Pick almost any piece of contemporary music, and you can track the influence of the vocal styling, bridge structure, rhythm, instrumentation, or melody back in time to a starting point. Once you've listened to enough music, even a non-professional fan can hear the sonic history that moves backwards through the decades from, say, Lorde to Led Zepplin, back to early rock and roll, and then to American blues, which is a direct aural descendent from mixed and layered west African and Native American musical traditions. Start with your favorite movie soundtrack (I love Last of the Mohicans) and end up in an Anglo Saxon church in the year 1,000.
But beatboxing is the opposite; instead of a direct line from origination in some country or culture that moved through time to its present incarnation, beatboxing has, in a sense, always existed. Certainly vocal percussion (which is the loosest definition for beatboxing) can be found in the music and performative histories of cultures as diverse as Scotland (puirt a beul, or Scottish mouth music); China (kouji); India (bol); scat singing in jazz, and various African musical traditions from different parts of the continent. Vocal percussion has popped up as an addition to music or performance independently any number of times.
Today, beatboxing is considered integral—one of the key elements— of hip-hop, and that's from where its current form has arisen. Artists like Doug E. Fresh brought it to wider audiences in the 1980s, calling it beatboxing after the term for drum machines (beatboxes) and was first differentiated from those machines by being called human beatboxing.
The sounds made with the mouth (and sometimes the mouth and the hand or hands) have expanded from those of the beatbox in the 80s and now include a variety of sounds beyond beats, including but not limited to: simulation of musical instruments like horns, violin, bass guitar and others; turntable/record scratching sounds; singing—usually short samples like those found in hip-hop or electronic music; voices, including children and babies; animal noises like an elephant call; and other assorted dings, bleats, rings, bleeps and sounds from everyday life (like a subway door alert or car horn). In the video above, world-class beatboxer Thom Thumb shows off many of these techniques.
For a more basic introduction to beatboxing check out this fun competition between Butterscotch (an America's Got Talent finalist); Lucky Monkey, a newer beatboxer; and.... Tyra Banks? Yup, turns out the model-turned-talk-show-host knows her way around a vocal beat, and her shows off the challenge she set for herself in high school.
Learning how to beatbox is low-cost and requires more time than innate talent; as Andrew Gutterson points out in the video below, all you need is your mouth/voice and maybe a glass of water (to keep your mouth from drying out) to practice with—one of the points of getting good at beatboxing is that you could eventually imitate any musical instrument you'd like to.
Like any talent or musical instrument, beatboxing requires practice, and lots of it. In the video above, Gutterson covers the most basic beatboxing sounds, including the throat bass, the inward snare, the outward snare, the hi-hat, and more. These are the foundations of beatboxing, and should be learned, practiced and perfected first, before moving onto more difficult sounds. Breaking it down even further, the first four sounds you will make in beatboxing are:
The Kick-Drum: Say the letter "b"—but you want to make it louder and more explosive sounding than when you are speaking. So, keeping your lips closed (but loose enough so that air can come through when forced, like when you blow a raspberry on a baby's belly), say a word that begins with "b," and then cut it short; I recommend checking what it's supposed to sound like in a video like one of those above, then trying it various ways until you get close. You may want to watch more than one instructional video since everyone's lip/teeth/tongue set up is a little different—this leads to different sounds and the abilty for anyone to make totally unique sounds.
The Hi-Hat: This seems the easiest move for the novice to get; simply bring your front teeth almost together, then make a 'ts' sound (like a th and an s close together), while exhaling through your teeth.
The Snare Drum: Also fairly straightforward for the novice, this sound is made from saying the "p" sound, but louder and, like the Kick-Drum, with loose lips, so that the air pushes through percussively.
Once you have even two of these sounds down, you can start stringing them together to create a beat. You'll notice that contorting your mouth to get the desired sounds above might also lead you to randomly discover another sound automatically; go ahead and add that to your combination, since it's something your mouth/breath/voice is doing easily—why not? While the basics of beatboxing are pretty set in stone, more advanced sounds and techniques are pretty individual; since you are 'playing' your body and not a musical instrument, everyone's is going to be different.
If you do better with reading directions rather than listening to a video, check out more of the beatboxing sounds well-described (and illustrated) here.
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