Beatboxing is a form of vocal percussion considered the “fifth element” of hip hop culture, along with DJing, MCing, graffiti, and breakdance. One of the biggest names in beatboxing today is preeminent master Rahzel, whose artistry has redefined the limits of the human voice.
Examples of the voice as an instrument are widespread in the African diaspora; as a 20th-century African American tradition, beatboxing can be traced to scat singing in early jazz and masterful vocal imitations of instruments à la the Mills Brothers. First emerging from working-class African American communities in New York City in the late 1970s, beatboxing exemplifies the hip hop philosophy of creating meaningful artistic expressions with limited resources. Beatbox artists use their voices to mimic the sounds of the drum machine and the record turntable—and horns, string instruments, and much more. The art form spread rapidly in the early 1980s, when performers like Doug E. Fresh, the self-proclaimed first “human beatbox,” took the art form national.
Known as “the Godfather of Noyze,” Rahzel was a youngster growing up in Queens when hip hop hit big. His cousin, Rahiem, was an original member of the Furious Five, and Rahzel recalls sneaking into their shows, “watching Grandmaster Flash before I could even see over the gate.” Rahzel embraced the philosophy that “‘not having’ was never an excuse for ‘not doing.’” “Economically, everyone doesn’t have instruments,” Rahzel explains. “You have to create that ambience, you have to create those instruments.” Hanging out with friends, he says, “I was the one who made the beats with my mouth. I worked hard so that if you closed your eyes you would swear that you were hearing a record, a radio, or a band.” The lesson stuck, and his fame grew: “To me, [beatboxing] saves lives and I’m a prime example of it. It inspires kids to be creative and motivated.”
Through both his solo work and his stint with the live-music hip hop group The Roots, Rahzel is credited with bringing beatboxing back to the fore of hip hop in the 1990s. He can sing a chorus and beatbox the back-up simultaneously, an astounding skill showcased on his signature song, “If Your Mother Only Knew,” from his groundbreaking first album, 1999’s Make the Music 2000. Rahzel has worked with artists from Björk to Branford Marsalis, and continues to push the limits of what a beatbox artist can create with only their lips, tongue, cheeks, and Adam’s apple.