A Human Percussion Section

“Robotic” is his stage name. It’s fitting, because freestyle beatboxer Charlie “Robotic” Torres sounds like a synthesizer — a human percussion section. When you watch him perform, it’s difficult to comprehend how the beats you’re hearing are produced by him, and only him.

And when you discover that Charlie is only 16, a junior at McKay High School, you might also react with disbelief as he tells you his list of goals: to build his own “empire of recording studios,” to organize DJ versus beatboxer battles in Salem, to bring the city’s hip-hop scene more to the forefront.

But then you learn more about his life — the way he balances a 20- to 25-hour-a-week job with high school classes and beatboxing practices and performances around Salem, and the deep maturity and dedication he brings to all of his pursuits. His parents, his friends, his teachers already believe in his ambitions — and the more you watch and talk with Charlie, the more you start to believe, too.

From YouTube to the Stage

Robotic 1
Robotic 2
Robotic 4
Robotic 3

Charlie “Robotic” Torres, 16, taught himself how to beatbox by watching videos on YouTube. Photo by Frank Miller.

Charlie performs in April at The Triangle in South Salem. Photo by Frank Miller.

Charlie rehearses for each performance, but everything he does on stage is freestyle. Photo by Frank Miller.

Performing at The Triangle. Photo by Frank Miller.

At 7 a.m. on weekdays, when many of us are still stumbling toward the coffee pot, Charlie is already heading into the choir room at McKay for an early rehearsal with Scots-Appella, the school’s student a cappella singing group. After that, he’s got a day full of classes, and when school ends, he heads straight to his job at Burger King, where sometimes he works as late as 10 p.m. Homework usually gets his attention during his free period at school. He dedicates his precious few remaining free hours to beatboxing practice.

Before joining Scots-Appella, beatboxing was mostly a solo pursuit for Charlie. He’ll never forget two movies he saw when he was 8 that introduced him to the art: “Men in Black,” which featured a small part with Will Smith beatboxing, and “Police Academy,” the film that rocketed infamous beatboxer Michael Winslow to stardom. Intrigued by what he saw, Charlie pored over videos on YouTube. Entirely self-taught, Charlie likens the process to “learning another language.”

It’s a language that Charlie never stops studying. As he says, “If I’m not doing it, I’m at least thinking about it.” He often records himself and plays it back to help him improve and progress. He watches documentaries about other beatboxers from around the world, and he listens frequently to his favorite artists, which include “Tech N9ne and a lot of other laid-back hip-hop artists,” he says. “Back in the day, Ice Cube. And Fat Boys from time to time. The original beatboxers.”

At the core of Charlie’s beatboxing passion is performance, although his first foray onto the stage — at a Waldo Middle School spirit assembly — wasn’t even planned.

“[The principal] just threw me in there,” Charlie says. “I was like, ‘Are you sure? Right now? This is my first time ever.’ And they were like, ‘Yeah it’s fine. It’s just, like, 1,000 people.’ I was shaking. I still did it somehow.”

After that, Charlie performed at Salem’s Urban Art Festival when he was just 14. This, he says, opened the door to nearly all his other performances.

Charlie got his first taste of competition at age 15 when he participated in a Battle of the Bands-style event at the now-defunct downtown venue The Nest. “I ended up going head-to-head with this band called The Starship Renegade,” he says. “I tied with them, but they gave me the money afterward.”

Now, Charlie performs about once a month. Finding opportunities can be challenging in Salem, where the hip-hop scene isn’t exactly overwhelming, he says. And yet, performance opportunities seem to find Charlie. Take his 2014 appearance at  TedxSalem.

“I just got invited,” he says.  “[The organizers] saw me [performing at IKE Box] and they asked me right away after I got off stage. TedxSalem was the biggest stage I’ve ever been on recently. I was so happy.”

In terms of preparation, he has a ritual: rehearse intensely, then throw it out the window. “I’m at home right before I perform, so I’m practicing constantly, just freestyling to warm up for an hour,” he says. “Then when I’m heading to the show I get a little nervous — the jitters. When I’m in the venue and I know I’ll have about an hour until I perform, I think of anything I’m going to do [for the performance]. But then I just end up freestyling the whole time.”

His performances can range anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. For him, the variation is part of the beauty of freestyle beatboxing. “That’s something I love showing — how organic beatboxing can be,” he says. “It can be just like the spoken word.”

This ability to communicate through rhythm and music is something Charlie loves about beatboxing and hip-hop culture in general. “I haven’t found many beatboxers [in Salem], but when I do, we just communicate. And when you don’t know what to talk about, you just jam out.”

Branching Out

Though Charlie continues to study YouTube, he feels he’s hit a bit of a plateau in terms of what he can learn there. So he’s sought ways to hone his skills outside the world of freestyle beatboxing — and he’s found them at school.

He has participated in three separate talent shows. After he won the second show, McKay’s theater teacher, Tiffany Carstensen, invited him to add his gift to a production of “The Three Musketeers.” You don’t remember any beatboxing in that story? Neither did Charlie, who still recalls the conversation with Carstensen.

“I said, ‘Is there beatboxing in there?’ and she said, ‘No, we’re adding it.’” Charlie beatboxed while the lead actor rapped. And yes, McKay theater productions are sounding very cool right about now.

Carstensen wasn’t the only one to snatch up Charlie’s vocal skills. Stanford Scriven, McKay’s director of choirs, had been teaching there for three years before starting Scots-Appella. At the beginning of fall 2013, the group lacked a vocal percussionist, so Scriven posted a notice looking for someone.

“Everyone was talking about this guy Charlie who’d done the talent show the previous spring,” Scriven says. “Everyone said [he] could make amazing sounds.”

Scriven was looking for someone “who can do more than keep a beat” — he wanted “creative, collaborative spark.” When Charlie auditioned, Scriven knew he’d found the right person. “He [came in] and made this amazing improvised sound that was catchy and fun and engaging for everybody, and I thought, ‘That’s what we need.’”

Scriven had reservations about bringing a student into the group he didn’t already know. “It’s an additional class. … Most kids don’t get into that group unless I’ve worked with them at least a semester and often a year. It’s about more than your ability; it’s about how dependable you are.”

It turned out that he needn’t have worried. “[Charlie] has been one of our most consistent members,” Scriven says. “He’s always there, never off-task — he’s like a rock.”

Going from a mostly solo, freestyle beatboxer to a vocal group percussionist performing specified arrangements has taken a lot of work for Charlie, but he has embraced the challenge. As Scriven says, “The art of freestyle beatboxing is very fluid — whatever comes to mind, [Charlie] does. Beatboxing with a group is like playing on a basketball team. You have to follow the rules and the timing and work together with the team.”

Scots-Appella performs mostly pop — they cover a wide range of songs, from Otis Redding’s “The Dock of the Bay” to Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” — which has forced Charlie to expand his musical knowledge base. “It’s adding more music to my vocabulary,” he says.

It also has taught Charlie the importance of choosing beats that work with each song. “It’s been a learning process [for Charlie] to determine when to use what within the confines of the genre,” Scriven says.

“The act of improv versus the act of rehearsing and perfecting — [they use] different skill sets. Charlie brought a natural gift with the improv, and over the last couple years, he’s gotten really good at keeping it consistent every time.”

A Hip-Hop Future

Robotic 5

Charlie's mom, Reyna Garibo, is a big supporter and drives him to every performance. Photo by Frank Miller.

Charlie’s peers and teachers describe him as consistent, mature, humble, committed and well-spoken, which is why it doesn’t seem too far-fetched when he tells you one of his ambitions is to build an empire of recording studios, “not just for beatboxing, but for music in general.”

Add patience to Charlie’s list of qualities, because another of his goals is to teach. He’s taught a friend some beatboxing techniques, and even managed to show his 9-year-old sister, Josie, a thing or two. “Something she used to do when she was younger … is try to beatbox as well,” Charlie says. “There was one day when I was teaching her all day, and she actually did one of the beats and I was so proud.”

He’d also love to find ways to bring more hip-hop to Salem. As competition is a core element of beatboxing, Charlie hopes to organize one. He doesn’t spin records, but would love to learn, and he’d like to plan a “Machine against Human”-style battle where he competes against a DJ friend from Portland. And, in all his spare time, he hopes to pick back up his flute — which he played in junior high — and combine flute with beatboxing.

Charlie’s got his passion and dedication to keep him going, but he’s also got the support of his parents. Maybe he inherited his work ethic from his dad, Jose Torres, who Charlie says is “always working” and “fully supports me.” And then there’s his mom, Reyna Garibo, who drives him to each and every one of his performances. Though his parents hear him all the time, Charlie says they’re still baffled by the sounds he makes.

It’s rare to find a 16-year-old with such a clear vision for the future, and the raw talent to go with it. How does he stay motivated? “Achievements make me keep going because I love the feeling,” Charlie says.

But it’s not all about him. “I love the feeling my performing gives others,” he says.

Charlie has his followers, including a 13-year-old girl on Instagram who sent Charlie a message telling him how much she loved his videos, and how she hopes she will be as good as him someday. This, to him, is the greatest compliment he could receive. “I’ve been inspired by others,” he says, “and to inspire another person — it’s just eye-opening to me.”

Want to see Charlie perform? Check him out at Northwest Comic Fest, Aug. 15-16 at the Salem Convention Center. Interested in hearing McKay’s Scots-Appella group? (You should be.) To listen to some of their performances, click here.

***

Anne Lapour is a freelance writer and music-lover. Though not previously a hip-hop aficionado, she now counts herself among Charlie’s fans.

Originally from Iowa, photographer Frank Miller came to Oregon via Japan, Texas and Buffalo, N.Y. His work can be viewed at www.fmillerphotography.com.