by Natalie Liechti in New Music on Sunday 15 April 2007

Exclusive interview with beatboxer Rahzel: ‘The scene today is phenomenal and it’s growing to huge proportions’, Rahzel exclaims animatedly. ‘It has always been a showstopper, but over the years as people’s musical tastes have changed and hip hop has become more commercial, it has grown even more so’. Previously referred to as the ‘forgotten’ fifth element of hip hop (sitting alongside the more prominent elements of breakdancing, DJ-ing, graff-ing and MC-ing), it is thanks to the likes of Rahzel that beatboxing is now recognised as a legitimate art form. Inspired at an early age by Grandmaster Flash (Rahzel’s cousin Rahim was one of the Furious Five) and others such as the Fat Boys and Doug E Fresh, the Bronx-native spent his childhood building up his proficiency as a vocal percussionist. ‘When I first got into imitating sounds, voices and instruments, I basically did it for attention’, he recalls with a laugh. ‘Developing your skills back then was based on catalogue and repertoire, listening to anything that made a sound. And of course, practice, practice, practice’.

Joining The Roots in the mid-1990s as their beatboxer, Rahzel’s status rose over the years until eventually he parted ways with the group. The departure was amicable, he maintains, and he has mentioned elsewhere that it was based upon a decision to further evolve his artistic vision as a beatboxer. ‘My relationship with The Roots has and will always be a great situation. God has blessed me to be a part of one of the most influential groups in music. It has been an historic journey’, he says.

Successfully going it alone was seemingly effortless for Rahzel, largely due to an interpretation of Aaliyah’s If Your Girl Only Knew. Re-naming the track, If Your Mother Only Knew, Rahzel simultaneously sang the lyrics and worked the beats. At the time, it was considered groundbreaking and propelled Rahzel into a mainstream – and much larger – audience. And whilst he maintains that these days, he harbours no ill-will towards the much-maligned genre of hip hop, from the diverse variety of projects he has attached himself to over the years – with Mike Patton and Peeping Tom, and Bjork’s Medulla – it’s clear he’s been looking further afield for creative outlets.

‘Hip hop is hip hop and rap isn’t hip hop. I’ll be in love with hip hop until the day I’m no longer here’, he proclaims, before concluding that for him, it isn’t about the number of zeros on his bank balance. For Rahzel, beatboxing is a way of life. ‘All glory be to God for giving me the insight to see the importance of what the beatbox is to the world’, he explains. ‘It’s far bigger than what some corporate executive thinks, like how it can help sell a product. ‘To me, it saves lives and I’m a prime example of it. It inspires kids to be creative and motivated. I thank God for blessing me with this gift and I’m happy that it affects people all over the world in a positive way. That’s truly a blessing any way you look at it’.