JP Lime’s resident Old School Hip Hop historian/enthusiast, Scholar, takes a look back at one of Rap’s lost artforms, beatboxing.
Beatboxing, as defined by www.oxfordlearnersdictionary.com is “the use of the human voice to create the beat in hip hop.” To expand just a bit,
www.urbandictionary.com defines it as ” the attempt made by one to vocally replicate the sounds that would normally emanate from a drum set, drum machine or drum loop through a series of noises or popping sounds made with the mouth. ‘Beatboxing’ is used throughout the hip-hop scene, and talented ‘beatboxers’ can be found in several urban settings.” Though I would argue that the art of beatboxing doesn’t necessarily have to be specific to Hip Hop (why can’t one beatbox on a dance or reggaeton track for example?), the key aspect to both definitions presented here as well as pretty much any other you’ll find is using one’s own voice to make a beat.
That said, while beatboxing was prevalent in Hip Hop culture for much of Rap music’s earliest age, roughly the late 70s through the early 90s, it’s slowly dissipated to the point where it’s become almost a lost art. It’s a tactic of Rap music that older Hip Hop heads who were listening in the 80s and early 90s can speak about nostalgically, but it’s largely absent in today’s versions of Rap music. Back in the day, beatboxing on an actual record was not uncommon, as evident by the examples we provide below. It wasn’t just a tool for studio tracks however. There was a time when a cypher, or freestyle session if you will, when emcees and wannabes alike rapped lyrics ‘off the top the head’, was almost always accompanied by one or more participants beatboxing, to provide a soundtrack to the freestyling emcee’s lyrics. Sometimes the beatboxing would occur after the cypher had started, as if to imply “oh, we got rappers, we need a beat” while at others it was the beatboxing that inspired emcees to start a cypher. Either way you slice it, it doesn’t happen much today, unless of course you have a bunch of 30+ year olds running the cypher.
At JP Lime Productions, we appreciate the nearly lost art of the beatbox and I for one quite frankly would like to see a beatboxing rennaisance occur. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at five of the more memorable, more skilled beatboxers of yesteryear.
Doug E. Fresh aka ‘The Original Human Beatbox’
Perhaps the most well-known beatboxer in Hip Hop’s history, Doug E. Fresh’s style of beatboxing incorporates a lot of lip and throat manipulation to mimic both percussive drum and higher pitched synthesizer sounds. Ladi Dadi, his classic collaboration with Slick Rick, is undoubtedly Rap’s most fabled beatboxing song. While Slick Rick’s lyrics are iconic, let’s not forget the second half of this duet, with Doug E. Fresh beatboxing life into the entire track.
Biz Markie is most well-known for his classic track, “Just A Friend”, but he’s an accomplished beatboxer as well. Another whose beatboxing style is lip and throat driven, not unlike Doug E. Fresh, on this collaboration with prominent 80’s femcee Roxanne Shante entitled “Def Fresh Crew” Biz does a great job of incorporating his skills, providing the sonic backdrop Roxanne’s rhymes. Notice that along with the percussive bassline, he’s also able to mimic a high hat / cymbal sound to round out the sonic landscape of his beatbox.
A former member of The Roots, Rahzel’s beatboxing skills are quite simply phenomenal. Able to not just provide percussion, synth, and high hat sounds, he also possesses the uncanny ability to manipulate the actual sound of his voice, as if reverb or some other effect were added to it in the studio. Most impressive however is that he can actually beatbox and deliver vocals at the same time, as he brilliantly demonstrates on “If Your Mother Only Knew”, streamed below. With no disrespect at all intended to the other men on this list, Rahzel might very well be the most skilled beatboxer among them.
Ready Rock C
Formerly part of a mid-80s triumvirate along with DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, Ready Rock C is a largely forgotten beatboxer who had his fair share of moments back in the day. Perhaps his split with Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff in what appears to have been financial disputes and problems rooted in the sharing, or lack thereof, of the spotlight contributed to his present day anonymity. That said, he was in his day a skilled beatboxer who provided this gem, one of my childhood favorites from He’s The DJ I’m The Rapper, entitled “The Human Video Game”. On this track, The Fresh Prince waxes poetic about experiences playing his favorite arcade games while Ready Rock C mimics the soundtrack to those games, most notably Donkey Kong, by way of beatboxing. Though the track does have accompanying studio sounds, Ready Rock C displays his magic in and around the choruses for what today results in a track filled with fodder for both the Old School Rap and Old School arcade game enthusiast.
Buffy aka The Human Beatbox
Buffy, the beatboxing specialist of the 80s trio known as The Fat Boys, is my personal favorite beatboxer. Part of this has to do with The Fat Boys being my first favorite Rap group, although a large part of the reason I enjoyed them so much as a kid was Buffy’s beatboxing ability. Unlike many beatboxers, including those mentioned above, Buffy’s style had the added dimension of using his diaphragm to create what I can best describe as a heavy, extremely bass-driven breathing sound which separated him from the pack. This can best be heard on various Fat Boys tracks when he delivers his trademark line, “I am The Human Beatbo-ox!” For a prime example of Buffy’s beatboxing skills, look no further than “Stick ‘Em,” from their self title debut studio release. Rest in power Buffy (June 10, 1967 – December 10, 1995).