In this age of on-tap digital snares, hi-hats and practically any other instrument or sample you can think of, the same need to lay down a boxed beat that existed during hip-hop’s early years has been all but lost. But whilst generally being one of hip-hop’s most forgotten elements, beatbox is by no means dead; in fact, in some countries and continents, it’s more alive than ever.
Though we’re long past the 70s glory days of beatbox, a resurgence is happening that you’re probably not even aware of. In Asia, a beatbox scene has risen from being an unknown foreign import to one of the biggest and best sources of beatbox talent in the world today. The result is some incredible live beatbox competitions, that see performers travel from across the continent to battle it out in front of huge audiences live and on the internet.
The highlight of the region’s beatbox calendar, The Asian Beatbox Championship (ABC), kicks off in Taiwan in July this year and, according to its organisers, will be by far the biggest one yet. For any ambitious Asian beatboxer, it’s a dream to win an ABC title and contenders will happily flock to its stages annually for a shot at cash and glory.
One of the biggest rising stars on today’s scene is Vietnamese artist FLOW.D. He reached the semi-final of last year’s ABC loopstation battle and boasts nearly 10 years of beatbox looping experience under his belt. For FLOW.D, also known as Doan Khoa, it all started when he saw a beatbox video on YouTube.
“I accidently saw a thumbnail with the title ‘Daichi Beatbox Wildcard’, I clicked it and then a whole new world hit me right in the face,” Doan said.
Beatbox wildcards are submissions that performers post to show off their talents and hopefully earn themselves a spot in a competition. It’s the same way Doan gained his spot in 2018’s ABCs and means that any talented beatboxers can enter themselves regardless of their following size.
Beatboxing has seen Doan travel across Asia to China, Taiwan, Korea and around his home Vietnam to compete against Asia’s best. When it comes to the artform’s international landscape, this is where he says it excels.
“That’s why beatboxing is amazing: we can talk and understand each other through our music, our beats, our rhythms, no matter where we’re from… Beatbox is a language.
“It started in the West, specifically from the US, but now it’s time for us to grow and develop it in our own way.”
But whilst many opt for the traditional beatbox performances, Doan performs with a looper. Unlike individual and tag team – the two other categories in the ABC which rely purely on live microphone noises and nothing else – in loopstation, a new technological element is added. In this, a digital looper is used which allows boxers to record beats, sound effects and a whole host of various other adlibs live on stage and then loop them to produce some truly impressive improvised music.
Every aspect of the music – the percussion, bass, melody, vocals – is all produced from performers’ mouths and mixed in real-time on stage. And the key to being a great beatbox looper? “Having solid structure.”
“If hat’s what you’re heading for; you need to produce a whole song live on stage so you need to have the intro, the build-up, the drop, the outro – everything has to be done on stage and smoothly.
“Skills can be learned quickly, but the way you use them and arrange it all live, that’s the real deal.”
The beatbox looper scene is gaining so much momentum in Asia that its biggest artists are now even releasing beatbox EPs made solely from vocal noises. But whilst beatbox continues to grow throughout Asia, Doan’s aim of taking beatboxing beyond a hobby and into a career remains a challenge.
“I’m trying to be a full time beatbox looper and I’ve been booking myself for some gigs for almost 2 years now. It’s has been going quite well, but I need to push myself to earn a title, to get my name well-known so I’ll have more chance of finding myself an agency or manager, so I’ll have more time to focus on making music.”
And that next big opportunity is just around the corner. Doan’s already submitted his wildcard entry for this year’s ABC and practicing for the competition is currently the only thing on his mind.
“I’ll do my best to win the title because, after that, I’ll have the chance to get my music out to the world.”
With so much activity in the Asian beatbox space, it seems only a matter of time before the artform returns West and the reality of a global beatbox scene can be realised and experienced across the rest of the world.
To see this year’s Asia Beatbox Championship, tune in live to the competition’s official Twitch channel from July 19th-20th.