The art of noise: How Beardyman and his fellow beatboxers are revolutionising music

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It is simplicity itself: a microphone and the human voice. On the eve of their UK championships, Lena Corner meets the key members of the beatbox generation

All of the sounds you are about to hear," says beatboxer Shlomo, striding across the stage at London's Southbank Centre, "come from my mouth." It may sound obvious, but when he segues seamlessly between snippets of Missy Elliott, Michael Jackson and the White Stripes, it's probably worth pointing out that there's no trickery involved.

He shows us how it's done. First he makes a drum's high-hat sound by producing whispered "T" noises and feeds it into his loop sampler. Then he adds a bass line by making a low humming sound in his throat. Building up "instruments" layer upon layer in this way, it's a matter of moments before a song emerges. "For a long time I saw beatboxing as a way of showing off," he says. "Then I realised it isn't a party trick or a gimmick, it's a way of making real music."

Traditionally, beatboxing is considered to be the fifth element of hip-hop (along with breakdancing, MCing, graffiting and DJing), but the one that is most overlooked. ' Done properly, the inhuman sounds that the body is capable of producing are mind-boggling.

When hip-hop exploded on the streets of New York in the early 1980s, beatboxers were considered the poor man's alternative – these were the guys who couldn't afford turntables and so had nothing but their mouths to improvise with. Pioneers such as Doug E Fresh, the Fat Boys and Biz Markie had their moment in the spotlight, but by around the mid-1980s, when hip-hop became commercialised, beatboxing disappeared. "It died a death," says beatbox teacher Gavin Tyte. "There was a whole generation that grew up in the 1990s who didn't even know what it is, simply because it didn't exist."

Then, slowly, things began to change. In 1999, the American beatboxer Rahzel (known as "the Godfather of Noyze") put out a record called "If Your Mother Only Knew". It sounded like he was doing the impossible – singing and making beats at the same time. The record flew off the shelves and isolated pockets of beatbox fans began to emerge. Then, in 2002, a beatboxer called Mark Splinter organised a meeting in St James's Park in the shadow of Buckingham Palace. A handful of beatboxers turned up to compete for the title King of the Jam. The crown was given to a young beatboxer from Leeds called Arro, who was awarded a small pot of raspberry jam for his efforts. It's a meeting that has gone down in legend – the beatbox equivalent of the Sex Pistols' 1976 concert in Manchester's Free Trade Hall.

But it was the internet that really turned things around for beatboxing. In 2001, beatboxer Alex Tew (who performs under the name A-Plus) registered the domain name Beatboxing.co.uk and, one by one, beatboxers from around the world began to realise that they weren't alone. "I was the third person to register," says Gavin Tyte (aka TyTe), "and all of a sudden it just got bigger and bigger. It's been growing exponentially ever since."

In 2004, Björk used beatboxers on her album Medúlla and even Justin Timberlake had a go. Then, in 2006, Darren Foreman (aka Beardyman) started the Battle Jam beatbox night with his friend JFB in Brighton. It's since become one of the most successful nights in the city and has had to move venue twice to accommodate the crowds. When Battle Jam comes to London's live music venue Cargo once a month, queues regularly stretch round the block. "Battle Jam is all about removing the distinction between audience and performer," Beardyman says.

In 2007, Jim Wilde (aka Archangel) took over the Beatboxing.co.uk website (now called humanbeatbox.com). At the time there were 30,000 members; today, there are 56,000. "The UK," says Wilde, "is now the centre of the world's beatbox scene." This year, for the first time, the final of the Vauxhall UK Beatbox Championships, this Saturday, has had to move to London's Shepherd's Bush Empire in order to accommodate the huge demand for tickets.

Nowadays, all good beatboxers sing and make beats at the same time and, because the sounds are so sophisticated, originality is key. "One of the main misconceptions of beatboxing," says Wilde, "is that it's something kids do – blowing raspberries etc. But you only have to watch someone like Beardyman on YouTube to realise there is a great musicality to it."

"I think the only musical instrument not to have been fully explored is the human voice," he concludes. "It's the next musical explosion. How do you get more directly into music than thinking a sound and then letting it come directly out of your body?" n

The final of this year's Vauxhall UK Beatbox Championships is on Saturday at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, London W12 (tel: 020 8354 3300, www.vauxhallbeatboxchamps.co.uk)

Beardyman

Name: Darren Foreman
Age: 27
Known as: The Entertainer: uses technology as well as comedy and props to create classic beatbox shows

Two years ago, Beardyman posted a video on YouTube of himself doing a spoof cookery show using beats as his ingredients. Entitled "The Kitchen Diaries", it got 3.5m hits and quickly entered the realms of YouTube legend. "I had people coming up to me all over the place going 'You're that guy beatboxing in the kitchen.' It made me realise how powerful YouTube is."

But Beardyman is far more than a one-off novelty act. He has been beatboxing as long as he can remember: "I did it at nursery but kept it to myself so people didn't look at me like I was weird."

A turning point came when he was at university in Brighton, where he discovered that technology could help him create the sounds he was searching for. "Every advance in computing has a direct impact on my performance," he says.

He is also the archetypal showman; equally at home at a drum'n'bass rave or slick corporate gig. Often, he will start a show with no idea what he is going to do, and build up a rapport with his audience before deciding.

It's an ethos he's bringing to London's Southbank Centre next month for two shows called Complete and Udder Shambles in which he and some of his friends are planning to freestyle in front of an audience.

Also in July, Beardyman will make the crossover to primetime TV, providing the music for the "Name That Tune" round of BBC1's new celebrity quiz show As Seen on TV. And next year he'll finally get around to releasing his first album. "It's going to surprise people how experimental it is," he says. "You've got to keep innovating or what's the point?"

For 'Complete and Udder Shambles': www.southbank centre.co.uk). 'As Seen on TV' will be on BBC1, Fridays, at 8.30pm, from mid-July

Bellatrix

Name: Belle Ehresmann
Age: 20
Known as: The Musician: is studying at London's prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama

"It is a bit of an addiction," says one of the UK's few female beatboxers. "I first heard my friend Duke Box doing it when I was about 15 and I haven't stopped since."

As an accomplished musician – she plays coronet and is studying jazz double bass – Bellatrix's approach to beatboxing comes from a distinctly classical background. "Because I'm a musician in training," she says, "I'm doing music all day every day. Whether beatboxing or double bass, one affects the other."

Bellatrix has recently returned from Berlin, where she was crowned the best female beatboxer in the world and awarded a golden microphone. "I choose not to make a big deal out the whole woman thing," she says. "Beatboxing is dominated by men and that's just a fact. All the guys I work with are always really supportive and, actually, as a woman, it's nice to be able to surprise people and show people we can do it too."

Recently, Bellatrix got together with four jazz-singer friends, also studying at Guildhall, and formed a female a capella group called The Boxettes. "They are all incredible singers and very different," she says. "We have this chemistry between us so it works really well. They're all learning how to beatbox, so now it's turning into a female beatbox quintet."

With a busy calendar of festival performances and double-bass exams lined up, Bellatrix plans to spend her time flitting between both disciplines. "Playing the bass and doing The Boxettes are my priorities. In both, I just want to be the best musician I can possibly be."

The Boxettes are playing at Ronnie Scott's (London W1, tel: 020 7439 0747) tonight

MC Zani

Name: Dean Hosenie
Age: 23
Known as: The Champion: MC Zani is the current UK Beatbox Champion

MC Zani's beatboxing career started in the genteel environs of deepest Surrey. His Filipino parents moved to Sutton before he was born and, as a young rapper and MC, Zani spent his early years performing with garage band AUN on the glamorous Epsom/Croydon circuit. Then, at the ripe old age of 14, Zani had an epiphany.

"I heard [American beatbox pioneer] Rahzel's single 'If Your Mother Only Knew'. The reason it's so amazing is that he was singing and beatboxing at the same time. Back then, no one was doing that."

Zani decided to have a go himself. "Anyone can beatbox but it does help if you have a good sense of rhythm," he says. "I play the drums, so I already knew exactly what patterns I wanted to make."

Zani practised in his bedroom and soon started incorporating short elements of beatboxing into a pirate-radio show he was working for. Before long he was being booked for gigs.

"I'm pretty versatile," he says. "I guess it's not surprising; I'm half-Filipino and half-Mauritian with a Muslim father and a Catholic mother. I cover all types and genres of music."

He's also highly political. When he plays with the hip-hop collective Fulle Blunt, no subject is too controversial. "We talk about anything from Iraq to disenfranchised kids in the UK."

Zani has now moved to east London and for the past two years has been beatboxing full time. He has collaborated with Taio Cruz, Jay Sean and Shlomo and supported Sean, Missy Elliott, Ludacris and Akon. He also still finds time to give lessons to kids at the Beatbox Academy in London's Battersea Arts Centre. "I just want to mix it up and do a little bit of everything," he says. "Beatboxing is no longer a gimmick but recognised worldwide as a real art form."

www.myspace.com/mczani

Shlomo

Name: Shlomo Kahn
Age: 25
Known as: The Collaborator: has worked with numerous musicians and is leader of the Vocal Orchestra

In 2002, Shlomo moved from his Buckinghamshire home to study astrophysics at Leeds. "Two weeks into my course, I was spotted beatboxing outside a nightclub by the manager of hip-hop group Foreign Beggars," he says. "So I put the astrophysics to one side and set off on a world tour."

Since then Shlomo, a classically trained drummer and percussionist, has taken beatboxing and turned it into an art form. He is currently artist in residence at London's Southbank Centre and has collaborated with the likes of Damon Albarn, Martha Wainwright and Jarvis Cocker as well as Björk. "I got a voicemail from her saying: 'I'm doing this album and wondered if you wanted to do a track.' I thought it was a joke." The resulting song was heard by 4.5bn people when Björk used it in her performance at the Athens Olympic Games opening ceremony.

In 2007, Shlomo created the Vocal Orchestra – a group of singers and beatboxers who improvise live on stage. He has just entered The Guinness Book of Records for bringing together more than 200 performers to create the largest beatbox choir ever.

Next year, the Southbank Centre has commissioned him to do a piece with classical composer Anna Meredith called "Concerto for Beatboxers and Orchestra". For it, Shlomo plans to invent a way of writing a score he can post on the internet so all beatboxers have a format for musical notation.

"I do so many things," he says, "but I just want it all to be ground-breaking. I want the audience to come away thinking they've just found out about a new art form."

Shlomo and the Vocal Orchestra play Glastonbury on 27 June (www.shlo.co.uk)

TyTe

Name: Reverend Gavin Tyte
Age: 37
Known as: The Teacher: associate vicar and community worker at St Michael's Parish Church, Bath. Prolific beatbox teacher

TyTe was eight years old when he got into beatboxing. "My dad bought a reel-to-reel tape machine," he says, "and I started making drum sounds into it." This was in the late 1970s, shortly before the first beatbox records started coming out of New York. "When I heard Doug E Fresh and the Fat Boys I was like, 'Wow, I'm already doing this.'"

Before TyTe was ordained in 2002, he was working as a music teacher at Farnborough College, Hampshire. Because of this, he was ideally placed to pass his knowledge on to others. "I realised that I had the skill to teach beatboxing and that no one had actually ever done it."

In 2000, he produced the world's first internet beatbox tutorial – a primitive audio lesson consisting of 50 tutorials demonstrating how to produce 50 different sounds. "Beatboxing is actually quite hard to learn because you're using muscles in your tongue and mouth that you've never used before. People all over the world have learnt beatboxing because of my tutorials. It's very humbling."

TyTe is now considered to be something of an elder statesman of the scene. He remembers the days when he and a few others actually sat down to make up names for beatbox sounds because no one had yet invented them yet.

He still performs – his Scooby-Doo and the Daleks routine is legendary – but mainly teaches beatboxing to youth groups. This year, he is one of judges at the UK championship finals, but considers himself to have taken a bit of a back seat. "Our plan was to bring beatboxing to the world and we've done that," he says. "In some ways, my job is done. The ball got rolling and now it's snowballing."

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