The Beat[box] Goes On: Rahzel, Nicole Paris and Ed Cage
New York City and St. Louis, Missouri
Two of the biggest names in beatboxing today, preeminent master Rahzel and innovative artist Nicole Paris, are redefining the limits of the human voice. Beatboxing is a form of vocal percussion considered the “fifth element” of hip hop culture, completing the quintet of hip hop art forms along with DJing, MCing, graffiti, and breakdance.
Examples of the voice as an instrument are widespread in the African diaspora; as a 20th-century African American tradition, beatboxing can be traced to scat singing in early jazz and masterful vocal imitations of instruments à la the Mills Brothers. First emerging from working-class African American communities in New York City in the late 1970s, beatboxing exemplifies the hip hop philosophy of creating meaningful artistic expressions with limited resources. Beatbox artists use their voices to mimic the sounds of the drum machine and the record turntable, but also horns, string instruments, and much more. The art form spread rapidly in the early 1980s, when performers like Doug E. Fresh, the self-proclaimed first “human beatbox,” took the art form national.
Known as “the Godfather of Noyze,” Rahzel was a youngster growing up in Queens when hip hop hit big. His cousin Rahiem was an original member of the Furious Five, and Rahzel recalls sneaking into their shows, “watching Grand Master Flash before I could even see over the gate.” Rahzel embraced the philosophy that “‘not having’ was never an excuse for ‘not doing.’” “Economically, everyone doesn’t have instruments,” Rahzel explains. “You have to create that ambience, you have to create those instruments.” Hanging out with friends, he says, “I was the one who made the beats with my mouth. I worked hard so that if you closed your eyes you would swear that you were hearing a record, a radio, or a band.” The lesson stuck, and his fame grew: “To me, [beatboxing] saves lives and I’m a prime example of it. It inspires kids to be creative and motivated.”
Through both his solo work and his stint with the live-music hip hop group The Roots, Rahzel is credited with bringing beatboxing back to the fore of hip hop in the 1990s. Rahzel can sing a chorus and beatbox the back up simultaneously, an astounding skill showcased on his signature song, “If Your Mother Only Knew,” from his groundbreaking first album, 1999’s Make the Music 2000. Rahzel has worked with artists from Björk to Branford Marsalis, and continues to push the limits of what a beatbox artist can create with only their lips, tongue, cheeks, and Adam’s apple.
Now a beatboxing phenomenon from the next generation is bringing renewed attention to the art form: 24-year-old Nicole Paris, who has taken the world by storm with her unique and exuberant beats. Nicole’s inspiration comes from her father, Ed Cage. He was a kid when hip hop emerged. When the sound hit his hometown of St. Louis around 1981, Ed quickly earned a reputation as one of the city’s best beatboxers. Later, as a young dad, Ed sought a way to connect with each of his three kids; with Nicole, it was beatboxing. He would get home late from work and she would be waiting up for him so he could “beatbox her to sleep.” Jamming together became the way they communicated. After she graduated from Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, NC, they began posting their father-daughter beatbox battles online; when one of those jam sessions, “Mentor vs. Apprentice Part 2,” went viral in 2015, the duo became known immediately as beat-boxing revivalists respectfully admired by national and international audiences. When people tease Ed, “the mentor,” that his daughter beat him, he says, “I want her to beat me, that was the whole point of me showing her this”—the triumph of the apprentice is the ultimate validation of the mentor’s work. For Nicole, the best showcase is not the battle but the “jam,” in which individual artists teach, learn, and inspire each other to produce their best work. Beatboxing is, as she says, “me telling my story.” Last year she made multiple appearances on national television (including a breakout appearance with Doug E. Fresh and Rahzel on the 2015 BET Hip Hop Awards), and recently she completed a tour of Asia. With her first album, The One,and first book, Siggy, an inspirational story for children loosely based on her life, set to drop this fall, Nicole Paris is telling that story with her own amazing voice.
Their appearances in Richmond showcase several generations of beatboxing masters, mentors who paved the way performing alongside apprentices who will keep the flame of this artful expression of hip hop culture.