His Own Walkman
Whether performing in front of an audience or bebopping and scatting between classes, John Galusha ’20—Galush, as he’s known on stage and around campus—moves to a beat. More than singing—which he also does very well, classically trained and a member of the Meddiebempsters a cappella group—Galush turns his voice into an actual instrument in a sonic art form called beatboxing.
Tell me a little bit about your background. Where are you from?
I’m from Connecticut originally, but I also spent a great deal of time in North Carolina, in Asheville. I did a bit of a slingshot, went down south and came back after maybe four or five years.
Have you always been interested in music?
The story of that really follows that same move trajectory. I was really involved in instrumental bands in Connecticut. I played trombone. I played tuba in jazz and marching bands, but then, in that move to North Carolina, I no longer had access to an instrumental program. So, I suddenly became way more involved in choruses and choirs. My focus became much more on the voice, and that led me to be interested in things like a cappella music. Since then, I've been able to take lots of classically trained voice lessons.
Here at the College?
Actually, while I was at Hotchkiss. I took a fifth year. I have since done a lot of class work at Bowdoin in service of vocal training alongside all of my beatbox work.
When did the actual beatboxing begin?
I remember my first time performing was in maybe seventh or eighth grade.
My school did some kind of music-through-the-ages drama production that choreographed a bunch of songs, through the pop hits of the sixties up through the early 2000s. And one of the pop songs—I think it was some CeeLo Green tune—while we were walking around [practicing], I did a little bit [of beatboxing], and my music teacher said, “Hey, let’s grab that and put it in this pop song we’re doing.” And it became part of the act.
Before that, I saw this guy who worked with my parents perform at an open mic, and he taught me one sound that I have since taken and built into a whole repertoire.
Losing the instruments pushed me to thinking and expanding on, “What can I do with just my voice in this scenario?”—having only access to choirs and acapella music and that kind of thing. It made me really become interested in what the voice itself can do expansively.
Can you just give me a quick explanation of about what beatboxing is?
Beatboxing is an awesome growing art form that now has an internationally recognized community. It started in the early 1980s with hip hop music. It was one of the ways in which young African American musicians in Brooklyn were becoming part of the DJ-ing and the MC-ing realm. Without access to DJ machines, they came up with creative solutions. With the growth of hip hop and its subsequent consolidation into the mainstream a little bit, the popularity of beatboxing took a dip in the nineties, but has since made a massive comeback in the a cappella world. Its resurgence in the US is a really cool story and it’s one of the things that I’m studying while I’m here working on some of my independent projects.
Practically speaking, describe what it is, what it means to beatbox.
Beatboxing is an art form where you take your voice and your lips and your face anatomy and you're able to use it to create more than just a sung note. The idea is to create a full expansive musical phrases and ideas. Traditionally, it’s been associated with turntable-ism, where people would vocally reproduce the sounds of the vinyl DJ scratching. They would use the percussive sounds of their lips and their plosive consonants, and they would create drum—they would recreate some of the drum tracks that were being used in the hip hop world. The Roland 808 drum machine was the original beatbox. That was what they would call the beatbox when it was first being used in the drum machines in hip hop.
As an art form, is it entirely freeform or is there some sort of structure to it?
That can get into a whole cool discussion about the aesthetics of beatboxing. Some of the various ideas behind what performances of the art form should be. What really sets it apart from other musical practices is its ability to be expansive in what you use it for. It’s really resilient to consolidation and structure. The idea that everyone has to beatbox the same way is ridiculous because everyone has so much diversity in their background and their musical experience. At the end of the day, it is a tool that you use to create your music and, at the same time, it has this very rich history that’s part of a really cool story over the past forty years.
Does each individual beatboxer have his or her own signature, own style?
Sure, absolutely. There are some incredible styles out there, and the pioneers of this craft are certainly to be commended for their amazing creativity with pushing the limits of what the voice can do.
How would you describe your style?
I’m a classically trained vocalist, and those kinds of things bring in a certain appreciation for technique and timbre and some of those musical phrasing ideas that are just part of one style and might not be as present in other ones.
It must be distinctive in the beatbox world to bring out the classical training. How has your beatboxing worked in concert with what you’ve been studying here?
What I've been studying here is really focused on that cultural analysis and history writing. There's a distinct lack of academic treatment of this art form, and that’s something that I’m working to change. Bowdoin has been incredibly supportive of my performing. They’ve helped support me going to various beatbox battles and various other community events.
How did Toronto go? I didn’t catch up with you after that.
Oh, that’s right. Last time we spoke, I was going to Toronto for the Great North Beatbox Battle in 2018. That went okay. I placed fourth in the looping category. At the last minute, I was asked to join the top sixteen of the solo category, because someone had dropped out, and it was a really awesome experience. It catapulted me into my summer when I was doing a Watterson Fellowship [Nellie C. Watterson Summer Fellowship in the Creative and Performing Arts]. But since then, I've competed in quite a few more battles, and it’s been going very well.
What's your mentality going into a competition like that? I know you're a former football player. How does your competitive streak work with beatboxing as an art form? You're competing against people, but there's also a lot of mutual appreciation there.
I think the big thing is that we all treat beatboxing as a family. It’s very communal—one of the things that really draws us together is that incredible expressivity that you get through beatboxing. You can meet up with a complete stranger and have something in common and speak a whole new language. And it’s an incredibly cohesive social and cultural core. It allows us to interact in such a way that, when we’re competing, it’s never really about the competition. I go into it thinking, “Yeah, I want to win this thing,” but I’m going do that by just being me and performing at my best and sharing my own unique experience. And that’s when I think the best competitions happen—when you have competitors who are focused on being their original and authentic selves.
The battle scene is enticing in the sense that it can really inform the way you think about your music. If I know that each round of the battle is this long, I have to prepare songs that are that long. I have to prepare beats that go this long and have this kind of structure and work in this setting. If it’s a club with a big sound system, and it’s a competition and there's a really excited crowd, you want to be able to perform that kind of music.
Are there certain structures that, as an artist, you work within and then work against?
There are judging criteria and those criteria take into account things like, are you messing with time signatures? Are you messing with cohesive musical phrasing? Are you performing what feels like a whole piece, or are you chopping it up into little different sections? Are you a good performer? Does the crowd like you? Are you bringing in techniques that are complimentary to each other? Are you bringing in this battle mode thing where you can think about what your opponent is doing and then riff off of that? Some of the best battles that you'll see are ones where one performer will do a cool special sound, and another will come right back at him with the same one. Like, “Oh, I can do that, too. I can do your sounds better than you can.” Or even better, “I’m going take your style and totally flip it on its head and do something else new with it.”
The competitions push your artistic boundaries.
I think that’s what's been so incredibly formative for the international community’s growth over the past ten or twenty years—the competition is constantly pushing artists to advance that boundary.
But, yeah, I think coming back to the idea of the form, if you have such a flexible performer who can go into these spaces and mix in some of the prepared ideas. I have this routine that I’m going do and then what can I do in the moment that sets that routine apart—from just performing a song to dynamically interacting with the crowd, and with the other competitor? That takes it to a whole other level.
I don’t come from a musical background. I don’t really know what musical phrasing is.
Are you doing a verse in the chorus, a buildup and a drop? Are you doing things that flow together nicely, that kind of take your performance and give it its arc? It has a whole build up and it feels like a cohesive piece. A phrase is building up like a stanza. A stanza into what becomes a whole cohesive poem.
It seems to me the performance aspect of it takes a special quality. To be a good beatboxer, do you have to have some sort of innate performance capability or can you learn how to riff on the fly and have these conversations?
That’s the same kind of question you could ask a jazz improv performer. It’s a hard one to answer. Everyone certainly brings in their own experience and brings in their own personality with it, and some people have a great ability to connect with people intrinsically, and have that really easy flow with the music and the crowds and everything. It is certainly something that can be learned, and I think one of the defining characteristics of the beatbox world is that it’s inclusive to everyone in so many ways. It’s incredibly inclusive and diverse. It brings those aspects together in such a way that any performer can beatbox, and anyone can beatbox and can learn. And the bar for entry is so incredibly low, and the ceiling is so high. I think that’s what's really enticing about it is that anyone can start learning it, picking it up, starting it out with some really basic stuff and growing from there.
What kind of practice do you do? What sort of voice practice and beatbox practice?
Anyone who hears me on campus will know I never stop.
I have noticed that when I see you walking around you’re just singing and…
In my own little world. "I’m my own Walkman." That’s from Bobby McFerrin.
You asked about practice. Some of the ways I go about practicing is I try and mix some of the academic approaches like the class work that I do. I try and become as informed and knowledgeable as I can about things like electronic music and studio audio recording. I also pair that with a classic art of singing or an individual performance study with voice. And while there's no collegiate beatboxing professor, there are certainly ways you can incorporate some of the snippets of this into the way you think about practicing. I’ll think about how in my a cappella group, we’ll go through our scales. We’ll work on—really focus on—dynamics. We’ll think about, can we start soft and grow loud and get big and awesome, and then we’ll make it nice and quiet again and we’ll freeze that musical idea. And you can take that concept of dynamic structure and musical phrasing and apply that to beatboxing in the same way.
I’ll practice doing the same sound at all these different dynamic levels, or I’ll practice freezing a rhythm together and then nailing that rhythm over and over again. And then see what I can change about it as I flow into a new iteration of that same original idea.
As you practice some of these things, if you hit on something and are like, “Whoa!,” is that something you write down or do you just remember it?
My phone is full of voice recordings, because it’s very much an oral experience. It’s very much a tradition that focuses on the listened, the heard history of it all. There are certainly some writing beatboxing notations. There's SBN, standard beatbox notation, which was developed by Gavin Tyte in 2006, and that one is useful in some ways. I think the difficulty facing the academic or maybe westernized concept of music notation for beatboxing is that it’s such a nonwestern music.
When you were making those basic sounds earlier on, the—what did you call it?
The “boots and cats.”
“Boots and cats,” yeah. It reminded me of scatting. Is there some historical influence?
Absolutely. Some of the historical influences of beatboxing include scat singing out of jazz. It’s a very African American-oriented and historically African American art form in that even the scat singing in jazz owes a lot of its roots to blues. And there was some involvement of things like the French troubadours doing some percussive sounds. I think what's important to know is that with every musical tradition, there's history behind it that led to where it is.
But there's always also that moment where it becomes something new and really takes off and forms its own identity. So, even with some of the historical influences of beatboxing that led into the music that is today, it also took a very specific cultural and social atmosphere because it was a music of necessity. It was one that came out of the poorest black neighborhoods in Brooklyn that couldn’t afford DJ machines. They had to do something to make the music themselves. It exists in this catalyst of social and cultural elements, as well as a really interesting musical influence history.
What separates a decent beatboxer from the next level?
Time and practice obviously. Certainly, there's some element of, “Can you be original? Can you bring in your own experience and make it unique for you?” I think everyone strives to do that with their performing.
It’s a very personal art form. That’s what draws me to it. It’s incredibly organic. It really feels like something beyond language. I feel like this is the kind of thing where the social bonds or the social connections that you can articulate and express through these kinds of music art forms are just so expressive that it becomes its own language. It becomes its own connective expressive performance.
But, yeah, the artists who are taking it to the next level are the ones who are the most creative and spend the most time and dedication practicing. And you really can see that when they get on stage.
There's a crispness to it.
There's just the next level of being clean and precise. There's the technique. There's the incredibly strong technical aspect—can you do the sounds? Can you do it well? But there's also just amazingly creative approaches to it. There are people who are integrating it in ways that are pushing the technical boundaries, and then there are people who are fighting the best kind of fight to make sure this community stays as inclusive and diverse and awesome as it is.
How do you mean?
If you want to think about the idols in the beatboxing community, there are people who are incredibly amazing performers and then there are incredible people doing incredible things with it. There are people who are fighting to make this art form recognized in the academic world. There are people who are using this art form to move beyond just performing in a club to things like speech therapy and music therapy. There are people who are doing just incredible work documenting and bringing a historical approach to this community, people who are bringing a really strong original sense of culture to it. That, while they might not be the champions in the competitions, they are championing the art form in a lot of ways.
You’ve talked a little bit about your musical influences, you're a cappella and the choral. What a cappella group are you part of?
I sing with the Meddiebempsters. The mix of barbershop music and pop music of the Meddies is really enticing for me because it mixes it together—that kind of classical style with some fun pop music.
What are you taking for classes right now?
Right now, I’m taking Musicological Methods. I’m taking Issues in Hip Hop. It’s the second semester of that two-semester course. That one’s been awesome. I’m taking Queer Theory. I’m a gender and women’s studies minor. I try to incorporate a lot of that into my studies of the beatbox culture. And I’m also taking Contemporary American Education.
I try in my class work to mix together a lot of these interests of education and queer theory and music as a performance act, as a cultural phenomenon that I can study. Next year is going to be really, really big for me, because it’s going to be the culmination of a lot of that class work that hopefully will result in a senior honors project studying the beatboxing culture. I’m hoping to write a great deal on some of the ethnographic research that I've been doing recently, hoping to bring in a lot of that theoretical academic background to push for more academic- and educational-oriented appreciation for this art form.
The independent project that you worked on during your fellowship last summer—you produced an album, is that right?
No, what actually ended up happening with that creative arts fellowship is that I ended up spending a lot of time in the studio creating some works that I performed live. Those videos ended up being on Beatbox International. I ended up doing a lot of ethnographic research to that during that summer. I really tried to focus instead of doing too much all at once. I slowed down the process a little bit. I allowed myself to really delve into the social world of beatboxers. My trip to Berlin and Krakow, Poland, that was a major part of my time last summer because I got to go to the biggest beatbox event of the year. And I was taking notes the whole time, furthering that ethnographic research. While I was hoping to do more with the recording, I think that work toward live performance practice and some of the recordings that I did make ended up pushing me on in my trajectory to compete at the American Beatbox Championships.
While I didn’t quite get to the album stage, I was also recognizing the fact that kind of project takes longer than three months in a summer. And I was thinking to myself that I don’t really want to rush that. I want to be able to put out something that I’m really proud of and take the time that I need to do it right. And align myself to. In some ways slowing down and reflecting a lot more during that summer were some of the biggest times where I felt rejuvenated creatively afterward. And, if anything, taking that time to focus on something else to step away from your little micro project to look at the big picture for a little bit can be really, really helpful. And that’s what I ended up experiencing last summer.
It seems like you really enjoy the balance between the art form and performing and the academic study of it.
Yeah, it’s certainly been the balance that I've been trying to strike.
Do you have competitions coming up?
I just submitted for the Great North Beatbox Battle 2019.
That’s in Toronto again?
Yeah, so I’ll see how that all goes. The deadline for submission was just yesterday.
You had to send samples in?
You send in a video of you beatboxing for two minutes and I also sent in a video of me using my loop station for three minutes. So, hopefully, if I can clear the first stage of the video acceptance, I can justify going up to Toronto, which will be a very long drive.
What are your longer-term musical goals?
I don’t know if it’s very longer term, but this summer, I will be interning full time with American Beatbox, based out of New York City. It’s the company that produces the American Beatbox Championships every year. They do a mixture of live events, community organizing, social media presence, and YouTube. They’re looking to really expand their viewership and really burst onto the stage as the premiere beatboxing media company of the Americas. That is the goal, and I’ll be doing audio editing work with them. I've already started. I've been doing a part-time internship with them this whole year working on things like organizing for events, putting spreadsheets and data and stuff together, as well as recently being a go-to audio guy. I mix and master all of their recordings.
How did that come to pass?
I talked to the dude when I was at the events, and he was like, “Oh, I need more people to help me with this, this, and this project. I’ve got all these videos that need to get edited and I have all these recordings I want to get mastered.” I was like, “Hey, I happen to know a college that supports people with unpaid internships.”
You received some support from the College for that?
Yes, I just heard this morning—and I am so excited about this—that I received a Career Exploration and Development-funded internship grant this summer. It’s incredibly exciting, and I’m really honored. It’s absolutely going to be able to support me working at this full-time internship.