Rahzel & the Fifth Element: A Beat Boxing Legend
Rahzel is a legend in the world of beatboxing and hip hop. He has two Grammy Awards to his credit. He can overlay rap vocals onto a backbeat and blow the minds of audiences around the world. Plus he's known for his generosity and innovation in the arts.
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How does beatboxing fit into the culture and the history of hip hop? Where is its place?
I call it the fifth element, because its place is where things are missing or [is used for] enhancement. So, if you're an Emcee and you don't necessarily have a DJ, you can always have a beatboxer to fill that void, and also just to paint a musical landscape as an addition to a DJ or an Emcee. The beatboxer can play many different roles, as far as the foundation of hip hop.
How rare is it to find somebody who can really do it [beatbox] well? Is it an inherent skill, or one that you just develop and anybody can start somewhere and get better?
I feel [like] you can start at a point, develop, and hone in your own given gifts and talent and make that a part of it. It can be taught—you just have to cultivate it.
I have to ask, how do you take care of yourself? I mean that's got to be an incredible strain vocally on some pretty small muscles inside your throat. Tell me what that is like.
It's all been a learning process for me. It's like being an athlete. I'm learning now, you can't take those things for granted: Your lungs, your throat, just staying in shape and eating the right things, cause as you get older you lose these abilities that you took for granted when you were young. You really have to take care of yourself in order to be able to produce, to continue to produce different sounds vocally. Your state of mind has to be in the right place.
Where do you pull inspiration from? Do you hear other people making sounds that you want to try to emulate? Do you hear it in music with an electronic instrument or a string instrument, or where do those new sounds come from? Where does innovation come from?
I mean, I pull inspiration from everywhere: Just having conversations, listening to music, listening to other artists, even listening to other beatboxers around the world. So I've always been a student to the game and I like to remain a student. I'm never want to feel like I've arrived. I always want to feel like there's more to learn, that there's more to grow upon. So a lot of those things are where I grow, and where I grow inspiration from.
Mentally, how do you break something down with multiple tracks? You've got vocals, there's words, and then all of a sudden there's this backbeat behind it. It's all you at the same time with no instrument other than your voice and your body. How do you mentally get your mind around keeping that sorted out?
Well, it's like when you're listening to a song. I've always been the person who didn't really have the outlet for a studio, so you wanted to know how music was created, how they were being layered. A big influence of mine was Bobby McFerrin, and listening to how he composed a lot of his songs together and for a lot of those songs to be all vocals and to actually sound like a complete composition with different instruments. So that pushed me to start breaking down songs instrument by instrument, sound by sound, frequency by frequency. So just studying and listening and being able to just sift through what sound is this and what sound is that, if that's a cello, if that's the drum kit, if that's the baseline, if that's the violin—just breaking these things down to different elements and then putting them back together.
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When I think of Bobby McFerrin, one of the other things I think of, also with you, is this interaction with the audience and how artists like yourself can just hold that audience in the palm of their hands. Tell me, how important is a live performance to you? How important is that audience feedback and their reaction to what you're doing?
The live performance is the end all, the be all because you have to be able to translate it live. I mean when you hear it you're not thinking okay, this is a human being.You're thinking this is an instrument. It's a cool song, but to actually see it live and see it being broken down ... Have you ever seen the show How It's Made?
So it's intriguing—to actually see it live and “like wow, so that's really someone's voice being able to duplicate that”. The live aspect is very important, and to be able to interact with the crowd is just showing them that what I do, and how I feel about what I do is genuine. It's not manufactured.
So I think that's what comes across to a lot of people. Just like when I started beatboxing, you said, "I feel happy." That's the goal. The goal is when you hear it, you’re like “wow, okay, cause that's how I felt when I hear a Bobby McFerrin or when I first heard The Fat Boys or when I first heard Doug E Fresh”. I was like “wow, okay”. That right there is out of this world. So it's just to keep that cycle going, just putting that energy out there, and people walking away feeling happy about it.
Your career began in the early '90s, the rise of Napster. Now it's 2017. We're well into the rise of YouTube and people coming and filming. You've seen a lot in this career in a particularly interesting time. How has it influenced you as an artist from those early '90s to today?
I mean at first I was like a dinosaur fighting the movement. I was fighting against it. I don't want to really do this, but with time there comes change and you have to change with the time.
How about getting your start at that time. Was it a challenging time to get a start then because of Napster and other changes in how artists were compensated?
I had brought that up in a conversation about [how] it was a gift and a curse when the NNN with the internet and a lot of the free downloads. With corporations, they really look at the bottom line, so in my particular situation my bottom line wasn't really looking that good because of the Napsters and all the free downloads. So it wasn't really looking that good for me, so career-wise it was “wow, this is about to bottom out”.
But at the same time, everyone in the world was sharing my music. They were sharing my performances with people from all over the world—they actually wanted to see it live. So I was on the road for six years, heavy. I mean around the world people were like “if your mother only knew”. It was a moment where I felt like Michael Jackson. I can't believe it. People crying. I'm like “wow. This is insane”. So it was the gift and the curse because career-wise it's really about how many sales you've got, fi you're on the billboard, and what you chart at. That didn't fair well on my side, but to me in the long run being able to connect with people, to me that was my million [dollar] seller cause I was actually able to go out and perform and reach millions of people.
Did it give you a sense of validation at that point artistically that said you are on the right track, to keep going?
Yeah. I mean I made that point as well in the conversation where sometimes you're in a competition with other artists of the same caliber or higher caliber, and sometimes you just have to look outside of the box and see what the real impact is, and a lot of the time, like a kid that's nine years old or a kid that's 13 years old, they're really not worried about the bottom line.
So you've got to choose what you think is more important in this equation. Yeah, okay it's not financially gratifying, but someone's able to take away something positive from something that you've done or something that you've created.
In my imagination, every little kid who hears you wants to come up afterwards and show you what they got. Does that happen? Is that really what it's like?
Yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. Actually there's a venue in New York City called the Symphony Space and I had a beatbox workshop for kids from two to about seven or eight. Honestly. And when I asked the kids to come up on stage, all the kids were just rushing on stage and I was passing the mic around and they was trying. Some of the kids, they had it down, like a couple of seven year olds were pretty good. I'm like “you're on your way”.In 10 years man, I'm going to be scared of you. But at that age, the mind is like a sponge.
It's great that they were this excited, and they were really in tune to everything that I was doing. At first, I was a little nervous. I always get nervous cause you don't know what the outcome is going to be and it just went off great. So, to me it's really, really awesome just to see people's response, especially children.
Other people see you as a generous artist. Do you see yourself as a generous person in a generous way? In the way you move throughout the world and the way you create your art, and interact with others? Do you see the generosity as part of who you are?
Yeah, but mostly I look at it in how I'm my mother's son, and a lot of that I got from my mother so I have to give her a lot of the credit, cause just watching her and how people responded to her, she wasn't a celeb. I mean, she was just a community celebrity, but she wasn't like JLo, or anybody like that. She knew people like that, but people just gravitated towards her and I always wanted to have that same resonance with other people like she had. Even my own children, they strive to do the same thing, just to have that type of respect and to be able to put that positive energy forward.
Just got about a minute left, Rahzel, and I'm wondering for those little farm kids somewhere in South Dakota doing their work today, listening, going “that's the coolest thing,”—what's your advice to them? Where do they get started, and what do you say to little kids?
I mean with anything that you're trying to do, you have to make the decision to just do it no matter what anyone thinks, no matter what anyone says. To me, the more resistance you get, the more you should push back because you might be onto something. And sometimes you might be a little bit ahead of your times so you have to be patient, and just make the decision to do what you feel and do what you love. To me, if you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life.
Do you think it’s possible for someone from South Dakota to make it in the world of hip hop? We don't have a particularly thriving cultural scene in many of these towns. You think some kid from South Dakota can go on?
Of course. I mean look at Eminem. He really believed, and once he found somebody that believed just as much as he did, whalah.We have the best rapper in the world. So it's possible if you put your mind to it.