From an early age he’s used his unique imagination and tenacity to excel as a creative. From beatboxer and musician to abstract-expressionist artist his drive to understand and to master his multitude of talents has taken him on an extraordinary journey. He was voted Best Live act in The Bass Music Awards 2015 and has twice taken home the crown in the UK Beatbox Championships. ALT-MU had the pleasure of meeting Reeps One AKA Harry Yeff to tell us all about how his career developed and how he aims to redefine and challenge perceptions.
A lot of people may know you best as Reeps One the beatboxer but you’re also a brilliant artist. Can you tell us which came first?
The art. I remember seeing the walls covered in my dad’s paintings growing up. I couldn’t stop drawing. I always had to leave a mark on things, like, if I wasn’t making stuff I didn’t feel like I was real [laughs] My dad said he gave me a pen and he turned around and I’d drawn over the half of the wall and I realised you can leave your mark on things. He said there was always something in me to want to leave marks and impact the space around me. I’ve had a really encouraging environment to be myself and find my own way.
How did this skill develop and when did you realise it was something you really wanted to pursue?
It was always cathartic; if I was stressed, if I was angry or happy I’d want to get it on paper. I was always listening to myself, quite obsessively trying to, like, progress so I could be doing anything form a really simple, abstract line drawing to covering bigger spaces. In my school I was quite notorious for having the biggest final piece. It was like, the impact, I wanted to sit in the space. It grew from it being like, a personal catharsis to it really being my identity. I wouldn’t/couldn’t do something like someone else. I’d be inspired or learn from other people but it was always in me from the beginning that what I do has to be mine. I have to feel like I own it otherwise I don’t want to do it.
You were brought up in East-London. Would you say the graffiti scene played a large role in your journey into the art world?
I like to try and avoid certain obvious categories like “graff” and stuff just because I get put in a box enough already but what did appeal about graffiti was, again, leaving your mark and owning the space around you and feeling like you’re in control. So, it was, like, two in the morning and I had a large space and something on me to create work, I dunno, it really liberated me and it made me trust my own ideas.
So, it sounds like art really dominated your head space. How then did beatboxing come about?
When I was about fourteen. I played three different instruments but got pissed off when I couldn’t play them so I started speaking a drum routine or singing a violin piece. I eventually realised just by humming and doing really light percussion sounds and that I could do both at the same time. I felt freer with my voice than with the instruments. With the voice you can do it all the time and in any place. I was never not able to make music so that’s a massive factor in the medium. The art form costs no money, you can start making music really quickly and on your terms – you just have this freedom that you don’t have with instruments.
When you first started beatboxing at the age of 15, it was still in its infancy. Where did you draw inspiration from in order to push the boundaries and become the musician you are known as today?
I’m not really sure where it started. Listening to music that really inspired me. Wiley and all his original grime instrumentals, all the original Eski beats. All the Low-Fi, early dubstep stuff like Mala but there was no beatboxer that I was really looking to. It was always just about what moved me. I would listen to music and try and, like, absorb that tone. But as it progressed there were people like Rahzel who’s like probably one of the most original, influential beatboxers. And then you got Faith SFX the UK guy, so yeah there were a few guys when I hit 17/18 that were, like, I don’t know, artists – they’d found their own voice and managed to really channel their energy. They weren’t copying anyone.
Did you always intend combine your art and your music? If not, how did the two coalesce?
I guess, yeah, obviously they were side by side for a long time. I didn’t know of, or see a logical path. I’ve always said “I want to make to make my shows look as good as they sound” [laughs] in the sense that I wanted to combine the two. At that point, I didn’t know how it was going happen so at first there was just these two very separate things that influenced each other but there was no direct way connecting them. That came later.
I started to think about how can I visualize my voice and I started experimenting with cymatics. I then started using technology, using vibrations to create geometry and sounds, finding ways to create visuals with my voice. I started really enjoying physical phenomenon – things that I could psychically manipulate with my voice. It didn’t involve a program it all came from me. So while I was performing we had these unique, visual spectacles.
I think it makes you an artist in the truest sense of the word when you’re combining all your powers together to make something unique.
This leads me perfectly to our theme question. So, in your opinion, how essential is the role of visual art in music?
Massive. Like, visual gives context to work. You can have an amazing piece but your environment…where your sat, even how a place smells does impact, on some level, your experience of music. So, to be sensitive to what context you’re presenting your music shows conceptual rigor – the ability to not just be one dimensional with your output. I like to see artists who are going above and beyond and thinking “where can I take it?” and use the environment or use visuals to make sure that when people hear it they hear it how I want it to be heard.
Your art style incorporates the use of non-linear patterns, balance, mood, space and fluidity – I would argue that this systematic formula is also applied in your music. Is this an insight into the mind of Reeps one?
Oh totally, that’s completely what I like to think is my realm. How you can jump in between things, like, always shift, always change but still be consistent and tangible – I think that’s when we have the most fun as, like, human beings and as creatives. It’s when we develop our abilities and then they’re defined but then a point comes when you have the ability to experiment and switch things around. That’s what I like to show in my work, like, you can have some drawings where there’s hundreds of elements interlocking and shifting or it could be as simple as, like, when I’m doing a performance there may be no set structure so ill adapt and shift and change depending on how the crowds reacting.
[my exhibition] ADO (Attention Deficit Order), is a concept that I think is the underpinning of, not just me, but a lot of other creatives, like, when you’ve had this impulse to change that means you’re listening to yourself. If you have an impulse to want to move on or change something, sometimes listening to that is what keeps you really excited. Whenever I do paintings I do three at a time, if I work on a song I’ll work on three and I’ll flip between them as I progress. That’s always the way I’ve done things.
Yes, ‘ADO’ (Attention Deficit Order) was your debut art exhibition last year. How did it go? Can you tell us a little about how it was curated?
Yeah, it was a beast! We had three huge rooms of multimedia expressions. There was a performance space where we had four projectors and we were doing cymatics performances with vibrations and then I had two huge rooms of work.
Yeah, we applied for Arts Council funding, we got it and that meant I could take a month out to produce work so I decided early on that I wanted to prove that someone with a busy mind that does lots of things can be successful and bring a whole plethora.
So that was like the theme, instead of making work that was just skillful or pretty I straight away wanted to really feel like I was making a difference which I think is a fundamental pillar of a good artist – Someone who knows their skill, knows their ability to be amazing at what they do but also having this extra layer of using it to actually impact the world – a real reason.
Your visuals and your art come in all different mediums and styles. Where do you draw your inspiration?
All sorts. Marcel Duchamp who was a massively influencial artist in the sixties. He was, like, the godfather of conceptual art. Korz one, he’s a contemporary street artist who broke into the fine art realm. I feel like these individuals have really shared a corner of their mind and then it’s really become revered on a large scale. Something that normally stays as a quite thought, if communicated in a certain way, can really touch people and that’s what I think a good artist is.
Speaking of the mind, in 2011 you collaborated with UCI university for a study called ‘Brains on Film’ whereby they put you in an MRI scanner to see the correlations between your brain and vocal tract when you beatbox. How did this collaboration come about and what did you take from it?
I was doing a performance and then two of the professors approached me afterwards saying that they wanted to scan my brain because they felt my performance and the way I performed could be an expert behavior. An expert behavior is the neurological term for being an expert where you don’t think about how you’re doing something, it just flows out of you. You can achieve this after you’ve done something for a long time. So, because I can lie in a scanner completely still it means I was the perfect candidate and yeah they proved that the way I perform has a very similar function to when I’m speaking English and so it was proven to be an expert behavior.
Did this experience influence the heavy visuals that you use in performance now?
There’s no direct connection between the brain scans and the cymatics. Well, I got nominated for this award called (en prie?) which is like one of the most prestigious interactive arts awards for my cymatics project. The concept behind that was the instancy of the visuals are very similar to the instancy of my performing. So, when I think of a beat or a composition, that happens as quickly the vibrations [cymatics] shift and creates visuals in the sand. So, basically the music effecting the visuals is very similar to the instancy of me thinking something and then it coming out my face [laughs]
So, the visuals were produced as you were performing?
The cymatics were, yeah.
And how did you develop this?
I started to notice whenever I would speak this drum skin in my room would resonate. One time there was something on it, it was like bowl with some water in it or something and it was moving so I just started to explore. I made my own set up at home and started to use bigger and bigger surfaces. I started to realise that it was actually really clear correlations between what was being put through and what the visuals were. That just set me off on that journey. I then approached technicians and artists about like “leveling up” that set up – the main thing was the instancy; instancy of expression. Not having to hold back or overthink anything just finding something that’s as fluid as my performance is.
So, you’re really exploring the intellectual side of your music and how sounds are made. Last year you were invited to be an Artist In Residence at Harvard University to speak on this. Tell us about your time there…
I gave a few different lectures in the phonetics department about how a person can basically go beyond language and this thing called articulatory phonetics which is all of the sounds that are possible for a person to communicate. The fact that what I do I can be anywhere in the world and it can have a social impact. I can conect with people and establish friendships just from music and from what you call Paralanguage (a language of non-word). Music is a paralanguage, So, I spoke about the system (the way that I write down the sounds) and then how you can develop identity through abstraction.
It was a 45 minute lecture and being an artist at Harvard you can’t mess about. You can’t be ambiguous, you have to be straight to the point, so I was there to talk about how a person can communicate and to show the insane range that they [phoneticians] didn’t know could be done – Phoneticians are voice linguists. They understand how to break apart language and how the nuance of the voice is manifested. There were things I could do that were not on their spectrum.
Must have been an exciting experience. How did you prepare for this?
Academic [laughs] I think it’s really important to be able to be really clear and precise with your points to understand why you’re doing something. Not every artist will agree with me but I like to be able to deconstruct and break things apart. I could have gone there and gone “look at these sounds” but I went there and gave a concise understanding of how my journey lead to the ability to [beatbox] and what kind of purpose that can have – people communicating in paralanguage, it’s a massive asset to anyone in the world. You could have a100 kids who can’t afford instruments and you teach them beatboxing and then all of a sudden they can start learning music. This has social implications. What the linguistics department at Harvard found interesting is what I do to musicology. It’s musicology but it’s the vehicle of speech and that’s what makes it special. You get instruments, you get people playing instruments and then you get people communicating language whereas what I do is the purest combination of the two.
I’ve heard it said that you prefer to stay away from loop pedals and effects for your voice, what’s your opinion on this?
What I’ve said is that I love virtuosity, a virtuoso. Everything coming from one person in the moment but that doesn’t mean that I won’t progress. I mean, we’ve got this whole new set up where everything comes from me it’s all my voice but then there could be a collaboration with someone else or it could be an augmentation of production. These are some things I’m really proud of as well. So, it’s not so much about not using loops but more about exploring what one person can do in the moment on their own.
Well, thanks for clearing that up. You’re are certainly taking a step further towards technology in regards to the visual aspect of things. You just released the world’s first gyroscopic, virtual-reality music video ‘Does not exist’. Tell us about that…
Yeah, I was approached by The Mill who’s one of the most incredible production companies in the world and they asked me to art direct and write music for this shoot that they were putting together. So, yeah, it was this idea of making a piece that was an amazing display of the new technology. I love to use new mediums and I also quite enjoy technical exercise so we found something in between where it was me creating this dreamscape but then being really precise in showing how this medium can be used. If you actually listen with a proper headset you can really hear the different parts and where I am. As you turn your head everything stays in the right place.
So, were the music and the visuals created side by side?
Yeah, there were 11 locations in America and LA. It was nuts man, fucking bonkers. I can’t really put into words how amazing that experience was but the result was to create something abstract and to try and throw people into a strange zone. I think you can only really experience this when you have the right set up which is always the issue with new technology but we know in a year and a half this will still be a thing you can go to and be like “look this was the first time it was done” so I’m really proud of that.
Big stuff! What have you got in store for 2017?
I’m not really allowed to say much but can definitely say that we have some incredible projects which involve me exploring the human voice. I’ve been traveling the world just meeting incredible human beings. It started last year and I’m set to meet many more artists in the hope to inspire and develop the show. We’re going to be at Glastonbury. I’m at SXSW (South by Southwest) in march which is in Texas. This will be to showcase this project but the main thing is that I have no limitations now. I will be doing an installation one day or writing a piece of music, then I’m doing artwork, then I’m doing a tour – I don’t think that in 2017 anyone should have a roof over what they think they can do. They should always be out there experimenting.
Sounds awesome. I suppose your only possible hindrance now is be prioritising your projects – that’s a skill in itself…
It’s a case of being selective with the projects, not over doing it, not taking too many on but also realising that as a creative I deserve to do the things I’m good at. I keep giving out and the results are leading to more and more so I’ve grown from being a musician to an artist to something that is now, I don’t know, something where I can take lots of different forms and it actually be really productive and exciting. I just intend to keep growing. The music, the beatboxing, it’s all growing.
Ah yes, we’ve noticed you’re singing a lot more in your music…
Yeah, it’s not stuff you’d exactly expect from me. A lot of harder, darker stuff is coming out soon but then there’s these elements of me sharing a bit of the real me, beyond entertainment. You can have something very beautiful and serene and then it can go super dark. I stopped thinking about what people think. I only have time to think about the best I can be for myself and then everything should come from that. I mean, someone sending you message saying that something you’ve made has changed their life. It’s great but it’s…I don’t know. For me, I want my creations to come from somewhere more than just me thinking I’m going start a mosh pit, I’m going make 5000 people dance – as much as that’s amazing. I’ve done that a lot but it’s exciting as an artist when you start thinking alright well what else can I share? How will people react? Maybe some people will hate this and that’s great, it’s the fact I’m being honest with it.
That’s a very good ethos to have. What advice would you give to anyone thinking about pursuing a creative career?
Listen to yourself. Be willing to fail. The best ideas are the ones you’re afraid of.
If you didn’t know already, Reeps One is definitely someone you want to watch for 2017. As an advocate for multi-disciplinary creativity who knows where this path may take him. Follow him via Facebook or his Instagram to keep up to date and if he’s going to be on a stage near you.
Reeps has confirmed he will be performing at this year’s Glastonbury Festival but says there will be many more later in the year – it’s an experience we implore you not to miss! He tells us he’s put together a whole new set which will be exploring his most extreme range. He’s also confirmed there will be many other artists joining him.
If his talks on paralanguage and phonetics spark your interest then you can catch him at SXSW (South by Southwest) in Texas, March 16th but, again, he assures us there will be more later in the year.