He's Got the Beat
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 Instrumentation between 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."
Scratch's own profile has expanded quite a bit over the past year. He worked on a Sprite commercial that featured Kobe Bryant, contributed to new albums from P!nk and Musiq and worked with promising RCA artist Cherokee. Scratch is also slated to produce a track for Zap Mama's new album on David Byrne's Luaka Bop label.
With the Roots, he was ensconced in the controversy that followed the group's decision to back Jay-Z on an MTV Unplugged segment. The performance mated artists perceived to operate in two different camps, with Jay-Z's affiliation with commercial rap in direct contrast to the Roots' underground philosophy. One rapper, Nas, saw this pairing as hypocritical and aired his beefs on a New York City radio station. Calling the Roots "Sambos" and "confused rap artists," Nas questioned how the crew could lampoon the materialistic lifestyle (as it does in songs such as "What They Do") and then support a high-dollar artist like Jay-Z.
Criticism aside, Scratch says he felt the pairing was quite natural.
"I'm not trying to sound stuck-up or anything like that, but there was no hip-hop band that was going to do that better than us," he says. "I'm glad that [Jay-Z] picked us to do that for him. It was good for the Roots and Jaguar to get that kind of exposure. As long as I know that the group ain't about what [Nas] is talking about, I just take it with a grain of salt. I respect Nas and his artwork, but I'm not trying to hear all that."
Besides, Scratch says, he's come too far to get caught up in the endless conflicts that pop up between various artists in hip-hop. His has been a long but rewarding road from Camden, New Jersey, where he started out as a youngster just trying to imitate the sounds he heard on the radio. At the time, he had no idea that what he was doing could lead to a career. "When I was like nine years old, I was just out there scratching, and people were thinking it's the DJ. Then they turn around and see it's me. They're like, 'Yo, you need to make a record.' I think that's what gave me the encouragement to keep doing it."
Gradually, Scratch began to rock the mike at house and block parties in Camden and in Philadelphia. He eventually developed his skills to the point where he could duplicate whole records using beatbox skills. As his reputation began to swell, he built up his confidence and eventually felt ready to go up against one of the masters, Biz Markie, at a battle in 1993.
"This guy that was actually working with Biz at the time was like, 'Yo, I like your style. Why don't you come out to the club, and you and Biz can get it on?'" recalls Scratch, who, at twenty, was too young to even order a drink. "I get there, and the next thing I know, I'm standing next to Biz. I'm a little bugged out, because he's Biz Markie and I'm standing next to the Diabolical. So I'm a little shook, because nobody knows who I am; nobody has heard of me. So what I first did was like some real basic stuff that really anybody can do as long as you stay on beat."
Biz wasn't going to let some young kid from out of town upstage him on his own turf.
"As soon as I pass the mike to him, he tries to bury me right from the gate," Scratch says. "He starts doing his best showmanship stuff, and I'm looking at him like, 'All right, he's real serious about this, so now I'm a have to be serious.' So then that's when I started doing everything and breaking it down to the point where you're actually thinking you're hearing these records being played in front of you. I threw out "Eric B. as President," "Top Billin'." I'm throwing it all at him, and the crowd is like, 'Whoa.' It was a good time for me. Ever since then, when Biz sees me, he always gives me mad love. It's real cool, because I'm now working side by side with a lot of these cats, and they know me by my first name."
Scratch's affiliation with the resurrected Smokin' Grooves Tour proves that he has indeed graduated to the upper level of the rap game: The tour features Outkast, Lauryn Hill, Jurassic 5 and Cee-Lo. With the Roots, Scratch is helping to wrap production on Phrenology, the long-anticipated followup to Things Fall Apart. Careful not to reveal too much, Scratch says the new album "shows the group has definitely expanded. Each time I hear [the Roots], you can hear the growth. I think this record is even more universal than any of the others we've done so far." Phrenology includes guest appearances from an eclectic mix of artists such as Project Pat, Nelly Furtado, Jill Scott and, according to Scratch, "a couple of surprises. I can't say who, because we're still going through some clearance situations. We'll have to wait and cross our fingers and hope that these things do go through."
Clearly, it's been a very productive year for Scratch. The beatboxer isn't one to boast, however. He's got other things to do with his mouth.
"I'm just carrying the torch from what hip-hop was based on in the beginning, not what it has turned into now -- something that's really been monopolized," he says. "I'm just trying to take it back to that, and once we get there, we're getting somewhere."
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