Welcome to Know Your History, your monthly dose of hip-hop knowledge. Today we are going to explore the fifth element of hip-hop, the art of beatboxing.
Beatboxing joined the culture of hip-hop quite early. It can’t be credited to a single person, however. Much like graffiti, it sprung up quickly and we’re not exactly sure where the credit needs to go.
Beatboxing is, quite literally, the art of making music with your mouth. We’re not talking about singing. We’re not talking about rapping. We’re talking about making music, using our mouth to make the accompaniment.
Beatboxers use their mouth, lips, tongue, and voice to create musical sounds such as drum kits and any other kind of accompanying music you can think of.
Where did the term beatboxing come from?
Back in the 1970s there were pre-programmed drum machines. These drum machines provided loops for musicians to use instead of having to rely on a live drummer. You’ve probably heard of some of these machines. They are quite famous and have been mentioned in several hip-hop songs. People referred to these drum machines as their “beatbox.”
The TR-808 came out in 1982 and is probably the most notable beatbox for all of hip-hop culture. However, these beatbox machines had been around since the 70s.
When people started to emulate these beatbox machines by making percussion sounds with their mouths, people referred to them as beatboxers.
When it comes to beatboxing there are three pioneers whose names will come up time and time again; The Fat Boys, Doug E Fresh, and Biz Markie. Any show on beatboxing would not be complete without these three names.
Let’s hear some Doug E Fresh right now. He released the “The Show” and “La Di Da Di” as a Double A-side, which is unusual because records usually came with an A-side and a B-side. He also featured a relatively unknown emcee at the time who went by the name of Ricky D. We all know him now by his moniker, Slick Rick.
I’m going to play “La Di Da Di” right now but stay tuned as we will be exploring what beatboxing is, why it’s an art, and the importance it serves in hip-hop culture.
That was Doug E Fresh and The Get Fresh Crew “La Di Da Di.” A lot of younger cats will be familiar with the Snoop Dogg version of that song which unfortunately didn’t use beatboxing. But it did bring a whole new level of attention to Doug E Fresh and Slick Rick, which was really cool to see. It made people really want to listen to the original track.
The fact that Snoop did a cover song is pretty interesting too because cover songs are quite rare in hip-hop. We will be discussing cover songs in a future episode of Know Your History.
Doug E Fresh made his first appearance as a beatboxer in 1983. He was in the film Beat Street in 1984 alongside Treacherous 3. He has a distinct click-roll in his beatbox repertoire.
What sounds make up beatboxing?
There are four basic sounds in beatboxing
- The “puh” sound – imitates the bass or kickdrum
- The “th” sound – imitates high hat or cymbals
- The “k” sound – is the snare drum
- Hum – adds a bassline to the pattern
Those are the four main sounds you need to make a drum pattern, complete with a bassline.
When you put all of four of those sounds together with good timing, you’ve got a beatbox like you are a drum machine.
You can also imitate sounds that a DJ can make on a turntable. You can add some vocal scratching to the mix as well.
Let’s play some Fat Boys right now, listen to what they can do with the art of the beatbox, and we’ll be right back.
That was the Fat Boys, a trio from Brooklyn. Buff Luv, aka the Human Beatbox was doing the vocal percussion in that song. His unique style incorporated breathing into his sounds. He would breath in and out heavily to make that “Huh-a-huh-a-huh” sound.
Buffy would make sounds as he was breathing. This is something that modern beatboxers have really taken into form. Earlier I talked about the four basic sounds you can do. When I beatbox using those sounds, I need to stop and breathe.
Modern beatboxers don’t take time out to breathe. They make sure than any intake breath is also a sound in their routine. They make a constant barrage of sounds in two different ways. They sound out patterns like we do when we speak but they also breathe in to create other sounds so they don’t need to stop.
I’m simply not going to have enough time to cover everything that I’d like to about beatboxing in this one half hour episode of Know Your History. I do need to touch on the three pioneers of the form though. I’ve already played Doug E Fresh and the Fat Boys, I have to play Biz Markie next.