by Vid Warren
The art of beatboxing has moved into common knowledge over several years. Each year, more and more people are being shown that it can exist beyond the realms of hip-hop and drum n bass. There is a massive following, numerous successful viral videos, and I have seen and experienced an entire room volunteering their undivided attention to solo beatboxing countless times. Beatboxing is officially 'cool'.
Why then, would something that can be practised anywhere outside of libraries not be anywhere near as common a form of percussion as drum kit in signed bands or chart records? What risk don't the record labels want to take? Why aren't as many people taking up beatboxing as drum kit?
Perhaps there is a clue right here on Humanbeatbox.com. At the time of writing this (2010), the video forum contains 11,002 threads with 110,859 views whereas the audio forum contains 837 threads with 5,906 views.
On all drumming forums and bass guitar forums that I have ever seen there are more videos than audio clips as well, so, what is my point? It's that these are all examples of one part of music being shown in isolation. They will not have as much depth as a complete piece.
The vast majority of beatbox freestyles are just one part of a potential song: the solo. People, both audience and performers, are feeling a need for visuals because of something missing from the audio. This hits beatboxing harder because so many people have been introduced to beatboxing through internet videos. Moreover, beatboxing is impressive. We're making music that emulates sounds that have only existed for one hundred, or even thirty, years. We're doing something that everybody would have a capacity to do right now if they had the knowledge. We could do all of this in a field in 3000BC. How dangerous it is that you can measure the loudness of a roar of applause by how little of beatboxing your audience has seen? Maybe it's more dangerous than you think. You can walk home at the end of the night thinking:
'Wow, my set was tight. I got the best applause of the night and the only encore. I did well'
However, that doesn't mean, if you made and distributed a recording of the night, that it would get listened to while your 'fans' take a bath. Novelty is like a spice, the right amount can turn a dish into the most exciting type of food but too much can ruin it and, more importantly, it alone is not a staple diet.
I do not view beatboxing as a novelty; I believe there is potential for equal depth to beatboxing as to any other instrument and that this is realized in many examples, such as 'Mr Maybe' by Beardyman, or 'White Light' by MC Xander. Both tracks use vocals as their sole instrument and are performed by one beatboxer/vocalist. The difference is that both artists have given a structure and kept enough subtlety to leave people wanting more from audio alone. The fact that both tracks contain great lyrics also helps.
That might have been a hard pill to swallow, especially if you are serious about following a profession in beatboxing. Often, the things that make you feel good are not good for you in large doses and that can certainly be said for being 'patted on the back'. If you've just had an epiphany that your set needs some drastic work, why not take these steps?
- Don't despair, it's not like you're starting from scratch (no pun intended). If you have a 'set' that you've tested many times, you'll have already learnt a hell of a lot about beatboxing – history and technique, about music – arrangement, inspiration and community, and think how much you've learnt about audiences. This information is just something else to consider on your journey. Being aware of this will give you an upper hand over so many beatboxers. More importantly, you could use this information to change peoples view on beatboxing. Imagine if, in future, it is treated like the drum kit is now. Suddenly, everybody will start doing it but you could have been learning for twenty years. You could do almost anything you wanted. If money is a big motivator for you, an 'a-list' top session drummer won't get out of bed for less than around £3,500 a day. That's about $5,475. If you're not as fussed but would like enough to get by, you could have students and promoters queuing up. Even if you're not intending on following a profession in beatboxing, you can set an example and see your hobby grow through those that do.
- Record your set as audio and look deeply into your reaction. Are you worrying about how 'impressive' it sounds? Do you listen to it very differently each time? Is it a 'song' or a 'piece'? Is it just a showcase?
- Collaborate. I cannot stress this enough. It is vital to understand what parts your ideas can play in making up a piece. Record your collaborations and figure out which part you play and which part you don't. This can really help you to come up with something that you didn't even realize was missing. With the right balance of people, the collective input of ideas and output of promotion, work, etc. will easily outweigh what you can manage alone. It's funny how you can spend an hour staring at a piece of paper waiting for some inspiration to come but, as soon as somebody else has some inspiration, you 'know' exactly how it should be tweaked to sound just right. If you can compromise without being walked on, you'll do well.
- Work on, or pick up skills other than just beatboxing. You'll need some production skills or to be able to use a loopstation if you want to take on the challenge of creating a cohesive beatboxing piece on your own, that will mean not waiting for others to turn up for rehearsals. Pick up other instruments/singing/MC-ing. Learn to write lyrics.
- If you have not noticed any of this until now, figure out the reasons for this. Has anyone ever mentioned these points before? Did you listen? Do you skip to the solo in a song? How about then skipping back to just the solo again? When was the last time you listened to a whole album all the way through? Are you impatient? I'm not saying that there is a right or wrong way to listen to music but this might give some insight into what you've missed when listening to your own material.
- Simplify. You understand your music inside out. You've heard seen and felt it. Every moment you've spent practising leads up to and feeds into your performance. Your audience may be hearing this material for the first time. They may not play any music. They may need to be 'broken in'. This will also help you warm up. If you do want to go crazy with it, on stage or in the studio, try to assess how much the audience will want and I'd recommend doing about three quarters as much. This goes for live shows and recordings. Building tension within your music brings more depth. Holding back leaves them wanting more.
- Remember that applause can be deceiving and, when people are drunk, they start applauding at how excited they are rather than how good your music is.
- Figure out what message your music sends. If it is conveying and communicating an emotion, delivering what is on your mind, telling a story and/or challenging somebody's perceptions, it probably has depth. If it is about how great you are or how fast you can beatbox, it probably doesn't.
By getting this right, your music will be remembered. Good Luck.