How will history judge Blake Lewis? Whether or not the American Idol hopeful emerges victorious this Wednesday evening, this much seems certain: Lewis' name will forever arrive with this caboose: " … you know, the beatboxing one."
It's a dubious legacy, but Lewis' accomplishment is nothing to sneeze at. Given Idol's weekly audience of millions, the 25-year-old singer has done more than anyone in music history to bring the strange concoction of hums, gulps, raspberries, and screeches known as beatboxing into the mainstream. His love of this hip-hop-derived technique, in which you use your mouth to simulate a drum machine, a turntable, a sampler, or any combination of the three, was on display at his very first audition, when he decorated an already florid rendition of Seal's "Crazy" with some rhythmic stammers and feigned turntable scratching. Beatboxing has been a part of Lewis' performances more or less every week since, and in an Idol season when gimmicks have often upstaged singing (see Sanjaya Malakar's hairstyles and Antonella Barba's soft-core-porn portfolio), Lewis' gimmick has proved the most enduring, and the most virtuosic. Idol voters clearly enjoy his little flights of fancy, and kids in particular love them. You can watch many of his younger fans attempting Blake-inspired beatbox routines on YouTube.
The tradition of vocally generated percussion stretches back far beyond hip-hop's late '70s birthday (and continued to exist alongside it, as in Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy"). But the first proper beatboxing star was Doug E. Fresh. His 1985 single "The Show" is an early epic of the genre, and truly odd. Running to nearly 7 minutes, it's essentially one continuous call-and-response between Fresh and the Inspector Gadget theme song: A synthesizer blurts out a few notes, Fresh answers with his spittle-rich approximations of snares, a didgeridoolike bass line, and woodblock sounds that suggest cracking knuckles. For Fresh, beatboxing wasn't merely a way to mimic a drum machine—it was a way to create funkier percussion than a drum machine ever could. This same spirit is at play on another beatbox classic, the Fat Boys' "Stick 'Em," from 1984. The song begins with the Brooklyn trio's resident human beatbox, Buffy, blowing raspberries to the tune of "My Country 'Tis of Thee," then huffing and wheezing theatrically. Toward the song's end, the producer runs Buffy's drum sounds through a synthesizer and shifts them upward and downward in pitch, an ingenious trick that predated Timbaland—who often builds beats around digitally manipulated scraps of human voice—by more than a decade.
From Doug E. Fresh to Buffy to Biz Markie—the brilliant hip-hop jester remembered more for his loser's lament "Just a Friend" than for his 1986 beatbox tutorial "Make the Music With Your Mouth Biz"—there wasn't a tough guy among beatboxing's elite; indeed, there's always been something willfully silly about the technique. Actor Michael Winslow, known for his sound effects in the Police Academy movies, is often saluted on beatboxing fan sites.
Beatboxing appeared, peaked in popularity, and faded out of prominence all in the mid-'80s, making the form's earliest stars also its only stars. Today, much like break dancing, this hallmark of old-school hip-hop has fallen severely out of vogue, except among people operating on the fringes of hip-hop culture: self-styled European b-boys, indignant purists, and, apparently, Seattle-bred American Idol contestants. (One notable exception is Justin Timberlake, who, while not a hip-hop star, makes music thoroughly intertwined with hip-hop; his "Rock Your Body" video features a beatboxing breakdown, and he often beatboxes live in concert.) Beatboxing's closest thing to a contemporary star is Rahzel, a Bronx-born artist and sometime affiliate of the Roots who typically performs for audiences of enraptured college students. Rahzel, whom Björk enlisted for her 2004 a cappella album Medulla, has taken the technique to such stupefyingly virtuosic heights that he is something like beatboxing's Yngwie Malmsteen: He's dazzling to witness, but his proficiency risks smothering his charm.
So, is Blake Lewis any good at beatboxing? In a small way, he calls to mind some endearingly goofy Jamie Kennedy parody, from his frosted-tipped hair to the wholly serious way he says things like, "I represent Seattle, the emerald city." His favorite band, meanwhile, is 311, white Nebraskans with a taste for rap-rock-reggae experiments that sound as ridiculous as that hyphenate suggests they would. None of this, of course, makes Lewis any worse at beatboxing—it just makes it extremely difficult to take his beatboxing seriously, even by the loose standards of the genre. Technically speaking, he's not half bad. The way he simulates a DJ's cross fader, slicing his own voice into strobelike shards, is spot-on, and he's great at dragging notes suddenly downward, like a record whirring to a halt.
But technique, of course, isn't everything, and Lewis has a bad habit of putting beatboxing in places it has no business being. To name just two of many: the Zombies' cool-as-ice "Time of the Season," and—despite guest mentor Barry Gibb's reassuring words to the contrary—the Bee Gees' "You Should Be Dancing."
When the beatboxing works, it works in spite of itself. The best example of this is Lewis' engrossingly weird reworking of Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name." When he wedges beatboxing into songs indiscriminately, though, it threatens to become just another empty vocal tic, like the flutters of melisma favored by Idol's many Mariah Carey wannabes. All bets are off on what song Lewis will sing tonight. Is "Stick 'Em" too much to hope for?