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Will Fulton

Will Fulton is an Assistant Professor of Music at LaGuardia Community College. He has contributed articles to The Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, American Music Review, the Grove Dictionary of American Music, and is co-author of a forthcoming 33 1/3 volume on Camp Lo’s Uptown Saturday Night. Will is a record producer and former A&R Director for Profile Records. He is a PhD Candidate in Musicology at the City University of New York.

“‘Sounds Human Ears Have Never Heard’: Michael Jackson’s Vocal Composition and the Beatbox Collective”
"I go to a tape recorder and I put the sounds down. Orally, with my mouth, making sounds of how I want each part to go. The way I hear it, because the key is to get exactly what you’re hearing in your head on that tape..."--Michael Jackson

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Michael Jackson developed a style of vocal composition that involved tracking demos of himself performing instrumental parts orally. As Jackson began composing songs, he recorded a cappella multitrack demos of beatboxed rhythm tracks, basslines, and vocal melodies, creating song templates that would then be realized by studio musicians for some of his biggest hits, including “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” (1982). His demos exhibit imagined ideas of what each member of the collective would perform, and conceptualized the timbre, rhythm, and articulation of each instrumental and vocal part. Jackson perceived each part as having a specific “character” that is represented within the fabric of the final recording, supporting the idea that he imagined groups of personalities in abstract. His beatboxed imitations of instrumental performance remain an integral element of the final recordings. As the timbres of synthesizer patches are often filtered to imitate Jackson’s voice, these tracks exhibit a dynamic relationship between vocal performance and electronic experimentation.

Employing Andrew Flory’s concept of “vocal composition” and Theo Cateforis’s views on liminality in 1980s new wave, this paper considers Jackson’s process as a type of vocal composition that both transforms and reimagines the collective practices of R&B. Drawing on new interviews of former Jackson keyboardist Greg Phillinganes and engineer Bruce Swedien, and analyzed transcriptions of demo and album versions of Jackson songs, I argue that Jackson’s vocal concepts play a critical role in his recordings, which should be heard as extensions of his demoed beatbox collectives.

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