A form of vocal percussion where the artist imitates electronic drum sounds--a “beat box”--modern beatboxing has its roots in street corner hip-hop popular in the Bronx, Chicago and Los Angeles. Evidence exists, however, that forms of beatboxing or vocal percussive music spans millennia.
Vocal percussionists in a cappella groups use vocal sounds to reproduce percussive instruments: drums, cymbals and blocks. In beatboxing, the form is specific to urban music genres. Birthed in the 1980s, urban vocal percussion techniques specifically emulated electronic drum or percussion machines rather than acoustic drums.
In an Indian tradition known as bol (from “bolna,” meaning to speak), defined syllables create rhythms that correspond to strokes of classical percussive instruments. Ancient Chinese called a similar tradition Kouji. African performers used their bodies and mouths, clicking, clapping, stomping and expelling breath in a technique similar to that used by today’s hip-hop beatboxers.
Doug E. Fresh, self-described as the first human beatbox, released a solo album in 1983 titled “Original Human Beatbox.” Another beatbox pioneer of the 1980s, Leonardo Roman—also known as Wise—introduced the “human turntable” technique called the Stetsa-Human Mix Machine by Statsasonic hip-hop group members.
By the 1990s, beatboxing crossed the Atlantic. The United Kingdom’s 17-year-old Killa Kela, with help from friend DJ Vadim, discovered his own talent at urban vocal percussion in 1994. Other artists worldwide stretched music boundaries with additions like vocal drum, bass and dance music, but the genre died off toward the end of the millennium.
In 2000, Rahzel, a member of The Roots, resurrected the sound with the release of Make the Music, bringing beatboxing into the mainstream. Rahzel conquered the art of simultaneously singing and beatboxing in his cover of Aaliyah’s song “If Your Girl Only Knew.”
Corporately backed Beatbox Alliance settled the genre into the commercial hip-hop scene and in 2002, Beatboxer Entertainment became the first agency dedicated to human vocal percussion. Even mainstream artists Justin Timberlake, Bjork and Daniel Beddingfield utilize the beatbox form.
In 2003, A-Plus (founder of humanbeatbox.com) promoted the genre’s first International Human Beatbox Convention in London. The event attracted attendees from North America, Europe and Australia. The opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games featured beatboxing, solidifying its international appeal.
In 2005 in Leipzig, Germany, the first ever beatboxing world championships pulled in participants from around the world. Joel Turner, the first world champion, competed an extra round before judges could narrow down the field to a winner.
Dana Griffin has written for a number of guides, trade and travel periodicals since 1999. She has also been published in "The Branson Insider" newspaper. Griffin is a CPR/first-aid instructor trainer for the American Red Cross, owns a business and continues to write for publications. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English composition from Vanguard University.