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Jason Tom (譚志豪), Hawaiʻi's Human Beatbox

What Influenced Me to Start Beatboxing

May 4, 2013 at 05:13PM

I get asked from time to time how I got influenced into what I do with the art of beatboxing. To summarize, it essentially started off (during the pre-YouTube era) with Michael Jackson's music, then Michael Jackson as an artist, which gradually expanded to life experiences and other influences including Rahzel, Elaine Chao, and more along the way (i.e. Bobby McFerrin, Michael Winslow, Doug E. Fresh, etc.). To be more specific and in depth... I decided to devote this blog entry about my adventure into the beatboxing realm and the story starts off below this paragraph...

It all began being exposed at an early age during the mid 1980's to the Michael Jackson song "Bad." Also seeing several versions of the music video on television for "Bad" such as the original version, kid version known as "Badder" (featured on Moonwalker), and Weird Al Yankovic's version known as "Fat." I gravitated toward the energy of the dance, music, and assertiveness of the lyrics. That song inspired me to go home and record my own version of "Bad" on an audio cassette tape. I'd scat the melody of the synthesizer, do an inward k snare (a beatbox technique utilized by the tongue clapping) as the pulse of the rhythm, and I sang the chorus simultaneously at the same time, "I'm bad, I'm bad, you know it, you know!"


Michael Jackson "Bad" music video.

Then in 1991, my mother bought me the Michael Jackson Dangerous album on cassette and I immediately fell in love with the deep bass guitar sound on the "Who Is It" song (played on my boombox). From there I wanted to become that bass guitar sound, and I eventually developed a beatbox vocal technique that utilizes my Adam's apple that emulated that sound. Then in 1993, I discovered Michael Jackson also beatboxed during his live interview with Oprah Winfrey when he did an a cappella version of "Who Is It." It blew my mind how unique and original his beatboxing was to "Who Is It." It also surprised me how different his beatbox interpretation was to "Who Is It" compared to my beatbox version. That interview was his first in over 14 years and it was seen by over 85 million people in the United States alone and over 100 million around the world. It was one of the most memorable moments for me to see Michael Jackson beatbox, because it was his music that first influenced me to start beatboxing.


Michael Jackson performing "Who Is It" a cappella style with beatboxing.

Then in 1995, Michael Jackson did an interview with Diane Sawyer for Primetime Live and I further discovered that he utilizes the art of beatboxing as a tool for composing and writing songs when he demonstrated that with the song, "Tabloid Junkie," from his HIStory album. I remember around 1997 or 1998, my classmate Jess Navarrete, during my freshman year at McKinley High School, thought I hid a radio in class, but in reality it was me beatboxing softly to myself while doing my classwork. That was when I realized what I did was something unique and different.


Michael Jackson breaking down "Tabloid Junkie."

Then around 1999, I caught on television a MTV "Hip Hop Week" segment featuring the Godfather of Noise Rahzel (of the Legendary Roots Crew). While watching the commercial I remember feeling that the sounds and techniques Rahzel was doing was ahead of the times. It kind of made me shy away from beatboxing, because I was very impressed with the sounds that he was producing. Rahzel eventually became like a beatbox mentor of mine inspiring and influencing me to step my game up with beatboxing as he has with many of today's beatboxers.


Rahzel featured on MTV's Hip Hop Week

2001, I graduated from McKinley High School. Then in 2002, I moved to Northern California to get away from Hawaii for a while due to drama I experienced. I worked and did some judo training while I was out there. I'd eventually earned gold medals at judo tournaments and got a jump of belt promotion from white belt to yonkyu-green belt (a level before three degrees of brown belt, four degrees before black belt). Then after one of the judo tournaments I saw a microphone laying around, I picked it up and beatboxed. The kids around were wowed by it and told me to do it again. Their genuine reaction surprised me as I thought everyone probably has done that at home at one point or another. Shortly after accomplishing some short term and long term goals with judo I moved back to Honolulu. I continued my judo training with Shobukan Judo Club in Hawaii.

Then in 2003, I caught Asian American beatboxer Elaine Chao's televised performance on the Showtime At the Apollo. That was the first time I saw beatboxing in the context of a performance in front of a live crowd. I never thought about performing beatboxing in front of a live audience until I saw that on television. Also seeing a lady do it inspired and influenced me. During that time though, I was still in pursuit of excelling at judo rather than pursue my passion for music.


Elaine Chao featured on Showtime At The Apollo

From then on in early 2004, after judo training, one stormy night, I got hit by a van while crossing a green light at the crosswalk. I was knocked unconscious after breaking my fall utilizing judo. I was taken to the hospital, went home the same night, and went to bed. I woke up the next morning and dug deep to decide what I was gonna do with my life as it could have ended. I realized then I wasn't as passionate with judo while training in Hawaii and I gradually stopped judo training altogether. After the incident I felt my memory was somewhat lagging and I was temporarily traumatized from even parked cars. I eventually recovered. I also decided to go back to school after a two year break from college (after messing up my first two semesters at Kapiʻolani Community College).

I felt I had unfinished business to take care of with school (I struggled from K-12, but believed in myself enough that I could accomplish much more). Perseverance is the key to success and successful people fail more. I modeled myself after the honor roll students I knew back in high school, and I also applied what I learned from my judo training up in Northern California to my college studying. When I came back to school, I was focused and determined to do well, I also pursued (on the side) beatboxing (in front of live audiences) while I earned straight A's and a 4.0 grade point average (semester after semester) at KCC. I revisited my passion for music. At the beginning it took me a while to warm up to the idea of performing in front of people since beatboxing was so personal to me and it was something I did growing up originally when no one was watching. It's kind of like how some people will only sing in the shower, but not sing out in public. Breaking the ice to feel comfortable performing in front of strangers and friends took some time to get used to, especially since I was a lot shyer when I was younger.

It was from that point on I got out there, didn't give up and pursued the art of beatboxing. I eventually graduated from KCC as a Phi Theta Kappa honor student. I also earned a certificate while I studied abroad at Beijing Foreign Studies University in Beijing, China through the Freeman Foundation Scholarship. I transitioned from (as a kid) wanting to be a famous comic book artist, to (a young adult) wanting to do sports professionally, to (a college student) wanting to become a math teacher, and to the point my heart tugged at me to pursue my passion for music as a beatboxer. I couldn't ignore it. Then I eventually hit some road blocks while beatboxing, though I didn't give up, and I turned my life back to Jesus Christ. The rest is history.

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Aloha Jason! It would be awesome to see you open up for Michael Winslow again! He will be here August 24 at Mamiya Theater.



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