“Sometimes people just stare at me in fascination because they don’t know what’s happening,” art and design senior Lukas Wegmüller said. 

“That’s how I fell in love with beatbox — that sort of awe-inspiring feeling of, ‘How is this happening? How is that one person?’”

Wegmüller plays music, but mostly without the instruments. He can make dubstep drops and snares without a computer or a mixing board. He practices beatboxing, the art of making music and beats with only one instrument: your mouth.

From music production and a cappella groups to just spitting beats to blow off steam, these students have brought beatboxing to Cal Poly. And they said they would like to see more of it here. 

We’ve all heard of it. But what is it?

While musicians around the world have used vocals to imitate percussion instruments throughout history, modern beatboxing is considered the “fifth element” of hip-hop, according to Wegmüller.

Musicians in the hip-hop scene began to mimic drum machines (which were called beatboxes at the time) with their mouths. When people began to make these sounds without the machines, they created what is considered beatboxing today.

While the other four hip-hop elements — DJing, emceeing, breakdancing and graffiti — surged in popularity over the decades, beatboxing has taken a backseat in the modern hip-hop scene. Wegmüller said he would like to see that change. 

“It’s been sort of removed from its origin point,” Wegmüller said. “I’m interested in how rap is thriving right now, and how those two things can be reconnected.”

In the 1980s, Doug E. Fresh pioneered the modern beatboxing scene by using his own beats for the entirety of his song, “La Di Da Di.” He is now often referred to as “The Original Human Beatbox,” according to popular beatboxing forum Human Beatbox

Another major contributor to modern beatboxing was Rahzel, who was formerly in hip-hop band The Roots. He was well known for beatboxing and singing at the same time (although, Wegmüller noted, it is not really at the same time — it is just quick enough to where most cannot hear the difference). 

“I think the biggest misconception about beatboxing is that it’s kind of a party trick or a magic trick more so than a medium in itself.”

Decades ago, beatboxing was more percussive, Wegmüller said. The goal was to mimic the sound of drums to keep a rhythm going for singers and rappers. But now, beatboxing has evolved far beyond keeping a beat going. Modern music production has allowed beatboxers to copy the sounds of modern electronic music, such as drums and snares. 

“All of the sudden, people are coming up with new sounds every year,” Wegmüller said. “There are championship events, and people battling each other. And now the loop station is becoming a part of that.”

With the RC505 loop station, he can make full songs with all of their intricacies and without the instruments. Cassandra Garibay | Mustang News

Wegmuller’s RC505 Loop Station allows him to mix, add vocal effects and layer sounds. With the loop station, he can make full songs with all of their intricacies and without the instruments.

This is what he has been building toward the past few years.

While Wegmuller takes a music production approach to beatbox, kinesiology senior Brian Ebisuzakibeatboxes to anchor That’s the Key, an on-campus a cappella group. 

“What I tend to do more of is imitating a drum kit,” Ebisuzaki said. “My main focus as a beatboxer in an a cappella group isn’t how many sounds I can make, but more about keeping rhythm in my group. I’m that foundation that they can build upon.”

“If I’m really stressed out, I’ll just beatbox really fast and get it all out,” landscape architecture sophomore John Ty said. Cassandra Garibay | Mustang News

The Community

Aerospace engineering alumnus Austin Kolegraff recalled a moment when he decided to turn a post-concert lull into an opportunity to practice some of his sounds on a crowd. Electronic funk DJ GriZ had just performed at the Fremont Theater, and a swarm of students hovered on Monterey Street waiting for the Uber surge to die down.

“My brain was still hearing the music, so I just tried to create it with my mouth,” Kolegraff said. “Everybody around me just started dancing.”

Getting to the point of beatboxing in front of others took a while for Kolegraff, but if one thing is universal among the beatboxing community, it is that anyone can beatbox with enough practice.

“I learned one dubstep drop freshman year at Cal Poly because I just did it to the beat of my walking while walking to class,” Kolegraff said. 

The internet has connected beatboxers worldwide and served as the primary space for innovation, according to student beatboxers at Cal Poly. YouTube videos and online forums like Human Beatbox and SwissBeatbox have introduced beginners to a world of beatbox discovery. Without a teacher, people can learn how to beatbox from others around the globe.

“It’s really expressive for me,” landscape architecture sophomore John Ty said. “If I’m really stressed out, I’ll just beatbox really fast and get it all out.”

Every beatboxer who spoke to Mustang News said they learned on the internet. They also said they do not know many other beatboxers in San Luis Obispo. 

“There’s not really a community for us here,” Ty said.

Computer engineering senior Steven Gandham said he taught his friends the basics of beatbox to grow interest on campus.

“If there’s any other beatboxers on campus, I want to meet up. I feel like I’m alone here. I wish there was a club,” Gandham said. “I wish I had the aid and guidance of other people, because I know there are people who know so much more than me.”

Wegmüller said he believes most beatboxers keep their practice private because it is difficult to find others within the niche community to affirm their talents. But he said he hopes beginning beatboxers can push past self-doubt. 

“There’s a leap from doing beatbox for yourself and being known for doing beatbox,” Wegmüller said.

People started to pay attention in Wegmüller’s junior year. He performed for a crowd for the first time at an Open Mic Night at SLO Donut Company. Watching the crowd’s reactions of awe and disbelief affirmed to him that he was doing was more than making weird sounds with his mouth, he said. It was music.

“I think the biggest misconception about beatboxing is that it’s kind of a party trick or a magic trick more so than a medium in itself,” Wegmüller said. “People are making really amazing original music with beatbox, and it’s growing to a level that people should expose themselves to.”

Check next quarter for a live loop recording session with Wegmüller in the KCPR studio.

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