Tonight, lights over the Benjamin Franklin Parkway will arc and pulse to many voices from below – including an affiliate of The Legendary Roots Crew.
Rahzel Brown, aka Rahzel The Godfather of Noyze, will perform his signature beatbox stylings at the launch of Open Air, an installation of 24 searchlights that respond and react to human voices. The will sweep and blink, brighten and fade, and crisscross the night sky to form intricate patterns and shapes when viewed from afar.
The grand-scale outdoor exhibit, which runs through October 14, was designed by Mexico City-based conceptual artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, who also worked with Rahzel on an installation in New York City called Voice Array. This exhibit, on display in Manhattan’s Bitforms gallery, also uses voice to control a light display.
“It’s been a mindblowing experience,” Rahzel says when we caught up with him by phone earlier this week. “I had been working and researching how to do thing like that anyway, to push the envelope of my performance. And then Rafeal got in touch – he has been a fan, and wanted to work together. You wish for something and it comes together mysteriously. It’s a little spooky.”
Pushing the envelope is a big part of Rahzel’s approach to music. His work in the 90s beatboxing for The Roots – and later for other artists including Common and Erykah Badu – reshaped what it means to be a vocal percussionist in rap music. Rather than simply creating boom-bap beats with his mouth, he mixed in other sounds and vocalizations: speaking, rapping, singing. With a fierce-paced cut-up style, Rahzel was able to mimic a hiphop DJ cutting up a record, starting and stopping while the vocal is constantly moving. (This set the stage well for later Roots beatboxer Scratch.)
Rahzel says he arrived at his signature style by looking to other artists who didn’t place limitations on themselves. “Bobby McFerrin was intriguing to me because he collaborated with Chick Corea, he worked with the Philadelphia Philharmonic,” Rahzel says. ”And then growing up in hiphop, listening to, say, Afrika Bambaataa, they always picked their breakbeats out of all different styles of music.
“It taught me ‘don’t be afraid to experiment,” he contines. “Plus, being with The Roots – they pushed a lot of boundaries too, reformed the way people look at the music and the live band in hiphop. Being in that atmosphere fueled my desire to not do what people expect.”
This led to collaborations outside of the rap world. Rahzel was a prominent player on Bjork’s all-vocal 2005 release, the hypnotic Medulla LP. He also collaborated with Mike Patton, another vocalist who pushes boundaries in his metal and avant-rock acts Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Tomahawk and Peeping Tom. With over two decades of beatboxing under his belt, Rahzel says he continues to explore different avenues for his voice to travel.
“Today, for example, I was screaming,” he says. “I was testing myself for pitch and volume. To somebody else, it might just sound like I’m yelling at the top of my lungs for no reason. But I was trying out to see what resonates, what different things I can make my voice do.”
Open Air marks the first time Rahzel has been involved in a full-scale arts festival, and he’s excited to see the light-and-music pairing he experienced in Voice Array earlier this month magnified on the canvas of Philadelphia’s skyline. “You know how when you go to a concert, they have the light show, the laser show, it’s this big event? Imagine that, but even bigger,” he says. “It’s going to be monumental. I’m a big fan of Art of Noise and that’s the title for me. Art meets noise, sound and voice as one.”
The Open Air launch happens tonight at 21st Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway; performances begin at 7:30 p.m. The light installation runs through October 14.