I’m a longtime closeted beatboxer. I do it while walking around, doing household tasks, in the shower, pretty much anywhere except in front of other people. My wife is remarkably tolerant of it, bless her, and my infant son has no choice but to listen to me do it. I don’t expect to ever beatbox for audiences, but I still fascinating and delightful. It’s simultaneously modern and ancient — imitating high-tech drum machines, samplers and turntables, using the most ancient musical instrument of them all, the human body.
Growing up in New York City, I was exposed to a lot of beatboxing at the background level. The earliest track I can definitely point to as impacting my consciousness was “Make The Music With Your Mouth, Biz” by the great Biz Markie.
Thompson, Tok. Beatboxing, Mashups, and Cyborg Identity: Folk Music for the Twenty-First Century. Western Folklore, Spring 2011, 71-193.
Thompson’s provocative thesis is that folk music of the present is either produced entirely digitally, or is performed with the specific intent of imitating electronic sounds. Furthermore, the oral tradition intrinsic to folk music is now substantially taking place via the internet.
Thompson begins with a discussion of beatboxing, which began on the streetcorners of US cities, but has spread to every corner of the internet-using world, primarily via YouTube. Beatboxing may seem far afield from digital audio, since no form of music could be more “organic” or body-centered. But beatboxing began as a substitute for drum machines and samplers, and to this day, beatboxers strive to sound as much as possible like turntables, samplers and digital editing software.
Beatboxing enjoyed a brief and narrow popularity with hip-hop listeners in the 1980s, but since then it has vanished from the commercial landscape. For the most part, it is a form practiced and taught for creative gratification only. This satisfies Thompson’s requirement that a folk form be non-commrcial. While we traditionally associate folk music with specific regions, YouTube creates its own communities of shared musical vocabulary that transcend countries and continents. The best and most virtuosic beatboxer I’ve heard in many years was a young South Korean, visiting New York to busk the subways.
Today the Michael Jackson fan art I have on my mind (and on the iPod) is “Please Don’t Stop The Music,” sung by Rihanna and produced by a couple of Norwegian guys. It includes a sample of MJ singing “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” The sample includes both his quasi-Swahili chant and his unearthly woo-hoo. It runs under almost the entire song after the first minute, with dramatic filter sweeping and what sounds like some vocoder.
MJ never made a video for “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” leaving a vacuum that the fans are only too happy to fill. This video even includes footage of MJ’s video game.
This MJ song has inspired a lot of fan art, maybe because it is itself fan art. The music industry likes to send lawyers after people who make fan art, which is dumb and self-destructive on their part. No fan art, no art.