The Midwest Beatbox Battle, now in its third year, exists as the answer to a curious riddle: What’s something that simultaneously grows even as it shrinks?
Last year’s event, which was staged at a trio of local venues over the course of three days, included international competitors that journeyed from as far away as France. This year, the competition has been scaled back to a single day, and participation is limited to beatboxers from the Midwest. It’s an adjustment Battle cofounders Ludovic Nicolaidis, 27, and Tony Carreira, 24, made in response to surging public interest.
Now in addition to the Midwest Battle, which takes place Saturday, Aug. 2, at Strongwater in Franklinton, organizers have already staged East and West Coast battles in New York and Los Angeles, respectively, and a fourth regional competition is scheduled for late-August in Atlanta. The top two finishers from each event will be invited to New York to compete in the American Championships later this fall.
Such grand plans appeared out-of-reach when Nicolaidis and Carreira first conceived the inaugural Battle in Youngstown in 2012. With a minimal online presence, and a marketing budget dwarfed by some teenagers’ allowances (“I think we printed up a couple hundred flyers,” Nicolaidis said), the pair managed to attract more than 600 attendees over the course of two days.
“When we first did it, it was a small thing where we just wanted to get together and have some kind of event. Then the next thing we knew we had a performer coming in from Japan,” said Nicolaidis, aka LethalFX, who joined Carreira, aka beatboxer Tony C, at a Downtown coffee shop for a late-July interview. “I knew then we had something big on our hands and a great opportunity [to build] something way larger.”
In 2013, the open elimination portion of the competition included 32 participants. This year, 48 have registered, and Nicolaidis said he’d be thrilled if 35 to 40 turn up. In the opening round, each competitor has between two and three minutes to flaunt his or her skills, with a panel of judges scoring the artist on a scale of 1-10 in five categories: stage presence, crowd reaction, rhythm and timing, creativity and musicality, rhythm and structure, and originality. The top 16 are then slotted NCAA tournament-style for the battle rounds, with 1 battling 16, 2 battling 15, and so on until a winner is crowned.
Both Nicolaidis and Carreira stressed the importance of the live experience in developing an appreciation for the art of beatboxing, a musical form that started taking shape among hip-hop pioneers in the early 1980s.
“When people first think of beatboxing they thing of the classic [“boots and pants and boots and pants”], but … when you see somebody creating actual songs with their mouth and literally rocking the house, the intensity of it is [heightened],” said Nicolaidis, who started beatboxing a decade ago after being introduced to the form by artists like Rahzel and The Fat Boys. “Seeing beatboxing live is really the best way to experience where the form is now.”
Carreira, a drummer who got his start beatboxing at open mikes, describes the form as a language, and said he was drawn, in part, to the primacy of beatboxing, which requires nothing more than the individual and (on occasion) a microphone. While sharpening his skills, he’d often spend hours at a time alone in a room going over his technique.
“You start working on getting your sounds and getting the articulation and power behind them, and then you start working on breath control,” he said. “As a drummer, I’ll sit down with a metronome and just practice different combinations of beats. I’ll sit there and just do hi-hat sounds or snare sounds over and over again just to develop my muscle memory.”
Nicolaidis further extolls the practice-anywhere benefits of beatboxing, momentarily coming across as though he’s reading from a b-boy version of Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham.”
“You can bring it with you when you’re walking down the street, when you’re brushing your teeth, or taking a shower, or at work. You can beatbox anywhere,” he said. “Imagine a guitar player carrying his instrument with him everywhere. Yeah, he’s going to swing it behind his back when he’s doing the dishes or whatever, but eventually he’s going to pull it out and have to start jamming.”
Photos by Meghan Ralston