Reeps One on artificial intelligence, the human voice, making music and performing in the present
London-born Reeps One is an award-winning beatboxer composer and artist, known for being one of the best beat boxers in the world. The 28-year-old's jaw-dropping accomplishments have gained him a massive online following, more than 40,000,000 global views and a residency at Harvard University where he gave lectures on phonetics, creative process and using the human voice. Here he tells Mandy News about his upcoming projects, how he got started beatboxing and his work with artificial intelligence.
Please introduce yourself and tell us how you became involved in beatboxing, composing and everything you do.
I grew up on a council estate in Walthamstow, East London, and was surrounded by producers and early grime. At the same time, I was also regularly visiting my dad who introduced me to jazz and classical composers like Wagner - it was a really strange mixing pot. I fell in love with making music but the issue was that if I didn’t have my instruments on me or I didn’t have a laptop then there was no way of continuing the process.I very quickly realised that my voice is a really useful way of internalising music and I could compose and write in a way that normal instruments didn’t offer.
Up until the age of 15, it was a simple way of creating music but, after that, things changed a lot. For instance, I was performing for myself something that I had written and didn’t realise that one of my best friends had comeback into the room and he was dancing - it was that moment I realised I could not only compose and write with my voice, but perform with it too. That was the beginning.
How did you take it from there? How did you develop your talent into an act and integrate into the industry?
Like I said before, my surroundings were producers. I quite quickly started – before any kind of competition or traditional beatboxing event – performing constantly at night, side-by-side with DJs and that was fully my inspiration and challenged me to see whether I could stand up against contemporary production. That gave me an edge and, as that progressed, my viewership went up and now I have over 100 million YouTube views. YouTube played a massive part in kick starting the next phase of my career. It allowed all people around the world to access what I was doing and that led to me entering the World Championships which I still see as the start of my global journey.
Performing and music is my absolute love but it was actually speaking about my ideas and realising there is something in voices – how they all connect and the challenges surrounding voice – that kicked off my work with the academic world.
You’ve worked and performed with some amazing talents, as well as being one yourself, of course. What values and qualities do they possess that makes them so special and successful?
You can doubt whether this attitude is a good thing or not but, ever since I was young, I have always seen any success I’ve had as a new door opening and a new challenge or opportunity to push myself harder. The simplest way to describe it is the visceral act of doing – where you’re in flow, on stage and performing – but I’ve always had this deconstructive side too. I’ve always loved the idea of how can you objectively share your art and have difficult discussions and talk about it with people who are completely outside of your normal experience or comfort zone.
Those two sides of my development are what have led me to where I am today.
You’re also an artist, in the drawing/painting sense. How do you balance all of those aspects of your professional life? What’s a typical year like for you?
It’s a double-edged sword being multidisciplinary and it’s a massive subject at the moment. It actually does help if you do it right, as you become this modular thing that can adapt as and when opportunities come in. You have to really, really define and develop the different aspects of your output. When I started out, I was a touring musician that occasionally spoke and produced artwork. For instance, after a performance, I would do an interview and I would start speaking about these other things and, as much as it was interesting, you realise that for a larger fanbase or general perception, it really takes some effort to get people to see the different pillars of your multidisciplinary output. That’s the biggest challenge.
For the past three years, I have been in this transition where I have stepped away from touring and put blood, sweat and tears into developing these other aspects and if it wasn’t for that then I don’t think I’d be in the position I’m in now. You have to be really mindful that if you’re going to be multidisciplinary, it can be really fun but you have to accept that it can have some real challenges that have to be approached in the right way.
Tell us a little about the documentary series We Speak Music with Bell Labs and your work with AI.
As I said, for the last three years I have stepped away from performing as there were a number of doors that opened regarding thought-based work and artistic research – which is a relatively new term. It’s been around for long time but now academic institutions are really interested in artist’s lateral perspective on subjects and themes. As that started to become more prevalent, I was asked to do more residencies, comment and consult on ideas and thoughts and, as that grew, I developed a portfolio and realised that it’s great to stylistically express and perform but there is a, what I call, the second creative puberty.
For instance, you could be 21 and performing constantly and what can happen is you’re doing a show to X number of people and start realising that, even though you have this career that’s developing, you’re actually stagnating and you need to find an objective purposefulness to your art form. That’s really what this documentary series is about. It moves through the global community, the academic response to voice, how beatboxing is contributing to academia and it ends with a very special spectacle.
The thing I have to make very, very clear is the reason the documentary is happening is because of something called EAT – Experiments in Art and Technology. It’s a Bell Labs programme and Bell Labs is one of the oldest and most established tech institutes in the world. They’ve invented so many things from the transistor to fibre optics. The reason they did it was because of the connection between voices and telecommunications. They started with Alexander Graham Bell and were at the forefront of innovation in so many capacities. In the 1950s, they wanted to encourage creativity and they were way ahead of the rest of the sci-tech world. Controversially they created The Nine Evenings which consisted of nine evenings of tech-based performances where artists were paired with engineers – it was the first time it had happened in that way. That programme has carried on until now and I am the latest addition to the EAT programme - so I’m an EAT artist at Bell Labs.
The docuseries – which is six episodes – follows the journey of me exploring the objective purposefulness of the voice, how voices are evolving and how that is being paired with technology. Along the journey, I had to decide what was going to be my EAT piece and that involves, what I affectionately call, the Reeps Two. The final piece in the documentary is a collaboration between myself and an individual called CJ at a company called DADABOTS. I met him while I was at Harvard and he has the capacity to mimic people’s stylistic essence and speech.
The simplest way I can describe it is: it simulates the instrument that is your voice and the tone and shape of it. So you can hear your own voice being spoken back at you in a way you’ve never heard before. It’s very useful and a powerful human tool. Artists can use it and create with that tool. I then realised that I could speed up the process of me beatboxing by using that tool. The simulation started to beatbox in a way I never have before using patterns I’ve never used before and it was such a unique experience – it gave me a whole fresh perspective on what I’m doing. Using that technology, I composed a whole piece with me collaborating and battling with AI and that's the crown jewel of the docu series.
What have you got lined up for the future?
I’ve got some really exciting top-secret little things coming out with Ninja Tune Productions. It’s just going back to music-making and videos because I’ve had this whole three-year intellectual barrage of trying to push the other side of what I’m doing but now I’m fully back in music mode. With this portfolio I’ve developed, I’ve been writing some installation-based performances. The talk performance that I did at DocFest in Sheffield, England is a brand new show and that’s definitely going to be traveling to a number of different destinations.
I’ve been given a really tiny curveball too. I’ve been invited to be a Culture Leader at the World Economic Forum. If you told me 10 years ago, as a beatboxer and artist growing up in Walthamstow, that I would be in that type of role when I grew up, I wouldn’t believe it. I want to be someone that shows that sticking to an output that feels right for you, and doing a number of things at the same time, and being obsessively precise in the way you execute them is a good thing and ultimately inspire people to think about their voices. They have a huge role in people’s lives and they never think about it. It’s full steam ahead for me.
Lastly, what advice would you give to someone aspiring to be in the creative arts?
Learn to be as present as possible in your art. If you’re performing, then try and get to a place where you’re not even thinking about what you’re doing, you’re just doing. Alongside that, when you’re offstage, deconstruct, break down and understand. People think it’s one or the other but you can do both at the same time and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.
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