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Karaoke busts rap-lite move

Hip-hop hepsters now bleat to the beat, as bad as they wannabe.

June 13, 2003|Baz Dreisinger | Special to The Times

Hip-hop America tends to boast two types of white rappers. The first -- like the provocative Eminem -- possesses lyrical skill that makes us forget the color of his skin. The second? Think Steve Martin in "Bringing Down the House," a guy so white he has no business even picking up the mike -- but he knows it and we know it, so we can all share a good laugh about it.

It's those just-for-the-fun-of-it rappers who show up at Upon Shop Records, the Silver Lake record store that has recently launched a hip-hop karaoke night. The mostly white, hipster crowd -- young enough to think of early '90s hip-hop as "old school" -- comes to the Sunset Strip shop on the last Friday of the month sporting their Diesel jeans and vintage Pumas or Reeboks ready to bust a rhyme.

As more elements of the urban street scene gain mainstream attention -- graffiti becomes high art and hip-hop culture goes academic -- has rap music, once so controversial, so revolutionary, gone the way of Bar Mitzvah entertainment? In a way, yes: Hip-hop karaoke has cropped up at nightspots, college campuses, even museums in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. But at Upon Shop, at least, no one is taking it too seriously.

Well, except maybe Josh Gibson. The college student in a green polo and Adidas to match is genuinely distressed: He'd like to perform something by Common or the Beastie Boys but has just been told these tracks are not available. "Last time I tried to do Eminem, but it was too hard," he sighs. He decides not to go on and spends the evening milling about the small, spare store, compulsively sifting through its crates of classic rap LPs.

Nearby, Mariah Montgomery and Julie Grove nervously sip Diet Cokes and shy away from the stage. "I can't karaoke Madonna, let alone Pharcyde," Grove says with a toss of her blond hair. "I was just curious to check this out."

The small crowd scuffles about, absorbed in song lists. They wander from the store to neighboring bars -- the entire block is one big bash, it seems -- and then work their way back to Upon Shop. Perched in the store's display window, DJ Doz scratches and mixes with abandon, but no one dares to be the first to break the karaoke ice.

Pumping up the crowd

It's time to stir things up; the evening's host bounds on stage in full superhero regalia, red tights and all. Budweiser in hand, he introduces himself as Shazam. "Step right up!" he exhorts. "Anyone who has skills or doesn't have skills! Here at Upon Shop, we're keepin' it real ... real silly, that is!"

Finally, a fresh-faced, blue-eyed would-be rapper steps forward. Brennan Pope, the 27-year-old owner of the store, takes the stage.

"Brennan, what will you brilliantly perpetrate for us tonight?" asks Pope's leotarded sidekick, whose real name is Seth Margolin. Pope boldly "perpetrates" one of the best duos in hip-hop, Eric B. and Rakim. His rendition of "Microphone Fiend," not an easy track to mimic, opens the karaoke floodgates at last.

"If I can karaoke Neil Diamond and Guns N' Roses, why not Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul?" Pope says later, describing the nascence of hip-hop karaoke.

A lifelong fan of the genre and L.A. native with "a loopy sense of humor," Pope left his job in public relations four years ago to open Upon Shop, which also hosts art shows and DJ workshops. Last summer, he and DJ Doz were engaged in their favorite on-the-job activity: reciting rap lyrics. When they noticed the B sides of their 12-inch records contained instrumental versions of the songs, a lightbulb all but went on over their heads.

With low expectations, Pope and Doz typed up song lyrics and passed out fliers and, to their surprise, more than 100 people showed up to be Q-Tip or Wyclef for one evening (or one track, anyway). Nightly favorites, Pope says, now include the Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr -- rap acts with the intellectual bent that appeals to this trucker hat-wearing, trendy crowd. Eminem's "My Name Is" is popular, as is Tribe's "Bonita Applebum." And, Pope says, there's always one rapper in the bunch who takes great pleasure in getting the crowd to chant "Ice, ice, baby."

"People keep coming back," he says, "so we've got regulars now."

They've also got karaoke virgins. One such first-timer introduces himself as Lyrical Star and takes the opportunity to show off his free-styling skills, making up lyrics as he goes along. "I usually do this at home or for my friends, so I figured, 'Why not get onstage?' " he shrugs, adjusting his Dodgers cap.

"Lemme see your hands," the Eastside native urges the crowd of about 20, who readily oblige. Lyrical Star winds it down and leaves the stage a happy man.

The next duo does hip-hop, Yoko Ono style: A woman in a long dress screeches and moans into the mike as a young man, wearing a cap and hooded sweatshirt, performs a ranting and raving spoken-word routine. The audience quietly indulges them.

There is, before the night is through, a Grammy-worthy performance or two. One guy in orange Pumas forgoes the lyric sheet and dedicates an impressive version of Run-DMC's "Sucker MCs" to rapper Jam Master Jay (who was killed last year). A young woman in a black velour sweatsuit who says only that her name is Donna soon gets the crowd chanting along to Grandmaster Flash's "The Message."

"Don't push me, 'cause I'm close to the edge," she raps cheerfully, somehow morphing a song about urban decay into a party track worthy of P. Diddy.

Her friend Alex Ibsen nervously takes the stage to do a Notorious B.I.G. hit. When he proves a little stiff around the edges -- lyrics like "Honeys played me close like butter played toast" can be tongue twisters, after all -- Donna bounds back onstage to help him save the song.

If anything stands to prove just how mainstream hip-hop has become, it's the sight of these two joyously rapping out Biggie Smalls' "Juicy."

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