“You’re home, aren’t you?” she asked me.
I didn’t even speak, I just nodded as Dalia mixed into LL’s ‘Around the Way Girl’. Within the next hour we were standing at the front of the stage, watching talented people pay respectful homage to the music they loved. Some tiny guy delivered Biggie’s ‘Kick in the Door’ with an authority that would have made Big Poppa proud. A bridal party destroyed Kanye’s ‘Golddigger’ like they owned it. There was Tribe and Nas and Jay-Z. It was summer 2008 and I was in heaven.
That was my first night at Hip Hop Karaoke.
Back in 2007 I saw a piece about the night in The Star when I was living in Kingston, and of course I was fascinated. As I’ve said before, I’m a guy who grew up on Detroit radio stations, fascinated by the beats I was hearing and the videos I was watching when Rap City first started on Muchmusic. That 1988 – 1994 stuff, which I’ve testified to enough on this blog. When we ended up in Toronto, I knew it was only a matter of time until I made it out to watch. That first night at the Gladstone was mindblowing, and when I left I knew I wanted to be a part of it, I knew had to get on that stage.
It took three months, I think, from that first night to when I finally made it up. After getting called out in front of the crowd by one of the hosts for knowing the words to every song every performer picked, I finally worked up performing a shy and restrained rendition of Grand Puba with my lady singing the hook. I followed that up by swinging for the fences with a Mos Def track that I studied daily for the next month [a performance that won me my first dollar store prize, incidentally, for switching from a dead to live mic on the fly and never losing the beat]. I’ve been up maybe ten times in total, and every time it’s been the best thing I’ve done that month. I’ve taken a break lately, not wanting to wear out my welcome, but that itch is coming back and I’ve currently got at least three songs in the back of my head already.
Tonight, the crew celebrates its third anniversary, from a tiny stage at the Boat in Kensington Market, to its third Friday residency at Revival, packing the place every month. I’ve heard some of the chirps about the event: that it makes a mockery of the art, undermines the struggles of the people who made the music; the slippery racial slope that comes from wealthy hipster white girls singing dead prez; that it’s become too big, too trendy, the crowd doesn’t appreciate the people who put in the most effort.
Here’s what I know. Everyone who steps onstage does it for the love of the art, because they grew up living and breathing this music. And Les, Abs, Numeric, Ted and Dal deserve every bit of success they’ve gathered for giving all of us something so special, something that takes us back to standing in front of our bathroom mirrors with a hairbrush, when I was rocking the Raiders cap cause Chuck D and Ice-T did. That deserves to be celebrated, that deserves to be popular, that deserves to be big. Because the hipsters may move on to something else, but Rhino, Mr. Mischief, Kid Panic, Kagan, The Trail and so many others will still pay homage every month, for as long as they’ll let us.
Hopefully that’s for a few more years to come.
BONUS! In the spirit of the evening, the latest from Toronto’s Kardinal Offishal, celebrating everything we love about true hip-hop.