainly is an aspect of that involved. I was a performance student back in college, and that acting program is what really started me in on the things I do today. "Soundtrack City" has gone through a few phases, set in San Francisco, New York, or Chicago, and examining the city from the different perspectives of its inhabitants. In San Francisco, I went with sort of a romp, working with different modes of transport -- a bike messenger, a boombox walker, someone driving an SUV, someone on public transit -- and explored the different ways these people see their city as they pass through it. In Chicago, I had more of a plot, working with the idea of changing neighborhoods and exploring the city as an evolving thing. I think it's really fascinating to be performing about something that I see in my everyday life, just walking around. I mean, you can walk through Bucktown and the changes are intense, how it used to be so slummy and now it's like, "Oh, a baby store! Oh, a doggie treat store!"

Oh, a Marc Jacobs store.

Exactly. Really. And we're watching it all happen. With "Tel-Aviv to Ramallah," it's a bit different. This one was inspired by these incredible journeys I had with my wife, going through Israel and Palestine, experiencing the bizarre love and hate that happens over there and how, amid all this violence and these tremendous divide, there are people, real people, living their lives. I believe that there is a very positive element in humanity and that there is so much possibility, and I try to represent that in some of the characters. People are surrounded by borders, both invisible and physical, and people still come together, in spite of these walls. My partner in crime, Sharif Ezzat, is Egyptian, and I'm Jewish, as is my wife, and we all work together to create this piece in hopes that it will at the very least open up a dialogue about the divides we create in this world. We've brought the show to Europe and performed at colleges and at centers filled with old Jewish women and the response has been amazing. Absolutely amazing. And I'm so proud, and so happy, to be doing this, right here and right now.

What's in the works now?

Traveling. A lot of traveling. I'm going to be playing at a Google party in England soon, and I'm presently working on collaboration with a beat box flute player. I'm also going to be heading out to Australia to go shoot a beverage commercial. It's some sort of whiskey drink ... in a can. I'm fine-tuning my one-man show, "The Making of a Human Beat Box." I'm not sure if that name is going to stay. I'm working on a second album, which is a collaborative piece, and, of course, the beat box theater. I'm hoping to take this all to the next level -- start doing spots on the late night shows, get out there, get seen. I just love doing this. I really, really do.

 
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roc / January 9, 2009 12:01 AM

Hi!
I really need your help im doing beatboxing for my independent study in my quest class right now and i need to get an interview for beatboxing so please if you can answer at least some of these questions
1 What got you started on beatboxing?
2 What is your favrote sound to make and how is it made?
3 How old were you wen you started beatboxing?
4 How long have you been beatboxing?
5 Do you have a beatboxer that you look up to? if so who?
6 Why do you enjoy beatboxing
7 What is your favroit thing about beatboxing?
8 Has beatboxing changed your life? If so how?
9 Which year do you think has been your best year, or most fun year of beatboxing and why?
10 If you were going to give advise to someone trying to learn how to beatbox what would be the one thing that you would tell them?

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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