HomeThe Beatboxing Masters Speak

When asked if I was interested in interviewing some people in order to compile an article about beatboxing, how could I possibly say no? Immediately, a list of names of some of the top beatboxers/ vocal percussionists in the country was given to me by Amy Malkoff. How could I pass up the opportunity to interview them and pass along their insight and advice, especially with the explosion of the a cappella movement? So I’m sure you are wondering who makes up this esteemed panel of beatboxers/vocal percussionists. Let me introduce them to you by giving you a brief history about each of them and the groups they have been involved with:

Wes Carroll (WC): In 1995, he joined the Boston vocal band Five O'Clock Shadow.  Soon after, he enrolled in the Berklee College of Music and began to make a name for himself as one of the world's finest vocal percussionists.  In 1998, he moved out to San Francisco and was immediately recruited to perform with The House Jacks. He is a member of San Francisco's acoustic pop trio Nine Day Fall and most recently, he joined "a cappella supergroup" Altavoz. He has led private lessons and workshops around the world and is well-known in a cappella circles for the award-winning Mouth Drumming instructional video series.   

Ed Chung (EC): He started the group Duwende after graduating college. He has also done guest spots with +4db, The Swingle Singers, The Groovebarbers, The Exboyfriends, and many others.

Scott Cobban (SC):  In college at Clark University, he was a member of the coed group The Clark Bars for his 5 undergrad/grad years. During the 2 years following college, he started one group that didn’t work out, joined another and auditioned for two more before being offered a spot in Overboard, where he has been been for 4+ years.

Jake Moulton (JM):  He performed semi-professionally in a group called The Blue J’s and then The Front Page.  In 1996, he started a group called Kickshaw, which did mostly rock, funk, jazz and original music while utilizing effects on stage.  He then performed with m-pact for 6 ½ years until I had to leave because of vocal trouble. After a short break, he began working with The House Jacks.

Ben Stevens (BS): At Reed College, he performed as part of a group called The Seven Deadly Sins. At the University of Chicago in 1998, he joined a group called Harmony 8 (now Ransom Notes) and then in 2003, he joined a group at Colorado University-Boulder called Extreme Measures as percussionist and tenor. After leaving Extreme Measures in 2004, he helped to found and direct a student group at Bard College, the Orcapelicans. He spends most of his a cappella time leading workshops, including vocal percussion, and designing curriculum for festivals.

Question 1. How long have you been doing this?

EC: I first started when I was in 6th grade.  I was at summer camp, and a friend of mine named Augustine started beatboxing.  He taught me how to make some sounds, and I've been doing it ever since!

JM: 14 years.

BS: Teaching vp for close on to ten years, at this point at several festivals each year. Performing in groups and on recordings since 1998.

SC: I started playing with VP in 2000 in college and really starting focusing on improving my technique around 2003.

Question 2. What inspired you to become a Vocal Percussionist?

BS: From my early teens I have a love of science fiction, and of the sound-effects man from the Police Academy movies; from my earlier childhood, of Go-Bots and Transformers; from earlier still, of Star Wars and its derivatives. I grew up making sound effects. I also grew up with, charitably, a fairly limited sense of pitch but a clockwork sense of rhythm and beat. (My Dad used to drill us on the drum line from "Wipeout". Why? It's the drum line he knew.) While working to develop as a singer, I contributed as I could with sound effects, eventually specializing in vocal percussion.

SC: I started doing it because of my inspiration from seeing FOCS perform in high school.  More so, though, I thought it was cool and fun.  It helped that not many other people wanted to do it in my group, too.

EC: I grew up listening to all kinds of music, but I would always find myself listening to the bass and drums.  I loved to pick apart the rhythm section and in doing so, would often imitate the sounds that I was hearing.  My first love was the bass guitar -- I'd always wanted to play bass in a band, and in many ways I think that's shaped the way I approach doing VP.  I'm always paying particular attention to what Ari (our bass) is doing when we're onstage, and vice-versa.  We are constantly playing off of each other, which I think is essential to our overall sound.  JM: Ok, short answer.  I’d have to say that my biggest inspiration in becoming a vocal percussionist as well as in starting to move in the direction of vocal bands was seeing The House Jacks at the San Francisco Regional Harmony Sweepstakes competition in 1995.  They rocked my world.

Question 3. Who inspired you to become a Vocal Percussionist/Who are your major influences?

SC: Stack from Five O’Clock Shadow was a major inspiration.  He was one of the first people I saw perform VP live and I was amazed.  It was the first time I was aware that a person could make sounds like that.  It was different than beatboxing and felt more accessible to me.  Jon J from Ball In The House introduced me to that idea that there were different styles and sounds that could be used within this art form.

EC: My first/main a cappella influence was Bobby McFerrin.  When I was in college, a friend of mine played me a clip of him performing "Drive" on SNL back in late 80's, and I was hooked.  Drummer-wise, I was always a die-hard fan of John Bonham (Led Zeppelin).  His drum lines somehow always sounded melodic to me, and he was responsible for some of the greatest drum beats of all time.

JM: Other than seeing The House Jacks in 1995, my other major vocal percussion influence was Matthew Selby, formerly of m-pact.  He was the person that introduced me to lip buzzing and softer, fatter sounding vocal percussion. And, of course, who could forget Bobby McFerrin?  He is and will ALWAYS be the best. Other than that, I’d have to say that I try to let myself be musically influenced all the time by random music, sounds and other people. In fact, I’m likely under the influence right now.

BS: In historical order: The King's Singers, whose arrangements are often delicately but persuasively percussive and--thanks to their assiduous classical training--always totally in time; The House Jacks, who simply blew me away (the opening beats of Naked Noise were, for me as a vocal percussionist, the equivalent of Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited for Springsteen: the sound kicked open the screen door of my mind); and Rockapella, whose Vocobeat arrived from Japan my first year in college and ... had it been a tape, I would have worn it out--it took me probably 30 minutes to stop listening to the first track alone ("U Beat Me Up"). In historical order: syllable choice and diction; punch and appropriateness of 'true' and dedicated percussive sound; and mouth drumming, something the peerlessly analog human instrument can do that (increasingly) digital machines can't quite manage and certainly don't understand.

Since those formative years, with greater sense of purpose I've tried to learn from m-pact (lip buzz and brushy jazz flair), Schrödinger's Cat (body percussion and deep, carnal groove), Vocal Sampling (expanding my 'kit' beyond the 'trap kit' and my rhythms beyond the pop and rock), Paul Donnelly of inPulse (he taught me the /pf/ snare before I knew about Wes Carroll's video), and others.

I'm inspired all the time by other percussionists, in performance and in person. Wes Carroll (to mention him for the third time) is an astonishing clinician and on-the-spot performer. Kari Francis and Courtney Jensen just kill it, with crisp and deeply-felt lines that do so much given amplification. Matt Murphy reaches into vocal percussion from instrumental percussion with startling and compelling rhythmic sophistication. Rachel Chalhoub has a literally side-splitting snare: she confirms that what I can do, somebody else maybe can't; but what somebody else can do, I certainly can't. Ben McLain, whose lines are like how vocal percussion dreams itself to sleep at night. If any of these and other amazing percussionists wear rings, I'll kiss them.

Who else? Buddy Rich. Ginger Baker. Travis Barker. Eminem. Li'l Wayne. Johnny Hartman. Larry Wright. John Bonham and A.J. Pero. Joey Fucking Jordison (!). M. NourbeSe Philip reading her own poetry aloud. Nicki Minaj, who sounds like she's waiting for the real lyrical party to start. Bob Dylan, early on. Emily Dickinson--after a litlte while, she hardly ever left her house, and her schemes are still freaking people out. Those guys who drum on plastic buckets in NYC subway stations. Whatever their instrument--most are drummers, some are singers--they all show me that there's so much more to phrasing. I don't have space enough hear to name them all, or to say what I've tried to learn from each specifically. Take my workshop, Essential Listening, and I'll try to show you what I hear.

Question 4. How would you describe your Vocal Percussion style?

JM: I guess that my style is that of a vocal percussionist that incorporates other “human” and “beabox” sounds in my patterns in order to create more movement and feeling.  Sometimes drums just aren’t enough to express a song’s true emotion.  You’d be surprised how far a good breath and grunt will get you.

BS: Unobtrusive and photorealistic; crisp, supple, yogic. At this point I mostly teach, emphasizing precision of groove and pocket over inventiveness in sounds.

EC: I would say it's a mix between beatboxing and imitative vocal drumming.

SC: Simple, clean and consistent.

Question 5. Are there any misconceptions about Vocal Percussionists out there?

EC: None that I can think of, thankfully!

BS: I haven't the slightest idea. Misconceptions? I suppose there would first have to be 'conceptions'. But are vocal percussionists conceived of? I'd be surprised. I suppose if there were anything thought of that is, increasingly, somewhat incorrect, it would be that there is anything more than a historical connection between vocal percussion and vocal jazz scat. But the number of people affected by this misconception must be few indeed. Otherwise, no. Whose misconceptions would be worth trying to correct?

SC: The only misconception I can think of is that vocal percussion is the same as beat boxing.  They serve similar purposes, but use sounds that are intended to do different things.  However, they can and should definitely be used together.

Question 6. Do you have any advice for beginning Vocal Percussionists on how to get better?

WC: Efficiency is the key, because efficiency of air leads to efficiency of effort. The number one physical problem plaguing beginner [mouthdrummers] is overexertion, which leads to sloppiness and frustration.  It is not enough to perform accurately; one must also perform as gently as possible.  This habit leads to the ability to be relaxed while performing, and to being able to perform for extended periods, both of which are key for professional development.

SC: It’s important to learn how to breathe while doing VP and then learning how to use breathing as a sound in your repertoire.

EC: 1. Practice, practice, practice.  2. Practice, practice, practice with a metronome.  3. Try to emulate as many real drummers (as opposed to VP) as you can. In addition, the single biggest adjustment I made over the years that has helped me the most is to keep my sounds as short as possible. This really helps keep the beat in the pocket, and also helps conserve your breath!

JM: a. Um… practice?  No.  Really.  If you love it you won’t be able to help but want to learn more and get better.
b. Be humble and recognize that there is always someone better and that we can learn something from everyone.
c. Be true to the music.  Oh, and…
d. SLOW DOWN!  Don’t try to do too much too soon.  It’s better you simplify and groove than let your time or rhythm suffer.  You’ll still look cool.

If you're not ready to do it, you're not ready to it. Simplify what you're doing, and let yourself sink down into the pocket that underlies all percussion, even all music.

Vocal percussion, any kind of percussion, any kind of music, is about entering into a relationship with time. For this reason percussion is the most potentially musical of all music, but also the most difficult: you train to be as perfect as a machine in clarity so as to surpass it in beauty. You're trying to reach something machines can't reach: the transitory moment of just barely knowing what perfection would be like, but not quite reaching it. You don't want 'perfect': you want 'sublime'.

Listen to the greatest drummers of all time, the greatest human drummers who performed without having been sequenced, and drum along (mouth: tongue, teeth, and lips, yes, but also hands and feet, also hips). Watch the greatest ballet and tap dancers--not so much modern, whose constraints are different--with your eyes closed, listening for the footfalls and slaps and breaths: can you hear how, while the male dancer is in the air, the music slows to honor his flight? Listen to Chanticleer performing Franz Biebl's Ave Maria, and try to keep the beat as they enter into the final movement. They're right not to. How can they be so right?

How can you as a percussionist embody that imperfect and absolute rightness?

Come to realize that most of what you hear and see in commercial media--too much, far too much--has been sequenced or spliced, put together from perfect parts of imperfect takes. Arguably that's an artform in itself, that sort of editing, but from the performer's standpoint it's a rudimentary one at best: there's really no getting better at it, not as a performer.

Listen to your breathing while feeling your pulse. Separate your breathing from your pulse; separate it from your walking; separate your breathing from any muscular action. You can breathe so much more regularly, so much more deeply, than you've been trained to as a natural-language user. Watch a baby sleep, and remember--in your own body--that perfectly sinusoidal breathing over time.

Question 7. Do you have any advice just in general for Vocal Percussionists?

EC: I would recommend that all Vocal Percussionists spend as much time as possible working with their bass (or basses).  In my opinion, the most successful VP's are ones that form a tight rhythm section with the bass.

WC: Any warmup is fine, so long as it's a safe distance from your limits: your volume limits, your speed limits, your complexity limits.  Warmup is a time to get comfortable, not a time to stretch your ability.

JM: Please listen to the people you’re performing with.  And try to be a good person.  I’m still working on that last part.

SC: Always continue to learn and play with different techniques, but make sure you practice a handful of clean, consistent sounds to perfect your core kit. Also, as much fun as it can be to be the standout star of the show, remember how key your role is to your band.  You’re part of the rhythm section and your group mates are relying on you for a consistent grounding, beat.

Question 8. Anything else that you would like to share?

WC:  As long as the members of the community here are each doing something he or she enjoys, then I've got nothing to add.  Thanks for being you, gang!

JM: Just the love, Baby.  Just the love.  And if you really DO have questions for me (for some crazy reason), just ask.

About the author:
Ben Spalding is the head Choral Director at Centerville High School in Dayton, Ohio. At Centerville, Ben directs all of the choirs and the a cappella group Forte. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Music Education from the University of Kentucky. Ben’s a cappella roots go back to college, when he was a member of the University of Kentucky AcoUstiKats and a semi-professional group called 5 by Tuesday.  His love for music goes as far back as elementary school and music has and always will be a major driving force in his life.