Q&A: Taylor McFerrin On The Art Of Beatboxing, Life On Flying Lotus' Label, And Why His Dad, Bobby, Threw Out His Rap CDs
"It's extra wack if your dad disses what you do."
The McFerrin clan is creating a beatboxing dynasty. Father Bobby hit the pop heights in the '80s with "Don't Worry Be Happy" and caught ears with his knack for making music with his mouth. Next up is his son, Taylor. Based in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the younger McFerrin taught the art of beatboxing to a class of students at the Lavelle School for the Blind in the Bronx earlier this year -- an emotional, uplifting experience he characterizes as "one of the best in my life."
Now he's readying his debut solo album, Early Riser, to be released on L.A. glitch-hop ambassador Flying Lotus's Brainfeeder label. The first fruit of that venture, "Place in My Heart," features the pained, sinewy vocals of singer RYAT while showcasing Taylor's mature and nuanced production. At the behest of his new label boss, Taylor says his own voice will be more prominent on the project, and help usher in a new wave of vocal-focused releases for a label usually associated with intricate instrumental soundscapes. With "Place in My Heart" out on Tuesday, we checked in with the young McFerrin about the relative hipness of beat-boxing, the dubious merits of after-gig diner food at 4 a.m., and the day his father threw his entire collection of hip-hop CDs in the garbage.
How did you get involved with teaching kids at a blind school to beatbox?
Initially, the guys that run the program, James Kim and Justin Kim, booked me to play a show at South By Southwest in 2007. Then I was in Europe this past summer, and I got an email from James, who came up with the concept, asking if I wanted to teach beatboxing in a school for blind kids. I had no teaching experience, I didn't know if it was going to go well or not, but it ended up being a really natural thing for me. The hardest part was a lot of the kids had multiple disabilities, and it took some kids a few weeks to want to willingly participate in the class and to vocally open up. It got to the point where we were making tracks together, I'd bring out my computer and my Ableton, we'd do some warm-up exercises, and then I'd sample the kids making sounds and build up tracks. When that happened, it opened up a lot of kids who were too shy to participate at first -- once they got a microphone and heard their voices and me manipulating them into beats, it was like everyone wanted the mic! It was like we were all on an equal playing field, we were all in the classroom sitting down and just sharing music. The whole experience was one of the best in my life. We're trying to do another semester, but the school is at risk of losing all of its funding with budget cuts across the state.
Is it hard to teach the technical points of beat-boxing?
Well, we kept it really basic. The thing with beatboxing is, there's not that many things to teach. It's mostly high-hats, snares, and kicks, and then some variation on that. Then it's the sounds in between. Beatboxers tend to make their stamp on the extra sounds they add. So once you have the basics of high-hat, snares, and kicks, which we spent the first few classes on, then it's all about rhythmic variations. If someone wanted to learn how to beatbox at a really high level, I'd have gone in-depth on different patterns and variations, but with the kids we only had 12 classes each of 45 minutes, so it was more about getting the kids to make music however they wanted to participate. But if I was teaching one on one, I'd stress that the main thing is getting to the point where you're so comfortable that you're not thinking about how to make the sounds anymore. All you're focusing on is the rhythm you're going to make, then it's more rhythms and repetition after that.
Who's your favorite ever beatboxer?
I would say Kenny Muhammad, Rahzel, and this kid who's a friend of mine called MC Squared. I'd say those are the top three I've seen in person.
Back in the '80s, beat-boxing was a lot more popular in hip-hop songs. Why do you think it's fallen out of fashion?
It seems like every year or two there will be like one tune that still makes it on the radio, but so many people can beatbox now that it's more taken over on the Internet level, like when some kid throws up a crazy video of like a kid who can play the flute and beat-box, or someone doing the Super Mario Bros. theme. It's weird, I don't think of myself as a beatboxer first, but when it comes to live shows, it is something I kinda lean on a lot. In terms of it falling out of fashion, I don't think beatboxing is really that hard to do, and there have been a few guys that have come out and been so dope with it that it's hard for someone new to come out and blow you away with something new.
Your solo album will be released on Brainfeeder. Has Flying Lotus had much input into it?
Well, the album's not quite done yet, and I'm going to be going to L.A. soon to do more tracks with me singing on them than was initially planned. That was something Flying Lotus suggested at the start. At first, it was a straight producer record with all guest vocalists, but I've kinda found some techniques to get by with, like layering things and chopping things up. I'm not a singer, but I do so many solo shows that I think it's time to transition over.
The album's titled Early Riser. Is that meant to be taken literally?
Well, it's kinda for my friends that know that I never wake up early! I stay up super late, and also my musical career has been a really slow build. I've been making music in New York for the whole 10 and a half years I've been here, and I've very slowly morphed into the version of myself right now. So it's really a play on words.
Why do so many musicians keep late hours? Is it because of doing gigs and not finishing until the early hours of the morning?
Yeah, I think so. We're used to our creative juices flowing around stage time. And usually at night I get creative at the worst possible times -- like just before I'm about to go to bed I'll get an idea and get obsessive about it and stay working on it until 8 a.m. And it kinda gets worse and worse, 'cause sometimes I'll DJ or have a string of gigs, and a lot of them aren't over until 4 a.m. but even after that I still have to pack up and get something to eat.
What sort of food options do you have at 4 a.m.? Is it all diners?
Yeah, it's all diners, man! Like Kellogg's in Williamsburg. The food is not good, but you get a lot of it. Actually, my favorite when I lived in Williamsburg was the empanada guy. He's this guy that has hot, fresh empanadas and rolls around with his cart at like four in the morning when all the clubs are closing.
Have you held down any day jobs while playing gigs?
I actually gauge my success right now in that I haven't had to go back and get a real job for a few years!
What sort of jobs did you hold down?
I was working at Triple 5 Soul and bartending at this bar called Cafe Suave, which was a very short-lived bar in Clinton Hill, kinda by Pratt. I also worked at Madiba in Fort Greene for a while, this restaurant called the Pink Pony in the Lower East Side, at the Mercer Hotel doing room service -- that one was for like a week. But Cafe Suave was my last real run-in with a day job.
Which customers were the most annoying at the bar?
Actually, my bar was so chill -- the only people that were annoying were drink snobs. It wasn't the type of bar where people ordered anything elaborate, but once in a while you'd get someone order some ridiculous drink that I'd never made before -- and then they want to school you on how to make it. But the bar was mostly regulars who lived the vibe, so no one was too demanding.
You mentioned you've been making music in New York for over 10 years. Have you been in any bands with terrible names?
Yes! My first band was called Grandfather Ridiculous. It's crazy, 'cause we actually had a pretty big following in New York. I was rapping at the time -- I probably had no business doing that -- and it was all jazz players from the New School University jazz program. I can definitely say they were some of the top musicians in New York at that time. I got schooled by those cats -- the drummer definitely changed the way I use drums and beatbox, and the keyboard player was a genius. But, yeah, that definitely wasn't the band with the greatest name.
Do you talk to your dad much about music?
Yeah, I do. We talk about music, but not really specifically my music. He's probably the person I'm the most nervous to play stuff to. It's extra wack if your dad disses what you do, on top of him being a musician that I really respect. But both my parents are really supportive and don't try to shape my music too much. I think that comes from me always having a thing about doing stuff my own way, like I never tried to use my dad's name to get anywhere. But he'll tell me he likes something after I already played it a while ago. Like the new song, "Place in My Heart," I already played it to him months ago, but then finally when he saw the video he was like, "Yeah, that's one of the best things you've done." But he said it super nonchalant.
Growing up, what sort of music did your dad play around the house?
It was mostly James Brown, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, the Isley Brothers, Joni Mitchell. Those were the top ones in rotation.
Did you like that music then? Lots of kids rebel against whatever their parents play.
Yeah, I liked it. It's hard to hate on James Brown, even as a kid! My parents didn't push it on me though -- we had music playing in the house a lot. My parents more were hating on the stuff I was listening to! I grew up in California, so when I got into hip-hop I was trying to play Snoop and all that gangsta rap when I was like 11 or 12, and they weren't feeling that!
Did you ever have to hide CDs or tapes from your parents?
Well my dad threw away all my hip-hop music at some point! It must have been like '93. I was listening to like Wu-Tang and Dr. Dre and stuff. He listened to all my CDs and was like, "Not feeling it at all." So he threw it all away. In a way it was cool, 'cause I ended up getting into soul music because of that. I really bought those [hip-hop] CDs at the time 'cause it was what was cool at the time, but when I really got into music for real, it was old '60s and '70s soul stuff.
Did your dad ever replace the Wu-Tang and Dr. Dre CDs he threw out?
No, he never did, he never replaced them!