He's got beat
By Tracy Chan
It's not every guy who gets mistaken for a boombox. But 26-year-old Jason Tom, one of Hawai'i's most visible beatboxers, is a walking, talking instrument; an energetic combination of drums, snare, vocals and synthesizer, all replicated using his voice.
Tom's unusual talent won a perfect score from all the judges during last month's Pipeline's Got Talent competition and secured him a place in the final. (He ultimately placed fourth overall.)
He's also collaborated with high-profile local artists like Jake Shimabukuro, Makana and Bridget Gray, and opened shows for "America's Best Dance Crew's" Quest Crew and JabbaWockeeZ. From open-mic nights to the First Thursday Poetry Slam, the McKinley High grad quickly has become an artist to watch with his high-energy performances.
"I couldn't take my eyes off him," said comedian Andy Bumatai, who hosted the Pipeline talent competition. "There is no denying he is interesting to watch. He definitely has talent, and he seems like a really nice guy. Could we be witnessing Hawai'i's first beatbox star?"
Tom's rendition of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," which he performed at Pipeline, is a spectacle of showmanship. From the first drum and snare beats, the song is recognizable, and you wonder how so many sounds could be coming from one person's mouth. Add to this Tom's signature Michael Jackson moves, from the hip thrust to the hand jive. He glides across the floor in a smooth moonwalk, a move that typically gets enthusiastic approval from audiences.
"Michael Jackson is my biggest influence," Tom said. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be beatboxing."
Modern beatboxing originates from '80s drum machines, called beatboxes. Human beatboxers like Tom — many of whom are connected to the hip-hop scene — recreate music with their voices, using their mouth, lips and tongue to replicate instruments and sounds.
"I always felt bored trying to learn another instrument when I'm already born with an instrument," Tom said. "I'll hear the beat, and I'll want to become that sound. In my mind, I am the instrument."
Born and raised primarily in Honolulu's Chinatown, Tom, who speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin, has pursued beatboxing despite feeling that his parents disapproved.
Although they still don't quite accept it as a valid pursuit, he's found a way to reconcile beatboxing with his cultural identity. Last year, he performed his own remix of a Chinese lullaby at the Chinese New Year Festival in front of thousands at the Chinese Cultural Plaza.
"I treat beatboxing as a language," he said. "It's music, and music to me is its own language."
Tom started imitating songs on his favorite Michael Jackson album, "Bad," when he was 4 years old. But he didn't step on a stage until he entered a talent show at Kapi'olani Community College in 2006.
"My first performance, I remember, I froze," he said. "That was my first time hearing myself beatbox on a sound system. It took me a long time to break that stage fright."
Since then, he's spent a lot of time making himself at home on stage, and has placed in the top six at four back-to-back talent shows at KCC.
He's also intent on helping to transform beatboxing from a novelty to a respectable art form. Along with putting on beatboxing workshops and performances at local high schools, he plans to organize a gathering for local beatboxers or anyone interested in learning the craft. He's also scheduled to appear four times on 'Olelo channel 52's "Shaka Talk," starting Oct. 16, and will perform at the In Yo Face Improv show at Pipeline on Oct. 21.
"I just want it to be looked at with a higher appreciation. It's not something you can do overnight," he said. "I try to make not only the craft seem interesting, but the story behind it."