Although he was just 4 years old, Jason Tom can still clearly recall the first time he heard Michael Jackson’s Bad. He was completely mesmerized by the beat and by Jackson’s voice, and the song lingered in his mind long after it ended. He had to hear it again, but he didn’t have the tape.
So he figured out a way to recreate it himself.
He imitated the sounds he heard in the song — making noises with his tongue and mouth to replicate drums and snares — while singing along, and recorded himself on a cassette tape.
“That way when I played it back, I could hear the song the way I heard it in my head,” he recalls. “I didn’t know it was called (beatboxing) at the time, I just did it.”
It’s been 30 years since Tom’s first brush with beat-boxing — and he’s still at it.
Dubbed “Hawaii’s Human Beatbox,” Tom has gone on to earn a slew of accolades for his work and has performed at national and international beatbox conventions. Currently, Tom is among a group of local artists participating in the Next-Next Hawaii competition, a voter-based contest where votes equate funds for the musicians’ favorite charities.
(Some of the other contestants include The Bougies, Emi Hart, The Fresh Preps, Brooks Maguire and Tahiti Rey. For details and how to vote, visit nextnext.com.) Tom also is working on composing music for dance production Creation at Pali-ku Theatre in November in collaboration with Prisma Dance, and gearing up for a performance at Hawaii Children and Youth Day Oct. 2 at the Hawaii State Capitol.
Tom has been performing since 2004, and in more recent years, sharing his craft with younger generations has become a primary focus for him. In 2011, he founded The Human Beatbox Academy, which offers beatboxing workshops to all ages and hosts competitions for students. He also is a part of the newly formed Hawaii Hip-Hop Collective, which strives to promote events related to all things hip-hop, including graffiti art and breakdancing as well as beatboxing. Metro recently chatted with Tom about beatboxing, his efforts to teach others and what’s next.
You started beatboxing so young, long before you ever knew there was a name for what you were doing. But do you remember how this interest started?
Ever since I was young, music played in the house — my mom would play vinyl records. I would just always feel it in my gut … music was something that I could always feel — I mean, it wasn’t something I just listened to, I could really feel it. For example, if I heard a snare, I loved it so much that the sound became so addictive to me that I wanted to become that sound. Or if it was a bass line, I wanted to become that bass or that drum. So if I heard a beat, a sound playing on the radio, I would just (imitate) it … In my mind, I became the instrument, that sound.
What do you enjoy about beatboxing?
I had a toy piano that was one of my first instruments that I messed around with. In school, they would give us the ukulele to try. In middle school, I took band and I tried the tuba. But I always gravitated toward just using my voice.
I got bored of (other instruments); I was like, I would rather just do beatbox because you can do so much more — you can do the rhythm, the melody, the bass line, the synthesizer. Being able to do different sounds made it more fun.
Beatboxing isn’t as popular here as it is in other cities, but you’ve managed to carve out a successful path for yourself. How did you go about launching your career?
My first performance was in front of my classmates — I was a college student during that time at Kapiolani Community College, and I just asked my (English) teacher, hey, could I beatbox for my classmates? It was kind of nerve-wracking because I had only done it behind the scenes — kind of like how some people sing in the shower. That was my first time doing it in front of people.
From there, I would do the KCC talent shows, and I placed in four consecutive shows. That was the start, and then I did open mics and got more comfortable being on stage.
I just kept with it and people started to know me as the beatbox guy, and I ended up meeting the right people and they would hit me up for parties and events. And eventually I saw the opportunity to go travel and represent Hawaii in these (beatbox) competitions.
What is your creative process? How might you go about creating a new beat?
The foundation of beat-boxing is the kick, hi-hat and snare. Those are the three fundamental sounds. I start with a melody, maybe a hum, and then I will get into the beat with it. I think about what I want to emphasize — maybe a snare or a kick — and then play with that. If I take away the hi-hat and just do the kick and the snare, that could give me reggaeton, and then if I just did the kick, that would give me house music. Subtleties like that can give me a different element or a different genre of music.
In both The Human Beat-box Academy and Hawaii Hip-Hop Collective, you’ve said that your goal is to perpetuate beatboxing. Why is that something that is important to you?
For me, growing up, I struggled with school and academics. And I got into fights and stuff. I didn’t have an outlet. In high school, I found sports, but what if I had known that music was something I was into? It could be an alternative outlet.
(I hope) to inspire others to find their purpose.
Anything else you want to add?
Add? (Pause) I can drop a beat!
For more information, visit jasontom.com.