Beatboxing is the vocal percussion of hip hop culture and music. Considered by many to be a fifth element of hip-hop, it is primarily concerned with the art of creating beats, rhythms, and melodies using the human mouth. It can also involve singing, vocal scratching (the imitation of turntable skills), the simulation of horns, strings, and other musical instruments, and the replication of a vast array of sound effects.
What comes to mind for most people when beatboxing is mentioned is the following ubiquitus imitation of a backbeat drum pattern (in common drum set notation):
This imitates the bass (boom) and snare (chick) drums.
The words beatboxing, vocal percussion and multivocalism are sometimes used interchangeably, but originally referred to different schools with different influences, techniques, and rhythmic repertoires. Some still use the older definitions when describing the art.
Vocal percussion is more commonly associated with a cappella groups, whereas beatboxing and human beatbox are terms usually associated with hip hop or other urban music genres. Multivocalism is a relatively new term, coined by the UK's Killa Kela, to describe the collective use of beatboxing, singing, and sound imitation (fundamentally, anything vocal) used in a musical sense. The boundary between the first two has been blurred as their practitioners have informed each other, and have become graduates from both schools. Pioneering vocal percussionist and beatboxer Andrew Chaikin, aka "Kid Beyond" has discovered a space somewhere between the two that amazes some of the greatest beatboxers around.
On the streets, beatboxers serve as human beat-machines, often providing the rhythmic backbones on which MCs lay their flows. On stage, many beatboxers have, and still do, serve as human jukeboxes organizing their routines as medleys of well-known songs. As the art form has evolved, it has extended its reach to include physical theater routines, and has integrated itself into hip hop (and other forms) of theater. Beatboxers with backgrounds in vocal percussion stand in for drummers, and percussionists in theater ensembles, live bands, and other line-ups. Some beatbox into instruments, such as harmonicas (Yuri Lane) and panflutes (Radioactive), and one (Tim Barsky) has mastered doing so through a classical flute, achieving several simultaneous streams of rhythm and melody. Kid Beyond, has mastered live-looping, using computers and triggers to create songs in real-time, replete with rhythm tracks, instrumentation, and full choirs of singing.
History of beatboxing
Born in New York, the fifth element is currently experiencing a second wind that has carried the artform across the world. In 2002, the documentary "Breath Control: The History of the Human Beatbox" premiered. It is a history of the artform that includes interviews with Doug E. Fresh, Emanon, Biz Markie, Marie Daulne of Zap Mama, and others.
Beatboxing's early pioneers include Doug E Fresh, Biz Markie, and Buffy from the Fat Boys. The term 'beatboxing' is derived from the mimicry of the first generation of drum machines, then known as beatboxes.
The early eighties
The art form enjoyed a strong presence in the 1980s. Many people's introduction to the artform, and perhaps its first recording, came when Doug E Fresh and Slick Rick released "La Di Da Di". When the Fat Boys, a name that predates the use of the word "phat" (and is an accurate depiction of the crew's weight) recorded "Stick Em", the rap community and beyond celebrated Buffy's heavy-breathing style. Even today, when people make fun of beatboxing, they imitate the deceased Buffy by huffing and puffing into their hands. Perhaps, the Fat Boys' movies (such as "The Disorderlies") brought the art form to a wider audience.
The mid eighties
Other important beatboxers in the mid-'80s who followed the greats like Doug E Fresh included Greg Nice, Ready Rock C from Will Smith's crew, and The Jock Box from the comically named Skinny Boys crew.
In many ways, beatboxing fell off the radar along with breakdancing in the late '80s, and almost slipped even deeper than the underground. Though many people kept the art form alive on the streets, in ciphers, within B-boy circles, and in showers, it didn't emerge until Rahzel "the Godfather of Noyze" released "Make the Music 2000", which is the first album focused primarily on beatboxing. The title is a reference to "Make the Music With Your Mouth", one of the first recorded beatboxing tracks by the hip-hop sensation Biz Markie. Markie achieved moderate success with his single "Just A Friend", the video for which featured him wearing a 17th-century wig, playing a grand piano and singing the chorus - deliberately out-of-key.
In the mid-'90s, Rahzel proved a versatile entertainer. Not only did he help put beatboxing back onto the stage, he introduced audiences to its modern form, an impressive if not awe-inspiring combination of polyrhythms, vocal scratching, and simultaneous lines of melody, rhythm, and singing. Rahzel himself acknowledges that he combined his influences of pioneer Doug E Fresh, jazz singer Bobby McFerrin, and sound effect master Michael Winslow (of Police Academy fame) to give rise to his modern format.
On "If Your Mother Only Knew", a beatboxing "sample" of the deceased R&B singer Aaliyah, he wows an audience by singing and beatboxing simultaneously — a feat still considered difficult by the beatboxing community. On several tracks, he introduced the idea of simulating turntable scratches with his throat, something even underground beatboxers upholding the artform through the lean years hadn't even heard until the album's release.
Using his commercial appeal, he paved the way for beatboxing's migration to the center of the stage, both literally and metaphorically. In its beginning, beatboxing was relegated to the side stage, like a side show. Now, with beatboxing's increased popularity, Rahzel (who used to be the vocal DJ for The Roots, a group that repopularized live instrumentation in hip hop) began touring the country doing solo shows.
Of course, it is important to mention that many beatboxers express frustration with Rahzel getting most of the attention and being known as the best beatboxer in the world. Though many well-practiced amateur and professional beatboxers possess different levels of skill, each one brings something different to the form. As Carlo Aguirre (aka Infinite), a beatboxer and MC from San Francisco's famed Felonious says, "Each person has a different instrument."
Other well-known, seminal beatboxers whose instruments are well known throughout the international beatboxing community include the Bronx's Kenny Muhammad (also known as "Kenny X" and "The Human Orchestra"); Philadelphia's Scratch, beatboxer for the Roots; Killa Kela, one of Europe's finest, and Click Tha Supah Latin, a West Coast MC and beatboxer located in Los Angeles.
The largest interactive beatboxing community congregates on http://www.humanbeatbox.com which was created in 2002 by UK beatboxer Alex Tew (aka A-Plus). This site has greatly fuelled the recent resurgence in beatboxing by promoting the art form using the internet, and by organising the first Human Beatbox Convention which took place in April 2003. The central feature of HumanBeatbox.com is the community forums where beatboxers and non-beatboxers alike converge to share and discuss their interest in this art form.
This important resource has been a nexus for the artform's evolution, and emergence of values like inclusivity, sharing, and cooperation, which for the most part have taken a back seat the fierce Bboy stance that hip hop as a whole has assumed.
Beatboxers in different areas have used this site, and the internet in general, as a means to meet in person, forming important clusters that populate Europe and the U.S.
San Francisco Bay area
The Vowel Movement, created by Bryan Neuberg (aka "Process"), Andrew Chaikin (aka "Kid Beyond"), and Tim Barsky, is a collaborative San Francisco Bay area community that supports the art of beatboxing. It features regular showcases that emphasize sharing and inclusivity amongst its practitioners, bringing the art form to a diverse audience, and pushing the boundaries beyond the classification of hip hop.
- http://www.micism.com - mic(ism)® - sported and supported by beatboxers worldwide®
- http://www.humanbeatbox.com - Global beatbox bulletin board and forum
-  (http://184.108.40.206/~hbc/media/doug_e_fresh_slick_rick.mp3) Doug E Fresh with Slick Rick
-  (http://220.127.116.11/~hbc/media/rahzel_if_your_mother_only_knew.mp3) Rahzel "the Godfather of Noyze"
-  (http://18.104.22.168/~hbc/media/kenny_muhammad_dnb.mp3) Kenny X, D&B
-  (http://22.214.171.124/~hbc/media/rahzel_kenny_vs_skribble_slinky.mp3) Rahzel and Kenny vs. DJs Sribble and Slinky
-  (http://126.96.36.199/~hbc/media/scratch_freestyle.mp3) Scratch from the Roots
-  (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/elementary/front.htm) The indomitable Kenny Muhammad
-  (http://epicarts.org/brightriver/movies/BR%20Flute%20Beatbox.mov) Tim Barsky the Battle Flutist
-  (http://www.milkandcookies.com/links/10119) Yuri Lane on the Harp
-  (http://epicarts.org/brightriver/movies/BR%20Soldier%27s%20Story.mov) Kid Beyond and the Everyday Ensemble
-  (http://www.timbarsky.com/media/quicktimes/BeatboxArt320a.mov) Bryan Neuberg aka "Process" and the Everyday Ensemble