When SK Shlomo (they/them) received their ADHD diagnosis, they reached out to fellow beatboxer Beardyman to share the news. Beardyman’s response was simple. “Well, obviously. Isn't beatboxing basically just a symptom of ADHD?”
Shlomo's ability to focus so intensely on beatboxing while growing up could have been attributed to undiagnosed ADHD. But they also acknowledge “lucky timing” as a key factor in their success; having been one of the few people in the UK to become proficient in the art form at a young age. Their unique ability to craft complex beats and musical compositions using only their voice has garnered them multiple accolades and invitations to perform at prestigious music festivals, like Glastonbury, Bestival, and Latitude. As a well-respected collaborator, they’ve worked with a diverse range of musicians and artists, such as Imogen Heap, Björk, and Gorillaz, while also recently gaining recognition for their captivating solo theater performance, BREATHE.
“I was beatboxing before I knew it was a thing,” Shlomo remembers. “I didn't even know it had a name. It was just how I was practicing rhythms. I'd seen Michael Winslow on Police Academy, you remember? The guy who could do all these noises? And I was like, ‘oh, cool, I do that, so I guess that's just normal.’”
Beyond their vocal talents, Shlomo is also known for their fascination with technology and its potential to enhance and elevate beatboxing performances. To accompany this article, they’ve kindly shared a Live Set, containing a selection of beatboxed loops and their custom-made Effects Rack, BEASTR, which enables them to create choppy, delayed vocal effects in real time.
Originally named Simon Shlomo Kahn, SK Shlomo was born in the UK in 1983 to Israeli-Jewish parents. As a child, they were discouraged from using their Hebrew middle name due to their mother’s difficult experiences as an immigrant. However, upon embarking on a music career, they instinctively reclaimed Shlomo as their stage name.
“My parents gave me a white first name because my mother is called Irit, a very Hebrew name. She came to the UK when she was seven years old, and it was an absolute disaster for her having this obvious marker that she didn’t fit in. When I started performing music, I was able to reclaim my middle name. And now, I’ve gone on a full journey with it. So my first name is now Shlomo and my middle name is Sarah because I’m non-binary. I spend a lot of my time as a trans woman. And I just got my new passport this week.”
Shlomo’s career as a beatboxer started early and quickly gathered momentum. Before long, they had more gig offers than they could feasibly handle, but they took a community-minded approach to the stress of overbooking by passing opportunities to their peers in the industry. Keeping the community in focus, they began organizing beatbox battles, which later evolved into the UK Beatbox Championships and kicked off their Beatbox Academy project at the Battersea Arts Centre, which has since become a multi-award-winning theater company. However, despite the success of these organizations, Shlomo eventually decided to step back from their day-to-day operations, citing a desire to focus on creating art rather than managing businesses.
“I was lucky to have got there first. So I was sort of central in the UK Beatboxing scene. And I'm also a bit of a hustler and entrepreneur. So when I started getting too many gigs I began to pass some over to other beatboxers I knew. And then I was like, ‘shit, we should have an infrastructure for this.’ So these organizations just sort of evolved from there.”
Throughout their career as a performer, Shlomo has been open about their struggles with mental health, using their profile as a beatboxer to raise awareness about the issue. They often speak publicly about their experiences with depression and anxiety and have been a strong advocate for mental health support and resources.
In 2019, Shlomo conceived the notion of merging storytelling and rave music into a single performance. The idea arose following their solo show in Edinburgh, coinciding with the release of their album, Surrender. During the performance, Shlomo recounted their own struggle with suicidal thoughts and their path to eventual recovery. To their amazement, at one point in the show, the audience began to dance spontaneously to the music. This was the moment that inspired Shlomo to create a new performance that began with a personal story before culminating into a rave party.
“This absolutely huge Scottish person in the front row stands up and just goes ‘raaaaaaaw’ and kicks their chair away and just starts dancing,” Shlomo recalls. “And everyone else just assumed that was what I meant for them to do. So they all did the same. They started raving and I was like, ‘whoa, hang on a second.’ And then I realized, this is what I need to do.”
Originally, the show was to be called “The Play That Becomes a Rave”, and Shlomo had plans to launch it fully in 2020. But, the pandemic forced them to slow down, giving them time to reflect on personal issues once again.
“And then I just wrote BREATHE,” Shlomo remembers. “It was my way to process all of that. I wrote it all down into a script and created an album, which became the soundtrack to the show.”
Shlomo went on to develop BREATHE into a fully-fledged, solo, live performance, combining beatboxing, music, and technology to explore themes such as queerness, gender, race, disability, mental health and the healing power of rave music. The show also serves as a way for Shlomo to process and share their own personal story with the world, using a variety of creative mediums.
“It was a concept for the performance. And it created a sort of template for everything else. I knew exactly what the story should do. I knew what the music should do. And that is a much easier way to make an album or create a project than just looking at a blank page and being like, oh, what shall I write?”
The soundtrack for BREATHE is almost entirely original – except for the marching band song 'Seventy Six Trombones' to which Shlomo played the drums as a child.
“I wanted it to sound like you knew the tracks,” Shlomo explains. “So they're all heavily referencing my playlist from those times. But, yeah, it’s all original. And that was such a joy in itself. Like studying all those old breakbeats. So whilst everyone else was learning how to make sourdough during the lockdowns, I was making all these ‘90s rave tracks. I was loading up all of my favorite Prodigy tracks and all these early tunes and being like, ‘right, what is it that makes these songs so exciting to me?’ And sort of distilling that into the album. And so that's how BREATHE came about.”
At the core of Shlomo’s performance setup lies a custom-built Max for Live device called BEAST which evolved from their explorations with live looping while working with Björk. “I realized that I should do more than just Snoop Dogg and Missy Elliott beatboxing sounds,” Shlomo remembers. “I should use my skill to make music. Because Björk saw me as an instrument, like a human collaborator. And I was like, ‘I'm underselling this shit.’ So I went and bought a Roland RC-20 loop pedal. It was really simple. I basically broke it by pushing it to its absolute limits. I found that there were loads of glitches and errors, but they were predictable errors that are beautifully inherent to hardware.”
Over the next two or three years, Shlomo upgraded the pedal and eventually went on to win the UK Looping Championships organized by Roland. Later, they traveled to the US to represent the UK and won the World Championships in LA. As looping became more popular, Shlomo started receiving various other types of devices from a burgeoning market.
“All of a sudden they were all being sent to me and I was like, ‘whoa, this is powerful.’ I could plug a Kaoss Pad into a Loop Station, into a TC Helicon Voicelive Touch into this, into that. And so, I had this mad chain. But, I was trying to tour festivals with this increasingly ridiculous amount of stuff that was all adding noise to the signal chain. And I was trying to keep them in sync and keep them playing fair. It was getting heavy, bulky and messy. In the end, I was like, ‘look, this isn't right.’ And around that time, I'd been playing with Ableton Live and it wasn't long before it took over. Then it was about being brave enough to have a look at Max for Live. This is what led to me creating BEAST.
Shlomo originally wanted to emulate the Boss RC-505 looper they were using at the time. With some help from Mark Towers, who became their Max for Live mentor, they started work on a patch that allowed five Looper devices inside Ableton Live to be synchronized and controlled without touching the laptop. They also used ClyphX as a way to control Live through script commands placed into dummy clips or markers within their arrangements.
“And that was how BEAST was born. Once I got it working, I was like, ‘okay, now I really can make the tech do anything I want.’ I even did a TED Talk about it. Then it all kind of kicked off. I spent a couple of years just touring around, talking about my mad invention at various technology events.
Shlomo had been looking for a wireless wearable device to control their beats during performances, and specifically to switch a hi-pass filter on and off in real-time. They’d tried different devices, including a Leap Motion controller along with various buttons and MIDI rings. But, none quite worked, until they saw Imogen Heap’s demonstration of an early version of the MiMU Glove.
“I was like, ‘that's it, that is it!’ I just wanted one button, honestly, just one. Because when I'm beatboxing, and I’m doing the kicks and basslines, it's super bassy. The EQ is boosted at 80 Hertz. And that sounds great. But if you're trying to just speak or do hi-hats, or anything that doesn't need that bass, using that same EQ setting, you get all this rumbling energy that you don’t want. MiMU Gloves are really hard to get hold of because of the global shortage of silicon chips. But they managed to bag me one. And so now, imagine if every kick had the full power of a really boosted bass EQ, but then as soon as the transient’s gone, the hi-pass has come back on. I can control that switch literally just by moving my thumb in time to the beat. It’s mind-blowing.”
The MiMU Glove can do much more than this, tracking every digit and knuckle, and even allowing Shlomo to hit imaginary drums that are read as MIDI notes.
“There’s a million ways I can use it. I'm hardly even scratching the surface of what it can do in BREATHE. There are some really gorgeous bits in the show. Like where all the music cuts out and I go up to someone in the front row and they give me a fist bump. The split second that their fist touches mine, I'm triggering the music to come back in. It’s so satisfying. You can’t do that with playback. You can’t do that with someone in the tech booth watching. The level of instantaneous reward that this glove gives you is incredible.”
Shlomo also enjoys playing the role of the sound engineer during their performances, even though it can be challenging to balance this with performing. Touring with their own PA system lets them be in control of the sound even further. While Shlomo stops short of taking on the lighting design, they express interest in using the MiMu Glove for this purpose too. Having this high level of control on stage allows Shlomo to relax and focus on the performance, although these technical demands sound daunting, especially for someone managing ADHD.
“I think before the diagnosis or just before my breakdown, I would never really make my needs clear, not even internally to myself. I’d bully myself. The way I spoke to myself internally was completely abusive and horrible. So there’s no way I would be able to say, look, I might need to do things differently to other people, or that it’s valid for me to have different needs. I can completely let go during BREATHE because I’ve finally had the self-worth to say no, I do want to control every aspect of the sound. That is how I’m able to let go. If someone else is trying to do it, I have to worry if they’re going to get it right. And that gets in the way of me feeling completely free.”
Shlomo has now tailored their setup to suit their own thinking style. They’ve developed a deep understanding of how the technology behaves – even when it misbehaves, which happens frequently. But Shlomo approaches these challenges with playfulness and empowerment.
“I’ve built this tech around my brain. So my brain and the tech have evolved together. I think the younger me would have said, ‘oh, no, you can't be this demanding. You can’t have control over all of this and all of that. You've got to play the game, otherwise, someone else will replace you if you're difficult.’ But now I’m like like, fuck ‘em. If they’re going to replace me, they don’t deserve me. I'll go and find someone who does.”
Shlomo enjoys the interplay of analog and digital elements in their performances. Their setup also includes a small keyboard for playing pianos and synths, an iPad running Ableton Live controller touchAble, and mappable Akai LPD8 pads. While the majority of the performance is controlled through Push 2, Shlomo notes that much of what is happening centers around processing the purest analog signal of all – their voice.
“What I really love about the show is how it’s taking the super hi-tech and using it to process a super analog signal, which in this case is obviously beatboxing and singing. And then I’ve got my little jaw harp. I picked that up when I was on tour in India. This was like the opposite of technology. Or, the earliest piece of music technology there is; like blowing through a blade of grass. I then sample that, add effects and loop it so that becomes a wild Arabic dance party. I really love that kind of juxtaposition between analog and super tech.
Shlomo’s imaginative use of technology has helped them to weave a compelling narrative of self-exploration and introspection, while captivating audiences with a multi-sensory experience. Throughout BREATHE, Shlomo touches on some of the negative biases they had previously held about others and the process of challenging those misconceptions to achieve a greater sense of self-acceptance. Shlomo describes their experience of moving to a quiet village as “terrifying and triggering”, in part, because of their negative view of people who lived there. “These people seemed to just live for the commute and the school run,” Shlomo explains. “It was like, their lives were so gray, they were just basically waiting to die. That was my judgment of them. But it’s absolutely not true.”
Shlomo later discovered that some of these supposedly ‘boring’ people are actually fellow music lovers, with colorful histories of their own.
“There are people who I’m sort of stereotyping in the storyline of BREATHE, like John from number 23, who works in IT. And I had assumed that these people would hate me. But as soon as I did start saying, ‘look, I’m having a hard time here with my mental health and also I love music. Does anyone here love music?’ They were like, ‘yeah, we do!’ So it turns out some of them were not really just these gray commuters, they were ravers too. Once you stop judging everyone and assuming who they are, it is easier to make a bit more peace with where you are, I think.”
While Shlomo has been lucky enough to enjoy an interesting music career, we inquired as to whether they believe others consciously choose a monotonous routine of daily commutes, or whether such a lifestyle is simply thrust upon them.
“I don't know. If I reframe everything again with the neurodiversity lens, I couldn’t do those IT jobs, I’d be a fucking disaster. So in a way, having a more colorful life did choose me. But, yeah, maybe those people are choosing, even if they feel like that life was chosen for them. It’s not true. There can be this culture where you have to earn this much money, you have to do this and you have to do that. No, you don’t. Put yourself out there, take a risk. You’re unlikely to actually die. Go and do what’s in your heart, because we’re sort of discouraged from believing that there is an alternative life for us and I think that's really toxic.”