• The Real History of Beatboxing : Part 2

    Part 2 : The Old Skool
    Words by TyTe and White Noise


    Despite the fact that Beatboxing is an important element of Hip-hop and A Capella, some people still aren't clued up as to what beatboxing is all about!

    Beatboxing is The Art of Urban Vocal Percussion. i.e. - imitating drum sounds and beat patterns using your lips, tongue, mouth, throat, and voice. It's summed up with the image of a guy in a hoodie with his hands cupped over his mouth spitting and making wonderful noises.

    • Vocal Percussion means making percussion sounds (including drum sounds) with the mouth. Traditionally vocal percussionists in a cappella groups have tried to emulate real drum sounds.
    • Beatboxing is a form of vocal percussion in which the artist emulates the sounds of a 'beat box' or drum machine. Today, as the artform is expanding, vocal percussionists use beatboxing techniques and beatboxers use vocal percussion techniques - the difference remains in the style. Beatboxers generally produce more urban styles of music and therefore beatboxing could be called urban vocal percussion.
    • Multivocalism is a term used for artists who use beatboxing, vocal scratching, singing, MCing and poetry in their performances.

    Where did the term beatbox come from?

    Human Beatbox literally means human drum machine and 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. For example, the Roland TR Rhythm Series such as the TR-33, TR-55 that were produced in 1972. Later it was used to refer to a particular line of drum machines - particularly the Roland CR and the later TR series with the Roland CR-78 appearing in 1978.

    However, the first rhythm machine was the Wurlitzer Sideman that was made between 1959 and 1964, and this did come in a large box - so it's possible that the term "beat box" was used to refer to this machine. 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.
    Wurlitzer Sideman
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    Used with kind permission The Keyboard Museum
    ELI CR-7030

    View larger image

    Used with kind permission The Keyboard Museum
    And here is the staple of hip-hop music, the coveted Roland TR-808 drum machine released in 1982. Roland TR-808

    Where did it all begin?

    The history of Beatboxing is blurry. It appears, like graffiti, to have begun it's 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 ghettos such as the Bronx, drum machines and synthesisers could not be afforded (samplers were at this time well out of the reach of even well-paid musicians). Necessity is the mother of invention, and without machine-supplied beats to rap over, a new instrument was created - the mouth - and thus human beatboxing was born.

    The Three Kings of the 1980s

    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.

    BuffyThere has been a great deal of discussion about who was the first, however one thing is for sure, and that is that in 1983, a trio from Brooklyn won a talent contest at Radio City Music Hall. The trio, formerly known as The Disco Three, were 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. The prize? A record contract. Rumour has it that the band were gutted as they wanted to win the second prize of a stereo! Buffy was known for his breathing technique between kicks and snares. The Fat Boys enjoyed a short but successful career. They finally split in the early 1990s to go their separate ways. Sadly, on Dec 10, 1995, Darren "Buffy the Human Beat Box" Robinson died of a heart attack in Rosedale, NY.

    Doug E FreshAlso 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 invented human beatboxing in 1980. In 1984, Doug featured in the classic hip-hop movie Beat Street alongside the Treacherous Three and this was to launch him as one of the greatest beatboxers of all time. Doug was known for his distinctive style featuring amongst other sounds, the now famous click rolls. In 1985, Doug E Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew (MC Ricky 'Slick Rick' D, Barry Bee and Chill Will) released the now classic hip-hop double-A side, 'The Show/La Di Da Di'.

    Classic Doug E. Fresh Clips

    These two classic Doug E. Fresh clips are provided courtesy of www.dougefresh.com and influenced a whole generation of beatboxers.

    Doug E. Fresh - Do The Beatbox

    Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick - La Di Da Di

    Biz MarkieBy 1985, beatboxing was being taken forward by other artistes such as Biz Markie. Although a rapper, he started working as a human beatboxer with acts such as Roxanne Shanté and started developing sounds such as MCing between the beat, the inward handclap and the harmonic tap.

    And then there were none...

    Beatboxing rode the crest of the hip-hop wave featuring on albums and videos but then it all ended. By the 1990s hip-hop was no longer center stage and beatboxers were held back by people's perceptions of them as novelty value circus acts.

    Bobby McFerrinBeatboxing/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.

    Michael WinslowVocal boundaries where 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.

    Next time...
    In Part 3, we will trace the history of the new school beatboxers, Rahzel, Kela and the role the Internet has played in bringing beatboxing to a wider audience.