Use of the tongue, lips, throat and voice to make sounds and rhythms are not a new phenomenon, despite all the viral videos of beatboxing bouncing around the Internet in recent years. Before beatboxing in Hip Hop, Jazz had scatting, Celtics had lilting, and Indian music had Konnakol. The real beauty of beatboxing and all forms of vocal percussion is that it allows people to create music anytime, anywhere, regardless of whether or not instruments or other tools are available. Many use beatboxing not only in the absence of other sounds but to accompany instruments and vocalists in acapella groups or cyphers.
Beatbox fundamentally began in New York City in conjunction with the birth of the hip-hop subculture on the streets of Harlem. Although the four elements of hip-hop, MCing, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti, have garnered great respect in the global art community, beatboxing culture remains fairly undocumented.
Beatbox is the musical expression of the body through the innovation of sounds and the crafting of music by only using the mouth, throat, and nose. It is a growing art form that transcends the sole replication of drums and sound effects in favor of full musical performances. Beatbox is a primal human art form that utilizes the physical body as a versatile instrument. Musical expression through the body stands at the core of human communication, making beatbox a very organic art form.
Beatbox is also referred to as vocal percussion. Vocal percussion means imitating percussive sounds (including drum sounds) with the mouth. Traditionally, vocal percussionists in a cappella groups try to emulate real drum sounds.
Multivocalism is also a term used for artists who use beatboxing, vocal scratching, singing, MCing and poetry in their performances. Beatryhming is the cross section of spoken word and beatboxing. The term “human beatbox” literally means “human drum machine.” Beatbox was originally used as two words: ‘beat box’. The term ‘beat box’ was used as slang for the non-programmable drum machines that were first called rhythm machines. The first time “beat box” was used to refer directly to a rhythm machine was in the 1970s with the ELI CompuRhythm CR-7030 Beat Box.
Beatboxing, like graffiti, began its life as an urban art form. The beginnings of hip-hop are well known – DJs spinning the breakbeats in records with MCs rapping over the top. When MCs starting to rap over drum machine (beat box) beats in the urban communities of New York City, especially in the Bronx, drum machines and synthesizers were not very affordable. Samplers were well out of reach even for well-paid musicians. Necessity is the mother of invention, and without machine-supplied beats to rap over, a new, more accessible instrument was adopted – the mouth – and thus human beatboxing was born.
In the early to mid-eighties, three names stand out head and shoulders above the rest – Darren ‘Buffy’ Robinson, Doug E Fresh and Biz Markie.
There has been a great deal of discussion about who was the very first beatboxer, but one thing is for sure: in 1983, a trio from Brooklyn won a talent contest at Radio City Music Hall. The trio, formerly known as The Disco Three, was comprised of Mark “Prince Markie Dee” Morales, Damon “Kool Rock-Ski” Wimbley, and Darren “Buff the Human Beat Box” Robinson. These were The Fat Boys. Buff Love, or Buffy as he came to be known, helped the group win the talent contest through his ability to use his mouth to recreate hip-hop rhythms and a variety of sound effects. Buffy championed the iconic bass-heavy breathing technique, which was popularized by Grandmaster Flash, the DJ of the Furious Five.
Also in 1983, Doug E Fresh (Doug E Davis) made his first appearance on a single for Spotlight called ‘Pass the Budda’ with Spoonie Gee and DJ Spivey, although Doug E. Fresh claims that he coined the term “human beatbox” in 1980. There are also claims that DJ Barry B, the DJ of Get Fresh Crew, actually coined the term, suggesting to Doug E Fresh that he use the term in between his sets.
By 1985, beatboxing was taken forward by other artists, such as Biz Markie. Although a rapper, he started working as a human beatboxer with acts like Roxanne Shanté and started developing techniques including MCing between the beat, the inward hand clap, and the harmonic tap. Biz is also credited for adding a unique spin to beatbox by incorporating singing while beatboxing, opening up new doors for creativity and musicality.
Bobby McFerrin (Beatboxing/Vocal Percussion) popped up in jazz, and was the foundation for a new breed of A Capella groups using soft organic percussion to keep time in their tracks. The art form spread slowly and quietly into many genres, including rock music with the group The HouseJacks, and jazz great Bobby McFerrin showed off more and more of his skills as his audience grew.
Vocal boundaries were also smashed by Michael Winslow the Vocal Effects Master. You probably know him as the guy from the Police Academy movies who does the amazing sound effects that you, like me, assumed were fake. He also did behind-the-camera sound effects for films such as Back to The Future. However, many people didn’t consider him a beatboxer or a musician, but strictly an entertainer.