Beatboxing makes a return

Like underground cousins breakdancing and graffiti, Beatboxing is back. Chris Mugan meets the genre's new generation of artists

London's Queen Elizabeth Hall plays host to an array of talent, from orchestras through folk outfits to cutting-edge electronica. And now it has found space for a musical form that further stretches its boundaries - beatboxing.

This is the skill that involves replicating drums, bass-lines and turntable scratching using just a set of vocal chords. Along with graffiti and breakdancing, it has been an integral part of hip-hop since its early days, when beatboxers provided a foundation for rappers' rhymes in off-the-cuff freestyle battles.

But with hip-hop now largely synonymous with SUVs, jewellery and movie vehicles, beatboxing disappeared into the background.

However, in recent years the vocal style has undergone a renaissance. Just as graffiti artists now show in galleries and breakdancers perform at Sadler's Wells, "boxing" is set to make its debut at one of London's most prestigious venues. Rather than be repackaged as an art form for mainstream consumption, this is a movement that has emerged from the underground. Even better, it's a UK-led phenomenon.

One of the world's most high profile boxers, Killa Kela, is set to release an album on Sony later this year, preceded by the single "Secrets" next month. Kela stands out among the new generation of boxers. He combines singing with vocal percussion, and performs in genres beyond hip hop, notably R&B and drum and bass. He dubs his innovative style "multivocalism".

"I had to shake off the stigma of beatboxing as a gimmick and sound effect, I wanted it to be treated musically," he said. "So I made it a Killa Kela live show rather than a one-off segment." Kela made his reputation outside boxing circles with help from backing group-cum-collective Spit Kingdom. His gigs are kaleidoscopic affairs where he performs with a singer, an MC, a funk group and even a string quartet.

"I had interest from labels early on, but they were into the gimmick. So I set up my own team that fuelled itself," he said. He has since made an impact in the US - The Roots appear on his album, and he has a celebrity fan in stellar producer and solo star Pharrell Williams. Kela supported Williams's band NERD on tour in the UK and US, ever since he ambushed the American star at a soundcheck.

"I hid behind the stage at the [London] Astoria for five hours until he came. Then I just jumped out and did my thing on the mike. It's gone on from there, really. But in the States, no one has seen anyone like me, because I've got a European flavour, I'm a bit Bjork-y, a bit different."

Kela's challenge now is how to transfer his vibrant live performances to disc. "There's still a long way to go. It's difficult to put across on record what you're trying to do and adapt to other kinds of music."

Kela is keen to distance himself from boxing's "freakshow" image. But in concentrating more on his singing voice, he could lose what makes him distinctive.

Kela is not alone. The new wave of boxers includes Shlomo, founder of beatbox agency All From The Mouth, who has worked on Bjork's all-vocal Mellulah album and also appeared on Later With Jools Holland.

Another boxer is Rahzel, who also raps in The Roots, a US outfit that has done more than anyone to keep alive the idea of live hip hop.

"Rahzel was really important because he combined vocals and beats," Shlomo said. "Until then, boxing was in the background, behind the rappers, but Rahzel brought it to the front of the stage."

Now, though, he complains Rahzel has been doing the same thing for 10 years, and says it's time for a new generation to take boxing in a different generation.

"With Rahzel, boxing is still a freak show, a way to make people's jaws drop. That's an achievement in itself, but it's not enough. We want to do something more musical."

So Shlomo has gone back behind the drums. For his solo show, he aims to lay down a beat with sticks, then use his mouth to provide bass-lines, strings and percussion. "I want to go from making party tracks to making music."

One of the boxers Shlomo recruited for the Queen Elizabeth Hall line-up is precocious teenager Faith SFX, winner of last year's inaugural UK Beatbox Championships. He believes there is still life in the vocal/beats mix.

Hailing from north west London, Faith was again inspired by Rahzel - and people closer to home. "Two of my uncles were into beatboxing, but I only took it seriously when I went on the internet and found out about the people that created it. Now I recreate whole songs live, which no one has really done before. If you listen to other boxers' albums, they use instruments."

Faith's first record is to be called All Mouth. He has also performed with jazz saxophonist Denys Baptiste and stole the show at the BBC Philharmonic's grime project "Urban Classics", with his version of soulster Ginuwine's seduction song "Pony".

Hip-hop has been an important influence on this generation of performers. But while the top end of the hip-hop scene is dominated by stars more interesting for their spending habits than music, underground styles like beatboxing continue to push the music forward.

'Beyond Beatboxing', QEH, London SE1 (0870 405 6666), 19 March

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