“Hey Mom and Dad, this drop is for you, for letting me beatbox at the dinner table,” Luke “Skippy” Harbur (center) says during his live performances. Here he is at the kitchen table with his mother and father, Kim and Nate Harbur. (photo by Jim Barcus)
The Kansas City musician is making his vocal mark as a beatboxer in demand
Over the last five years Luke “Skippy” Harbur has carved out a singular space in the Kansas City arts scene.
He plays the piano, sings and writes songs, delving into pop, hip hop and EDM (electronic dance music), but it is as a vocal percussionist, or “beatboxer,” using his voice, lungs and mouth as a musical instrument, that Harbur has made his mark.
“His beatboxing skills are insane!” raves Quixotic violinist, Shane Borth.
In 2019 Calvin Arsenia introduced Harbur to the Quixotic performance group, and he performed in “Sensatia,” beatboxing alongside a tap dancer. Since then, Harbur has been a presence at Quixotic, Boulevardia, Fountain Haus, Missie B’s, The Black Box, Stray Cat, No Divide KC, KU, Musical Theater Heritage, Blue Valley High School and Brookside Day School, as well as at various festivals and corporate events.
“Skippy is the truest form of showman,” says award-winning composer and No Divide KC director, Stacy Busch.
Beatboxing, the subject of a CBS Sunday Morning segment earlier this year, emerged in New York in the 1980s along with hip hop. Rapper Doug E. Fresh claims to have begun it after the music program at his school was canceled due to a lack of funds. He found himself walking home making the sounds and hand movements as if he were still playing the trumpet. DJ Grandmaster Flash then added the beatboxing machine (a kind of electronic drum) to the genre, and soon it was a world phenomenon. “Beatbox Battle,” The American Championship, was held last year in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Anyone can try beatboxing. World Champion beatboxer Kaila Mullady suggests starting with the sounds “p” + “t” + “k,” while Fresh recommends, “Exaggerate them, speed them up and add whatever your tongue, teeth, lips and throat muscles can produce. Soon you’ll be expressing yourself with a whole ’nother way of communication.”
Harbur remembers his first experience hearing beatboxing. He was 10 years old and in a hotel hallway with his actor cousin, Chris, in New York. He was awestruck. His first attempts, trying to form the necessary cymbals/snare/base drum sounds were lacking. “I spit on myself for two or three months,” he said, but eventually got the knack. Now he’s Kansas City’s beatboxing heart, although he might say he shares that with Asher O’Connor, another incredibly talented beatboxer, who founded the yearly “Crossroads Beatbox Battle.”
Harbur attended Olathe East and then a performing arts school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He tried his hand at acting but felt “something missing” and ended up getting a degree in journalism, with a focus on multimedia, from Ithaca College in New York in 2018, and toured the East Coast with the group Ithacappella. His journalism degree led him to a position at the Kansas City Star as a production assistant for “Star Sessions,” which may have reignited his stage desire. He’s familiar to many in Kansas City from his three-year stint as communications strategist with the American Jazz Museum. In November 2021, Harbur quit his job to become a full-time freelance creative producer and entertainer.
His 47-minute “Here’s Why Beatboxing Will Change Your Life” show for the KC Fringe Festival in 2021, during the pandemic, won audience awards for “Best Variety Show” and “Best Music Show.” In it, he offered a history, samples and a demonstration.
In 2022 he released more than 30 original songs, receiving 11,000-plus song streams. In February he beatbox-accompanied the singers/musicians/dancers at Musical Theater Heritage’s “R & H Unplugged” tribute to Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein.
In April 2022 he debuted his album, “My Dying Wish,” in Quixotic’s black box space on Broadway, selling 120 tickets over two days. The show included a joint meditation session with the audience.
“My Dying Wish” is very personal and autobiographical. One purely instrumental song, “Aaron Drake,” is especially meaningful, as it refers to the donor of Harbur’s liver transplant when he was 11 months old. The sense of a second chance at life has always motivated him. Through his childhood he skipped everywhere — hence, his nickname.
This past March Harbur was at Rubulad in New York City, and days later in Ithaca at the Community School of Music and Arts with his show, “we can wish,” which he played again in July at KC Fringe and in August as a touring artist at the 30th Annual Minnesota Fringe Festival.
In April he released a six-song EP (extended play recording), covering six core human emotions, followed by a one-man show in June at the MTH Ruby Room in Crown Center. Harbur had a busy fall, recording beatboxing tracks for “Cyrano” at KCRep and performing his solo act in St. Louis and Denver. His new EP “Poems, along with songs from 2022’s “you can sing,” will be performed at his annual holiday show Dec. 3 at Westport Coffeehouse Theatre. A live pianist will accompany him.
“People describe my performances as a Broadway show, a dance party, and a philosophy class in one sitting,” Harbur says. His show works for an audience of ages 3 to 100 and includes beatboxing, rapping, singing and dancing. Harbur said he wants his followers to “confront the full spectrum of their emotions, becoming child-like when dancing, crying, cheering, laughing, or jeering at my different song originals or covers.”