Beatboxing In The Heart Of Berlin
Buried well within East Berlin in an area filled with old warehouses, factories, and apartment blocks galore in need of repair. But now those apartment blocks are getting the TLC they need, the factories are being converted into trendy hostels, and the warehouses into some type of vegan/raw food/organic/avocado milkshake cafe making this the ultimate hipster fantasy.
While reunification has meant Berlin has been a strain on Germany’s resources over previous decades, nowadays the capital is booming with rents and property prices increasing faster than any other city on Earth. Indeed the graffiti-strewn Astra Kulturhaus, the 2,000 person venue for the Beatbox Battle World Championships, is a stone’s throw from the Mercedes-Benz Arena with its 17,000 capacity arena and a brand new shopping centre due to open imminently. The gentrification will soon be complete.
In a similar way the evolution of beatboxing itself has been making a similar movement through society. Through the 70’s and 80’s beatboxing pretty much was a subsection of the hip-hop community, but the advent of the internet helped to make it a genre in its own right. TyTe, one of the jury members deciding the winners, set up the first online tutorials back in 1999 before the days of social media allowed the growth of beatboxing to truly flourish.
The first World Championship was held in 2005 and since then beatboxing has emerged from the musical fringes to a part of the global music industry. Groups like Pentatonix are touring internationally and charting amongst the pop acts, shows like ‘Pitch Perfect’ are bringing the art form in front of the masses and beatboxing has even tried to win the Eurovision Song Contest.
Clearly, just like East Berlin, the beatboxing world is also riding the rough with the smooth of getting into the mainstream.
How Beatboxing Evolved Into Looping
One particular subsection of the beatboxing world that has taken off in recent years has been the addition of loop stations, also known as loop machines or loopers. One solo beatboxer is restricted in the variety of sounds and beats they can perform because of physical limitations. Using the loop station enables artists to module each sound and lay tracks over one another to create walls of sound and build up a piece of music from relatively humble beginnings.
Netta Barzalai, the winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, is particularly on trend for 2018 to make it big as a loop artist. One of the loop station’s biggest users is Ed Sheeran, who will often add a loop machine as a part of his touring set. Within the beatboxing community the growth of loop stations has meant the World Championships had a loop station section for the very first time with 21 artists from 15 different countries in the showdown. The debut winner of the competition, Saro from France, has 62,000 YouTube subscribers, whilst Netta’s official channel has 73,000 subscribers. They are of very comparable levels of fame and stardom, but achieved that in vastly different circles.
Netta’s Rise To Prominence
There is no denying that Netta’s selection to represent Israel was incredibly left-field. To gain that honour, Netta had to compete in ‘Rising Star’. This is a reality TV show akin to your ‘Pop Idol‘, ‘The X Factor‘, and ‘The Voice‘ competitions, unique in that the jury panel in the TV studio vote (both positively and negatively) against each act and their votes are combined with app voting from people in the studio audience. People at home this year only got to vote in the final round.
Netta was one of 120 contestants of which 99 were sent to ten lengthy audition rounds on television. Seventy qualified to a shortlisting round, and twenty were selected by the jury from there. With the final twenty being slowly whittled down Netta had to compete a whopping eight more times in front of the cameras and jury to finally get selected to represent Israel.
In short, adding Netta to ‘Rising Star’s‘ long list was incredibly low risk for the broadcaster. The chance of her getting all the way to the Eurovision Song Contest was incredibly low, but the diversity she offered with her music was incredibly high. If Israel had held a selection process with a good old-fashioned National Final or Internal Selection, it’s nigh on impossible an act like Netta would have turned up on the doorstep.
Early demos of ‘Toy’ both with composer Doran Medalie and with Netta herself reveal that the looping introduction to this year’s Eurovision winner was an add-on after the core of the song was written. The spicy introduction of ‘Toy’ seemed obvious to Israeli producers to shoehorn in – showing off the skills and talents of Netta – and if ‘Rising Star‘ had no issues with this, then why would the people at the EBU?
Except the EBU did have an issue.
What Are The Rules In The Eurovision Song Contest Anyway?
The rules of the Eurovision Song Contest are decided by the European Broadcasting Union and are approved by the Reference Group that oversees the Song Contest. There’s no mentioning of loop machines per se, the closest we have is as follows:
Artists shall perform live on stage, accompanied by a recorded backing-track which contains no vocals of any kind or any vocal imitations aiming at replacing or assisting the live/original voice of the Contestant(s). The Host Broadcaster shall verify respect for this rule.
Where does a loop station fit in under these rules? Loop station work is all live, but you are making the backing track on stage using that live input – which puts vocals on your backing track that you control. Does altering the vocal inputs apply as assisting the live/original voice? It is quite clearly a grey area.
It turned out our own Ewan Spence sat down with the EBU’s Head of Live Events, Jon Ola Sand, during the rehearsal period in Lisbon. As part of the interview Ewan asked for the EBU’s stance about the loop station.
Jon Ola Sand at the EBU/RTP Press Conference in Lisbon (Photo: Andres Putting, EBU)
“That would actually be like bringing an instrument into the Contest. We don’t allow that for production reasons basically. Because if you allow one instrument, be that looper or guitar or violin then we build something that might be difficult on the night.”
The EBU have made the decision that the loop station is equivalent to using an instrument, which isn’t a particularly helpful word as it is mentioned zero times in the EBU’s rule document. Their argument is that the production of the show and the sound quality might be compromised by having something very technical performed live, to the detriment of the show, and also make it too hard to get the right balance with only the 30-40 second window between each song on stage.
That is the reason I wanted to come to the Beatbox Battle World Championships. I wanted to learn about how the best in this business produce the live music they do, and see if this could be transferred to the Eurovision Song Contest.
My Hottest, Sweatiest Mosh Pit Experience
Those 21 qualifiers for the loop station competition performed last, on the first day of the two day showcase. It was a hot day in East Berlin and it was going to turn into a long night. The loop station qualifiers were scheduled for a 23:45 start, but a good half hour after that time the crowd were still waiting after standing for hours witnessing the brilliance of more conventional beat boxing prowess.
When the time finally came, each act brought their own individually set up machine onto the stage. This began what has to be said was a tedious process. Each act had to plug in each of their outputs into the different colour coded sections of cable and connect up the show microphone as the device input. I was timing the set up time and for the first few attempts it was taking just under a minute, although by the end of the evening some were taking as little as twenty five seconds. Each act then had another minute too to check the sound levels of both bass and treble to get the suitable balance.
Sure, each act was using the same machine (an RC-505, the same machine that Netta specialises in using), but the subtle volume differences on their channel set ups meant we had to wait for technicians and artists to get the balance just right. As contest organiser Bee-low explained to the crowd “beatboxers are very demanding when it comes to their sound.”
Loop artists backstage practicing their individual routines before the competition heats (Photo: Ben Robertson, ESC Insight)
There were a couple of notable hiccups too. One person suffered a power cut from a loose cable during a performance, and another couldn’t hear enough from the monitor speakers to hear the loops themselves. Both were granted restarts. There is no denying that this is not an easy type of music to balance on stage, and credit has to go to the stage management for ensuring that the show kept moving along at a brisk pace.
Each of the 21 artists needed to do a three minute set in front of a panel of five judges, all beatbox or loop experts including some previous world champions. They would decide which eight that would qualify to the second day. They would be judging on four criteria, the musical ability of the artist, the originality of the composition, the build up of pattern in the production and the overall impression of the show. In other words, a process not that far removed from our Song Contest.
The final eight then proceeded to compete in an old-skool Melodifestivalen Andra Chansen series of duels, with eventually two artists left in a face-to-face battle for the victory. Both finalists – Saro from France and Inkie from Russia – had the crowd going wild in their duels with stunning loop station control to bring in the most amazing drops that would befit even the most insane clubs of Berlin’s techno scene. Based on the mosh pit action I had no choice but to join in with, I guess that is the cultural equivalent of a glorious key change.
A Battle Of Song In An Beatboxing World
Probably the most interesting match-up of the knockout rounds was one between two beatboxers very different to the rest of the competition that fate drew together. “Pulmo”, the only Spanish contestant in the competition was up against Blu Lipy from Denmark. Both had a very different style to most of the street and dance music that the other contestants were predominantly using.
They made songs.
They used the loop machine to slowly build up riffs and simple chord structures over a repeating beat, and then performed the lyrics to the audience. The music had hip-hop and R’n’b influences as well as nods to both pop and rap that felt supremely fresh and current – here was two young songwriters showing off their ability not just to write songs but to perform every bit of them live using just their voice. It was stunning.
I spoke to Blu Lipy in depth before this quarter final matchup to ask some key questions. Is a loop station an instrument
Blu Lipy: “It’s really difficult question for me. I’ve been using the loop station and I’ve called it my instrument. It works like an instrument and also it is just my recorder.”
There are certainly many aspects of the loop station that are like a traditional instrument, but quite clearly that phrasing doesn’t sit cleanly. When I was watching them both perform it felt more like the loop station was an extension of their very being, and turning their vocal chords into a whole orchestra of delights.
I wanted to ask their opinion about Netta not being allowed to use the looper in the Eurovision Song Contest. This required some explaining. Few people where aware of Netta’s performance or knew about the looped introduction in ‘Toy’. Indeed of the numerous people I explained who I was and what I was doing over the weekend, Blu Lipy was one of three who’d seen her.
(As an aside, it’s clear that the Eurovision Song Contest has missed a chance to promote a cross-over artist to its original core fan base).
What were the opinions about not allowing the loop station to be used in the Eurovsiion Song Contest?
Blu Lipy: “I think it’s stupid and open-minded to close the opportunities. [The Eurovision Song Contest] should be trying to take itself to the next level.”
Blu Lipy won the duel and went through to the Semi Finals of the competition in Berlin. Most of his previous experience back in Denmark was under the artist name Thorsen, which resulted in a run to the final of Denmark’s Got Talent. From that he was able to get a producer and the chance to move to Copenhagen, releasing an album with Sony Music. I have to say, the pop and mainstream influences echo through the tracklisting I’ve been listening to while writing this piece.
I ask Blu Lipy about what it was like to perform on one of the country’s biggest TV shows. There he successfully combined his loop station work with traditional beatboxing, and reached out to a much wider audience.
“I remember I had some troubles with the loop station, the producers at first didn’t want me to use the loop station. There was an audition with somebody else with the loop station that wasn’t so good. But I showed them a video and showed the producers what I could do.
It’s all live. I had a choreographer and I had the best sound checks and using one of the best microphones I have ever used.”
The TV performances look great visually with slick dancing, lighting and camerawork, and Thorsen/Blu Lipy is an authentic performer even while doing the looping and beatboxing. It certainly looks more impressive than what Netta ended up doing for the first awkward twenty seconds in Lisbon. There she turned the loop introduction into an acapella performance alongside her backing singers, miming the loop making on what was ultimately a cheap plastic plaything instead of her real kit. ‘Great visual TV’, a producer may argue, but definitely not the character the artist wanted to be, and watching it still makes me cringe months after Lisbon.
Creative Music Is The Modern Eurovision Song Contest
Live music was once at the heart of the Eurovision Song Contest, with a full orchestra blaring out many of the evergreen hits we have grown up with. The orchestra stopped coming to Eurovision in 1999 as music styles changed and it wasn’t worth the money any more for a Host Broadcaster to stump up covering the cost of.
Nowadays it’s different. We don’t have artists heading to the Song Contest demanding a full orchestra is brought out for their three minutes on stage. It’s a loop station here, a flute there and surely an Albanian guitarist somewhere who’d rather deliver the full Festival i Këngës experience. Plus they are bringing the instruments themselves. One model that could be considered is the Witloof Bay approach, who brought their own sound technician to Germany in 2011 to ensure their six piece acapella sound had the desired balance. RoxorLoops, the beatboxer from Witloof Bay and a previous Vice World Beatbox Battle Champion, describes him as ‘the link between us and the guys from the Eurovision’. So valuable to the team eurovision.tv describe the unnamed engineer as ‘the seventh band member.’
Perhaps if a band or artist wants to include live musicthey need to be responsible for the extra costs or expert staff to make that work. There may be a magnitude less number of instruments to get ready than the full orchestra, but the sheer amount of time within a postcard to move on stage and get the levels spot on means the magitude of difficulty is one big leap higher. But it would be the EBU, not the artist in question, with egg on their face if things go wrong, and making a barrage of safety nets to ensure shows don’t run over due to technical nightmares will be most definitely required (one suspects the finger will be one inch closer to the switch tape to have the dress rehearsal performance ready to show).
All this being said, we need to remember that it has been done in the modern era successfully, with Melodifestivalen for numerous years allowing a live instrument to be played in their shows without any hiccups.
What’s particularly interesting about the EBU’s loop station decision is how it’s at odds with other similar tools that have come to light in the modern times. One key example of this would JOWST’s use of a fully-synthesised post-chorus vocal effect in ‘Grab The Moment’. Writing for ESC Insight last summer Ellie Chalkley argued that the vocals rule for the Eurovision Song Contest needs to change to keep up with modern times. It didn’t change and the Reference Group was sadly ill-prepared to work out what to do when Netta’s looper hit their agenda in March. If Israeli TV could master it week in, week out, it’s a sad state of affairs that the EBU consider its use too much of a slippery slope to go down.
It’s particularly poignant when we go back to Ewan’s interview with Jon Ola Sand from Lisbon this year. Literally the previous question before discussing Netta’s loop station was about JOWST’s use of synthesised voices and the quote from the EBU’s Head of Live Events was as follows:
“We have to be at pace with the music industry and what is current pop music, we can’t lag behind the development in the music scene.”
But lagging behind is exactly what the EBU are doing by sitting on their hands, and a minefield of rights and wrongs has been created. It’s wrong to add a choral voice effect onto the backing track, but you can add as much computer made vocals onto the track. You can’t go on stage and manipulate the sounds you make on your own machine, but you can give instructions to sound engineers in the production suite to alter the echo and reverb and maybe even the complete timbre of your voice as the Olsen Brothers delivered so well. You can’t go on stage and add effects to your voice to make it sound like a harmonica, but bringing out a harmonica and playing it down the microphone would be a-ok and frankly impossible to stop regardless.
We Need To Conquer Our Live Music Fears
It all sounds very much like the experience Blu Lipy had with Danish television. At first the producers talk about how hard it is, about how risky it is, and that they want you to do something else. But then they get convinced when they actually see the talent in action. I’ve just witnessed some of the best in the world deliver and they did so flawlessly, and if Russia or France sent either of the finalists to the Eurovision Song Contest they would represent the country well (France also won the solo and group categories, somebody should let their delegation know they have some serious talent and, based on the loud French audience, a sizable market to capture).
Sure the technical issues create challenges, but where would the Eurovision Song Contest be without production challenges? It is an innovative and award winning production that constantly frets about visual challenges. Let’s recall the breaking glass, the falling snow and headlamps shining off a disco ball and that’s just a list of recent Swedish staging headaches. This year in Lisbon the Greek act tried repeatedly to get her visual effects to work through rehearsal after rehearsal. It eventually got dropped.
Netta never got the same chance. Risk taking in the Eurovision Song Contest is a big deal, but that only applies to the visual side of this Song Contest.
You know what’s funny. Despite the fakeness of Netta’s performance of ‘Toy’ in Lisbon, she still won comfortably with a smashing song. Convention would expect Netta to turn up and entertain us all in Israel next year as part of the interval. What a great opportunity this is. Take Netta’s recent voyage to Stockholm, where she performed at EuroPride but also live on SVT at Allsång på Skansen. She did the Eurovision set up for ‘Toy’ but afterwards brought out the looper for a four minute showdown of beats, rhythms and melody that had the Swedes clapping along merrily.
That’s the way in. Give Netta the chance to perform live in her home country on the biggest stage. Let her show the world how capable she is and how her loop station is just an extension of her own being and makes her appear even more fabulous. Let live music not have to cover up for the biggest TV spectacle on planet Earth, but to show its true colours with all the risk and reward attached.
After all, the Contest need to be ready for the moment when Ed Sheeran gets a burst of patriotism and demands to bring his favourite toy to the party…