Off the Beat, one of Penn’s premier co–ed modern rock and pop a cappella groups, has made a name for itself nationally as a musical force to be reckoned with, and it’s got the accolades and albums to prove it. Established in 1987, Off the Beat has continually pushed the boundaries of a cappella performance, finding new ways to meld the edgy and complex sounds of the rock genre into the raw vocals of a cappella music.
“The cool thing about Off the Beat is that, because it’s been around for over thirty years, it has come to mean so many different things to different people,” explains Josh Kahn (C '19), the group’s current President. “It’s a group that is continuously redefining itself and growing as the individual tastes of its members changes.”
Attempting to accurately reflect the sounds of rock as the genre evolves from year to year poses a unique challenge to members of Off the Beat. “Because we have our roots in rock music, we use a lot of syllables and musical styles that are kind of unique,” says Evan Brink (E '19), the group’s Music Director. “The stylization regarding the way we mimic instruments, especially that of guitars, through our voices is something that I haven’t seen in many other groups.”
The arduous learning process proves time and time again to be infinitely rewarding. “I don’t think there are very many people who come into college thinking ‘oh, I love rock music, I want to sing rock music,’” says Suditi Rahematpura (E '21). “All of us come from very unique musical backgrounds and being in Off the Beat has challenged all of us immensely and in a way we never would have expected to be.”
Learning to sing different rock music and genres ranging from electronica to R&B also forces the group’s members to step far outside their comfort zone as performers as well. “We intentionally make ourselves uncomfortable musically,” begins Kahn. “We take on songs and solos that we expect ourselves as singers and performers to fail at. If your voice cracks, you’re doing it right.”
But the group is about more than just singing; it’s about telling a story. Outside of its performances and varying gigs, Off the Beat serves a much grander purpose as a musical time capsule.
“The group is very much rooted in its history, as well as in an awareness to carry on this legacy that the group created for itself in the late '90s,” explains Kahn. “Off the Beat really pioneered this idea of singing rock music in a cappella, which involved taking on types of songs and artists that no one else was crazy enough to do because they were not really fit for a capella.”
This appreciation for its historical background is made even more evident through the group’s familial connections with its alumni. “You look forward towards being an alumnus of the group. We care deeply about our alumni and they care deeply about us too as current members,” says Kahn. “Our alumni network is super special because they all remember the specific details of their time in the group, such as the background part they sang in songs they performed their sophomore fall, and being able to hear their memories as well as share our mutual experiences is always super cool.”
With an extensive number of passionate alumni who continue to connect with existing members and attend yearly performances, the members’ participation in the group lasts far beyond their four years at Penn. “It’s a priority to make sure that our incoming members are excited and aware of the sort of greater legacy that they are going to become a part of,” says Kahn. “They know our history and they know our roots, and they should always have that in their head when they are thinking about where they want to take the group in their next four years.”
When the curtains are drawn and microphones are turned off, the group is, at the end of the day, a family. “Originally, when I was auditioning for a cappella, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to tell where I fit in,” says Sabrina Elson (C '18), a new member of the group. “But I knew immediately upon meeting these people that these were the people I wanted to spend more time with and continue to grow as a musician with. They did so much for me in terms of giving me a place where I had people looking out for me and supporting me, especially within the first few months.”
Changing the way people view both rock and a cappella, Off the Beat challenges its fans and its members alike to redefine their understanding of music and explore new vocal realms. Strongly defined by its history and its alumni, the group successfully straddles the lines between the past and the present, keeping its history at the core of its purpose while continually transforming itself to reflect the status of contemporary music.