“I was 14 when I first saw Michael Winslow on television, and I remembered thinking how cool it was that he could make sounds with his mouth. So, I did the same, but I also imitated the sounds and beats I heard on the radio and the Internet. I was also part of a forum called Human Beatbox, where I shared audio recordings with the community, and that’s how I continued improving my skills.”
To get a clearer picture of what Dharni – the first person in history to win the Grand Beatbox Battle Championship twice in a row – is like in person, Men’s Folio would like one to procure a copy of The New International Webster’s Pocket Thesaurus. Once done, flip to page 286 to look for the word “swagger”, which is exactly how Dharni exits the gilded doors of The Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur to greet this writer.
While one might think the Warsaw-based Singaporean beatboxer is the paragon of cool and confidence, it does not take much for him to warm up. All it takes is a keen, “Sure, bro!” when he offers to show a YouTube tutorial by him on how to beatbox: “Step one: you got to sound like a turtle making love. So it’ll sound like this, ‘[breathy voice] Heh, heh, heeeeeeeeh!’”
“That’s pretty funny, right? I have a formula on YouTube where I give tutorials with layers of humour and wittiness. One of my videos got 400,000 views over four days. They’re all creatively conceptualised by me on the spot. Give it a shot, man!”
When this writer presses him on why he does not do the classic YouTube content creator sign- off – “for more of such content, like and subscribe” – Dharni frowns for the first time and waves it off impatiently. “I don’t do the like and subscribe thing; I find it cheap! If people like my work, they’ll like and subscribe.”
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Dharni’s hyper-exacting taste and rigorous curation have elevated him to a near demigod status among aspiring beatboxers. With each video racking up a crazy amount of likes, which in turn propels Dharni to greater heights by landing him clients like Roger Dubuis and performing alongside the likes of Kanye West and Mariah Carey. His demeanour instantly changes when this writer continues egging him on for more details.
His eyes soften, his hand motions get wilder (it is imperative to note that when Dharni is excited, he gesticulates excitedly), and his voice takes on the enthusiasm of a primary-school child doing his first show-and-tell. “I’m launching an EP next year, and I’m going to make sure that it’ll be fresh but commercial at the same time. Think of it as an organic sound that sounds new – like how Timbaland did it in SexyBack. Actually, it might sound a bit like Billie Eilish.”
When questioned if he is a fan of Billie Eilish, Dharni frowns again. “Not really, man. But did you know that her brother is dating someone that looks exactly like her? That’s wild! Let me Google it for you,” the beatboxer enthuses as he continues to show this writer more humorous Internet content for the entirety of the car ride to the studio.
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While it is a given that the stardom of any performer boils down to two variables – how many people there are in a room to welcome the performer and how his sound has changed over the years to reflect consumers’ tastes – Dharni’s own star power boils down to the latter.
“My sound has been progressing since I started in 2001 at the age of 14 because beatboxing as an art form is always changing like society or technology. So, in my career, it’s also developing. It’s not going to stay stagnant, and I think that in the short future, it won’t hit a plateau and neither will it sound the same.”
A cursory search on the first-ever video Dharni released – a live performance in 2005 – will have one notice that, at the age of 19, he already knew the right moves to make to capture the crowd. Now, click on one of his latest videos titled “I did Bad Guy only with my mouth”. He upgrades his moves by singing, he introduces different beatboxing elements, and because he is the epitome of confidence and unabashed swagger, he even maintains constant eye contact.
While one can simply continue watching the videos, Dharni’s talent-filled appeal and creative vision might not click into place until he witnesses Dharni performing in the flesh. It has the same effect as an action movie – one’s heartbeat races while his pupils dilate in awe. It takes a lot of effort not to clap like a fervent fanboy.
Louis Vuitton Nylon padded jacquard jacket, cotton T-shirt, cotton pants, metal necklace.
“My sound is going to keep on evolving to the point where I hope it reaches the common society, and everybody will understand more about beatboxing. It has matured, and I constantly focus on the details and the intricacy of textures to make it sound realistic. It’s conceivable to people because it sounds like the thing I’m mimicking – like a sound you can hear on the radio.”
To prove his point, Dharni goes off by mimicking water droplets (“bloop bloop”), a snare drum (“rrrrrrrr tat tat tat”), and even a robot starting up (“meeeowwyeormyeeeormyeorrr”). Stopping to catch his breath, Dharni immediately senses an opportunity for some well-deserved self-praise.
“Impressive, huh? I want my listeners to go, ‘Wow! Only Dharni can come up with a sound like this.’ It’s all about imagination and creativity for me when it comes to creating a sound. I get inspired when I’m in the shower, but recently, I’ve been exchanging coaching lessons with another beatboxer. I want to go back to battling in a year’s time, but hopefully, he will win.”
Granted that not every musician’s metamorphosis will be a success, Dharni treats this challenge with a nonchalant shrug. “It’s always very scary because you feel like you’re in a new arena like a beginner – nobody likes to feel like a beginner when they’ve gone pro. But you need to accept that you need to start from square one in this never-ending road.”
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The Big D
Beatboxing dates back to the 19th century where it was prevalent in early rural music (both black and white), religious songs, and ragtime – a style of “ragged tempo” music that has its origins in African-American communities. While the art form has become one that is widely appreciated by the public since the Internet boom in the early noughties (some might even attribute it to the 2001 South Korean romantic comedy film My Sassy Girl), Dharni succinctly explains its appeal.
“The world of beatboxing is really diverse as there are so many styles now. Besides the different genres now (drum and bass, trap or dubstep), we have loop stations that allow you to loop your vocals over to create wondrous effects over it. It’s really versatile because it’s such a new art form that you can create new sounds or create a completely new structure.”
“Beatboxers are like chefs who cook different cuisines for a buffet, and a listener is a customer.”
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For Dharni, however, being a beatboxer does not just mean that one is relegated to tearing up a stage – it involves tearing up an opponent in a high-stake beatboxing battle or educating the public on YouTube as a content creator. Of course, once one is in the former, the need for tenacity and perseverance ramps up.
“Beatboxing battling is a sport. You’re basically challenging your opponent to see who does it faster or who scores higher points. It’s hyper-aggressive like you’re out to murder someone.”
Dharni’s sudden agita might explain why he is a two-time world beatboxing champion, but when questioned on how he maintains top form, he shrugs once again, and for the first time in our 30 minutes conversation, he pauses to think.
“Scientifically speaking, there should be a science when it comes to exercise and dieting for a beatboxer. When you eat properly, your muscles can react more efficiently, and you have more energy to beatbox. If you don’t drink alcohol or smoke, it’s also better for you. Most people don’t adhere to it, but they still win.”
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Even if one is not a beatboxing fan, this writer implores him to take time over the weekend to watch all of Dharni’s beatboxing championship videos. His timing is precise down to the last millisecond, he seems more confident than any of us during our O-level exams, having prepped for over the course of a year, and he circles his opponent like he is in a boxing ring akin to a shark circling his prey.
One more word of advice, though. Thou shalt not claim that it is a superficial “sport” or “activity”; Dharni will vehemently claim that it is not.
“I think once beatboxing battles become as serious as the Olympics, you’ll probably have coaches, therapists, psychologists, and nutritionists who’ll give you solid training. Like how they do it for E-sports.”
“Then again, I don’t overthink things. I was born creative. Take it from my uncle; he used to dig my toy sculptures.”
The challenges for any stylist when it comes to a celebrity shoot boil down to two things – the procuring of clothing samples and managing said celebrity’s expectations on set.
Thankfully, Dharni is opened-minded about everything throughout the entirety of the four-hour shoot. “That’s dope,” he responds to a blue puffer jacket. “Dude, I love this,” he goes while stroking the smooth fabric of a two-piece printed tracksuit. And when a yellow suede coat, blue shirt and pink Bermuda shorts ensemble is presented to him, he quizzes, “Is this a cover outfit?” Breezing through a short 20-minute break, Dharni, however, has one small gripe.
“I’m hungry, man! But I’m not gonna eat cause that’s what professionals do, right?”
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Interestingly, Dharni seems to understand the workings and vernacular of a fashion shoot despite it being his first. When this writer apologises for forgetting to put a bag on Dharni for a shot, he laughs it off and slings it over his shoulder while sauntering back on set. Unfortunately, we were unable to capture the magic of the first shot, but because Dharni is well, Dharni, he laughs it off.
“No worries ‘bout it, man. But isn’t that a fashion myth? That the first shot is always the best?”
Before he walks off set to check the monitor, this writer issues him one last question regarding his dream collaborator – no surprises that it is Timbaland.
“His sound is so organic, and I relate a lot to it. Even if he’s not doing something organic, it still sounds fluid and organic. I think he’s really cool. If I could drop a track with him, I’d call it Liquid Gold!”
After which, he walks off set to lounge in a corner while this writer trips over a wire on his way to pack the samples. “Dude, it’s one hour till dinner! Hang in there, man!” Dharni chuckles.
Photography Chee Wei
Styling & Text Bryan Goh
Grooming Ash Steve
Hair Keith Ong
Outfits Louis Vuitton
This story first appeared in the February ’20 issue of Men’s Folio Singapore.