Beatboxing: Is it good for the Jews?

Beatboxing might have started out as an urban form of expression but “nowadays it’s very much mainstream,”

Danny Brill in New York (photo credit: Courtesy)
Danny Brill in New York
(photo credit: Courtesy)
You might be inclined to ask Danny Brill, “What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing on stage making all those funny sounds with your mouth?” Those funny sounds are called beatboxing. According to Brill, it’s an art form.
“Beatboxing is the art of mimicking musical instruments with your mouth, nose, coordinating breathing and vocal cords. It’s a collection of vocal techniques that create sound effects. There are certain techniques where you can create the sounds of different instruments.”
According to Brill, beatboxing got its start in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1980s. At the time, boom boxes were expensive and hard to carry around.
When rappers didn’t have access to any instruments or recorded music, beatboxing developed as a way of adding background sounds to their rap vocals. Brill refers to beatboxing as “the fifth element of hip hop.” The other four are rap music, turntablism (using a turntable as a musical instrument), breakdancing and graffiti art.
Beatboxing might have started out as an urban form of expression but “nowadays it’s very much mainstream,” according to Brill.
“It’s all over the world now. There are even beatboxing competitions in different countries.”
Since beatboxing festivals are often scheduled for Friday nights or Saturdays, making it complicated for observant Jewish beatboxers to fully participate, Brill wants to create a beatboxing competition in Israel.
Although many still associate beatboxing with its origins in hip hop culture, Brill says that, “A lot of the mainstream beatboxers today are Jewish. One learns it in a very a Jewish way.”
Like learning the musical notations necessary to chant Torah, beatboxing has its own system of musical code. Brill notes that there are even scientists involved in researching what beatboxers are doing in their vocal cords to cause certain sounds to emerge.
How popular is beatboxing among Jews? Outside Israel, there are Jewish members of local beatbox communities.
In Israel, there’s a small community of beatboxers.
Two Facebook groups, Beatbox Israel and Israel Beatbox Community, are where Israeli beatboxers discuss techniques, post events and videos. In Tel Aviv, weekly meetings are held for people to learn beatboxing techniques.
Just as in other professional fields, Brill emphasizes that “Networking is critical in Israel.”
Explaining why most beatboxers are male, Brill contends that many of the vocal techniques require a deeper voice. In addition, beatboxers require a lot of power, strength and stamina to perform.
“It’s easier for men to do it. Women can, but it’s harder for them. That’s why, in beatboxing competitions, men compete against men and women compete against women. That’s more fair.”
PROFESSIONAL BEATBOXERS in Israel today number no more than about six, including Brill, who auditioned and received official government recognition, and some limited funding, as a beatboxer. Most beatboxers in Israel are hobbyists doing it for fun. That makes Brill a big fish in a relatively small pond. In fact, he’s performed and taught more beatbox workshops since coming to Jerusalem 18 months ago than he did during the two years he spent in New York.
Asked who hires beatboxers, Brill tells In Jerusalem, “It could be pretty much anyone. The traditional use of beatbox was the rappers, but it’s now used as entertainment or when someone wants something different.”
In the corporate world, beatboxing is sometimes used in advertising when a company’s target market is young. Beatboxers have begun performing with classical orchestras, where beatboxing can serve as percussion, along with string instruments like the violin.
At social and educational gatherings over Shabbat, when Jewish law prohibits the use of instruments, beatboxing is popular. And in a-cappella singing groups, beatboxing provides all the instrumentation.
Some beatboxers are primarily singers who beatbox a bit to accompany their singing, but others, like Brill, are primarily beatboxers who may occasionally sing.
Even though he lives in Jerusalem, Brill still performs with the New York- and Baltimore-based Jewish a-cappella group AKA Pella. He also uses his beatboxing skills to perform with other bands, in competitions, to entertain at corporate events and at family parties and lifecycle events. He offers beatboxing workshops and uses his distinctive skill “to break the ice when meeting people the first time. It helps them relax and people enjoy it. It becomes a talking point.
“Beatboxing is part of my income. There are certain times of the year when you’re very busy. Other times when you’re less busy. I also teach, work in social media, communications and do voiceover work for video.”
Perhaps the most unusual application of his beatboxing skills is in the classroom with Jewish children.
“I try and use beatbox as something that’s fun and entertaining, to engage the kids, but also as an element to aid the learning process. We’ll work together to create the story of Hanukka as a rap, for example. Then we’ll add rhythm and a beat to it. I teach them which Hebrew letters equate to which vocal techniques. It’s a tool that they can use to help them learn. It definitely enhances the learning process.”
According to Brill, there are as many as 20 basic beatboxing techniques. Each beatboxer aims to create his or her own signature sound by combining an array of techniques.
He explains that a beatboxer whose genetic gifts include the ability to roll the tongue is at a decided advantage.
LOOKING AHEAD to the future of beatboxing, Brill contends, “I don’t think it has a limited lifespan. It’s becoming very much more on the upswing. There is an old school and a new school in beatboxing. The new school combines beatboxing with technology. But the old school people are still performing. There is not necessarily a limited shelf life.
“I started beatboxing 12 years ago, at age 17. I’ve been doing it professionally for the last six or seven years. It’s slightly addictive. It’s like a language. Once you have it and take it away, music sounds different without it.
“As long as you keep developing with the field, you can continue. It’s more like singing than football, which you have to stop playing at a certain age. If you engage with it and keep pushing it, there’s no reason you can’t continue as long as you’d like.
“I have a few ideas I would really like to make happen.
I want to build my own a-cappella group. I’d like to create a beatbox orchestra routine that is beatbox-centric, with one or two singers, instead of singers backed by beatboxers. I’d like to create Kochav Nolad (A Star Is Born) type competitions for beatboxers.”
Brill, 29 years old and single, is looking forward to building a family in Israel.
“I came to Israel for the first time at 18. A few years later, I came back on another trip. I was sad to leave Israel, but I had no family here yet.”
He made aliya in 2014, following his brother, cousins and aunt.
“There wasn’t much keeping me in London. I knew I could take what I do wherever I go. Aliya was competing with the desire to live in New York, among millions of Jews. So I got a master’s at Yeshiva University. Living in America cemented my desire to move to Israel,” Brill says.
“I had a few contacts in the beatboxing world before making aliya. I knew that, whatever I did in Israel, beatboxing would be part of it.” 
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