Trap Karaoke Turns Hip-Hop Dreams Into Reality in West Oakland

A Trap Karaoke participant named Matthew, from Walnut Creek, performs U.G.K.'s "International Player's Anthem" in Oakland on April 9, 2016. (Photo: Pendarvis Harshaw)

pARTicipate-button-400x400On Saturday night in a West Oakland backyard, LowKey, an East Coast event promoter, laid down the rules. “If they’re wack, you can boo them off stage.” The crowd murmured. “This ain’t the Grammys,” he said sternly. And then the karaoke -- trap karaoke, to be precise -- began.

Trap Karaoke began late last year after Jason Mowatt, a music festival organizer, envisioned an event where fans could connect and sing along to their favorite thundering, bass-heavy party music: rap, R&B, hip-hop and trap. He and his co-organizers came up with a format, and launched a touring series of parties in cities like New York, Chicago, and LA (where the rapper Wale dropped by at a recent show). Imagine the myth-making of your neighborhood bar’s karaoke night with the energetic community of Korean-style karaoke but featuring recent turn-up hits and hip-hop classics, and you've got the idea.

At #RegularsOnly, a relaxed backyard, the venue’s informality set the loose tone of the night. After the first few brave singers, it became clear that people were taking the host’s warning to heart. “Two! I need two people!” LowKey called, desperate, over the opening lines of Young Dro’s "FDB." But the crowd seemed content to shriek along together rather than put one person on the small wooden stage.

As the night went on, it became both less trap and less karaoke -- the most popular tracks were old-school bangers (Lauryn Hill's "Ex-Factor"; U.G.K.'s "International Player's Anthem") and Bay Area hits like Too Short's "Blow the Whistle." (“Sorry, I don't listen to Future," a woman grumbled to her friend, calling the Atlanta rapper "the music I hear my kids play.") Everyone sang along, everyone danced, but for a time, nobody wanted to leave the boisterous party in the crowd to go onstage and actually sing.

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Not that anyone seemed to mind. Throughout the night, the atmosphere was joyfully chaotic. Twice, the music stopped and the DJs -- LowKey and Leon "Dnas" Sykes -- firmly ordered that the tent’s poles were not to be used as stripper poles. Some of the 300 audience members braved the rain and spread out from under the tent, standing on raised vegetable garden beds to get a better look at the stage. A heat lamp gently shook from the force of the crowd’s dancing. During a raucous sing along to Rihanna's current No. 1 hit “Work” -- where the DJs turned off the music and let the crowd flawlessly complete Drake’s verse -- it almost toppled completely.

Confidence eventually bolstered, people started returning to the stage. The performers were all solid with charismatic stage presence (and the DJs merciful with well-timed fade outs once it became clear that really, no one knows the second verse in Rich Homie Quan’s “Flex"), and witnessing fans who'd once perhaps dreamed of becoming rap stars finally touching a piece of the prize was infectious and joyful.

Take one of the last performances of the night: an electrifying version of E-40’s “Tell Me When To Go” by an Oakland native, who confidently spit every word, her hair flying as she bounced around the stage.

“I felt like I was in Miami for a sec,” someone nearby said dreamily of the singer’s more athletic dance moves. But her performance, much like the night itself, was in fact pure Oakland: spirited, slightly lawless, low-key yet exuberant.

Tour details and more footage from Trap Karaoke parties can be found here.

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