One of the dudes from the podcast I was on wrote this a while back for One More Robot, a magazine I like that has articles on people like Fab 5 Freddy & Roger Troutman and its from fucking Ireland, somehow.
Karmin and Other Rap-Covering Youtuberati
Seán McTiernan argues that Karmin’s stripped down take on hip-hop makes them nothing more than their generation’s Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.
Perplexingly, the best mainstream rap song of the year involves Chris Brown and Diplo. But ‘Look At Me Now’ is undeniable. Who can’t love an alien-sounding piece of pop-rap business that’s as infectious as it is dumb and features Lil Wayne giving himself the most concise introduction possible (“My Momma’s nice/My Daddy’s dead”)?
However, much more perplexing than Chris Brown making a great song is the world-smashing popularity of a certain YouTube cover version. Karmin are a musical duo who remake pop songs with pianos and over-singing. They have had over 23 million views on their ‘Look At Me Now’ cover alone, with some of their other videos receiving several more million views. In it the rockabilly-styled singer Amy emulates the rapid-fire raps of Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes in an uncomfortably cartoonish voice, employing uncomfortable cartoonish facial expressions, while her fiancé Nick tinkers with a keyboard. They’re just another in a long line of 500 Days Of Summer extras doing acoustic covers of rap and pop songs, adding a veneer of authenticity. Karmin have gotten a record deal and appeared on numerous TV shows, all on the strength of these covers. Same goes for the almost identical act, Pomplamoose.
One of the more disappointing aspects of Karmin’s meteoric rise to prominence is the support they’ve gotten from The Roots, chiefly in the afroed shape of celebrity drummer Questlove. It provides yet another straw man for the argument for those that contend Karmin’s rap and pop covers are somehow making the songs ‘better’ by playing them with live instruments. Sadder still, Questo’s championing of Karmin’s bowdlerised rap covers isn’t actually all that surprising. The Roots have long been the rap group of choice for indie fans labouring under the impression that it’s not ‘real music’ if it doesn’t feature real instruments. Whether by accident or design, The Roots initially embraced the college campus, Dave Matthews fan crowd, doing nothing to dissuade them from the opinion that by playing with a band, The Roots were actually being ‘more authentic’. While there’s no doubt The Roots were and, to a lesser extent, are formidable craftsmen, the idea that they are somehow showing up all other rappers by performing with a live band is not only preposterous, it’s damaging.
This, of course, strips a lot of what made rap so exciting and so alien, both sonically and culturally. This comes up again and again when talking about the goofy rap and pop cover versions on YouTube. In making the songs ‘better’ or converting them into ‘proper music’, what is really happening is the song is becoming safe. That’s not to suggest that Questlove’s support for Karmin is some grand conspiracy; he’s just a dab hand at synergistic marketing and loves the Internet. When you take in the two-girls-one-cup videos, the Pitchfork-approved cameos on the last Roots album, the weird day job as house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and the early support for Odd Future, it’s clear that Quest and the rest of The Roots are lobbying for the college indie crowd: the dudes that buy vinyl and, far more importantly, will pay to see The Roots be the token hip-hoppers in the lucrative outdoor festival and campus show circuit. Whatever The Roots initially set out to accomplish, they’re now making it safe for Animal Collective fans to listen to ‘authentic music’ by jamming all parts of black culture most hailed by white indie nerds into one band, reminiscent of an era that never existed.
Of course, ‘safety’ is a pretty loaded and nebulous term to employ. But when it applies to a song with Chris Brown on it, there might be a specific context. Taken in isolation, in fact, Karmin’s act of covering a Chris Brown song using a daft squeaky – and debatably racist – voice might actually be a noble piece of culture jamming. Perhaps they intended to take the power away from Chris Brown’s monster hit. This is a man who committed an act so brutal the kids in Odd Future use his name as a synonym for beating the shit out of a woman. Maybe Karmin were trying to take him down a peg or two?
Sadly, no. Karmin are seemingly only interested in stripping all the sonic dignity away from the song and have no problem with the past indiscretions of the creators. Not that they should, necessarily. The distance between the art and the artist is arguable. But if Karmin had been trying to turn the best rap song of the year into a playground sing-song, that might have almost been funny. A picture of Karmin and Brown on the former’s Facebook page, all three smiling happily, dispels any notion of that. Most of the comments underneath are positive, save one, at the time of writing that simply states “didn’t he repeatedly punch a woman in the face?”
Of course, even if they had shunned attention from Brown, the point would be moot. Sadly, this pantomiming of rap was not a one-time deal. Done initially to draw attention to their aggressively bland original music, the kind of thing that would play during the DVD menu of whatever film Dave Eggers makes next, twee rap covers now seems to be the main stock and trade of Karmin. That’s certainly what’s gotten them the lion’s share of attention that prompted their reportedly generous record deal. It’s also what fuels all of their public appearances. Their debut into the TV consciousness came with an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It underlined how far rap has to go in how it is perceived in the mainstream or, worse, how far that perception has gone in the wrong direction.
When Karmin appeared on Ellen, they played their version of ‘Look At Me Now’. Over the course of the brief interview that took place after their weirdly high-school-talent-show-like performance, it became clear Ellen thought ‘Look At Me Now’ was Karmin’s own song. It’s not unusual for a talk show host to be ill-informed on guests or current music and maybe Ellen is so unfamiliar with hip-hop (despite it dominating the pop culture she makes her living from) that she not only failed to recognise the biggest song of the year but found it plausible that a duo who resemble two children’s TV presenters would come up with a piano/vocal number where the cutesier one encourages people to say hello to her vagina. But there’s something to be said for the weirdness of her getting away with referring to what Karmin do as ‘rap’ instead of asking them how they feel about being their generation’s Me First & The Gimme Gimmes.
And then, impossibly, the exchange between Ellen and Karmin’s Amy manages to become even more insulting. Ellen comments that she’s “never seen someone rap that fast” and Amy’s explanation that she started rapping cause she started doing it in the shower. There’s no problem with Ellen being unfamiliar with Freestyle Fellowship or Twista and there’s nothing wrong with anyone who wants to recite some Z-Ro into the shower head. What hurts about this is the implication that rapping is a goofy talent – like curling one’s tongue or having no gag reflex – that one finds out one has by accident and that makes one more popular at parties. This is the legacy of Karmin and the hundreds of other well-groomed Garden Staters that have gained YouTube popularity by doing twee rap covers. They’ve taken the most diverse, weird and exciting musical culture the world has and reduced it to a cute little party trick, devoid of any of that bothersome context that is so integral to the music
Inevitably, race also presents a problem for the squeaky-clean YouTube cover brigade. Despite impassioned arguments going on in the comments of acoustic versions of Waka Flocka Flame songs, there’s no real ambiguity over whether or not white rappers say the N word. They don’t. Even pre-always-serious Eminem got super serious whenever the issue was broached. Perhaps he had learned from experience. A very early demo has a couple of instances with him saying the word, but as long as he’s been a prominent rapper he’s remained hard-lined in his stance. Brother Ali also, currently signed to backpack label Rhymesayers, is a white albino man who grew up in almost solely black company, even converting to Islam in his teens. Although he’s regularly mistaken for a black albino, he also feels the word is off-limits too. It’s not that these guys have made a decree and should be obeyed at all cost, they’re just two white rappers who have expressed their own take on not saying it yet who still get used as strawmen by voracious fans of YouTube cover acts (of which there are many).
Though the lion’s share of white rappers are in agreement about not saying that word, the YouTube cover artists are faced with a quandary. Do they say the word and rationalise it because they’re only quoting someone else? Or do they censor themselves, at once freeing themselves from any guilt and making the song even safer. In speaking about this issue with Soft Money from stentorian blog Space Age Hustle and furious podcast Stay Hatin’, he briefly touched on how oblivious these singers can be. “If you are white and decide to do an acoustic rap cover, that doesn’t give you carte blanche to not exercise some restraint, ie, the guy who did the ‘No Hands’ acoustic cover didn’t need to openly drop the word ‘nigga’ because it was used in the original.”
Danny Vola currently has over two million views on his cover of Waka Flocka’s ‘No Hands’ which features him smirking the entire way through his performance and leaning into the N word. The top rated comment is “this dude is like Rosetta Stone for rap music”. Better than anything else, this illustrates the mixture of cluelessness and entitlement that fuels both these covers and their rampant popularity. This attitude actually presents itself memorably in Karmin’s ‘Look At Me Now’ cover; any phrase that would damage the song’s possible appeal is rendered meaningless. Now, there’s no great spiritual message in ‘Look At Me Now’, but the lyrics were chosen because they sounded good and reflected the personality of the rappers. It’s a little entitled to just slot in meaningless words that still manage to jar – and that’s not even mentioning Karmin replacing the N word with ‘jigga’, bizarrely close to another racist term. But that’s the key to understanding all of these covers: obliviousness and entitlement.
I asked Dom Passantino, whose insightful bloggings can be found on Ich Luge Bullets, if these covers were in some way racist.
“Short answer: ‘yes’ with an ‘if’; long answer: ‘no’ with a ‘but’. Lemme break down what this really reminds me of. Between hip-hop developing any real world pop cultural presence – say 1983 – and the era of post-ironic post-racism – say 2004 – what you’d get in a lot of comedy films was a scene where the uptight nerdy white guy would due to circumstance be forced to rap, or to dance at a rap club, or have Queen Latifah snap her neck at him for being insufficiently ‘funk-eh’. In comedy nowadays, it’s the other way round because of post-Gervaisian irony. The white character raps at the black guy apropos of nothing. The black guy is confused. Anyway, these novelty covers basically work to the old comedy motif that there is something inherently funny about ‘whiteness’ doing ‘blackness’. So although it’s not racist in a ‘I have just killed Emmett Till’ way, it is racist in a ‘eh, you’re embarrassing us in front of the other ethnicities’ way.”
Along with the same entitled attitude that begat ‘why can’t I say that?’ comes ‘why doesn’t this popular song sound like the music I like to listen to?’ and “why can’t I listen to this music without it making me feel uncomfortable”. The creators of these songs are taking an imagined and ridiculous notion (the measure of a song is when it is played acoustically or, worse, a song can be improved with ‘real’ instruments) and applying them to everything in popular culture, because they want to feel the deep connection they feel from the music of acts like Bon Iver, this generation’s Neil Diamond.
Far from stripping rap and pop songs down to their imagined ‘basics’, these acoustic YouTube covers are actually adding another layer of pretence. The Johnny Cash cover albums proved the same theory before YouTube was ever popular; strum an acoustic guitar and you can summon an emotional response or a wry smile out of any lyrics on the face of the planet, even those of Trent Reznor. Even putting the ham-fisted offensiveness aside, rarely do these covers do anything musically interesting with their source material.
Soft Money explains: “I feel like there’s really no purpose served because so much is lost in translation. I mean, shit, it’s essentially impossible to recreate a rap beat with an entire live band. There’s no instrument that replicates an 808 adequately, for example, let alone with only an acoustic guitar. So it ends up just being a bunch of dudes strumming melodies and rap-singing lyrics over the top, as if that’s somehow worthwhile. It’s like sub-cover songs to me, because only the most obvious aspects of the original piece are maintained.”
Dom Passantino also reckons a lot of this desire to cover rap actually comes from guilt. “People feel guilty about not liking rap, you have to remember this. I think a lot of saltine motherfuckers still worry that if they don’t like the mandated three rap albums a year that The Guardian goes buck wild over, that this means they hate blacks. So they’re always looking out for other stuff they can latch on to, no matter how irrelevant it is to rap per se.”There’s always been condescending, comedy takes on rap music. That varied history includes everything from the depths of The Stutter Rap and Two Live Jews to the dizzy heights of ‘Amish Paradise’. There’s more to the existence of the current day rap cover trend than ‘haven’t we learned by now?’ The novelty songs of old, used rap as a medium for joke or parody because, from the outside, rap appears pretty easy to do. But with these YouTube sensations, rap is the joke. The very idea someone could be ‘singing’ songs like these is inherently hilarious, and it’s surprising so many people embrace that so warmly.
It’s funny that groups like Karmin and Pomplamoose, couples with vintage clothes and music degrees, talk at length about their creativity and musicality when in reality the way they became popular was simply to be derivative on several more levels than usual. Look at them now, they’re getting paper.