Interview: Rahzel on the Roots, Björk, and More

Interview: Rahzel on the Roots, Björk, and More


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I dare you to tell Rahzel Brown that beatboxing is a thing of the past. The self-proclaimed Godfather of Noyze and part-time member of the Roots is single-handedly trying to breathe life back into the vocal acrobatic art form that has been dubbed the fifth element of hip-hop (behind emceeing, DJing, break dancing, and graffiti). Along with the aid of veterans like New York’s Masai Electro and newbies like Sacramento’s Antoinette “Butterscotch” Clinton, the Bronx-bred artist is stimulating this old-school genre with quite a few new-school tricks. At a Verizon/Beatbox Entertainment-sponsored event to promote Verizon’s new beatbox mixer portal, the abovementioned beatboxers, along with Click and Max B, converged on The Plumm in downtown Manhattan to spotlight their oral talents.

“Rahzel is bringing beatboxing back from the underground and trying to introduce it to a whole new generation of people and reintroduce it to hip-hop fans,” said Masai, known for his robotic and futuristic human orchestration effects. “[We’re] incorporating new sounds that have evolved beyond old-school. Nowadays I see beatboxers integrate instruments like violins into their performances.” Paying no mind to the fact that this is a widely male-dominated game, 20-year-old Butterscotch draws inspiration from jazz and classical music and fuses beatboxing into her compositions. “I just thought beatboxing was something fun and something I would like to try,” said the California State University, Sacramento music student, who also happens to sing and play a sundry of instruments.

Later in the evening, I sat down with the man leading the vocal percussionist resurgence movement. Sipping a drink on the couch across from me, Rahzel drops the beat:

For starters, let me say that I saw you perform for the first time at the Roots concert at Radio City in May and you were phenomenal. I’ve never heard anything like it.

Thank you. Yeah, Radio City is a monumental thing.

It really is. So, how do you do it—simultaneously sing a chorus and overlay a backing beat?

Well, I look at a song in its entirety and try to break it down track by track, sound by sound, and then put it back together.

Aside from the acclaimed beatboxers like the late Buffy of the Fat Boys, Doug E. Fresh, and Biz Markie, who are your influences outside of hip-hop?

I would have to say Bobby McFerrin. He’s got such class and style. He’s on a whole ’nother level, and to me that’s the way I strive to be. He’s in his own lane and he’s my biggest inspiration with regards to his focus and his drive. He motivates me to not conform to the corporate music thing, to not be afraid.

You’ve worked with a wide array of artists—the standout for me is Björk. I’m curious as to how you became involved in her album Medúlla. Did she approach you or vice versa?

Actually, I was touring with a good friend of mine, Mike Patton from Faith No More. We were gonna be at Irving Plaza and he was like, “Look, Björk is gonna come through and check out the show.” I wasn’t thinking anything of it but I guess she liked what she heard. So, she was like, “Look can I get that on my album. There are too many mechanical sounding drum machines and I want to replace them all with you.” She gave me the freedom to do what I do. It was a beautiful thing. The album came out very well—I’m on five songs. It was originally eight but it ended up being five. Definitely a beautiful album.

You’ve released two albums, Fifth Element: Make the Music 2000 and Rahzel’s Greatest Knockouts, and more recently lent your sound to Mike’s Peeping Tom.

I’m actually part of the band.

You’re a busy man.

Yeah, I’m always challenging myself because I like doing different things. I never want to be put in one box. Revolutionary, gangster, thug, etc. There’s too much categorizing going on now. But if people look at the origin of hip-hop, artists like Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc always played many genres of music.

On Fifth Element you proved you can do both, but what do you prefer, beatboxing or emceeing?

I love beatboxing. Rhyming is cool but there are a lot of people rhyming. I figure I’d rather be the big fish in a small pond!

You lent your talents to a video game.

Yeah, NBA Live 2000.

What do you think about games becoming a full-fledged medium to get your music out there?

It allows you to reach a whole different audience that normally wouldn’t go out and buy your CDs—kids as young as eight to about 20.

More recently you were featured in a DJ battle Pepsi commercial. Why do you think being in commercials straddles the line of artistic legitimacy? Why is it perceived as selling out?

No, no. I look at it as SEE ME! Roc Raida takes the cover off the podium and says, “Oh, it’s Rahzel!” They didn’t tell me how to be Rahzel in the commercial. It’s me. It’s not like I’m juggling monkeys or doing something that’s so way off, so black-faced.

As opposed to asking you the cliché question of “How do feel about the current state of hip-hop?,” I want to know what elements you think hip-hop is currently missing.

Creativity. And there’s no camaraderie anymore. Well, except for the South. It’s a little stronger down there because everyone came up in the struggle together and almost had no choice but to get on each other’s albums and jump in each other’s videos to help out. Whereas, New York and the West Coast have too much ego, really childish acting-“I’m making more money than you” or “I don’t like you because you’re talking to so-and-so”-and petty. That’s not what music’s about. It’s music! You should be able to express yourself like an individual. If you’re Mobb Deep, that’s fine. But 50 Mobb Deeps, I’m not feeling that. I’m not feeling 50 Ying Yang Twins either. Back in the day, you had Run DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Fat Boys, and Houdini. They all had their own style.

Nobody was biting off of anyone else.

Exactly. It was forbidden. But now, I know cloning exists now but damn, there is some real cloning going on!

The East gave birth to it, the West challenged it, and now the South has a stronghold on it. What do you think is next for hip-hop?

It doesn’t matter. I think it’s all hip-hop because everyone has their moment to shine. To me it’s about creativity. Like, I love OutKast because you never know which way they’re goin’. And hip-hop has always been like that. You hear a new record and you’re like, “Who is that?” Even LL has been switching it up for years. You have to keep changing it up so it doesn’t sound the same. I like what’s going on down south and you have to adapt to it because that’s hip-hop as well. That’s their hip-hop. It’s where they’re from and you have to respect that. But when it’s too much of the same thing, it’s like you’re remixing the same song over and over and over again.

Yeah, poor hip-hop. I guess the needle is stuck.