Beatboxing – What is it Exactly?

I’ve been a fan since I was a kid. GenX popularized the use of a person’s vocal tract to mimic percussion, other instruments, and even sometimes other sounds. These talents and skills were then put to use in hip-hop and rap albums first and foremost. They were center stage for any acapella group. So is it a genre unto itself? No. 

Beatboxing is a musical art form. Depending upon the beatboxer, the sounds can cross over genres and performance types. The performer is literally using their voice as an instrument to create the beatbox sound that in turn is the artform.  

Beat-boxing takes skill and talent. It takes rhythm and performative flair. Not everyone can do it, but those that do, see it as an art form and even a competitive one at that. It crosses genres and therefore has a deeper influence than you might understand. Let me explain. 

Defining Beatbox

“Beatbox is the musical expression of the body through sound innovations by mouth, nose, and throat.” 

GENTRACK.COM

This is absolutely the most basic of definitions. In many ways, it’s still an ever-expanding artform. After all, the human body is capable of making such a varied arrangement of sounds, and so long as those sounds are used to create a rhythm, one could conclude that it is beatboxing. 

Because of my predisposition to see the art form as a hip-hop entangled sound, I feel that an emphasis should be made on imitating percussion with one’s vocal instruments. Add to this spoken word, whether singing or rapping, and you have what people refer to as beat rhyming.

Some artists use a heavy breathing technique, while others incorporate claps, taps, and even rap or singing. The only limit is the artist’s creativity. Take Michael Winslow from the “Police Academy” fame. He calls himself a “voicetimentalist” and not a beatboxer, but he is quite capable.  

The History of Beatbox

It could be said that beatboxing has been around since humans began using their voices to create rhythms. Specifically, many historians trace it to North Indian music. In Africa, a similar trend can be found. But let’s take the modern version of beatboxing as our goal to explain. 

Beatboxing in the early days of pop and hip-hop came from people trying to imitate drum machines, such as the Wurlitzer Sideman from the late 50s and the Roland TR-808 from the 80s. “Old School” beatboxing began being popular in the late 70s through the 90s. 

The earlier hip-hop stars began with small budgets and what’s cheaper than finding and buying one of these percussion machines? Using your own instrument. Like I stated before, beatboxing was already a thing, and it was simply evolving and adapting to imitate something new.

A producer and musician that is known by the stage name Wise, helped form Stetsasonic – one of hip-hop’s first live bands. Beatboxing was one of the staples of this band and so very many artists going forward. On the band’s very first single, Wise debuted the “Human Turntable” technique. Wise and Daddy-O collaborated once again to bring us the very first time that a human beatbox was heard adding a song-like rhythm to the beat coming from him. 

This isn’t to take from artists like Biz Markie, Kenny Muhammad, Rahzel, Doug E. Fresh, or The Fat Boys, all of whom had a big part to play in popularizing the use of beatboxing in hip-hop. Even female artists such as Queen Latifah picked up on the trend and worked on her talent and skill to beatbox. 

Beatboxing became a staple of not only hip-hop and rap but was taken mainstream pop by Michael Jackson among others. Through the late 80s and 90s, beatboxing went from being a means to overcome a problem to a creative artistic adaptation.  Then, the industry became oversaturated. In a lot of ways, once people preferred to use synths, beatboxing became almost a novelty of an act. 

However, it has continued and artists all over have kept it alive. Beatboxing went underground, growing support through history, hip-hop, and tutorials found online. 

There are fewer beatboxers out there, but that has made it all the more enjoyable when someone showcases their talent and skill with the artform. And they took their artistry into battles – something that has become as important to their art as a cipher is to rappers. They grow their status through these battles. 

You could say that beatbox is having a re-birth. This has come in part due to talent shows all over the world where beatboxers can compete and to popular movies such as Pitch Perfect wherein the beats to most of the songs are made via beatboxing. And let’s not forget how popular YouTube has become, where these artists can easily showcase their talent and where cartoon shows such as “Cartoon Beatbox Battles” are available.

Beatboxing Today

There are a lot of beatboxers out there. They have control of their body that many others do not have – the air intake and the control of vocals can be astonishing. As I learned from doing my research, good beatboxers have been able to accomplish at least 8 unique sounds at the very same time. We don’t just find them in hip-hop, acapella, and rap anymore. Beatboxing can cross-genre with ease and considering the ability to loop sounds to pull in several to make a whole, that works very well. 

There are annual championships for beatboxing. This is the women’s final battle between Kaila Mullady from the United States versus Chiwawa from Poland in the women’s final on the stage of the 5th Beatbox Battle World Championship (2018). These ladies go into other instruments, including dub-step. My speakers were rattling for some of this! 

The most recent competition piece I had access to at the time of this article was the 2021 SBX KICKBACK BATTLE, but I chose to showcase this video from Swissbeatbox that includes the Top 10 Drops of that competition. Some of these sounds I had never heard used before this. 

In contemporary music, beatboxing is becoming more widespread.  Alem, D-Low, Butterscotch, and NaPoM have pushed the bounds of this artform by using intricate patterns while focusing on speed, technicality, musicality, and bass-heavy sounds. This is being called “new school” beatboxing.

In this day and age, the art form continues to evolve. Jason Tom co-founded the Human Beatbox Academy to perpetuate the art of beatboxing through outreach performances, speaking engagements, and workshops. Greg Patillo adds beatboxing to playing the flute! People use a looping machine to help out with beatboxing or to even take the place of it. Ed Sheeran can do both. 

Beatboxers are performing with acapella groups and are constantly exploring new ways to enhance their art. Some beatboxers can produce more than 8 sounds at a time! Kevin Olusa of the acapella band Pentatonix is a multi-talent that has become world-famous for his beatboxing as well as his cello performances. 

Do I think beatbox will ever go mainstream, in and of itself? No. I agree that it is a musical art form, and as such, it will always have a place in music production for those willing to use it in their songs. Could I be wrong? Maybe.

I never thought a capella would ever reach the heights it has in the past decade (due in large part to international talent shows and a hit movie). I just feel that in this case, the art form is the accompaniment to an ensemble.

I can only listen to beatboxing for so long before I crave more, whether it be instruments, synths, or other voices. But beatbox has its audience, and it’s up to them to decide if it should be mainstream. After all, the voice is human, and the voice is infinite.  


SOURCES: Give these folks some love!

Wikipedia.org

https://www.gemtracks.com/guides/view.php?title=who-invented-beatboxing&id=923