A-Train makes the music with his mouth.

Money Train 

A-Train makes the music with his mouth.

When he's not peddling decks, trucks and wheels to northside skate rats, Adrian "A-Train" Frost is trying to change the definition of hip-hop.

"People have always said there are four elements to hip-hop: MC-ing, DJ-ing, B-boying and graffiti," says the 27-year-old Frost, co-owner of Escapist Skateboards. "But there's actually a fifth element: beatboxing. That mentality has always been on the back burner, and now more people are starting to believe that beatboxing does have its place and should be out there."

Frost is doing his best to see that it is. Last month in Cincinnati, he took part in the first-ever beatbox battle at Scribble Jam. The annual hip-hop festival, now in its seventh year, has always hosted high-profile MC, DJ and B-boy battles. Eminem made a name for himself there in 1997, and KC's own Mac Lethal earned top prize in his division last year. But 2003 marked the first time the Jam pitted one-man rhythm machines against each other, which is surprising given that beatboxing's history runs parallel to that of rap music. Frost found himself onstage in front of a couple of thousand rowdy hip-hoppers, duking it out against beatboxers with handles such as Marty Spitfly and Chestah T.

"I had never been to an event where there was more than one beatboxer performing," Frost says. "I'd never even heard of a beatbox battle. I was amazed. Mostly, what I learned was what people think of beatboxing and how other people are approaching beatboxing. I've been in my own little world, outside of hip-hop."

Rather than merely imitating the digitized boom-bap of drum machines, Frost attempts something akin to full-blown performance art. His animated routines include gear-grinding car chases, blaring squad-car sirens and a kung fu fight, complete with Street Fighteresque karate chops, all of which he works into a singular rhythmic cacophony.

"There are a lot of constraints that you're working with -- there's only one instrument that has to try to sound like many," Frost explains. "Typically, what most of the world has seen in beatboxing is: (a) somebody beatboxing in a group with a lot of instruments and sounds going on at the same time, or (b) a really short thing -- a comedy routine with sound effects."

Frost's performance wowed the Scribble Jam revelers and his fellow beatboxers alike. He handily took first place, which included a $500 check and about $5 million worth of instant credibility. Frost capped off the Jam by freestyling onstage with Atmosphere frontman Slug. A week later, he battled his way to the top at the Twin Cities Hip-Hop Festival in Minneapolis. The addition of beatboxing at these events underscores the newfound legitimacy of this historic art form.

"Times are changing," Frost insists. "I never really thought the day would come back around where we have Justin Timberlake -- who's not even good at it -- beatboxing in his videos and winning awards and making all this money. So I think the ground is laid for [the underground] guys to come up and eat everybody's lunch."

Rahzel, Dres Tha Beatnik and Killa Kella are the most prominent figures in beatboxing, says Frost, who is quick to point out that the discipline has yet to garner the kind of critical respect that's automatically handed to MCs and DJs.

"Not at all," he says. "But I think one of the reasons why is they haven't demanded it. The beatboxers who take it to the front line, rather than just being a drum machine in the background, do get a lot of respect and are well-known."

At some point, even the best band has to plow its way through a song that leaves the audience cold. But a good beatboxer can improvise on the spot, gauging the mood of a particular crowd and adjusting his routine for maximum effect.

"It crosses over more than any other aspect of hip-hop," says Frost, who began beatboxing as a Dallas fifth-grader. "Not everybody likes rap. Breakdancing is pretty small in the grand scheme of things. But I can beatbox in front of a sixty-year-old woman, and she'll love it. She wouldn't appreciate rapping or any of that other stuff, but she'll love the beatbox."

Frost's recent out-of-town gigs gave him ample opportunity to check out the hip-hop scenes in other major cities. He marveled at the size of the venues hosting rap-related events and the number of people in attendance. Frost acknowledges the high-caliber hip-hop talent in KC and Lawrence, but he's unsure there's enough local support to bring national attention to the area. Not that he's doing much to help.

"I haven't really taken an active effort or worked too hard to get shows," Frost admits. "The vast majority of performances I've done have been on the spot. I'm at a show, and someone's like, CEC'mon, get up there.' There have only been a couple of shows where I've actually been on a flier. I don't want to do too many shows in Kansas City. I don't want to wear the poor Kansas City kids out."

Frost is working with a loop machine that enables him to lay down beats vocally and then improvise over the top. He plans to incorporate the technology into his live act, which he intends to record and release as a CD at some point. Just don't look for A-Train on TRL.

"I'm a little skeptical about how far it can go," he says. "I don't have the motivation to do stuff like Justin Timberlake would do. Touring, performing and recording is great, but I don't want to do a lot of dancing or singing. I'm not going to start doing the moonwalk."

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