Ski-ba-bop-ba-dop-bop: is the scat back?



There is a joyous moment halfway through R&B singer Serpentwithfeet’s latest single, Same Size Shoe. In a tender falsetto, he calls for his “trumpet” before unleashing a series of rhythmic vowel sounds: a fanfaring instrumental solo with only his own voice over a minimal backing. To those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, this is scat singing. And to hear it amid a loved-up ballad in 2021 begs the question: is scatting back?


Loosely defined as vocal improvisations with a wordless melody, scatting is a term perhaps most readily associated with cartoonish imaginings of zoot-suited men snapping their fingers in smoky jazz bars. While it might seem like a lost musical artform, it has always existed in popular music beyond its native genre, jazz. Rapper Eazy-E channelled a horn-like scat in his 1990 track Eazy Street, while Busta Rhymes and Twista’s hyperspeed flows often veer into scatting territory. In pop, Beyoncé overlayed an electric guitar solo with a scat on 2011’s I Care, while Amy Winehouse laced 2003’s Frank with it. In R&B, scatting finds its ultimate expression in Lalah Hathaway, who has pioneered a remarkable chordal voicing of the form. Of course, there was also the vocal acrobatics of Scatman John, whose novelty track Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop) conquered the charts in 1994. It could be argued that even the infernal ringtone-revving of the Crazy Frog owes its influence to scat singing.


Read the feature in the Guardian.


[This piece was published on 12/03/21]