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Kyle "Scratch" Jones of the Philly-bred group the Roots thinks it's just about time for the return of the beatboxer. He's so confident that hip-hop heads will embrace the mouthy art that he's just dropped a solo release, The Embodiment of Instrumentation, which showcases his ability as a producer and a human sound machine.
"I think people will be ready for something like this because it's different," he says. "It's not something that is being put out every year -- or at all."
Beatboxing is, as KRS-One once said, "the art of seeing the body as an instrument." The style was popularized in the '80s by such notables as Doug E. Fresh and Darren "Buff Love" Robinson of the Fat Boys, as well as the Diabolical Biz Markie and other artists who used their mouths to mimic the sounds heard on popular records of the day. Beatboxers functioned as vocal turntablists by emulating the beats, cuts and scratches of a DJ. They also showcased rap's ability to make something out of nothing.
Yet even though it has long been considered the fifth element of hip-hop -- alongside deejaying, emceeing, graf writing and breakdancing -- beatboxing has nevertheless been derided by those who see its practitioners as wannabes who do little more than make flatulence-like noises with their lips. Despite the surge of hip-hop in both commercial realms and the underground in the '90s, the technique has all but disappeared from the fray -- until now. The popularity of American artists such as Scratch, Rahzel and Kenny Muhammad, as well as France's Eclipse and Britain's Killa Kela, suggest that beatboxing is no longer a lost art. The recent release of director Joey Garfield's documentary Breath Control: The History of the Human Beatbox provides even more evidence.
"It's widespread, and it's constantly growing," Scratch says. "A lot of these people bring something unique that each one cannot do or duplicate like the other, and that's the beauty of it."
Scratch recorded and produced The Embodiment of Instrumentationbetween live shows with the Roots and work on their new album. He views it not only as a solo project, but as an attempt to revitalize a tradition.
"The main thing is to be able to bring [out] beatboxing, the art form of it, and expose it more. I just wanted to get experimental and creative, which I think music in general needs," Scratch says. "When I was growing up, it was the early '80s. A lot of these kids [today] might not have been thought of yet -- or they were just being born. They weren't exposed to the beginning foundations of what hip-hop started on."
Scratch has been putting down his vocal acrobatics with the Roots ever since the cut "? vs. Scratch" appeared on the group's 1996 release illadelph halflife. On The Embodiment of Instrumentation, he performs nearly all of the music himself, using only his mouth. A few Philly musicians show up in places to provide guitars and horns, such as on the jazzy "Breath of Fresh Air." For the most part, though, it's just Scratch doing his one-person percussive thing in a stripped-down setting.
"I didn't want to do any sampling on the record, because I wanted you to feel like I'm actually right there in front of you doing it," he says. "I wanted it to be real and authentic -- to have that old-school sound. I'm re-innovating the whole era of the grimy sound, when hip-hop was at its beginning stages."
Each of Embodiment's compositions has its roots in Scratch's imagination. He created beats in his head, then tried to approximate the sounds with his voice.
"I would start with the drums and then do the high hat," he explains. "Then it would either be a melody or the bass line. Then I'd do a melody on top of that and then put any of the other finishing touches of any other sound that I'm going to lay on the track." After crafting the beat, Scratch would "sit back and see if I can hear somebody actually rhyming or singing on it, and that's when I'd make a phone call."
Scratch's Rolodex included Philadelphia-area artists that he'd worked with over the years, including known artists such as Jill Scott ("The Morning After"), Bilal ("Square One") and Roots members Black Thought and Malik B (who, with M.A.R.S. Co-op, lace the first single, "U Know the Rulez") to talented up-and-comers like Floetry ("What Happ'n") and his crew, Schoolz of Thought ("World Iz...," "We Got What You Want"). From Floetry's soulful sounds to Flo Brown's in-your-face raps to the Schoolz' street screeds, the diversity of Philly's urban music is well-represented on Embodiment. On the record, the less familiar artists shine as brightly as the luminaries.
"It was an opportunity for me, and for them as well, to get a chance to get on and do something," Scratch says. "There is a Philly team of artists that have been doing this stuff for quite some time on the local level and haven't had the chance to be exposed to the public on a wider basis. At the end of the day, there are a lot more artists here that are doing things. They need their talent to be heard, and I'm glad I had a chance to be a part of that."