This episode was written and produced by Rob Sachs.
Beatboxing began as an imitation of a drum machine, but over the decades it has evolved as a means to emulate any number of percussive sounds. Now beatboxing is being studied by scientists who are fascinated by the vocal dexterity of artists. By examining beatboxing scientists are hoping to unlock mysteries behind language formation, brain function, and the capacity of humans to recreate sound. Featuring Hip Hop Artist and Beat Boxer, Baba Israel and USC Engineering Professor, Shri Narayanan.
MUSIC IN THIS EPISODE
Change (Instrumental) by Ruslan
Lucida by Soular Order
Flip and Beatbox by Tom Salta
Bird by Laxcity
Good Morning by Laxcity
The Disconnect by Watermark High
People of the Future by Utah
Ovals & Circles by Virgil Arles
Twenty Thousand Hertz is hosted by Dallas Taylor and produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound.
Check out Shri Narayanan and his SPAN team’s MRI videos of beatboxers at sail.usc.edu/span/beatboxingproject
View Transcript ▶︎
You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... I'm Dallas Taylor.
Hip hop has arguably been the most influential music genre of our generation.
[SFX: beatboxing continued]
And beatboxing has played a critical role. It’s an artform that’s allowed people to create and express themselves anywhere. In a party, on the street, at school. Beatboxing is free and without it, we might not have some of the music we have today.
The Beatboxer you just heard is Baba Israel.
Baba: I'm a hip-hop artist. I'm a beatboxer, an MC, Spoken word artist; I'm a theater maker, educator. I do a lot of different stuff.
Baba grew up in New York City in the 80s during the rise of hip-hop.
Baba: I have a very clear memory of listening to the radio, I remember Doug E. Fresh; his song The Show came on…
[SFX:The Show clip]
Baba: It was the first time I'd heard recorded beatboxing [SFX:The Show clip continued] and it just blew me away. I was so fascinated by it. It just had this different quality. It was so live and percussive, and it really made an impression on me.
Baba: And then soon after that, I started to encounter beatboxing in my school, in my elementary school and there was a kid in my class who claimed to be Doug E. Fresh's cousin. This was never confirmed, but he could do the clicks like Doug E. Fresh so I hung out with him and he started to teach me a little bit about beatboxing.
Beatboxing in the way we think about it didn’t really appear out of nowhere. It was really a mimicking of a famous drum machine.
Baba: With the development of the TR-808 and the 909 and these drum machines, which were the slang term at that time was beatbox.
[SFX: TR-808 Clip]
The Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer came out in 1980. And it’s become incredibly iconic.
Baba: So in that song where they say "Flash is on the beatbox"...
[SFX: Grandmaster Flash Clip]
Baba: It's not actually talking about beatboxing, he's talking about the drum machine. That kind of shifted things. It allowed people to produce and create their own music without a full recording studio or without a full band.
The original 808 was discontinued in 1983, but revolutionized the sound of Hip Hop.
Baba: I think in hip-hop, it became center stage. It was really about beats and rhymes. There really wasn't the same emphasis on melody as hip-hop began to progress.
The beat was the driving force, the 808 had a lot of tone to it, particularly the bass drum, which is endured today.
[SFX: 808 Clip]
For example, here’s Afrika Bambaata’s song “Planet Rock”
[SFX: Planet Rock Clip, “Rock Rock Planet Rock, don’t stop.”]
Baba: You hear so much bass and there's less focus on chords or on melodic lines.
[Planet Rock Clip, “Everybody say Rock it don’t stop it, Rock it don’t stop it.”]
Baba: It was about creating a foundation for a rapper to tell their story or brag or in the message, give a break down about what's going on in the neighborhood, in the Bronx or wherever it might be.
The 808 drum machine became a huge influence on the sound of Hip Hop and this led to people trying to recreate the rhythms and sounds of the machine with their voices.
[SFX: 808 drum beat]
Baba: I always think that's one of the most fascinating things about beatboxing is it's one of the first times that drum machines were imitating drums and human beings were imitating machines, imitating drums. How can I make myself sound like a machine? How can I become a beatbox?" And that's evolved the term "human beatboxing," which was the original term.
But why bother imitating a machine? A drum machine in theory should always stay in exact tempo. Baba says while drum machines were great - they also had limitations.
Baba: Well I think the thing about hip-hop is it's a culture that doesn't just exist in studios and nightclubs. It's a street culture, it's a public culture. Like a lot of my early experience with beatboxing was not doing shows, it was in ciphers.
[SFX: Baba Beatboxing]
A cypher is a usually a circle or informal gathering of beatboxers, rappers, dancers and other various artists. It allows people to freestyle and express themselves artistically in some form.
[SFX: Baba Beatboxing continued]
Baba: After the show finished 10, 15 people would gather up in a circle outside of the club, and a cipher would jump off. The drum machines didn't have portable speakers. You didn't always necessarily always have access to electricity. Part of I think why beatboxing was important was that it allowed hip-hop to manifest outside of space that required technology, electronics. It allowed that sort of street culture to come to life.
Baba: I'm sure there was also an economic element. I think there is something that's very universal and accessible about beatboxing. There's no economic barrier to it.
Even professional artists who could afford the technology and a recording studio still found value in beatboxing.
Baba: It's always like a plan B. I've been in so many situations where something goes wrong with the DJ equipment. There was a show many, many years ago where Afrika Bambaata was DJing
[SFX: Afrika Bambaataa - Zulu Nation]
Baba: And all of a sudden his turntable stopped working,
Baba: I knew some of the folks who were promoting the night and said, "Look, I'll jump up there." I bought them time [SFX: beatboxing]. I did a beatbox set and kept the energy going, and then the DJ said it kicked in again. So, I think there's a lot of stories of beatboxers saving the day because stuff happens. Turntables go wrong, computers crash, and beatboxing is always there.
As the artform grew, beatboxing became more than just a backup or a replacement for drum machines. Innovations pushed it to become a performance art in its own right. Baba points to beatboxing pioneers such as Biz Markie.
[SFX: Biz Markie Clip]
Or the Fat Boys.
[SFX: Fat Boys Clip]
Baba: Beatboxing was like this specialized flavor. It made a record stand out. It made your live show more interesting.
Rahzel from The Roots was another huge innovator for beatboxing.
Baba: He was one of the first beatboxers that I saw really interact with a live band when he started doing shows with The Roots, and they developed all kinds of great routines together.
[SFX: Rahzel Clip]
Baba: When I saw him I realized that things had moved to a new level because his drums sounded different, they didn't just sound like a drum machine, they sounded like a live drum kit. He sounded like a funk drummer; he was making baselines, adding baselines to the beats, he was adding melodies, he was adding vocal scratches, he was adding sound effects. He was combining popping movement and beatboxing and turning into a robot voice.
Baba: He was a total entertainer.
[SFX: Rahzel Beatboxing Clip]
The influence of artists like Rahzel has evolved beatboxing and allowed it thrive to this day. We are now living in a time where it has even expanded way beyond Hip Hop.
One of the biggest forum for beatboxing is overseas.
Baba: I think, probably the largest battle in the world, it takes place in Berlin.
It’s called the Beatbox World Championship and it takes place every three years. Here’s French Beatboxer known has Alexinho won the male competition.
[SFX: Alexinho beatboxing Clip]
Alexinho’s style of beatboxing is a great example of how the art form has branched out into other genres.
Baba: Because of the way electronic music manifests in Europe and the UK, beatboxers started moving out of the traditional hip-hop realm, and started moving into creating drum and bass and dub-step and techno [SFX: dub-step beatboxing] and now a lot of the beatboxers in Europe, sound very different.
[SFX: Codfish Vs D-Low Clip]
Baba: Some of them have a connection to a hip-hop sound, but a lot of them sound more in the electronic-dance-music kind of realm. So, it continues to evolve.
Baba has even combined beatboxing with the didgeridoo.
Baba: I lived in Australia for a while, my mother's from there, and so it's an instrument that I learned about there. And I don't have my favorite didge here, but I got one here so I'mma mess around a little bit and give you a little didge beatbox.
[SFX: Baba didgeridoo beatboxing]
For Baba, those who try to strictly define beatboxing as one thing or another are missing the point. While it’s important to know its roots, he says he’s constantly amazed not just by how universal beatboxing can be but how people can react to it in various parts of the world.
Baba: I remember one time I beatboxed in a village in Cambodia for five thousand villagers, the whole village showed up. I started beatboxing and people just were flipping out because they had never seen it. There was such a response and such energy, and as a rapper I think it would have been hard for me to spit a rhyme that would have gotten that response. I definitely found that it's a way that I can communicate just immediately and with immediacy and have an impact and whether people understand my words or not.
This ability for beatboxing to cut across language barriers is something Baba encounters all the time.
Baba: When I taught my workshop the other day I was asking whose multi-lingual because I was working in Queens which has so many different languages and everyone was pretty much multi-lingual in the class. And I said, "Well, I speak English, but I don't really speak any other languages except, I speak this one other language, and it's the language of beatbox." And then I started going, [SFX: beatboxing] and I started having a conversation with a couple of students, and they started spontaneously responding to me with rhythm, and we had these rhythm conversations. Call and response, improvisation, the oral tradition. Rhythm is a form of communication. For me, that's what excites me about beatboxing, it's not just the solo performer having the perfect sound, but it's can you interact?
Baba might be onto something when he says Beatboxing is a new language. What does it share with other languages from around the world? And how does it differ? Is this a brand new form of communication? More on that after the break.
Beatboxing has been a fundamental part of the Hip Hop culture since the 80s and since then has also expanded to other genres. It’s become an art form that can stand all on its own. Its evolved so much that some have begun studying it as if it were its own language.
Shri: Usually most song forms are in some language. You have Italian opera [SFX], and Bollywood music in Hindi [SFX], and so on. But beatboxing is has its own language of percussive sounds that they've evolved and developed.
That’s Shri Narayanan. He is an engineering professor at the University of Southern California. He works on a project called SPAN.
SPAN stands for Speech Production and Articulation Knowledge Group. It focuses on questions of speech - like why do we talk the way we do? How does speech connect to what’s happening in the brain? And what happens when something goes wrong?
Shri: One of the research groups is focused on this understanding human vocal production. How we produce speech, other sounds like non verbal sounds like how we produce laughter and cries, but also how we use this vocal instrument to modulate and convey emotions, produce song, etc. So that's what all this group is about. And then it's one of the, I'm very proud to say, leading groups in the world that does this study of the human vocal instrument with a very disciplinary angle.
As part of his research Shri started using an MRI machine to see what’s happening when people are singing. But Shri and his colleagues made an important modification to this particular machine.
Shri: What we've done is added audio recording capabilities there. If listeners are not familiar with MR scanners, they are very noisy.
For those who don’t know, this is what an MRI machine sounds like.
[SFX: MRI machine]
Shri: And so if you want to study sounds, how do you do that? So we have developed engineering methodologies to use optical microphones and new ways of audio processing to clean up this data so that we can actually listen to what people are saying, and singing, and so on.
Originally, Shri hadn’t even considered studying beatboxing. He wasn’t even aware of what a beatboxer was until he was in college.
Shri: My personal music inclinations and tendencies are more into the classical, particularly of the Indian kind, which have a lot of these kinds of common features.
[SFX: Indian Music Clip]
Shri: But not the 80s sort of beatboxing tradition that was happening here.
A variety of singers were studied using the MRI but a beatboxer ended up being of particular interest to Shri and his team.
Shri: We looked at it and we were blown away by the amazing choreography and the intricate coordination of these various vocal organs that were in play in creating these sounds which are sort of novel.
One of the topics Shri and his team were studying was to see if beatboxing shared any commonalities with other languages around the world?
So Shri and his team began recording beatboxers doing their various beats and clicks in the MRI.
[SFX: beatboxing in the MRI machine]
And what they found amazed them. Beatboxers were doing things not seen anywhere else.
Shri: We're finding things that they're producing that are not in any recorded world languages. We've seen some click rolls, and tongue doing some amazing gyrations and circus actually I didn't even know that was possible that people have somehow been able to acquire and consistently produce.
Shri and his team have carefully catalogued over 30 unique sounds with names like a closed tongue bass [SFX], a Lip bass [SFX], and an inward click roll [SFX].
Shri: The inward click roll, the tongue looks the trunk of an elephant that is curly it backwards. you're rolling your tongue backward, and it just seems amazing. I don't know how people do it.
While innovative, these sounds aren’t completely alien. Shri notes some African languages and some from South East Asia have percussive elements to them.
Shri: I speak a language called Tamil, which is a Dravidian language. We have a lot of retroflex sounds, meaning turning your tongue to back, and making sounds like “uurl”or “uur” [SFX: Tamilnadu Tourist Awards 2018] , and that's pretty complex.
Shri: But when I look at these, these completely beat all those, blow it out of the water the way the beatboxers doing.
As an example Shri points to a variation on the inward click roll, one that adds a whistle.
[SFX: Beatboxing - inward click roll with whistle]
Shri: And that's amazing, actually because you not only have to do the shaping of this tongue and so on, but you also have to create the appropriate aerodynamics to create this whistling sound right. The narrow open through which you push air with a certain velocity.
Beatboxers continue to create increasingly complex sounds. This evolution is helping Shri and his team to unlock some of the fundamental mysteries of how we communicate.
Shri: So to me, beatboxing, it's a newly acquired art form, tries to sort of emulate, or be inspired by sounds, percussive sounds particularly in the world, a lot of mechanical sounds. And people are trying to imitate and produce this. The ability to be able to translate that into action, may shed light on some novel things that may not be already present in what we have developed and evolved in producing other sounds like the ones that are found in world's languages, or other sounds that we produce for communicating other things like crying [SFX] or sighing [SFX], and so on.
Shri: And since beatboxing has a structured form to it that's evolved, it provides us a very nice framing, and potentially can give us insights into not just the physical use of this instrument, but also the underlying aspects of how we are putting this together in the brain and creating this communication ability.
Shri says beatboxing may actually have therapeutic uses for correcting speech disorders or helping someone recover after a brain injury.
Shri: Using beatboxing itself as a therapeutic means, that's actually exciting. By exercising the ability to speak well improves in Parkinson's patients. What it underscores is that they say a lot of the various movement systems that we have as humans right like movement of our limbs for mobility, movement of these tongue and other things to speak, they all have some underlying interconnections, and while training one can impact the others.
In a broader sense, because beatboxing is so unique, it’s given researchers a new window into who we are as a species.
Shri: When I see the ability of humans to tune, adapt, and innovate and improvise. That always, and continues to fascinate me from day one. what is also humbling is that still are knowledge gaps, and knowing about many of these underlying set of scientific principles and how to generalize this, so many open questions and that also continues to fascinate me. Can we make progress and advances using thoughtful science to understand humans, and hopefully support their experiences?
Even if those bigger questions are never fully answered, beatboxing has helped shape both the culture of Hip Hop as well as music around the world. It’s evolved into an art form that can’t be contained to a single genre.
Baba: It's something that's, for me, it's a daily part of my life. Whether I'm performing or not, I always beatbox. It's something that it just helps me with stress; it helps me just feel good, it's something that's inspiring for me.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound. A sound design team that makes advertising, trailers, documentaries, games… and all kinds of stuff sound incredible. Find out more at defactosound dot com.
This episode was written and produced by Rob Sachs… and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was edited, sound designed and mixed by Jai Berger.
Thanks to our guest, Baba Israel. Baba conducts a workshop throughout the year teaching people how to beatbox. Find out more about Baba’s workshops and to listen to his music, check out his website baba israel dot com.
Thanks also to Shri Narayanan. Shri runs the SPAN team at the University of Southern California and you should really check out the MRI videos they’ve made of beatboxers. You can find that link in the show description.
The music in this episode is from our friends at Musicbed. Be sure to check them out at Musicbed dot com.
Finally, you can engage with me and the rest of the 20 kay team through our website, facebook, twitter or by writing hi at 20 kay dot org.
Thanks for listening.