On a Tuesday evening in late April, as the a cappella ensemble Mizzou Forte finished its final two-hour practice of the season, freshman Si Kincaid tried to maintain his grin while hunched over his knees, sweating and out of breath. While the others practiced tonality and vocal expression, Kincaid tried to keep time in a percussive muscle marathon known as beat-boxing.
“Beat-boxing is a person attempting to simulate a drum yet also incorporate sounds and ‘scratches’ into the mix in order to entertain people,” he explained. “I only do part of this with Forte, the vocal percussion part, which is solely to act as a human drum machine for the group.”
As sweat pours down his face, he shrugged off compliments and criticisms from the Forte members about his speed, form and volume. When Kincaid beat-boxes, he keeps his head down and his hands high, playing an imaginary drum set.
“Sorry if I was standing too close,” Kincaid told the group, self-conscious of the large amounts of spit he projects with noises like “psh,” “pah” and “zzzt.”
Kincaid said the amount of sound creativity he can add to the beats when he’s with Mizzou Forte is less than when he used to perform as a disc jockey. But he finds the experience more rewarding than many of those old gigs spinning records in clubs.
Though DJ-ing has “the cool factor,” as Kincaid calls it, he’s satisfied working with musicians who collaborate to perform arrangements of songs by artists ranging from The Killers to Harvey Danger.
Michael Chesney led the coed Mizzou Forte in practices and arranged most of its music. “He’s fantastic,” Chesney said of Forte’s resident beat-boxer. “He’s an integral part of the whole thing. Our goal is to recreate vocally the experience of listening to the songs that we do as you would normally do listening on your iPod or radio. Having the drums mimic that experience is amazingly important and adds extra depth to our music.”
Originally from St. Louis, Kincaid began competing with his DJ hobbies, including beat-boxing, before he was out of middle school. Kincaid also specialized in sampling and scratching.
Sampling is a process of using computer technology and samples of audio files to mesh together a new sound. Scratching is when the DJ scratches a record with a vinyl player needle to display rhythm know-how.
Soon after arriving at MU, Kincaid was briefly hired to work for the Midway Expo in Columbia, spinning the soundtrack for their outdoor stage and indoor rodeo arena.
“I used to just spin the best of the best because it was what I liked,” he said. “But I realize that there is a demand for DJs to make the best of popular music, not just the stuff that no one’s ever heard of.”
Kincaid said he came to MU to explore his options, but he’s looking at going into music production — using his computer and creativity to help bring artists into the spotlight. He’s always done beat-boxing on the side, articulating whatever rhythms popped through his head while he was doing laundry, in the shower or doing homework idly.
“My dad got so frustrated with me,” Kincaid said. “I wouldn’t stop.”
But Kincaid’s father, Isaiah Kincaid, attributes some of his son’s interest in DJ technique to genetics. Isaiah began working with DJ equipment himself in high school and had his own radio show in college. He now works for Victoria’s Secret, where he is senior vice president, and the Limited as a brand designer, another facet of Si’s artistic upbringing.
“Si started doing this stuff when he was, like, 7, making sounds and noises for his GI Joes,” Isaiah Kincaid said. “He worked with one of those close-and-play record players when he was about 7. He’s always walking around making noises, but I don’t think he knows he’s doing it half the time. The music is just in his head.”
Though Si’s father says he is proud of his son’s abilities, he said he sometimes had to ask him to tone things down, for sanity’s sake.
Brian Krebs, Si’s roommate and longtime friend, doesn’t find Kincaid’s beat-boxing unpleasant. “I guess it would suck if he wasn’t any good, but that’s not the case,” Krebs said.
Krebs, who attended St. Louis University High School with Kincaid, knows his roommate works hard on percussive performance, including his interest in DJ-ing and beat-boxing.
“The beat-boxing thing was just more of a hobby before he got involved with Mizzou Forte,” Krebs said. “But that’s been really good for him.”
Kincaid said his greatest popular influence is the American rapper Rahzel, who specializes in vocal performance.
“There’s this famous short of him singing and beat-boxing at the same time called ‘If Your Mother Only Knew,’ Kincaid said. “I picked up his greatest hits album and learned some things about my hobby.”
A couple of days after the Tuesday night rehearsal, Mizzou Forte and about 50 fans braved the cold, wet weather for the group’s final concert of the year at Plaza 900’s Amphitheater. The concert concluded with an invitation for anyone to take on Kincaid’s beat-boxing skills in a 30-second each competition. Justus Lacewell, a sophomore at MU, was one of the challengers.
“Si’s pretty good,” Lacewell said. “What I do is a lot of tones and just a beat. Some people use a beat and make it really intricate. Some people can make their voice sound like samples and imitate samples. I’ve used it at parties or at a freestyle, but this was the first time I’ve ever performed doing that.”
After Kincaid and his two challengers performed, the audience chose the winner with cheers. Kincaid, with a standing ovation, was pronounced champion.