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It’s 10:30PM on the second Monday of the month and the audience is already choking the stage, arms outstretched and voices rising as an unassuming man in a pressed golf shirt takes the floor at Fortune Sound Club. Senior Sales Representative for an office supplies company by day, for four minutes tonight Dan transforms into a hip hop legend. Blue and green lights flash as the beat to Masta Ace’s INC Ride takes off and Dan’s voice spills out over a bumping instrumental. With DJ Seko spinning the track and Flipout side-stage rousing the flow with whoops and yells, Dan’s pounding gestures and smooth vocals capture the front row in a simultaneous undulation. Ending on a call and response with the crowd, he swaggers offstage followed by a roar of applause.
Welcome to Hip Hop Karaoke.
It was a friend’s account of an HHK Toronto performance of three girls tossing mics at each other while bounding around to a Beastie Boys track that prompted Paul Gibson-Tigh to collaborate with Chad Iverson in developing a Vancouver chapter. With a mutual passion for hip hop music and a desire to strengthen Vancouver’s hip hop community, Chad and Paul set to establishing the Pacific Northwest’s first official Hip Hop Karaoke event. The timing was perfect: Chad’s boss had recently opened the doors of Fortune Sound Club — known for its world-class sound system for which you have to be interviewed to gain permission to even buy it — and was looking for event ideas. After months of planning, December 2009 saw the debut of HHK Vancouver.
Originally thought to be used as an opportunity for local crews to reach new audiences, it has become more of a celebration of hip hop performance than a launching-tool for independent artists. While some emcees are in the crowd handing out sample CDs, this is foremost a place for hip hop aficionados to gather in support of each other and the community, paying homage to their favourite artists and escaping into the world of spectacle. And though impressive swag provided by Sharks and Hammers and Dipt is an encouragement to participate, the fans hardly need any added incentive. With attendance and enthusiasm growing every month, people are even bringing their own bounty to distribute. Dickson Li, Sales Representative at NLA and avid participant of HHK Vancouver since its inception, displays personalized t-shirts featuring logos like “THE SITUASIAN”. It is with this sense of play that the foundation has been set. Now, after nearly a year, the crew is celebrating its tenth volume, and I, my introduction to HHK. Sporting a perky ponytail and pleather bomber, I am certain that my outsider status will be terribly apparent. Nevertheless, I meet our esteemed photographer out front and venture into the night and lights of the club.
Upon arrival, the club is packed. With a usual turn-out of up to 400 people, it is clear that before the show has even begun, the expected head count has been reached. Particularly striking is the number of females present — the ratio is, in fact, almost 50:50. Not only impressive for its balanced gender demographics, this group is hugely disparate from what you might expect at a hip hop event. Fortune hosts most of the large hip hop shows that pass through Vancouver, but Chad agrees that this is one night where “you’re not seeing the stereotypical hip hop head; you’re not seeing a bunch of guys with baggy clothes that are all thugged out.” From tight-fitting jeans and t-shirts on the guys to frilly frocks and thick-rimmed glasses on the girls, the inclusive nature of the event is remarkable. As the club fills, the crowd mingles at the foot of the stage in anticipation of the 10:30pm kickoff.
The format is simple. Five performers make up one set, and each night sees four sets with hot dance breaks peppered between. With a month to prepare between each installment, nearly all performers pre-register but walk-ins are welcome if space is still available, and the crew has books filled with hundreds of songs for last-minute track picks.
When considering your performance, there are four key points to observe, the most important of which is song choice. Advises Chad, “pick one that you love and don’t mind listening to a lot,” which brings us to practice. Just loving a song isn’t going to cut it when you are in front of a crowd. There are no teleprompters, so an intimate knowledge of the lyrics is absolutely essential. “Some people [practise in front of a mirror] and it definitely shows,” says Paul. And while neither of our co-founders has yet rocked a costume, those who do are considered “pretty legit”. The two last points to note are what seem to be the only steadfast rules set forth by the organizers: no original material and no N-bombs. Otherwise, the options are practically limitless, which provides for considerable creative license and an exhilarating show with surprises on every side.
Krista, a physiotherapy office assistant by day, looks out-of-place onstage as Flipout, the established host, playfully hassles her about her sweet looks and introduces the song. The beat begins and Krista’s rosy-cheeked countenance is swallowed in a wash of animated aggression yet to be met by any of the preceding male performers. With lyrics like “Watch the women get drunk as hell so I can wake up in the morning with a story to tell,” the crowd is hollering to a deafening degree and, by the time Krista is through, the front rows are exhausted and drenched in sweat. A seasoned HHK participant, Krista’s strategy is to pick a song she loves, practise it once or twice, and bring attitude to the stage. “An angry song gets the crowd more amped up,” she claims. This comment is supported shortly thereafter by a ferocious performance of Ludacris’ Act a Fool. Stooped centre-stage and growling verses as the front row’s outstretched arms paw at him, the second Dan of the night owns this act so much that it is easy to forget he is rapping someone else’s words.
Toward the end of the third set, co-founder Paul is up with P Diddy’s Bad Boys for Life, appropriately modified to “Van Boys for Life”. Bouncing around and commanding the crowd, it is hard to imagine this lanky UBC grad anywhere else. Greeted by hugs and high fives as he exits the stage, our performer wipes the sweat from his face as he works to catch his breath. “When it’s over, you feel simultaneous relief and euphoria,” he pants, his smile and energy clearly infecting every bystander. From the activity, Dickson strides onstage for Notorious B.I.G.’s Sky’s the Limit. With the swelling crowd in a thunderous frenzy, one must admit that this track’s title serves as an apt description of the event’s potential.
With my brain still buzzing with the excitement of the evening (and a few Palm Bays), upon returning home I spend the next hour on my iTunes rapping along to my favourite tracks. Whether I can develop a fast-spitting, ill-flowing performance for Fortune’s stage is still undecided. Certain, however, is that this phenomenon is catching on. With plans to bring HHK to the slopes of Whistler and the streets of Victoria, Chad and Paul hope to spread this celebration and strengthen the local hip hop community with both fresh and weathered fans. Having experienced HHK Vancouver’s development first-hand, Dickson reflects on its success in attracting such a diverse following: from accountants to teachers and servers to students. “Everyone has an inner rapper,” he says. “You just have to find it.”