My Master's Project for the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
M.S. class of 2014
Advisor: Ann Cooper
HOST INTRO: It’s a clear December day at New York's Columbia University. The end of the semester is near. Students wander along the main pathway cutting across campus. Many probably have final exams or winter break on their minds. But near the bottom of the steps leading to Low Memorial Library, Pierre Bienaimé noticed something that seemed to make everyone stop.
A cloud of dense industrial sound surrounds these four noise-makers. They’re all 20, give or take a few years. One’s wearing a grey sweater with a print of old-school cassette tapes.
SOUND: Beatboxing, busier sample, in the clear
A few dozen students have clustered up, watching and listening to this odd form of music. It sounds like a tornado making its way through a drummers’ convention. But there’s no instrument in sight. One or two of the performers are clutching microphones close to their mouths. The others talk quietly, text on their phones, or take a smoke break. An onlooker asks:
REACTION: I think it's very creative. Actually, I don't even know what's going on, are they just like making the sounds with their voices? (0:07)
They are. This group picked a part of campus with lots of foot traffic to showcase their skill, which is to make all kinds of sounds, beats, and bass lines using just their mouths. And microphones.
REACTION: I did not even realize it was human beings producing the noise before I turned around and saw. (0:05)
Someone ventures that this sound doesn’t really come across as natural.
REACTION: I guess it's closest to mechanized sound, right? I guess. (0:05)
Many seem more bemused than entertained.
REACTION: Is it music? Uh, yeah I think it's music. (0:03)
And most of these college students are able to put a label on it.
SOUND: Six people saying “Beatbox?” individually (0:07)
Beatboxing. The name comes from the drum machines used to provide beats in the early days of hip hop. The beatbox of old looked like an oversized calculator, and produced drumming sounds without the need for an actual drum — or a drummer.
But human beatboxers were also part of the nascent hip hop scene, as back-up for rappers who needed a beat.
SOUND: La Di Da Di
This song’s called La Di Da Di. It’s a cornerstone of hip hop history recorded in 1984. It features some seminal beatboxing, courtesy of Doug E. Fresh. He was known as “The Human Beat Box.”
SOUND: pause, keep playing La Di Da Di
Based on how much space the rapper is giving Doug E. Fresh on this track—enough for listeners to digest it—you can tell that beatboxing was a novel thing.
SOUND: pause, keep playing La Di Da Di
Anyway, eventually beatboxers broke away from that supporting, or co-starring role.
SOUND: fade out La Di Da Di
People started beatboxing, stand-alone. A subculture was born.
Sansone: It's an art form. (0:02)
That’s Johnny Sansone. He’s from Buffalo, which is also his stage name.
Sansone: It started out on the streets, you know, as a way to just like drop a beat, but it's elevated to a spot now where there's so much technicality to it. (0:10)
Sansone is one of the performers who beatboxed at Columbia. He and his peers often tell the same story on how they discovered beatboxing. Chris Celiz, who’s now 23, says he got hooked when he heard it online ten years ago.
CELIZ: … one of the records I came across was this track by Kenny Muhammad and Rahzel called "Four Elements.” (0:06)
SOUND: Sound from “Four Elements”
Rahzel is another giant of beatboxing.
SOUND: start fading out “Four Elements”
CELIZ: As someone who didn't know anything about beatboxing at the time I was like "Oh my God these people are making these sounds with their mouths… (0:05)
Rahzel even talks about beatboxing on his debut album, in 1999. He’s pretty straightforward.
RAHZEL: From I Know What Ya Sayin' (Interlude) – Now I know a lot of people probably sayin' I got some type of mechanical device up here. Enhancing my voice. Some kind of dat in the background. But I ain't got none of that up here, baby. You know what I'm sayin'? Hip hop at its rawest form. The beatbox. (0:21)
Still, over 30 years after it began, Chris Celiz says beatboxing has an image problem.
CELIZ: We're not a party trick. It's not something we see as a party trick. And I think that's kind of the stigma that it has. (0:07)
The stigma. It's definitely there when it comes to beatboxing. One book on the history of hip hop calls beatboxing a, quote, "redheaded stepchild, an acknowledged part of the hip hop family, but an oddity."
And it is kind of weird. Outsiders to the art can be taken aback by throaty bass lines and lip-smacking imitations of an actual drum kit.
Some of the amateurs who entertained at Columbia back in December agreed to step into a sound studio to give an audio primer on how they do it.
URBAN: You recording? (0:02)
Sansone: Kick, high hat, and snare drum. (0:02)
That’s Johnny Sansone again.
Sansone: Whenever I'm teaching someone beatboxing, there's only three sounds that you need to learn first. And that's “b,” “t,” “k.” There's different ways to do some of them, but get those down first, because beatboxing really all it is that, just then with a bunch of stuff in between that. (0:16)
SOUND: Sansone beatboxing, lots of “b,” “t,” “k.”
Sansone: For the beatboxing kickdrum I've always described it as a "p." your lips are in the form of making a "p," but you make a "b" noise. (0:10)
SOUND: Sansone beatboxing, fade out under narration.
So those are a few of the basic sounds. Kenny Urban is a friend of Celiz and Sansone. He was also performing on campus back in December, and he explains how beatboxers string sounds together for minutes on end, without stopping.
URBAN: Cuz there's a “k” which is outward, which is *** that's outward, and there's also the *** which is sucking in, and that's how a lot of beatboxers can actually go for a couple minutes at a time without having to stop. And people say “how do you not breathe, bla bla bla,” you are breathing. Cuz with the sucking in, the rim shot, it allows you to go ***. (0:22)
Practice makes perfect. Chris Celiz remembers his early beatboxing days, holed up in the bathroom, the room in the house with the best acoustics.
CELIZ: For me beatboxing kinda just gave me my voice. It allowed me to kinda express myself, in a way that I guess felt most comfortable. And that started for me in high school. And I just kept up that habit of going into the bathroom really late at night for like an hour, and go *** or whatever. I still do it. (0:22)
That non-stop urge to make noise is a common theme. Johnny Sansone says that’s because beatboxing is beyond portable; it’s part of you.
Sansone: It's with you everywhere you go, which is I think what makes it the most addicting. There's really never any time that you can't come up with something or practice something. (0:10)
And when you put a few beatboxers together, like Sansone, Celiz, and Urban, the sound multiplies. They might play what’s called the beatboxing game. It’s kind of like this thing called “trading eights” in jazz. Each musician will take a solo over a few measures before passing the spotlight.
SOUND: “Who wants to start?” then more studio beatboxing
Spontaneous jams are fun, but this group knows that the road to professional beatboxing, if there is such a thing, lies in more deliberate music production. Along the way, bar gigs and tournaments offer the chance to showcase one’s talents, and sometimes make some money on the side.
That’s next on “Beatboxing with the New School.”
Pierre Bienaimé, Columbia Radio News.
SOUND: Rahzel’s “If Your Mother Only Knew (Interlude)”
HOST INTRO: If you have dreams of making it as an artist, your best chances might be in New York. It’s where hip hop was born, and there many still hold dreams of making a living through the art of beatboxing. That’s the use of one’s mouth, and sometimes a microphone, to mimic the sounds usually made by drum kits and other instruments. As for any niche spectacle, Pierre Bienaimé finds that the road to professional beatboxing isn’t easy… but it is there.
Chris Celiz and Johnny Sansone are college friends who met over beatboxing. What began as a hobby in their teenage years has evolved into a career aspiration. And last December, they finally got a real gig, beatboxing at a bar called Two-Bit in the Lower East Side.
SOUND: Bar ambi and beatboxing
Two-Bit is both a bar and an arcade. You can get a drink between rounds of pinball… or vice versa. That’s what most of the customers have come here for. And yet, between songs Celiz and Sansone get the same whoops and raised drinks from the crowd that you would expect for a good house band.
SOUND: “Thank you” and outro from beatboxers
After the show, Celiz is feeling good about his first feature performance as part of a group.
CELIZ: Cuz we've done like a ton of open mics. Little like ten-minute or like five-minute feature performances. But never like, like a 30 minute set and that felt really good to, uh, just make music for like 30, 40… It was almost 40 minutes! (0:12)
Beatboxing might not be for all tastes, but the crowd reaction here is enthusiastic. One patron says he got so engrossed in their mouth music that he forgot all about the rows of arcade games that initially drew him here.
ANDY: It was like the focal point of being in there. Like I didn't even know it was live, I thought it was just like music playing. (0:06)
SOUND: Fade out ambi
But the bar’s owner, who booked Celiz and Sansone in the first place, never did get back to them for a second gig. He didn’t even pay them for the first one. At the time, Celiz was looking on the bright side.
CELIZ: We got a bar tab. We will get paid next time. You gotta pay your dues. I don't believe in undervaluing what you're worth. You gotta eat. Um… I can't do stuff for free all the time. Yeah. (0:14)
Making it as a professional beatboxer is no mean feat. You have to collaborate with other musicians. You probably need another job to pay your bills. And you have to build a brand. Mark Martin has done a lot of that. He’s 25.
SOUND: Martin beatboxing (0:07)
For the past three years, he’s been touring on and off with The Voca people, a collective of theater troupes from Israel. They put on a comedy show with six singers and two beatboxers.
Martin has multiple day jobs, and he says it’s hard to pinpoint the viability of beatboxing as a career.
MARTIN: You can definitely make a living doing it, but people are still exploring how that is. (0:04)
Martin is looking to keep combining theater with beatbox to pave his own career path. That’s a combination that works for him—but there’s no real model for the would-be career beatboxer, he says.
MARTIN: To put it bluntly, there's no retired beatboxer. There's no one alive that has retired as a beatboxer because the art form is so young. (0:06)
SOUND: Fade out ambi
Staged shows like the ones Martin plays are one way to pocket some money from beatboxing. But there are also beatboxing tournaments out there. Some offer cash prizes, and all of them present a shot at YouTube fame.
SOUND: Sound from beatbox battle on YouTube. “Let the battle begin! 3! 2! 1! Go!”
This is where beatboxing sticks to its hip hop roots. Competitors go head to head. They battle, taking turns with the microphones. And they’re not as polite as figure skaters. Intimidating and mocking your opponent is fair game.
SOUND: Sound from beatbox battle on YouTube. “Okay, in your face.”
Both beatboxers are on stage. While one of them performs, the other might move up close, or ape his movements. Anything to make him look like a rookie. But it’s not all in bad blood. Most of these battles end with a hearty hug.
Tournaments like this one are attended by hundreds, who pay for entry. Some events land sponsors, some of them don’t. Some of them make a profit, some of them make a loss.
Strangely enough, the competitive beatbox scene in the U.S., where it was born, is way smaller than in Europe.
But this year’s American tournaments are set to be bigger than ever, because they’re adopting a regional format. The finalists from each of four competitions—East Coast, West Coast, South and Midwest—will be invited to square off at a final competition in Los Angeles this October.
Ludovic Nicolaidis is one of the beatboxing tournament organizers. He and a friend put on the first two Midwest Beatbox Battles, in Ohio. And the goal, he says, is to put beatboxing on America’s cultural map.
NICOLAIDIS: To have actual opportunities to take their beatboxing beyond just YouTube and, you know, being "the" best beatboxer out there. (0:06)
Nicolaidis works a part time job as a graphic designer. But he believes he’ll be able to drop his day job in the future and make a living entirely from beatboxing. If he chooses to.
NICOLAIDIS: It's now becoming an actual opportunity and a reality for us to pay bills on beatboxing. (0:06)
Professional beatboxers do exist. Terry Im—stage-name KRNFX—says he got his start through tournaments. And with a mix of talent, persistence, and luck he’s become a career beatboxer.
Im is from Toronto, and in the world of beatboxing, he’s got a very distinct sound—intense and otherworldly.
SOUND: KRNFX beatboxing
He’s won everything from street battles to big tournaments, but he only started making reliable income when he was hired to beatbox in a commercial for Tellis, a Canadian Internet and phone network company.
IM: When that started happening I was like, “wow, I'm actually, you know, making a living from this.” (0:05)
A few commercials later Im got his biggest break. Microsoft approached him for an ad for the Surface, the company’s answer to the iPad. The Microsoft ad premiered at last year’s Grammys.
SOUND: Beatboxing from Microsoft ad.
IM: It was playing everywhere, it was playing in movies. Playing, you know, on every single TV screen. (0:05)
Im now lives in Los Angeles, a hub of music production. He says that what any serious beatboxer needs is versatility.
IM: A lot of young boxers think that if they just become the dopest beatboxer, and just keep battling and win championships, that they'll, you know, just become successful or get gigs and stuff. (0:10)
He takes his own advice to heart.
IM: I don't want to be considered just a beatboxer. I like to consider myself like a musician, an artist. Someone who just... creates.
Im hopes beatboxing can break into the mainstream. Not just for his own career, but for his love of the art.
IM: You know, hopefully it'll be in Broadway shows, it'll be on TV, it'll be in the movies all the time. (0:04)
He compares its challenges to those of dance.
IM: You know we’re kind of in the back, you know, supporting the main artist whether it be the rapper or the singer. We definitely need to break that barrier as beatboxers like dancers have. (0:10)
The thing is, beatboxing already has huge mainstream adherents. In 2002, a hit song by R&B artist Mario included beatboxing at the beginning and end, though really this was an homage to the track it was based on.
SOUND: Mario’s “Just A Friend 2002”
That same year, the beat to Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” contains elements of beatbox.
SOUND: Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River”
And the real king of pop, Michael Jackson? He used it profusely. In an interview from 1995, MJ explained how a lot of his hits were laid out through beatboxing.
SOUND: From Michael Jackson video: “So I’ll take that and use that as the main foundation for the track and build all the sounds around that. You know what I’m saying?”
But Jackson used beatboxing more when conceptualizing than on his actual albums. It never became identified with him the way moonwalking did.
So for now, beatboxing remains a subculture, a curiosity that performers still have to explain, as KRNFX did when he appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’s show.
SOUND: From Ellen DeGeneres. “The fact that all of that noise is coming from you. How do you even start to…”
In a way, the role beatboxing plays has come full circle. It started off in a support role for rappers in the early 80s. Then it broke off as a standalone performance. And now, many beatboxers are making their work parts of a whole, collaborating with instrumentalists or other entertainers.
Whether the mainstream will lend an ear, so that more beatboxers can call themselves professionals, is another story.
Pierre Bienaimé, Columbia Radio News.
SOUND: Michael Jackson’s “I Like The Way You Love Me”
HOST INTRO: We’ve heard from beatbox practicers young and old, amateur, professional, in between… But there are also non-beatboxers out there taking an interest in the art – and studying it with scientific tools to learn more about how beatboxing works. Pierre Bienaimé has more.
SOUND: Ambi from event
At the American Beatbox Festival held in the Lower East Side this month, two event organizers were teaching a group of kids how to vocalize the basic sounds of the beatboxing repertoire. The “b,” the “t,” and the “k.”
SOUND: Genevieve beatboxing.
Genevieve’s father thinks hip hop is a positive model for young kids, so he brought his daughter to the workshop. Genevieve may be a novice, but she’s off to a good start.
SOUND: Me saying “Genevieve nice to meet you, thanks for talking to me,” Genevieve saying “you’re welcome.”
Beatboxing is so strange and complicated that a few researchers have begun to investigate what’s going on inside a beatboxer’s vocal system.
Steven Sims is an amateur singer and the director of the Chicago Institute for Voice Care. His own tastes run from opera to a cappella, but he’s also fascinated by beatboxers—including pioneer beatboxer Doug E. Fresh, who was born just three days later than him.
To find out how Doug E. Fresh and little Genevieve make those sounds, Sims invited a few beatboxers into his Chicago clinic last year for laryngoscopies, a routine procedure usually meant to diagnose throat problems.
It all starts with a bit of lubricant and a fiber-optic scope, which runs down through the nose.
SIMS: The conduit of the scope is like a fat piece of spaghetti, it's only about 3 or 4 millimeters wide.
The studies are up on YouTube. Here one of the subjects reacts to getting it removed after a few minutes of filming.
SOUND: Reactions from study subjects: “Now for the creepy feeling.”
Sims has performed numerous laryngoscopies on himself to study his own vocal cords.
SIMS: It's not terrible, it tickles, it feels a little strange.
For this study, the idea was to reach and film the origin of human sound production, to see what it looked like during beatboxing.
SOUND: Reactions from study subjects: “It’s weird… it’s fun though.”
Sims and a few colleagues published the study in late 2013 in Journal of Voice. It got a lot of attention on popular science websites, probably because Sims’ main discovery was this: Beatboxing is good for you.
At least, it’s good for your vocal cords. Beatboxing stresses the structures in your throat more evenly than singing, says Sims. And it could actually help singers prevent injury or warm up before hitting high notes.
Sims has plans for more laryngoscopies—this time with women as subjects. He believes that other vocal performers can learn something from beatboxers.
SIMS: I think that there are so many other interesting ways that people use their voice. And in my perfect world everyone would be able to learn from one another. So an opera singer would be able to learn something about how they use their voice from a beatbox artist.
SOUND: Beatboxing and reactions from studies
Earlier last year, another team of researchers, linguists at the University of Southern California, published some of their findings on beatboxing. They invited a beatboxer to USC’s school of engineering, and like Sims, they used technology to observe the art as it unfolded.
Researchers used MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, on a beatboxer at work. The goal, says researcher Shri Narayanan, was to try to unlock some of the linguistic mysteries of beatboxing.
NARAYANAN: Not everyone is able to beatbox, right? What are the mechanisms, the physics underlying the production of these fascinating sounds that people are able to create.
The team’s big conclusion involved a so-called paralinguistic element: in his performance, the beatboxer often borrowed sounds from other languages. Not English, or French, or Japanese… but Xhosa, a language of South Africa which calls for clicking; or Nuxalk, a language native to British Columbia.
NARAYANAN: Even though our speaker was not a native speaker of those languages, we found sounds that are found in these languages.
Let’s wrap up our beatbox science segment with a softer kind of science: musical notation.
SPLINTER: Hi I'm Mark Splinter, I'm British guy living in Lithuania. And I just love working with musicians and spreading music as far as I can.
In the early 2000s, Splinter was a big presence on humanbeatbox dot com, an online forum about beatboxing. He and another forum moderator devised a writing system called Standard Beatbox Notation, or SBN. It’s a combination of consonants and spacings that beatboxers can use to write their beats out and share them.
SPLINTER: Standard Beatbox Notation came out of the forum because this was kind of low bandwidth days and not many people had even the equipment to record sounds and send them up to the Internet. So a lot of people were actually writing down their beat patterns just using keyboard letters.
This effort to capture beats on paper is another step towards elevating the form.
SPLINTER: I think it was most useful in fact as PR, saying to people that we're serious about this art form, and there are ways of recording and sharing it internationally.
Splinter thinks there’s something inherently international about beatboxing. He got some evidence of that on a visit to Afghanistan. He was taken to see a skateboard school. On the way, Splinter says he bought a bunch of cheap Chinese megaphones and batteries.
SPLINTER: And we went down and gave them to the kids, but there was one guy in particular. I first just did a little, little beat. His head turned, and his eyes opened and he just ran straight forward and he wouldn’t let go of the thing after that. He was coming up with like snippets of stuff he must have heard from some American record somewhere, somehow. Like I say that's the magic of beatbox. It totally cuts through cultural barriers, like nothing else I really know.
In a way Splinter got to feel first hand what that study at the University of Southern California, and his own notation system, were getting at: beatboxing transcends language. It’s a universal sound that draws fans from many parts of the world. Though they might not all speak the same language, they can all understand the music of beatbox.
Pierre Bienaimé, Columbia Radio News.
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