Sounds from the fifth element

Young beatboxer Leejay Abucayan makes old-school ventriloquism sound like two turntables and a microphone. And much more.

Leejay Abucayan demonstrates his human beatboxing technique.

Leejay Abucayan demonstrates his human beatboxing technique.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Watching Leejay Abucayan perform is part hip-hop concert, part comedy routine and part magic show. A multitude of beats, hisses, hums, cracks and even singing appears to come out of his mouth simultaneously, while his hands glide over invisible turntables and his body struts like a rapper with a sense of humor.

“When you first show it to someone, their first reaction is amazement,” Abucayan explained. “They haven’t heard anything like that before.”

This is not surprising, as live beatboxing can seem like ventriloquism at its best. Your eyes don’t believe it, but your ears tell you otherwise.

Abucayan’s high-school music teacher, Matt Spiva, recalled when he and colleague Brian Rivers first saw Abucayan perform for some classmates. “We just stopped. We couldn’t believe it,” Spiva said. “I was amazed; it was incredible. At first I thought somebody else was playing with him on another microphone—but he was doing all the sounds himself!”

For Abucayan, a senior at Natomas Charter School’s Performing and Fine Arts Academy, beatboxing has evolved from something he did to kill quiet moments around the house to a vehicle for international acclaim, at least among the growing community of people who use their mouths as instruments.

“I mostly learned on my own,” Abucayan explained.

The 16-year-old recently took home first prize at the Austrian Beatbox Championship in Vienna. With characteristic modesty, he joked, “If you just mess around and make enough noises for long enough, the noise you’re looking for will eventually come out.”

Michael Krappel, organizer of the Austrian competition, summed up Abucayan’s appeal: “You can hear the fun in his music and see it in his performance.”

At the first Jammie Awards, held at the Mondavi Center last June, Abucayan performed his version of “Tequila,” a 1958 hit by the Champs, wowing an audience of more than 1,000. It was as though a live backup band accompanied him, but Abucayan was the only one onstage. Every sound—from the familiar saxophone melody before the “Tequila!” chorus to the ever-present bass line—was all Abucayan, all the time.

“The fifth element of hip-hop,” as beatboxing has been called, is defined in an article on as “the art of creating beats and rhythms using the human mouth.” That particular Web site is a clearinghouse of information and tutorials on the art form; the site is run by British beatbox promoter Alex Tew, a.k.a. A-Plus. (The other four elements of hip-hop are breakdancing, graffiti art, DJ-ing on turntables and MC-ing. A good beatboxer can imitate a wide range of other sounds: scratching records, vocals, instrumentals and a host of advanced percussive sounds.

As Tew wrote, “The art of vocal percussion comes naturally to many people. Making strange sounds with your mouth at a young age, and later discovering what you’re doing is called ‘beatboxing,’ is a familiar story.”

Before she knew of her son’s unique hobby, Abucayan’s mother remembers thinking he was simply playing the radio in his bedroom like any other teenager. She had no idea her son was generating all those sounds with his mouth alone.

Bryan Neuberg, whose stage name is Process, is a 30-year-old grassroots organizer who co-leads the San Francisco-based beatbox salon known as The Vowel Movement. Neuberg said the term “beatboxing” originated when people imitated the sound made by early drum machines called “beat boxes.” These copy artists naturally became known as “beatboxers.”

The art form originated in New York in the 1980s, Neuberg explained. Often too poor to buy instruments to accompany the performers, some innovative folks began improvising beats and other catchy sounds with their mouths and voices. There is some discrepancy over who started the phenomenon. Some give credit to Doug E Fresh; others say Biz Markie or Buffy from the Fat Boys pioneered it.

Interest in vocal percussion among the mainstream lagged during the next decade but seems to be making a comeback. Neuberg estimated that there are currently thousands of practitioners across the United States and tens of thousands more in Europe, although exact numbers are hard to pin down. “There really hasn’t been a community up until recently. There’ve been separate beatboxers who didn’t know each other throughout the country,” said Neuberg. “Now there’s a critical mass. Beatboxing is spreading throughout the country like wildfire.”

Photo By Jill Wagner

Thanks to Web sites that link vocal percussionists around the world, the art form is growing as ideas and talents are shared within the community. “Of all the elements of hip-hop, beatboxing has been particularly collaborative and sharing,” observed Neuberg, who has been a multivocalist for 10 years, even traveling to Thailand to introduce the art form there.

In this country, New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles are the main beatboxing pockets, said Neuberg.

Far from the ‘hoods of New York, Abucayan, like good Gen-Xers everywhere, first encountered his future hobby on MTV at home in Sacramento back in 1997. “I heard this beatboxer on MTV named Rahzel [formerly of hip-hop ensemble The Roots]. It was amazing to see those kind of sounds coming out of a human being,” recalled Abucayan, his short, spiky black hair contrasting with the oversize brown T-shirt he wore, which spoofed the Puma label. Instead of having “Puma” near the familiar animal silhouette, it read “Pinoy,” a Tagalog slang term for Filipino male.

After seeing Rahzel perform, Abucayan played around, making sounds with his mouth here and there. But he did not think of pursuing it seriously until his girlfriend, Angel, introduced him to local vocal-percussion artist Kevin Discipulo at a Filipino community festival in Sacramento in 2001.

“Before [Discipulo], I always saw the professional people as the ones who can beatbox really well,” Abucayan said. “When I saw that someone can actually do it—a regular, ordinary person—I was like, ‘Hey, I can do this, too.’”

Within two years, Abucayan’s unique talent landed him invitations to perform at events in Sacramento, Davis, Stockton, Vallejo and San Jose as well as to appear on local TV and radio stations. In early June, he performed at the 2003 Jammies, and later that month he went to Europe to compete in the Austrian Beatbox Championship.

Abucayan has taken multivocalism to another level with his covers of what the teenage performer calls “oldies”—hip-hop and R&B favorites from the 1980s and ’90s by such artists as Salt-N-Pepa, Tone-Loc and LL Cool J. He gravitates toward hip-hop because of what he called “the edge, the emotion, the rebelliousness—free will to say what you want.”

Abucayan also covers such contemporary favorites as Britney Spears and 50 Cent. “I do mostly songs on the radio, but songs that no other beatboxer would think about doing,” he said.

The local media coverage Abucayan has enjoyed was made possible largely due to effective press releases sent out by his mother. Bernadette Abucayan, herself a former dancer and singer in the Philippines, attends all her son’s performances and keeps a scrapbook recording the media exposure he has received through the years.

Beatbox organizer Neuberg noticed Bernadette’s involvement early on. “I first met his mother and immediately I could sense deep family support, which is rare in our culture,” he said.

“I am very, very proud of him,” said Bernadette, overwhelmed by emotion and fighting back tears. Composing herself, she continued: “I can see that he is really happy [and] doing well in school.” Abucayan had a 4.12 grade point average his junior year. “I don’t have any complaints about Leejay at all,” she said, her words lightly plucked by a tangy Capampangan (a Filipino dialect) accent. “When you tell him to do something, he does it right away. He hasn’t given us any problems. He’s just perfect, for me.”

Not only is Abucayan’s close-knit family supportive of his artistic endeavors, its members even perform with him. The family of five, whose patriarch is a retired Air Force veteran, sings and dances together as part of a local Filipino performing troupe called Sinag-tala. When he joined in 2001, Abucayan usually sang in the chorus; he was too shy to sing solo. Back when he first started beatboxing onstage, his mother was astonished to hear her son singing as part of his one-man routine.

While one might never know it from his performances, Abucayan still gets embarrassed when asked to perform on the spot. “I’m still kind of shy about it sometimes,” he admitted. “It’s kind of awkward when [people] start getting all excited and asking questions and all.” He manages to overcome his inhibitions when onstage, however. “I really enjoy doing it; that’s my sole purpose. I have a passion for it,” he said.

Neuberg sees Abucayan as a standout on the vocal-percussion scene, both for his talent and for his attitude toward the art form. “He’s got great stage presence,” Neuberg said. “He holds himself with the confidence of a professional performer.”

Equally important, “Leejay is a community builder,” Neuberg added. “He’s a star, he’s young, and he’s rising. And he’s supporting others to rise as well.”

Regardless of the local and international attention he receives, Abucayan remains disarmingly practical about the whole thing. “I don’t want to think of it as professional because I don’t see what kind of career can be made out of it,” he said.

Next year, Abucayan will attend the second World Human Beatbox Convention in New York. He won the trip for placing first at the Austrian competition this past June. After that, he won’t say. He plans to attend the University of California, Davis, in the fall, but no matter what comes next, it’s clear that he will make vocal percussion a part of his life on some level. As he put it, “I can’t see myself stopping anytime soon because music will always change. And as music changes, then my beatboxing style can always change. I’m just going to keep on doing it.”