Visual arts

How a DC beatboxer turned Strathmore’s resident program into a Grammy-acclaimed

Strathmore’s “Artist in Residence” program has been changing lives for years. Ask Christylez Bacon, who made her beatbox a Grammy hit.

WTOP’s Jason Fraley Salutes Christylez Bacon (Part 1)

JThis article is the second in a two-part series on the Strathmore program. Read our conversation with 2022 Artist-in-Residence Langston Hughes II here.

Strathmore’s Artist-in-Residence program has been changing lives for years.

Ask Christylez Bacon, who made her beatbox a Grammy hit.

“It’s like a good music school program that’s free and you actually get paid to play,” Bacon said. “You get the press, you get good professional photos, all that great stuff. I think Strathmore is doing a really good thing because they’re breathing a different kind of life into our local music scene, creating opportunities for people locally.

Born in southeast DC, Bacon grew up in the Washington Highlands neighborhood.

“My mom was a DJ before I was born,” Bacon said. “She could find a sample in any recording and tell you where it came from. … Being a kid from the Southeast, we had the go-go … coming out of cars on the radio. As neighborhood kids, we picked up buckets and trash cans, banged on them, and had a big drumming circle every week.

Makeshift buckets and trash cans evolved to flapping with his mouth.

“We couldn’t afford drums,” Bacon said. “I was always making these sounds with my mouth. My mom took me aside and played me a Doug E. Fresh album and let me know I was doing beatboxing. From there, I knew that these random sounds could be put together to form rhythms and create this instrument like the human beatbox.

He says beatbox is a personal instrument that no one can take from you.

“If you lose your voice, if you get hoarse, you can always beat the box,” Bacon said. “It does not depend on the vocal cords. It’s just the sound that’s created by pushing air through your tongue, teeth, and lips, so you might have no vocal chords and still do that.

He soon attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts as a visual arts major.

“You had to have a formal education and we didn’t have that,” Bacon said. “I only had one music lesson in primary school. You had to know how to read sheet music. I didn’t know any of that… but I also had a talent for drawing, painting and sculpting, so I went through that and started moonlighting in the instrumental music department.

He joined a creative writing program at Martha’s Table by Tim Jones and Bomani Armah.

“He would take me to all the clubs in DC and open mics to play,” Bacon said. “We ended up in the Washington Post and that’s how Strathmore connected. … They were looking in the weekend section and saw this story about me called “When Hope Meets Hip-Hop”. … ‘Yo, we need this cat to enroll in the Artist in Residence program.’”

He admits he had never heard of Strathmore, who seemed worlds away.

“It wasn’t on my radar,” Bacon said. “As a hip-hop artist where I come from, those places weren’t accessible to us, like the Kennedy Center and Strathmore. I didn’t even know Strathmore because it was outside of DC…I was like, ‘Artist in residence? Should I live there? I didn’t even know that terminology! There are cultural differences here.

So, in 2007, he applied for an audition, but accidentally took the subway the wrong way.

“Strathmore has its own tube station, Grosvenor-Strathmore, I think it’s up to Dunn Loring on the blue or orange line, so I start heading in the opposite direction,” Bacon said. “People in my community weren’t really going all the way. I missed my audition time, totally. Back then, you couldn’t just have everyone on the cellphone.

Fortunately, he got fired to audition later that day.

“I corrected the course and was so stressed and learned a really good lesson there,” Bacon said. “One lesson is to chart your course before you go. But the biggest lesson was this: once you’ve gotten on the right trajectory and started on the road to change, stressing about what you did wrong isn’t going to fix the situation at that moment. there, you just have to ride the wave. »

Her audition earned her a place in the 2007 Artists in Residence program.

“I was really excited because my cohort would be these jazz musicians, experimental classical people, pop-classical crossover people,” Bacon said. “I’m like the only one of my kind, a hip-hop artist mixed with go-go, trying to mix all these flavors together. … This event and the fact that they did this outreach definitely changed the trajectory of my career.

The program was his greatest education, musically and financially.

“They were like, ‘Hey Chris, man, it’s a viola, you don’t just put it on the treble clef,'” Bacon said. “What they were teaching… was business management stuff. How do you manage your finances? How do you pay taxes as an artist? … This commercial part is important. It’s the difference between being a starved artist and a fed artist.

His residency also included two public performances in Strathmore.

“I always wanted to mix string sections of classical, horns of jazz, all that stuff with my rap, hip-hop, go-go,” Bacon said. “Now I’m in this position like, whoa, I have these other artists in residence around me, I can finally bring these people together and make this idea a reality. … I’m starting to learn how to write sheet music, read books.

One day, his Strathmore mentor, Grammy-winning Cathy Fink with partner Marcy Marxer, was waiting for a file to be transferred from a hard drive to a laptop and asked to collaborate.

“Cathy Fink, who’s just a G in music… pulls out that banjo,” Bacon said. “I start beatboxing on it, thinking about all the different beats I could put on it. She says, “I think we have something here, we should collaborate on a project together.” She brings in her partner Marcy Marker and we start mixing old school banjo, beatboxing, rap.

It became the Grammy-nominated children’s album “Banjos to Beatbox” (2010).

“I’m on 13th and U Street outside the Rite Aid chilling with my daughter at home and the person from the local Grammy chapter calls on my cell phone, ‘Chris, you’ve been nominated for a Grammy, prep your outfit, come to Los Angeles and walk the red carpet,” Bacon said.

Just like that, he made his first trip to Los Angeles for the Grammys.

“We hit that red carpet,” Bacon said. “I see T-Pain and Usher and I’m like, wow, everyone is small! … When the bodyguards separate, it’s Beyoncé! She’s 20 feet from me! … My publicist is like, ‘Hey Chris, turn around, meet Doug E. Fresh.’ I’m like, wow, that’s the guy my mom played for me who introduced me to beatboxing.

Bacon ultimately lost to Ziggy Marley, but there are no winners or losers in the arts.

“Ziggy Marley won that joint,” Bacon said. “If Ziggy Marley wasn’t here we probably would have punched him. …I’m not really impressed, I try to think for other people like I don’t want to stress anyone. I’m a little southeastern dude I just give them a really quick nod, and if someone looks like they’re ready to cut it, I cut it with them.

Since then, the Grammy and Strathmore labels have advanced his career.

“Just having that attached to my story, it helps legitimize things,” Bacon said. “They’re like, ‘Let me check his resume. Oh, Grammy nomination. That helps cut to the chase. … The National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center are the holders of my orchestral library. ‘Oh, you need stuff for my song ‘Mumbo Sauce?’ Call the ONS librarian.’”

Today, he leads a series of collaborations called Washington Sound Museum.

“I started doing it in a little place called BloomBars every month collaborating with different artists from different countries,” Bacon said. “Then I took him to the Atlas [Performing Arts Center] and I blew it up so I could have lights, set design. … These collaborations put me in a position to collaborate with NSO four times.

Through it all, he learned a valuable lesson about the music industry.

“I realized on the red carpet, being around anybody, the person performing at a dive bar, the person performing on TV and at festivals in front of thousands of people, we all do the same,” Bacon said. “Everything is connected, only one is on TV, the other is not.”

WTOP’s Jason Fraley salutes Christylez Bacon (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.