In the early days of hip-hop, artists such as the Fat Boys and Biz Markie introduced the world to beatboxing, the art of virtuosic vocal percussion. But modern practitioners such as Rahzel are as likely to count Michael Winslow, the “Man of 10,000 Sound Effects” from the Police Academy films, and a capella jazz pioneer Bobby McFerrin as influences. This map takes a look at people who make the music with their mouth.
Rahzel, of the Roots, gained mainstream notoriety after the release of his 1999 solo breakthrough Make the Music 2000, which confirmed him as hip-hop’s premier beatboxer. His live performances on the album include renditions of classic Wu-Tang Clan tracks, as well as sound effects ranging from kung fu swordfights to battle sequences from the Mortal Kombat video games to robot noises. On the track “If Your Mother Only Knew,” he seems to perform the beat and chorus simultaneously (using an auditory illusion) and is credited by many as the first to accomplish this. Rahzel has introduced other innovations including vocal scratching—that is, simulating the sound DJs make by moving a record back and forth under the stylus.
Another innovator famous for his stunning sound effects (with even more kung fu!) is Michael Winslow, who played Larvelle “Motor Mouth” Jones in all seven (for now) Police Academy films. Winslow is the definition of slapstick, with his ability to impersonate guns, cars, animals, radios, televisions and, perhaps most impressive, typewriters of various vintages. Winslow has appeared in numerous other films, such as Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs, TV shows and, more recently, a pair of mobile apps, ThatsKungFu and NoizeyMan.
Michael Winslow may not yet have the kind of name recognition he’d like, but thanks to the relentless onslaught of Police Academy movies during the 1980s and 1990s, you’ve probably seen and heard him doing his thing at some point (perhaps on cable, perhaps at three in the morning). No matter what sound he is called upon to reproduce, Winslow typically steals the scene. He has famously simulated gunfire, sirens, helicopters, bullhorns, barking, chewing, creaking doors, car engines and, of course, flatulence. Winslow’s extraordinary voice work has featured in Tosh.O, Spaceballs, Gremlins and his own worldwide tours.
Winslow’s only real rival in mouth wizardry may be the one and only Biz Markie. Both have appeared in television and movies, but Biz’s happy-go-lucky grill has truly been all over the map. He has represented beatboxing on the big screen (Men in Black II), reality TV (Celebrity Fit Club, which he won!) and children’s programming (Yo Gabba Gabba!), in opening acts for Chris Rock, and in countless commercials and talk shows. The Biz has found success at every turn, even if his recording career hit pause in the 1990s—or between six and seven in Police Academy years.
Beatboxing was an art born of necessity, as few performers could buy the drum machines (“beatboxes”) that were coming onto the market in the early 1980s. When Doug E. Fresh called himself the “human beatbox,” only a handful of artists were developing the concept into a legitimate musical form. Biz Markie and the Fat Boys were among them, staking out clubs and battles to show off their talents. Biz Markie has been called the Clown Prince of Hip-Hop for the haphazard, comedic vocalizing of his 1989 hit, “Just a Friend.” He got his first break beatboxing for producer Marley Marl’s acts MC Shan and Roxanne Shanté. His debut single, “Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz” (1986), established him as an influential beatboxer and an MC in his own right. The Fat Boys (Darren “Buff Love” Robinson, Mark “Prince Markie Dee” Morales and Damon “Kool Rock-ski” Wimbley) began as the Disco 3, a beatboxing trio that won a 1983 talent show landing them a recording contract. Deal in hand, the Fat Boys cut their first single, “Reality,” often credited as the first recording featuring beatboxing. Robinson claims he began learning the craft because his family couldn’t afford a drum set.
Bobby McFerrin’s big hit was 1988’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” While the song enjoyed repeated radio play (it was chosen as the theme song for George H.W. Bush’s election campaign, to McFerrin’s protests), not everyone realized it is entirely a capella; that is, McFerrin provided all his own melody and percussion, sans instruments. He first recorded the backing sections, laying down one track at a time, and then overdubbed them onto the vocals. Overdubbing has been a staple of the music industry since the 1960s, but artists seldom provide more than one element themselves, and few “play” the accompanying parts using only their voice box.
Rahzel, of the Roots, also utilized overdubbing in his early musical ventures, although for a very different reason. Growing up in Queens, New York, in the early 1980s, Rahzel had no access to instruments or music technology, so he developed beatboxing skills. He’d record the different tracks on separate tape recorders borrowed from friends, overdubbing himself onto himself until he had built the entire song. Rahzel has perfected his beatboxing technique to such a level that he can now perform the various sections of the song without overdubbing.
Touch the Sound: A Sound Journey With Evelyn Glennie explores the renowned percussionist’s philosophy of music, namely Glennie’s notion that the world overwhelms us with its immense outpouring of sound. Brimming with lush visuals of Scotland, Germany and Japan, and featuring spontaneous, lively music, the meditative documentary offers a glimpse of Glennie’s world, where everything is a percussive device waiting to be struck, slapped, banged or brushed—from steel railings to aluminum cans to porcelain dinner plates. In dramatic fashion, the film reveals midway through that Glennie is profoundly deaf. Credited as the first deaf musician to make a career as a solo percussionist, Glennie experiences sound intuitively, feeling its vibrations through her body.
Another accomplished musician known for his creative use of percussive devices is Bobby McFerrin. Among the benchmarks of his unique style are using his chest and his breathing for percussion while performing a capella. McFerrin, like Glennie, speaks of the importance of feeling the music through one’s body, not simply hearing it. Aside from sharing a certain musical resourcefulness, McFerrin and Glennie both appear in the 2009 PBS documentary Music Instinct: Science and Song, funded in large part by the National Science Foundation.
Beatboxing’s resurgence in the last decade is due in large part to the “Godfather of Noyze,” Rahzel. His innovations, such as singing and beatboxing simultaneously and including elaborate sound-effects sequences, sparked renewed interest in the art form and its limits. Hip-hop has changed radically since its early days, but Rahzel has carried old-school beatboxing into the present, prompting the hip-hop community to reconsider this essential element.
The 21st century has seen beatboxing crackle into the mainstream with breakout performances on American Idol and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, on which Rahzel has appeared with his old band, the Roots. With the establishment of Boxcon, the annual International Human Beatbox Convention, which has spread throughout the U.S., the U.K. and the Netherlands, Rahzel’s devoted followers can compete on a world stage. Rahzel was a guest judge for the first American Beatboxing Championship at 2010’s Boxcon, held in Brooklyn, New York. Additionally, national championships have been held across North America and Europe by the World Beatbox Association, which supports an entire subculture of fans and practitioners who battle, post YouTube videos and continue to raise the bar for beatboxing worldwide.
In the documentary Touch the Sound, deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie discusses her unique sensory experience of music, explaining that she doesn’t simply hear music, as others do, but feels it. She emphasizes music’s universality and its ability to resonate—not only audibly but physically—through the human body. Glennie’s unique sensory experience of music has made her one of the top percussionists in the world, performing everywhere from her native Scotland to New York City’s Grand Central Station.
Boxcon, the annual International Human Beatbox Convention, has likewise spanned the globe, spawning a number of competitions centered on beatboxing held in the United States, Holland, Germany, the United Kingdom and many other countries throughout Europe and Asia. At the competitions, beatboxers of all walks of life gather, share ideas and show off their skills. One such emerging contingent is a community of deaf beatboxers who feel their way through their own and one another’s fricative rhythms. Beatbox Battle Wildcard and other competitions offer opportunities to amateur beatboxers such as MillaFX, who is deaf and, like Glennie, experiences sound with the sense of touch.