The Beatboxing Community Thinks It’s Ready For The Mainstream. Is It?
Concerns over funding, staffing, incentives, and safety leave the community’s future in doubt
Anthony Ridenhour has been on the verge of beatboxing greatness for a few years now.
Ridenhour is an American beatboxer known for his mastery of inward bass, a deep and growling inhalation sound used to inject menace and power into dark beats. Over the years, he has built many variations on the technique, from one that hints at boiling water to a high-pitched screeching demon call.
Performing first as Audical, and then as Vocadah, Ridenhour broke onto the world stage in 2018 and 2019, advancing to the showcase rounds of the 2018 Beatbox Battle World Championship in Berlin, and the 2019 Grand Beatbox Battle (GBB) in Basel—the beatbox equivalent of qualifying for the World Cup but not advancing past the knockout stage.
Originally, human beatbox was a complementary part of hip hop: the beat for MCs to rap over. A beatboxer’s weapons of choice would be her drum kit. B for a kick drum, Ts for a high hat, and K for a snare: Boots ‘n’ Cats. (If that doesn’t mean anything to you, say it a few times. You’ll hear it.) But in the time since, beatbox has become a standalone art. A way for musical aspirants to speak their ideas into existence.
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In the nineties and aughts, the beats developed from boots ‘n’ cats to full-on compositions. First, via intricate percussion patterns, then with more melodies. Vocodah’s inward bass represents the new school: distorted singing that replicates a synth or guitar the same way B-Ts-K replicates a drum set. At the 2019 GBB, Vocodah stuck to Riddim, but his competitors dabbled in hip-hop, grime, rock ‘n roll, trance, drum and bass, and more. For a beatboxer, any genre is theirs to conquer, and beatbox battles are the place for conquest.
Upon his return to the states, Vocodah continued to hone his style, convincingly winning the 2019 American Beatbox Championship in Brooklyn, taunting Rayul, his opponent in the finals, “somebody’s scared of the riddim!!”
After two years away from live battles due to Covid-19, Vocodah entered the 2021 GBB ready to ascend. He built a series of routines around the image he wanted to project as an artist, and partnered with a clothing brand to further convey his artistic vision. In a pre-event interview with the hosting organization Swissbeatbox’s YouTube channel, he articulated his vision for building a career as a beatbox artist. Where most beatboxers evolve by learning new sounds, Vocodah envisioned growth by sticking to a select few to define his brand.
Two days later, the interview and every other Vocodah appearance on Swissbeatbox was gone.
Most beatbox fans and artists follow a similar path to the art form: Youtube, TikTok, Instagram or a friend suggests a video of a particularly impressive performance, and down the rabbit hole you go. For recent fans, that rabbit hole leads to one place: Swissbeatbox.
Since the company’s founding in 2009, its small staff has collected and uploaded videos from beatboxers around the world — one video every day — helped smaller organizations film and upload their battles, and hosted the GBB.
Though Swissbeatbox is based in Saint Gallen, Switzerland, its biggest stars have come from across the world: Singapore, Luxembourg, Australia, The United Kingdom, South Korea, and, more than anywhere else, France and the United States.
Like in other niche communities, beatboxers have pursued a trio of goals for the past decade: growth, innovation, and acceptance in the mainstream. Swissbeatbox had been instrumental in achieving the first two goals. Between 2015 and 2019, Swissbeatbox doubled its subscriber base each year, and the beatboxing performances they showcased went from impressive to shocking.
Take Bataco vs Codfish, the 2018 GBB semifinal
Beatbox battles are comprised of four 90-second rounds, alternating between battlers before a panel of judges choose a winner. Bataco and Codfish sparred in their first rounds, displaying their styles; aggressive percussion and patterns with special sounds for Bataco and distorted singing and patient musical composition a la Rahzel for Codfish.
But in round two, the competition heated up. “I said I want a battle man!” opened Bataco, taunting Codfish for his subdued opening salvo before launching into yet another aggressive percussive routine. Drums patterns interlaced with a tight lip oscillation bass built until Bataco announced his final technique, “I’m a laser man!” He delivered syncopated bass patterns and punctuated the ninety seconds with a laser sound for a snare, ending with a flourish of k snares and one final laser for good measure (fi-k-kau-ke-tiu, if you’d like to try at home).
“Pieu Pieu!!” answered Codfish, not waiting for the MC to count him in. He countered with his own laser pattern, slightly different, but equally powerful, stunning the crowd. He transitioned into a collected cover of Blackstreet’s No Diggity, showcasing the same patient singing and distorted throat bass from the first round. Then, a laser appeared amongst the diggity groove, and Codfish interrupted himself, turning to Bataco — “NO NO NO!! You want a battle?!?”
The cover turned heavy. Singing made way for inward bass to pair with the throat bass, smashing PF snares teamed up with thumping kicks to propel the track, and lasers, of course. The final technique of the battle is straight percussion, Codfish’s signal to Bataco that he can stick to drums if he wants, but he prefers musicality and composition. With one last laser, Codfish ended any chance Bataco ever had at reaching the final. A judge stood, threw up his arms and smiled, as if to say “how can you not love this??”
For new fans, the judge’s question rang true. The battle was six minutes of action; easily understood, packaged, distributed, and it got a staggering 39 million views on YouTube.
After years of communal growth and a two-year break due to Covid, GBB2021 was supposed to be a turning point for the beatbox community. The biggest event in beatboxing history. Swissbeatbox planned a livestream with color commentary, pre- and post-performance interviews, two new battle categories, a bigger venue, a nicer hotel for participants, and thousands more fans than ever before. Discussions on online forums about the event took for granted the success of the live event and the millions of YouTube views that would soon follow.
But 2020 and 2021 brought a pair of crises to Swissbeatbox: The cancellation of live events due to Covid-19 — in particular GBB20 — left Swissbeatbox on the verge of insolvency, and mismanagement and overreach at GBB21 led to a crisis of confidence among beatboxers and fans that Swissbeatbox could be trusted to protect them and their interests.
In a statement on Facebook, Vocodah explained. “Due to Swissbeatbox's failure to engage with the community, I will no longer be affiliating any of my brands content with them. It's disappointing to see sheer ignorance about problems in this community from the people who run it.”
In the days after Vocodah’s statement, the community learned that he was referring to a series of allegations of assault and rape against members of the beatboxing community that occurred at GBB21. Artists had allegedly assaulted other artists and fans, and some had passed around compromising pictures of people taken without their consent.
Pepouni, Swisbeatbox’s CEO, uploaded a tepid statement and the company ceased uploading daily videos to their channel for the first time in nearly a decade. They consulted with multiple lawyers in Poland, and in the country where the most prominent alleged survivor lives. Other organizations made statements that ranged from tone deaf to concrete; some decided to dissociate from Swissbeatbox entirely.
Beatboxing fans thought this event might kick off an era where beatbox artists could make a career and a healthy living from beatboxing. But considering the allegations of assault, it was all in doubt. For artists like Vocodah and the fans he spoke for, beatboxing now exists under the cloud of a more fundamental question:
Can Swissbeatbox give me the support I need? And if not, who can?
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Pepouni first encountered beatboxing in a 2001 MTV ad featuring Rahzel, the pioneering American beatboxer who was famous for combining singing and percussion into one performance. Pepouni was enthralled. “It was [my] greatest pleasure to listen to beatboxing.” Soon after his mother Rosie bought him a ticket to his first international beatbox event, Pepouni thought to himself, “I can help here. It became my mission and still is today.”
Pepouni spoke regularly with Alexander Bülow (aka Bee-Low), the founder and MC of the Beatbox Battle World Championship, then the peak of beatboxing competition. The two shared a beatbox origin story: Both learned of beatboxing from American ambassadors. Bee-Low learned about the art from American soldiers stationed in Cold War Berlin, and Pepouni from Rahzel.
In 2009 and 2010, Pepouni’s first two years with Swissbeatbox, he got his sea legs, hosting a small battle for Swiss beatboxers. At the time, he had a convenient understanding with Claudio Rudin, a partner with B-Scene, a local music festival: “you run the event,” said Pepouni, “I bring some beatboxers.” In 2011, Pepouni invited beatboxers from around the world. No Swiss beatboxer has won the event since.
Over its first decade, Swissbeatbox built its brand around the event and the characters that drove it. Scott Jackson, the affable Canadian Champion and MC, Joseph Bouary (aka BBK), the two-time Canadian Champion with bulging eyes and reliably insane reactions from the crowd, and Pepouni, the smiling, rarely seen, man behind it all.
Fans who were able to attend events in person would often see Pepouni’s mother Rosie, who attended all her son’s events, emphasizing the family feel in the beatbox community. (Rosie attended so many events that Pepouni occasionally trusted her to judge smaller battles when there weren’t enough beatboxers to fill the jury.) Words like shoutouts (showcase videos) and wildcards (audition videos) became common parlance. Fans learned to count down from three to one in many languages with battles and videos beginning “3… 2… 1… Beatbox!”
What’s more, the hypercompetitive nature of the GBB pushed beatboxers to innovate sonically. In his 2017 GBB Wildcard, Slizzer debuted the Sucker Punch, a new snare/kick created by slapping the tongue against the roof of the mouth while quickly inhaling. Four months later, his unique sound featured in the event’s biggest battle — but it was Alexinho (Alexis Grimaud) doing the sucker punching. For Gene Shinozaki, a two-time GBB Champion, Wildcards and GBB routines need to show that beatboxers are “improving, learning, and getting better.” You keep up or fall behind.
Like his competitors, Pepouni began to upgrade. “In 2013 we got better camera teams. In 2014 we started to get proper good sound,” he fondly recalled in 2019. By then, the upgrades had invited expectations, and many fans wondered what was next.
What was next was a truly international battle. Swissbeatbox moved the event to Poland, ostensibly to bring down costs, but also to gauge interest for an event hosted outside Switzerland. Speaking at the time, Pepouni laid the goal out simply: “we want to bring the GBB every single year — if we can — to another country.”
At the Progressja Club in Waraw, the GBB only accelerated its growth. Swissbeatbox hired a new employee to run GBB logistics. More competitors meant more videos; more cameras meant more angles for the videos; more fans in the venue (over 1,600) meant a better vibe.
There was a slight issue with the on-stage timer — a new feature that year — but everything else ran smoothly, and the product shined.
The GBB looked like a music festival produced by a far bigger and more experienced team than Swissbeatbox ever was, with sponsors, moving cameras, compilation videos, and customized walk out videos for each artist. The GBB began to look like a traditional music festival, and Swissbeatbox its trustworthy custodian. At least, that is, when viewing it on Youtube.
The 2019 GBB videos racked up millions of views, far more and far quicker than the videos in years prior. But behind the scenes, Swissbeatbox knew they were losing money on their flagship event, even as they expanded it year after year. Then, just a month before the 2020 GBB, Covid hit, and the event was postponed indefinitely.
If the beatbox community was to survive the Covid hiatus, they would have to make it back to Poland for the GBB. For fans, they missed out on a year of incredible beatbox videos, but for Swissbeatbox, the Covid threat was existential.
“Maybe it’s not professional,” scoffed Juliana Olanska, Swissbeatbox’s General Manager, “but we were fucked.” Swissbeatbox had paid vendors and venues in full for GBB2020, now named GBB World League, much of which they never saw again. They refunded tickets, and lost deposits they had paid to vendors. The hostel where Swissbeatbox had reserved large blocks of rooms for artists and staff went bankrupt, and Swissbeatbox lost every cent they paid to the hostel. “We were not able to create any content,” Olanska recalls. They were desperate for something “that could sustain Swissbeatbox.”
Swissbeatbox managed to get through Covid without folding or firing any of their twenty or so employees—a point of pride for Olanska—by hosting an in-real-time online GBB through Zoom and Discord, and the Kickback Battle, a new asynchronous battle where participants pre-recorded rounds with gear provided by event sponsors. The proximity to insolvency scared Swissbeatbox, but in a year without in-person events, Swissbeatbox still averaged over 20,000 new YouTube subscribers per week.
In October 2020 they delayed the GBB a second time due to Covid, but they continued to rack up subscribers and views. Swissbeatbox celebrated 4 million subscribers. GBB 2019 videos collectively flew past 100 million views.
Even through the pandemic, Pepouni could offer artists a wide audience, and when he was able to run events, unique stage opportunities — but not financial support. At the GBB, winners take home prize packs of music gear from the sponsors and partners, not cash.
For artists, this was no longer enough. In order to get to the level where an artist is invited to make a video for Swissbeatbox, let alone perform at one of the events, they need to treat beatboxing as a career, a catch-22 that is pushing professional beatboxers and beatboxing hopefuls beyond the regular confines of beatboxing for ways to promote their careers.
During the pandemic, beatboxers innovated on YouTube and TikTok, creating viral content, reaction videos and beatbox analysis that provided them a new avenue for them to earn money. Others taught beatbox, and used beatbox to teach music. A select few published beatbox albums and participated in competition shows like America’s Got Talent.
Nonetheless, for all the growth in the beatbox reaction videos, education, content making, and reality TV spaces, competition still was king, and when Swissbeatbox opened the Wildcard audition process for GBB21 in spring 2021, beatboxers turned their entire focus to the battle.
And as summer turned to fall, and the October event came near, excitement grew. Artists were ready to show off routines that they had been keeping private during lockdown, Swissbeatbox was ready to finally host a live event, and fans were ready to attend the biggest beatboxing event in world history.
The GBB artists flew to Warsaw a week before the event, joining Swissbeatbox staff who were already there, living out of the Westin Warsaw by then for nearly a month. My Instagram feed was populated with pictures and videos of jam circles, official-looking press conferences, and the artists goofing off, exploring late-fall Warsaw together.
But as fans arrived and the pre-event goofing off shifted to battle focus, enjoyment was not on the mind. Speaking before the event, King Inertia, the 2018 US vice-champion, said the GBB was why he started beatboxing, and winning it was his only goal. During the days of the GBB, competitors passed up jam circles, beers, and interview requests for fear of not performing well.
Soon, cracks started showing behind the scenes. Artists were whisked away from the hotel early in the morning for sound checks that ran hours behind schedule, and they often left the soundchecks unsure if the audio was going to convey their music to the audience. For artists hoping that their GBB performances would be the top item on their musical CVs, the frantic and haphazard schedule “left them stressed and nervous and tired” when performing, said Vocodah. Fans regularly waited outside the doors of the venue, the cavernous EXPOXII, for hours after they were supposed to open.
Once fans were inside, they found that the audio wasn’t right. The enormous concert space was full of concrete, forcing the sounds to bounce around rather than settle among the crowd. Colaps, Vocodah’s opponent in the round of 16 and eventual GBB champion, broke his mic. Vocodah, a master of low frequencies, sounded tinny. River, the eventual vice-champion, had to switch snares for an entire routine because his preferred snare was unintelligible during sound check. Sinjo (aka Aaron Barner), Swissbeatbox’s head of sound, was the only audio engineer at the event, and he was visibly overwhelmed. He was not sleeping. “Over a five day period, I maybe had about five or six hours total,” he later shared.
Three nights into the event, fans and artists were having a good time, but it was clear that even as artists performed groundbreaking new material, GBB21 would not be the showcase artists they had hoped for. Olanska, the Swissbeatbox General Manager, had hired a group of local volunteers, who worked upwards of 16 hours per day, all for free. Contrast that with volunteering at Bonnaroo in the US, where volunteers are expected to work one eight-hour shift over a weekend, and it becomes crystal clear how drastically understaffed Swissbeatbox was for the GBB.
After two years scraping by without their regular avenues of funding, Swissbeatbox were cash strapped, and attempted to host a bigger event than ever. Resources and manpower spread thin, Swissbeatbox was unable to deliver on sound quality, scheduling, or, as it would later become clear, on safety.
The alleged assault and rape at GBB21 happened outside the event space, and thus, said Swissbeatbox’s lawyers, it was beyond the parameters of Swissbeatbox’s responsibility.
That said, the allegations were not without context.
The beatboxing community has always been a male-dominated space. An informal poll of women at GBB21 suggested that one in five attendees were women or gender non-binary people. This was a step up from prior years, where, says Kazu Iwai, owner of HumanBeatbox.com and beatbox historian, around one in twenty fans were not male.
On stage, that ratio is even worse. At GBB21, three women performed: Pe4enkata, the 2009 Female World Champion, performed a judge’s showcase; HerShe performed a DJ set; Juliana Olanska, the GBB General Manager, performed with her band Yuos to close the event. None competed in the GBB proper.
In all the years of the Grand Beatbox Battle, just one woman, Kaila Mullady, the 2015 and 2018 Female World Champion, has ever competed.
The comment section of beatboxing videos can get ugly, particularly under videos of women beatboxing. The third comment under the 2018 Female World Championship final between Kaila Mullady and Chiwawa reads “Freaking sexy staring i really wanted them so make out that would make this a real freaking show!!!”
Beatbox organizers have long admitted this problem exists, but few have taken any concrete steps to increase female and non-binary representation in the scene. The Beatbox Battle World Championship and some other battles made a separate bracket, but many women felt that only ostracized them further, and that it contributed to the debunked notion that women cannot make all the sounds that men can.
Calls for beatbox battles to “stop bathrooming it” and allow all beatboxers into the same bracket have kept most events mixed gendered, but the women simply have not come.
To start the second night of the GBB, the MC, Scott Jackson, made a vague statement about respect and treating other people with respect, but crowd members were either confused, or frustrated that he didn’t call out bad actors more directly.
“He was just brushing over it. Very superficial,” said Pauline Way, a German fan. “Like you wouldn't really get into, treating women right. Treating transgender people, right?” When she was with a male friend, Way felt safe, but right after he would step away, “I could feel a hand grazing my back,” she said.
Without the explicit support of the hosting organizations, many women were unsure about even attending the event in the first place. “I was afraid of attending events for so long,” said Ry Lee, another German fan. “There's so many guys. [Would] I even connect with them?” Ironically, the women who reported feeling the safest were at their first beatbox battles and didn’t know to wonder if they felt safe.
In the aftermath of the GBB, many community members began to consider the allegations in light of this unwelcoming atmosphere for non-men. Just a few years prior, the international community blacklisted an American beatboxer for violent sexual conduct, and yet, after statements and warnings, nothing changed.
Could women who love beatboxing ever feel safe in the community? Could men continue to support organizations that didn’t actively work to ensure their female peers were safe and welcome? Trust was at an all time-low. Which made it especially hard to process all the good memories from the event, and good feeling toward the community.
Among the many highlights at the event, there was JordoX (aka Jordi Ramos Rivera) the first Mexican beatboxer to appear at the GBB; Max Mirel, the first Israeli to appear at the GBB; So-So and Rusy of Sarukani were the first Japanese Beatboxers to win a GBB title, taking the Tag-Team Loopstation title as SORRY. Backstage after winning, the only words Rusy could push past his tears were “I’m going to call my mom.”
Gene, himself the winner of the 2015 GBB, semi-finalist at the 2016 GBB, winner of the tag-team (2 on 2) category in 2018, and many-time judge, called his showcase with Chris Celiz “the biggest and best show that me and Chris has ever done.” Looking back on the entire experience was painful for him. “It was kind of hard to separate” the music from the event itself, hard to sit with the knowledge that the event where he achieved a career high was, for someone else, a lifetime low. Many others felt the same.
As Swissbeatbox finished uploading videos from GBB21 to their YouTube channel, a pair of announcements brought the beatboxing world to attention. First, on March 9, Bee Low and Beatbox Battle TV posted to Instagram for the first time in nearly a year, announcing a beatbox convention in September 2022 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Beatbox Battle network. Soon after, they announced the return of the world championship, set for August 2023.
In a follow up post they explained the comeback. “Due to numerous negative influences within the online community, our family scene has developed counterproductively in recent years. Therefore, many beatbox fans follow no longer the ideal values of our founding days.”
Then, on April 26, Swissbeatbox announced on its Instagram page that they had regrettably canceled GBB22. “Due to an internal reorganization, SBX is working diligently to improve its team operations, product quality and project innovation.”
Yet again, the beatbox world will be looking towards a major event in hopes of a paradigm shift, but for the first time in years, this event would be hosted by Beatbox Battle TV. Fans and artists alike again found themselves asking who, if not Swissbeatbox, would be the catalyst to bring beatbox to the mainstream once and for all.
Would it be Beatbox Battle TV? Swissbeatbox? Someone else entirely?
In the course of reporting this story, I asked dozens of beatboxers and beatbox fans a simple question: Who can you trust? I received more pregnant pauses than answers. The non-answers I eventually got all centered on one big idea. The beatbox community is a family, and family figures it out.
In a break between the battles at GBB21, fans stepped out of the concert hall and into the foyer at the ExpoXXI for a break. They gathered in giddy threes and fours, rehashing the recent battles, sitting crisscross-applesauce against the wall if they were lucky, and against backpacks if they weren’t.
Among the hundred or so fans on the floor were a Spanish champion, the siblings of a French GBB competitor and fans from Malaysia, Denmark, Austria, The United States, Argentina, the Czec Republic, Germany, Finland, Hungary, Switzerland, and Poland. Some groups came together. Others met in the airport and made quick friends.
This is the beatbox family that Beatbox Battle TV will hope to attract in September, the one that my interviewees said would figure it out. But they were talking about dancing to their favorite artists, not safety at events, how to get more women on stages, raising sustainable capital for beatbox organizations, or how to get beatbox albums into the headphones of A&R reps in major music labels.
Is it pollyannaish to think that family and love will be beatboxing’s golden ticket? Who’s to say. But that is the bet beatboxing is making.
Special thanks to Caroline Miller, Whitney Dangerfield, Meryl Gordon, the entire staff of NYU Journalism for their extensive support as I reported, wrote, and edited this story.
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