The superhuman community of beatboxers

we speak music beatboxing community

“What lessons are there in the voice and how can it actually affect our everyday life?”

That is the question being posed throughout We Speak Music, a six-episode documentary series presented by Nokia Bell Labs and starring world-class beatboxer and artist Harry Yeff, also known as Reeps One.

Yeff, an artist-in-residence at Nokia Bell Labs’ Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) program, travelled around the world to explore the capabilities of the human voice, connect with the global beatboxing community and discover the history of beatboxing.

In the first episode, we’re introduced to Yeff as the successful beatboxer Reeps One. He sings and beatboxes to a large audience while on a grand stage backed by a choir — but it wasn’t always that way. Yeff takes the viewer on a tour of the East London neighborhood where he grew up and speaks about how he began beatboxing in the first place. “You have to be bored before you start experimenting like that,” he says.

That boredom led him to start entering competitions, performing on stages and post videos of himself online. Through this underground art form, Yeff found a community and a connection to his audience.

The second episode begins in New York, where beatboxing originated through its hip hop roots. We’re introduced to Rahzel, nicknamed “The Godfather of Noize” and who is credited with bringing beatboxing to a mainstream audience. We meet the Beatbox House, a collective of artists creating music and experimenting with new techniques. If you’ve never seen a beatbox jam session, you’re in for a treat.

“I’m hearing things I’ve never heard before. As a musician and as a beatboxer, that’s what you want.”

From there, Yeff travels to Switzerland for an event that showcases the best beatboxing talent around. “It’s inspiring,” says Yeff, “and the skill level has gotten so high like, I’m hearing things I’ve never heard before. As a musician and as a beatboxer, that’s what you want. That’s like the lifeblood of this thing.”

The art of beatboxing came to Europe from the U.S. and from there it spread to Asia, which now has the largest beatboxing community in the world. Beatboxing is all vocal, yet it transcends language. All these people come from different cultures and speak different languages, yet they’re able to understand each other through music and feeling.

As mouth music, it hovers between speech and song. As spontaneous invention, it is instantly creative, automatic and unrestrained.

Michael Atherton
Rhythm Speak: Mnemonic, Language Play or Song? (2007).

In their article, Characteristics of the beatboxing vocal style, Stowell and Plumbley wrote, “Beatboxers learn to produce sounds to match the sound patterns they aim to replicate, attempting to overcome linguistic patternings.” Artists are constantly creating new sounds and developing new techniques, meaning that we still don’t know the full capabilities of the human voice. Through beatboxing, an opportunity arises to study the voice as it’s never been studied before, with the help of beatboxers, scientists, engineers, and linguistic experts.

Watch all the episodes of We Speak Music here.

Episode 3: New Frontiers premieres on March 16, 2019.

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