KAI STEPS UP to a microphone and opens his mouth; what emerges isn’t a tune in the conventional sense but a synth warp that quivers across the room, a pounding bass beat. Layer by layer the sounds build into an EDM frenzy you could lose your mind to, complete with swishing outros and a bass dropped like lightning.
This is beatboxing in motion and it takes place in a room that is virtually bare, no instruments in sight or anything like that. Just one man, Kai. Armed with his trusty loop machine, a dance hit straight from his throat.
Medical student by day and rising star of the music scene by night, Kai first dove into beatboxing by emulating the likes of Dharni, Beardyman, Reeps One and Beasty in secondary school.
Since then, he’s fashioned his own quicksilver mix of sound and gone places with it: from judging Singapore’s national beatboxing battle, to featuring in an international live looping festival in California. He’s also the youngest member of homegrown acapella group Vocaluptuous, and has performed with them at a number of star-studded events including 2013’s National Day Parade.
In between all that, Kai has found time to slip a first album Beginnings firmly under his belt. Surprisingly, Beginnings isn’t a piece of in-your-face beatboxing brilliance, but a montage of dreamy acoustic pieces that go well with rain on the windows and poetry books on the lap. “The songs are all about human relationships,” says Kai thoughtfully. “Not just romantic love but friendships and familial relations- about how they are fragile and can easily break.”
Is it difficult, I ask, to reconcile his glitzy beatboxer persona with the sensitive troubadour of his acoustic album? Not really, says Kai, since the two kinds of music share the lowest common denominator: commitment to technique. “Most people don’t think so, but good singing really is all about technique. And so is beatboxing- there are just so many different sounds, and making each one tight and accurate is something that calls for plenty of drilling.”
And he’s right, of course: you can hear the hours of hard work and practice sanding down corners in his album’s first track – Goodbye so that its falsetto melody soars marbled and slick over a gentle guitar part.
And then there are songs like Masks, where keyboard chords are sudden broken up by a blitz of beatboxing pyrotechnics so that both lyricist and beatboxer get their turn in the limelight.