When I asked Kaila Mullady if she had ever considered taking out an insurance policy on her mouth, à la the old rumors about Jennifer Lopez insuring her butt, she wasn't bothered by the question. Neither hip-hop arenas nor comedy stages are places for prudes. Both worlds will collide in outlandish freestyle-rap spasms, soundtracked by Mullady's mouthfuls of beats, when the hip-hop improv comedy troupe North Coast performs at the 15th NC Comedy Arts Festival.
"I was a really hyperactive kid," Mullady, the beatboxer for North Coast, says of her Long Island, New York childhood. "I was always copying noises and trumpet sounds." Years later, this obsession led Mullady to a casual interest in beatboxing, which she unveiled during one of her first improv acting classes. Almost immediately, the class instructor suggested that Mullady contact North Coast after completing her improv courses.
But it wasn't until after Mullady sustained a serious back injury from literally jumping off of a cliff that she went into beatboxing full-time. "It was really, really fun—until I landed," she recalls. "I jumped off of a sand dune expecting to slide down, but then my feet hit the ground, and it sounded like a Vlasic Pickle commercial. I realized I jumped almost two stories. But jumping off that cliff landed me on my own in New York, performing and starting my career. Once I broke my back and music started taking over, I fell out of improv for a little bit. I totally forgot about the whole North Coast thing."
On the night of the 2013 American Beatbox Championship, Mullady, Terry "Kid Lucky" Lewis and a few other beatboxers visited a bar that doubled as an improv comedy club. Kid Lucky and Mullady hopped on stage to do, as she puts it, "A beatboxing show that was theatrical, but where we could use words and songs and go back and forth, do skits and bits."
It was a showcase of what's called "beat rhyming," or simultaneously beatboxing and rapping. When Mullady stepped off the stage, she met North Coast cast member Doug Widick. North Coast's beatboxer, Shaun Fisher, had recently relocated to Los Angeles, creating a perfect opportunity for Mullady and Widick to form a relationship that would ultimately lead to her joining the troupe. She was a couple of years removed from her improv pursuits, but, in no time, she made use of the stylistic overlapping of beatboxing, rapping and improv comedy.
"If you think about a stand-up comedian, it's all timing," Mullady says. "He has the words, but if the timing isn't right, the jokes aren't going to hit right. It's the same thing with beatboxing and rapping. Your flow has to be down. When I'm with North Coast, I have to watch the scene and then soundscape it according to what's happening. Now, when I'm beatboxing outside of North Coast, I'm really more in tune to what's going on around me."
Mullady is the 2014 Vice Beatbox Champion of America, the two-time reigning Beatrhyme Champion, and the 2014 ABC Loopstation Champion—a first for women in all competitions. We can either call all of those victories Mullady's North Coast insurance, or an assurance that she will always push beatboxing's potential as far as her creativity allows—even if it's only to support playful, improvised rap lines. But certainly, those victories will never solely be about skills. They're also about connections.
"Doing beatboxing sounds in front of an audience is cool but the crowd can't really connect to it as much," Mullady says. " They're more like 'Wow, what an astonishment.' But, when you add words to the beatboxing, they can understand it. Now, they can leave your show singing your hook, or rapping your lines. It creates more of a bond between myself and the audience."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Beats, rhymes, laughs"