Hip Hop Karaoke at Le Belmont
Karaoke is an activity that is often a source of comedy. Think sloppy bachelorette parties hugging out their version of Beyonce's "Single Ladies" or an all too-sincere, off-tune interpretation of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." There's also our own embarrassing karaoke experiences. The one and only song I performed at a karaoke lounge was Iron Maiden's "The Number of the Beast," which I sung in a caricatured deep voice. And, let's not forget the rather unflattering cinematic portrayals; Joseph Gordon Levitt's broken-hearted, intoxicated rendition of The Clash's "Train in Vain" (as seen in 500 Days of Summer ) comes to mind.
However, when I attended last Thursday's Hip Hop Karaoke Montreal (HHKMTL) at Le Belmont, the meaning of the word was re-defined for me. Many of the performers took the stage and flawlessly rapped a string of dense lyrics. Others impressed me with their incredible confidence, movement, and overall stage presence.
"I believe that hip hop and rap are more difficult to emulate than say pop or rock, just by the sheer rate at which rappers speak, said Olivia Benaroche (stage name O-Swag), one of six HHKMTL organizers. "It is difficult to maintain the same flow and rhythm, so when somebody at HHKMTL actually pulls off a song, it's almost more impressive."
Another distinguishing feature of HHKMTL is that there is no screen with scrolling lyrics. Participants choose a song in advance, memorize the lyrics, and sing live to the instrumentals the night of the event. This aspect increases the difficulty involved, which in turn increases the 'wow factor' when a song is performed well.
"This event is of public interest by virtue of its originality," said Olivia. "... HHKMTL is much more performance-oriented. It's a spectacle, an entertainment event, for people of all ages, gender, background, and ethnicity."
Verily, the evening presented an ample, wonderfully diverse crowd. It also boasts an ever-increasing sign-up rate. Last month there were between 30 and 40 participants. Perhaps this is because the event's concept can appeal to almost anyone. People have the chance to sing on-stage with a hype man while accompanied by live turn-table music spun by talented DJs. At their feet is a crowd of cheering attendees, many of which sing-along as well. Who wouldn't want to feel like a star for a night?
"HHKMTL has bridged the gaps between many different social groups in Montreal," said Olivia. "The beauty of this event is that the audience members and participants are so diverse that HHKMTL has become a little community on its own."
Thursday's HHKMTL event was hosted by a charismatic hype man called D-Shade and turntables were expertly handled by DJ Midas. D-Shade encouraged the crowd to show their support for every singer. He also made pertinent, sometimes comical observations about performances. One of the highlights of the evening was when the winner of the half-time trivia contest delivered an enthusiastic victory dance that resulted in his pants splitting and, to the audience's delight, he shamelessly continued to two-step after noticing. Without missing a beat the good-natured host laughed, "Sew up your pants, son!"
Quite remarkable was the way the host as well as the audience treated each singer with respect, even when performers would accidentally, or perhaps not so accidentally, break the 'no free-styling' rule. This is an important restriction, as HHKMTL may otherwise deviate from its identity as a karaoke event, running the risk of devolving into an evening of self-promotion by local artists.
Many participants are dedicated regulars. There's Mel, who'll approach the stage with an unassuming laid-back vibe, but don't underestimate her ability to perfectly rap a Talib Kweli song. There's also Donatella, a girl with explosive energy who performs wearing a Ninja Turtles hat. MicroSkillz can always be counted on get the audience going with his high-energy, powerful renditions.
"You won't find any other event quite like this in Montreal," said Olivia. "Where else do you get to take it from the shower to the stage? If you come correct and do your thing, the audience will love it. HHKMTL has the power to make you into a legend."
Intended as a monthly event aiming to pay homage to classic rap and hip hop icons, HHKMTL began in 2010 and was founded by Morgan Steiker, Brittany Tyson, and Pat O'Keefe. Hip Hop Karaoke is a North American phenomenon, which originally began in New York some six or seven years ago. Now, there are Hip Hop Karaoke events in prominent cities across the country, like Vancouver and Toronto.
Look out for the next HHKMTL, happening March 28th.
Le Belmont is located at 4483 boul. St-Laurent.
More information at HHKMTL's official website.
Visit HHKMTL's facebook page.
Photograph of Doppler D performing Slick Rick's "Children's Story." Taken by yours truly.