In 2012 I had the pleasure of inteviewing JASON NEWMAN, one of the founders of Hip Hop Karaoke–the first event of its kind in the world. Since 2004 HHK has paid tribute to hip hop music and culture at NYC venues ranging from Brooklyn Bowl to Irving Plaza, giving brave souls a chance to channel their inner MC. Below are excepts from our conversation. This Friday HHK returns to Brooklyn Bowl. MORE DETAILS HERE.
Cool Older Brother Syndrome (COBS)
When I was like 7 or 8 my brother had come back from college and lived at home. My parents were kind of into music but not really–Peter Paul and Mary, Barbra Streisand. It was my brother who basically had the “school of rock.” The Pixies, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Public Enemy, Bauhaus, Kraftwerk. And I would just absorb it all. He’s the reason we’re even talking, why I’m a music journalist. It’s COB syndrome, man, Cool Older Brother Syndrome! It’s the best disease to have. When I was seven, I was buying White Lion, Kix, Great White, you know, hair metal or whatever. And then the first album I discovered on my own was Appetite. When I discovered Appetite for Destruction that was it. I wanted to be in Guns N’ Roses. That was my goal in life, to be a member of Guns N’ Roses. That was the first thing I got obsessed with on my own.
From “School of Rock” to “Hip Hop U.”
I was a total rock dude up until college. And then in ’96-’97 I started listening to Artifacts’ That’s Them, The Roots Illadelph Halflife, Redman Muddy Waters, Biggie’s Ready To Die. In high school all my friends were hip hop dudes. And I just didn’t get it. It was only in college I started listening to it. And once I did, that was it. Josh I met [HHK co-founder] Josh in college freshman year. That dude’s an encyclopedia. I’ve never met anyone who knows more about hip hop than him. And he would be like, “here are the albums you need to listen to.” He’d give me ten albums and I’d buy them, listen to them, memorize them. “Here are ten more” and I’d go through them.
It was two things. On one end I was going to Punk Rock Heavy Metal Karaoke at Arlene Grocery. I used to go there as much as I could on Mondays. And I’m not a karaoke dude at all. But you’d see these guys doing “Kick Out the Jams,” “Sonic Reducer,” and what struck me was the vibe was amazing. The British emcee [Owen Comaskey] was awesome, he made it fun. You wanted to see what was next. At the same time, we would go to hip hop clubs, or hip hop bars that DJs spun at like this place called Heathers at 13th between A and B. And you’d see these groups of dudes all singing along, all rhyming along. And that was our dancing, like eight guys in a circle with no girls around of course, with a beer in your hand–“I rap for listeners, bluntheads, fly ladies and prisoners.” And so it was a combination. I very distinctly remember going back to my apartment, coming back from Arlene Grocery, putting on Illmatic, and sort of envisioning that for hip hop. It was really very selfish. How dope would it be if me and my friends got on stage and did what would do at clubs, but for an audience? And everyone does that.
Hip Hop Karaoke vs. Karaoke
I started looking it up and there was nothing like this. I wrote my own press release, reached out to a bunch of venues and everyone turned it down. It’s a very hard idea to grasp on paper, because you hear the word karaoke and hip hop karaoke is “Bust A Move,” “Ice Ice Baby,” “Can’t Touch This” or whatever. When we did the song list, the guiding principle was that if you can do it at regular karaoke, it’s not gonna be on our list with a few exceptions. But for the most part, the whole idea was “let’s make it like a live performance where the audience is the MC.” Basically, do a live hip hop show without the rapper. And that was always the idea the whole time. And we were like, “how would if be if you were on stage, and you got the instrumental to “The Choice Is Yours” or “Memory Lane” and you did it?” And I knew, once it got going, the sky’s the limit.
The Song List
Josh, Zac, and I are all hip hop nerds. There’s no doubt about that—three hip hop nerds that started this. And we all came with a separate list, what songs do we want to see on this list. We all came with a list of 100 to 150 songs. We spent 12 to 14 hours in Zac’s apartment going over every song. It’s a fine-tuning thing. Some songs we thought would work really well completely bomb. Some songs we wouldn’t expect are the biggest ones we have. The reason we did all that is because we knew exactly what people were going to think about this. We were very aware, when you hear hip hop karaoke, you think Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer. We weren’t gonna have that. We’re not having “Getting’ Jiggy Wit It.” It was all about reliving and honoring a period of very good hip hop with new stuff that adheres to that ethos as well. [see complete songlist]
Creating the Vibe
We were super conscious about creating a certain vibe to the event. As a fan of music history, I was very keenly aware of the late ‘70s, early ‘80s New York music scene. It was a very cool time for music because you had Fab Five Freddy partying with Joe Strummer partying with Jerry Hall, and so on. The whole uptown/downtown dynamic. And I was too young for living that but you read about it, watch Wild Style. And I am extremely influenced by that, by seeing that everything is broken down to its purest essence of music. It sounds corny but that’s exactly what it is. Nobody gives a shit about anything except music. Image is important, of course, but at the end of the day it all comes down to music. Nobody cares about who you are or if you’re coming from Soho or Harlem. You were just there to hear music and have a good time. That was sort of the vibe we tried to create.
Debut at Rothko
December 6th, 2004 was our first date. We had two months to plan the entire event, market it. I was in the journalist’s life so I was able to reach out to a bunch of other journos. We got really nice early support from the New York Post and Village Voice and Time Out. And that’s what gave us a little bit of credibility early on. The first hour of the first show we had five people signed up. And we were like, “Oh well, there goes that event.” We thought we’d do five songs, me and Josh would do one each, and the event was over. And then by the fourth song, two more people signed up. And then two more people signed up. We got maybe 15 songs the first time out. And then eventually it sort of snowballed, and by the third or fourth show we had a pretty good crowd. By the sixth one, the line was around the corner. It was a total word-of-mouth thing. We were waiting for the negative publicity. I was literally waiting to hear people hating on us, and of course a couple of them did, but for the most part it was all love.
The Fab Five Freddy Moment
I would say that the black contingent of the event definitely grew. There’s no question there were more white people in the beginning, because HHK was almost treated as a hipster event at first. It wasn’t looked at the way a real hip hop party was. But then the black contingent of the event grew. In terms of the whole Benetton ad [racial diversity] thing we got to have a total mix. As the event grew, we started getting completely different crowds, dudes that were not hanging out before. You had urban dudes. You had white girls. You had dudes who were 45-year-old hip hop heads who were, “Oh, there’s a DJ who’s spinning O.C. and Artifacts and Kool G Rap.” It’s almost like none of them really knew that they were all bonding together, but then eventually they were as the event went on. You’d see the different pockets in the beginning. You would see the white pocket, the black pocket, the Asian pocket, or whatever. And then eventually it started morphing. I don’t remember the exact time but it was maybe about six months into the event where we had the Fab 5 Freddy Moment. I remember looking out and taking a picture. I remember thinking, this is it. This is exactly what we wanted. The drunk lawyer and the dude from Flatbush are hooking up. That’s awesome! I hope they have lots of babies. It captured that very utopian vibe of, man, these are people from such disparate backgrounds that would never hang out in real life outside of HHK. But when HHK starts, it’s all bullshit. They just come in and have a good time.
Skills To Pay The Bills
HHK has definitely evolved in the sense that, when we started the event, our thought was that if you had a good performance you would get cheered. If you had a bad performance, it would still be funny and people would like that. And what I noticed as it evolved, in relation to the crowd, was that the bad performances weren’t laughed with. You know, you’re just kind of fucking it up. The whole idea is honoring these songs. The whole idea was avoiding bastardization. We do not want to be seen as mocking in any way, because we love the music. We don’t want to be goofy dudes. And when there were bad performances I think it came off as that, as a drunk person just getting up there and fucking up. The crowd evolved in the sense that the good performances rose to the top, and people were forced to rehearse. I had a lot of people for better or worse say that “I wanna get up there but I’m not good enough.” And in a way I was kind of proud. But in a way I wanted to be open to new people, like, “just get up, it’s fine” or whatever.
We had a lot of ideas about how to handle that. We were three white guys starting a hip hop event with a crowd that we knew would be mixed. We knew we could not have white people dropping that word. We really didn’t want anyone dropping that word, but especially white people. We played with a lot of different ideas, and the one we came up with was using brother. Everywhere there’s the n-word, you say brother. It’s innocuous, it gets the point across, it doesn’t change the meaning of what we think the rapper is trying to say. And everyone’s happy. There were a couple slip-ups by some dudes, but it thankfully never got heated. I think a lot of people understood that when people dropped it, it was out of repetition and not malice. You hear a song 8,000 times, you do it the way you hear it. And so luckily it never happened too much, maybe a dozen times. But there were never any incidents of people getting offended.
Even Better Than The Real Thing?
We have lyric sheets for all the songs. By the third year maybe a quarter of people them. That goes to the performance vibe. We want to create a performance, and what’s cornier than going up on stage with lyrics, you know. We never alienated people if they wanted to use them. But what we found is that people would rehearse for literally weeks to not use paper, to get off paper. And now we have very few people doing it. It’s great, it was very organic. And what’s funny, and I sort of hesitate to say this, but a journalism student was doing a paper on us and interviewing a bunch of people. We were talking about it afterwards and she goes, “they said this is where they go to hear good live hip hop.” Which is a really fascinating statement. So they would tell her, when they go to live hip hop shows it’s 30 guys on stage, shows that start late, guys doing new songs that no one cares about. And so this is where they go to hear distilled, good hip hop. And when people start getting really good at it, it’s like, “this is better than the original.” It was mildly sad to hear that. It’s not what I want, but it’s nice that people are into the event.