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On a sleepy Sunday evening, a Brooklyn-bound L train lurches to a stop somewhere deep beneath the East River. Strangely, nobody in the last car seems to notice. Not the old ladies clutching shopping bags, not the preening hipsters wobbling in ill-fitting heels, not the starched family men on the way home from church. The packed train is too busy craning its collective neck toward a noise wafting from the middle of the car:
Boom-boom . . . ghattssst . . . boom-boo-boom . . . crack! Brooklyn! Bring that beat back!
Boom-boom . . . ghattssst . . . boom-boo-boom . . . crack!
Out of a huddle of swaying bodies, a nimble kid in high-top sneakers drifts into view, sputtering improvised rhymes over a heavy beat. His verses are forgettable"Keepin' it real/You know the deal," etc.but the musical backbeat is not. Its underlying thump and stutter-step rhythms tickle tired feet along the car's dirty floor. More than just curious, the crowd of onlookers are confused, their quizzical faces all asking the same thing: Where are the drums?
The drums seem to be near Kid Lucky. But upon closer inspection, it's suddenly clear that Kid Lucky is the drums. In fact, he and a couple of motormouths on either side compose an entire rhythm section. Passengers press close behind, and Lucky, feeding off the crowd, huffs and puffs a deep bassline using only his mouth. With loose lips flapping and Adam's apple bobbing, the barrel-chested beatboxer barks out a Fort Apachestyle breakbeat, a favorite of the two B-boys in attendance. Decked out in tank tops, tube socks, and headbands, they breakdance in the limited space between the handrails. Shockwave, a lanky, blond-haired beatboxer in his late twenties, steps up to the cipher, seemingly frothing at the mouth. His muscular percussion buttresses Lucky's raspy turntable scratches, and together they give new meaning to the expression "say it, don't spray it." Lucky draws a hurried breath and eggs on the crowd, "Now clap your hands to the beat!"
Only 20 minutes earlier his crew had boarded the train at Eighth Avenue, kicking off the latest edition of the twice-monthly Subway Series, an informal gathering of homegrown beatboxers, B-boys, MCs, and their ilk. In the last year or so they've taken over entire subway cars for freestyle performances. The L is their line of choice tonight, and as it rolls eastward, the rear car sucks in one unsuspecting rider after another. With the train fully loaded and stuck in the tunnel, the beatboxers now face a large and captive audience, something they hadn't had in a long time.
An old-school hip-hop throwback to a time when, as the lyric goes, "shoelaces were fat and Michael Jackson was black," human beatboxing first emerged on the streets of New York City in the early '80s. Pioneers like Doug E. Fresh and Darren "Buffy" Robinson of the Fat Boys began mimicking the drum machinesor beat boxespopular with DJs. Such high-tech equipment wasn't cheap, so a few enterprising loudmouths started vocalizing their own beats. A minor craze ensued, culminating in the Fat Boys' appearance on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee. Always somewhat of an oddity, beatboxing came to symbolize hip-hop's early invention and innocence. Its proponents once rivaled MCs for mic time, but when hip-hop rose to cultural prominence soon afterward, their mouths fell largely silent.
Beatboxing never really went away, of courseit just went (often literally) underground. And that's where it's thriving on this particular night, in the steamy subway car. The mood may be light and jovial, but the beatboxers have something to prove. They fret about being regarded as charmingly nostalgic at best, and hopelessly outdated at worst. DJs, MCs, breakdancers, and even graffiti writers have long enjoyed deity status as the four official elements of hip-hop. But the culture's outrageous success has somehow left the "fifth element" behind. Beatboxers' quest to regain cultural cachet is odd in terms of the venues they choose (poetry clubs and subway cars), their opponents in the battles they fight (VH1), the now famous former collaborators they sue (the Fresh Prince, for one), and the bizarre schemes they hatch to steal back the spotlight (one plot involves dolphins). Their art may look funny in person, but this is no joke.
Lucky and his ragtag crew have long seen themselves as latter-day John Henrys fight ing an increasingly mechanical and soulless music industry. "It's the human mouth beating technology at its own game," explains veteran beatboxer Baba Israel. "Laptops can break down, and I've been at shows where the DJ didn't show up or the turntable stopped working. So beatboxers are always saving the day." As the beatboxers take their turn in the stalled L-train cipher, their only foe now is the computerized conductor, occasionally interrupting with a polite but insistent "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience. We apologize for the delay."
Kid Lucky knows a thing or two about delays. Abandoned on the streets of Youngstown, Ohio, as a baby, Kid Lucky (Terry Lewis, according to his birth certificate) started off life pretty unlucky. "My whole youth was taken from me," he says. "I was at Children's Aid in Cleveland when I was five years old. Then at 13 this guy adopted me but couldn't handle ithe didn't want me, plain and simple." Lucky rattles off the names of more foster homes. "I got to a point where I was too old to be adopted, but was still a minor. At 15 I was put into a mental institution for the next three and a half years."