After the 2018 Grand Beatbox Battle (GBB), Japanese teenage sensation SHOW-GO was one of beatboxing’s breakout stars. His falsetto voice crack technique wowed the crowd at beatbox’s biggest event of the year, advancing to the top 8 and setting expectations high for his future in the competitive beatboxing world, and his viral showcase at the event has since garnered over 6.9 million views on YouTube.
The next year, he made it back to the GBB, but he didn’t even advance to the battles. His routine was beautiful, yet underwhelming. Patient and melodic, the routine shared more with the singer-songwriter genre than dubstep or hip-hop, lacking the heavy drop and aggression beatboxers have come to expect from battle routines.
He never competed in a competition again. Yet, despite this flagrant disregard for the standard growth path in the beatbox world — get good, win battles, book gigs — as of 2023, his beatboxing career is better than ever, thanks to a shrewd business decision.
Beatboxing, the oft-forgotten fifth element of hip-hop, has long been a performance art. First created in the streets of New York City to give a beat for people to rap over, beatbox has developed in niche pockets of the world into its own art form, where artists create musical compositions just from the sounds they can make with their bodies.
Since the founding of the Beatbox Battle World Championships and the emergence of YouTube, both in 2005, beatbox has flourished on the platform and other video mediums. Much like magicians, beatboxers inspire the question: “How do you do that?” Video allows beatboxers to maintain that visceral reaction in a way that audio-only recordings cannot. The viewer can see with their own two eyes that there is only a beatboxer and a mic, and this has spurred beatboxing’s success on YouTube.
But, it is rare for a musician to gain widespread attention from videos alone. A video from a beatbox battle — the most common way for beatbox to go viral — might earn a few million views, but it is unlikely that this beatboxer will gain a following from this virality, and it is even less likely that they will be able to turn that viral moment into sustained financial stability.
Rather than accede to a world where beatboxers can go viral but not make money, beatboxers have challenged the notion — common among battle beatboxers — that beatbox must be recorded live and published without processing or editing. The top artists in the world have a team of producers and engineers treating their voice, why shouldn’t beatboxers have the same?
SHOW-GO took this approach and has been met with great success. Since his previously mentioned underwhelming 2019 showcase at the GBB and retirement from competition, he has been recording tracks in the studio, mastering them, and releasing them as singles and albums on streaming platforms and in music videos on YouTube. This strategy has clearly worked: SHOW-GO first entered Chartmetric’s top 250k artists worldwide on March 1, 2020, and this past month, he reached a new peak at 13,168th on July 15, 2023.
The Japanese prodigy is not the only — or the first — beatboxer using the studio to further their careers. Rahzel, the biggest inspiration for the modern beatboxing world, released a beatbox album in 1999 titled Make the Music 2000. Along with other American pioneers, Rahzel inspired people all over the world, including Europeans who organized communities around beatbox battles. But, with these battles taking primacy in the mid-aughts, there was a long pause in beatbox studio recordings.
Modern artists like NaPoM, Gene Shinozaki, and Inkie have been recording their beatbox tracks in the studio and releasing them as albums and singles since 2017. Among this group, Shinozaki in particular has embraced the studio approach, mixing beatbox-only songs with tracks that incorporate beatboxing among other production elements on his albums.
No group of modern beatboxers, however, has been more pioneering than the World Champion beatbox crew Berwyam. The French foursome first released a self-titled EP in 2017 to minor success, but after ceasing all battling as a group to focus on studio recording and touring, they began to have major success. They had a viral moment on America’s Got Talent, and, after a COVID-19-induced delay, headed to the studio and released their 2022 album No Instrument. The album reached nearly 200k listeners on Spotify through playlists, and the group has cemented itself as the beatboxing community’s biggest breakthrough act since Rahzel himself. They even featured the American legend on the album with the song “THE FIFTH.”
Shifting Attitudes Open the Studio Door
Despite these early adopters of studios, it has taken time for the majority of beatboxers to embrace studio recording and post-production. Things usually move quickly in beatbox. As recently as 2015, Swissbeatbox, the biggest beatbox organization in the world, had just a few hundred thousand followers on YouTube. Now, the platform boasts more than 4.8 million subscribers and hosts events all over the world. In the past three years, organizers like German YouTubers Sxin and Chezame have built competitions that help beatboxers think beyond live performance.
In 2022, this pair of beatboxers and content creators hosted an asynchronous online battle called Beatbox United (BBU) which adapted the standard online battle rules to allow competitors to record their rounds in the studio and produce them. Battlers were encouraged to mix and master their battle rounds, and some battlers hired engineers who processed their tracks one sound at a time.
Part of the intention behind this rule change was to help the participants create tracks that would perform well on other platforms besides YouTube. Nobody wants to listen to an unproduced track on Spotify — without the visuals of a live performance, the live recordings feel thin and incomplete — so Sxin and Chezame pushed the BBU participants to make music that is pleasant to listen to.
DEN and Hiss, the two finalists in the BBU, took full advantage of the new format, uploading each of their battle rounds as singles on Spotify. Though DEN had earned acclaim within the beatbox battle world, this group of uploads launched months of steady attention on Spotify and social media that he had yet to experience. This attention following the BBU led to DEN remixing his viral track, “Moments We Had,” with chart-topping producer Simon Servida. Their behind-the-scenes video is a great look at how beatbox production works, as it highlights the ways producers can highlight and amplify a beatboxer’s prowess.
Hiss, who won the BBU, took this process even further. The South Korean beatbox champion has been remixing other people’s beatbox routines since 2019, and he played both artist and producer in BBU. First, he mixed and mastered his beatboxing routines, then he remixed them as EDM tracks, releasing the pair on Spotify as two-side singles in parallel with the battle.
Hiss has built on his production success in the BBU, and has been releasing BBU-style medley tracks with other beatboxers. His new track “7uk” is emblematic of this stage of his career. Alongside three other Korean beatbox champions, Hiss performs a classic drum and bass song, the beatboxing mastered to the point of perfection. And just like in the BBU, “7uk” was released alongside a high-quality music video. Another type of production value beatboxers have come to embrace.
New Horizons, Bigger Goals
Beatboxing fans have been surprisingly amenable to this move from video to audio. Fans pepper artists in the comments of their YouTube videos with requests to release the tracks on Spotify.
A Spotify playlist (erroneously) titled The Complete Beatboxing Playlist has filtered over 700 beatboxing tracks through its currently-500 track long ranks since it was created in 2019. Though it is not actually comprehensive, its growth from 100 tracks to 500 now reflects the beatboxing community’s commitment to releasing music outside of YouTube, and recently, specifically on Spotify.
SHOW-GO’s first viral moment came from a cover of Rich Brian’s 2016 track “Dat $tick,” and as recently as 2020, he was releasing a few covers a year. However, all eight of his new tracks from the past twelve months are originals, and none of his five songs currently on The Complete Beatboxing Playlist are covers.
Similarly to the switch from live recordings to studio versions, the prioritization of original tracks represents a growing professionalization of the art form. What’s more, these choices are making the artists more accessible to their fans.
The hope among beatboxers is that A&R representatives from music labels will appreciate the way they create their own tracks, record them in high fidelity, and work flexibly with producers to incorporate beatbox into a track as one instrument of many.
Like SHOW-GO, many beatboxers used to aspire to compete at battles, and little more. But, with the move from the stage to the studio, this is no longer enough. Mainstream attention, financial freedom, and greater musical possibility are all within reach for the beatboxing community, and the path to all of them goes through the studio.
Graphics by Nicki Camberg and cover image by Crasianne Tirado; data as of Aug. 31, 2023.