He's still overwhelmed by the possibilities beatboxing offers.
By WALTER TUNIS
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
By trade, Rahzel Brown -- just call him Rahzel -- is a vocal percussionist. That means the beats most musicians create by pounding a drum or, increasingly, pushing the button of a computer, he makes with his mouth.
In the hip-hop world Rahzel has grown up with, such a feat is called beatboxing. From years in his youth spent thrilling to performances by such rap pioneers as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to ongoing collaborations with champion hip-hop stylists The Roots to seemingly unexpected recording partnerships with such instrumentalists as Branford Marsalis, Rahzel has fashioned beats the way most artists sing songs.
"I'm still overwhelmed by the possibilities of beatboxing," Rahzel said. "A lot of people seem to gravitate towards it. When I do a show, I usually find somebody that's not really into the genre and convert them. That's hip-hop for you. It has converted a whole generation. So for me to have that same kind of effect on an audience? That's just beautiful."
Raised in the Hollis section of Queens, N.Y., Rahzel was fascinated by the daring jazz-pop vocal thrill-seeker Bobby McFerrin and the groundbreaking beatbox stylist Doug E. Fresh. But immersion in a hip-hop culture still in its infancy during the early '80s came when his cousin Rahim joined the Furious Five. The many ensuing shows he absorbed by Flash and the Five introduced the young Rahzel to the possibilities of putting words to grooves and creating beats on his own.
"Just witnessing all that was a big inspiration," Rahzel said. "Seeing Grandmaster Flash was the push I needed to actually get involved in the music. I was always into imitating singers and being kind of a comedian. But I never thought in a million years what I saw would evolve into what I'm doing now."
From there, one set of musical roots led, quite literally, to another. In the '90s, Rahzel became an auxiliary member of The Roots, the top-selling Philadelphia hip-hop ensemble that continually draws on organic soul and funk inspirations for its music. An ideal introduction to the Rahzel-Roots connection is the 1999 concert recording "The Roots Come Alive."
"Everything is still good with me and The Roots," Rahzel said. "We still do shows. I still collaborate with them on records. But that relationship has also given me the blessing for what I'm doing now."
On his own records, Rahzel has forged new directions for beatboxing grooves while exploring all-star collaborations that shoot all over the stylistic map. 1999's "The Fifth Element: Make the Music 2000" album boasts help from soul star Erykah Badu, The Roots' Black Thought, A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip, vocalist-bassist Me'Shell Ndegeocello and jazz celebrity Branford Marsalis.
"With Branford, it was very much the student and the teacher," Rahzel said. "He helped me develop so much. What a pure professional."
Last year's independently released "Rahzel's Greatest Knockouts!" featured a lineup drawn more directly from hip-hop circles. KRS-One and Wu-Tang Clan's RZA are among the guests. But on stage, there is no one to help Rahzel other than his accompanist, DJ JS-1. Basically, his concerts are reduced to the most elemental of rap music utensils: a turntable and a microphone. That's not to say Rahzel will be only beatboxing. He has also been known to mimic in detail the grooves of songs by such disparate artists as The Neptunes and Black Sabbath.
"Every night I get to play off whatever he throws at me," Rahzel said of DJ JS-1. "It's a challenge. Not only is the audience getting an element of surprise, I am, too."
"Mostly, though, I just want to take away the negative connotations hip-hop gets from the media," he added. "Everyone always wants to focus on what's wrong with it. Well, I want to show everyone what's right."