Sound Seekers by Fateema Sayani is published weekly at OttawaMagazine.com. Read Fateema Sayani’s culture column in Ottawa Magazine and follow her on Twitter @fateemasayani
Those who lack a backstory or street cred can feign both on stage tonight for the first Ottawa edition of Hip Hop Karaoke being held at Mugshots, the outdoor bar behind the Ottawa Jail Hostel on Nicholas Street. That’s when showboats and heads will gather to pay tribute to their favourite acts in song—and in appearance.
Y’see, hip-hop karaoke (HHK) is not like traditional karaoke where you show up, pick a song out of a book, and sing a tuneless version of some monster hit. It’s actually more like theatre, explains Devin Atherton, an Orleans MC who recently released a highly personal album and is organizing the HHK night with Deejay So Nice (Hassan Hamdan).
“There’s planning involved,” Atherton says. “You need to rehearse and practice for your time on stage.” He points to Montreal — a city that has a vibrant HHK scene — as inspiration. “There are people there who make ‘HHK-514’ medallions that light up. They get costumed and do choreography for the songs,” he says. “People have a following because they’re a hip hop karaoke star. They put in the work.”
Atherton is hoping that kind of enthusiasm will carry over in the Ottawa scene as HHK gathers steam.
HHK works like this: People who want to perform must sign up at least two weeks in advance. From there, Deejay So Nice will email an instrumental song file to the wannabe MC, that way she or he has a chance to work out the kinks and practice gestures in the mirror while mastering the “hey-yo, hey-yo, hey-yo, heeeey-yoooo” chorus of “No Diggity” or the tongue-twisting rhyme sayings of “Baby Got Back” — two of 22 songs that will be performed tonight by the brave.
(Then there are the not-so brave. A hastily fired-off tweet suggesting that HHK organizers do a version of “Check the O.R” — the ‘90s rap anthem that started hometown boy Tom Green into his comedy career via his band Organized Rhyme — somehow led organizers to putting me on the roster, despite a lack of bluster and two left feet. I’m on the books for the July edition of HHK, but I need some backing MCs. I will be studying the song via the 2011 reunion edition of “Check the O.R.” Anyone with a deep knowledge of O-town rap and guts, please contact me. You can call me Grandmaster Gaffe).
If you’re interested in performing at a future edition of HHK, check the website for sign-up details. Atherton and So Nice are lining up performers for the next round to be held on July 19 and the third Thursday of the month thereafter.
Atherton says HHK crowds in other cities have been supportive, particularly of anthemic songs such as “Simon Says” by Pharoahe Monch. “People lose their shit when they hear it.”
The appeal of HHK is its mix of mockery and reverence of the genre. Because for every great tune, there are a bunch of people who should have never done rap. Did you ever hear the trainwreck that is Dee Dee King? That’s when Dee Dee Ramone left The Bruddas to try rhymin’. Then there was that collabo between Run DMC and Aerosmith. Cheesy.
“But kind of great, looking back, right?” Atherton says of “Walk this Way.”
It’s kind of like crossing the floor of the House of Commons, I say.
“It worked for the Beastie Boys,” Atherton says, to mutual agreement.
So why throw an HHK party? Atherton puts it this way: “I’d argue that our generation is the hip-hop generation — ‘90s kids. Hip hop was at its best then. It’s infiltrated our slang, our fashion, and the way we communicate with each other.”
“My sister, when she hangs up the phone, she doesn’t say goodbye — she says ‘peace’ and she doesn’t even listen to hip hop. She listens to Bon Iver and Feist.”
Hip Hop Karaoke launches tonight, Thursday, June 21, at Mugshots — the outdoor bar at the Ottawa Jail Hostel (rain location: inside the Ottawa Jail Hostel). 10 p.m., $5.