By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
On the cultural oddity scale, human beatboxing ranks somewhere between spoon playing and unicycle riding--the stupid human trick of hip hop. It's also, some would say, the culture's fifth element--after DJing, MCing, break dancing, and graffiti writing. But while turntablists are busy challenging the quarter-century dominance of the MC, beatboxers remain the ostracized cousins in hip hop's family tree--fart-sound-making rednecks to the DJs' downtown-hipster types.
With this in mind, perhaps, Rahzel M. Brown has sought to do for his huffing-and-puffing comrades what Mixmaster Mike and others have done for DJs. Just as turntablists take pains to describe their pastime as an "art form," Rahzel refers to himself as a "vocal percussionist" in his bio. He wants to be taken seriously--not as some glorified version of that funny-noise-making dude in the Police Academy movies. Last year the Roots member released Make the Music 2000 (MCA), a solo debut that sounds almost stern for an album named after a song by clown prince of hip hop Biz Markie. Rahzel's clench-fisted, steely-eyed delivery on some tracks is more Rakim than the Biz, more Bob Newhart than (Rappin') Rodney Dangerfield. And given Rahzel's reputation for stuffing a whole studio into his larynx--a talent he'll bring to First Avenue on Tuesday--it's no shock that the most exciting moments on Make are the live interludes between studio numbers.
There were plenty of human beatboxes before Rahzel, of course (locals will tip their tams to Truth Maze). But no one put phlegm skills in the underground's limelight like the Roots with their emergence in the mid-Nineties. Rahzel gained wider notoriety from 1997's Soulful Fruit compilation (Stones Throw Records), which featured the MC squaring off against turntablist Rob Swift (the match sounded like a kazoo dueling a musical saw). But Make was the first solo album by anyone selling himself primarily as a beatbox--unlike, say, Doug E. Fresh or the Fat Boys, who gathered under the proverbial lamppost to master wacky, pomo, inner-city doo-wop roughly 17 years ago.
Rahzel's creative kin might have been immune from the legal hassles endemic to mechanical beat-jackers. Yet human beatboxing was once responsible for generating the weirdest hip-hop-related legal decision in history--much better than the time a judge invoked the Seventh Commandment to rule against the Biz for sampling Gilbert O'Sullivan's 1973 hit "Alone Again (Naturally)." In 1988 the Fat Boys sued Miller Beer for copyright infringement when the company hired Joe Piscopo to dress up like the former Disco Three, "rap," and perform human beatbox noises for a TV ad. The judge sided with the corpulent three (though Piscopo and Miller should also have been prosecuted for crimes against humanity). In one of the most unintentionally funny summary judgments ever written, the court stated, "A jury could find that the 'Hugga Hugga' and 'Brrr' sounds, used as lyrics in the copyrighted work, are sufficiently creative to warrant copyright protection."
Acolytes take note, though: Beatboxing can be hazardous to your health. Just before Darren "Buff" Robinson died in 1996, the Fat Boys' hefty human beatbox was reportedly standing on top of a chair entertaining friends with his skills. He strained too hard and apparently "Hugga Hugga"-ed his heart out. Today singles like "Human Beat Box" and "Stick Em" are towering pillars of pop-music weirdness. We'll never know what other sorts of tricks Robinson had up his, um, throat.