If you’ve been to karaoke, you know the particular feeling of karaoke pity. It’s when someone confidently strides to the microphone, the tinny melody of the backing music kicks in, and everyone realizes at once that this person has no idea what they’re doing. They forgot the song isn’t just one long chorus, the verse is actually complicated, the notes are just out of their range, or they miss the first line and are doomed to be a beat off the entire song. Karaoke is supposed to be bad, but not like this.
There’s a fine line between fun experimentation and disaster when it comes to karaoke. That’s where greatness lives. A few shots of sake can either give you the courage to nail “Guns and Ships” from Hamilton to everyone’s shock, or make you that guy desperately stumbling through “Paradise ty the Dashboard Light.” Which is why I’ve found that, no matter what else you choose to sing, it’s good to have a song or two you know you can nail. Spend a little time prepping, and you’ll never panic over a karaoke invitation again.
1. Learn to recognize a karaoke trap.
Often when we choose karaoke songs, we’re thinking about the hooks. There’s a chorus we know everyone in the room wants to sing along to, and we punch it in without thinking about if we actually know how the song goes. Once a friend puts on Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity,” as if it didn’t have twisting, syncopated verses and a sort of spoken-word breakdown that you can’t really pull off unless you are Jay Kay (you know, the lead singer of Jamiroquai, don’t ask me why I know that).
Before you choose a song, think: Does it have an incredibly long intro or guitar solo in the middle where you’ll just be standing around waiting for the words to pick back up? Do you actually know how the verses go? Is the entire back half of the song the chorus repeated five times so everyone listening will be bored and waiting for you to wrap up? Do you even know how to rap? Consider these things. Otherwise you’ll be up there thinking everyone will be laughing merrily along to your rendition of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” without realizing that song is really fucking hard. Respect to the Baha Men.
2. Make sure you sound the best you can.
Jesse Rauch, the commissioner of Washington, D.C.’s, District Karaoke, wants to stress that you don’t have to have a good voice to be good at karaoke. “What matters is how much of you you're able to add to it—how much fun, or energy, or drama, can you infuse into your performance?” However, if your voice is cracking, you probably won’t be able to focus on a dramatic performance. Get a sense of what your vocal range is. Hell, sing some scales in the shower and see how high and low you can go. Just don’t attempt Prince’s “Kiss” if you’re a baritone.
Also, know your equipment. “Hold the mic up perpendicularly to your mouth and keep it there,” says Rauch. “An emcee's job is to make you sound good, but we can't do that if we can't hear you in the mic.”
3. Stray from the obvious...but don’t go too weird.
When choosing what will become your karaoke anthem, remember that generally, people like singing along to songs they know (wow, some great insight into the human mind here on GQ). “Picking a song that people have heard before—throwbacks are a good example—helps people come along for the journey,” says Rauch. However, on either extreme lies danger. According to Rauch, there are some songs that should just be retired from karaoke. “‘My Heart Will Go On’ is at the top of my list, as is ‘Wrecking Ball.’ I think ‘Rehab’ is also overdone,” he says, not to mention “Sweet Caroline,” “Don’t Stop Believing,” and “Livin’ on a Prayer.” These are obvious, and you’re better than that.
Trap Karaoke Turns Hip-Hop Dreams Into Reality in West Oakland
On 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.
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Trap Karaoke: More Than A Party, It’s A Movement
By now, you’ve probably heard about Trap Karaoke, the cultural phenomenon that’s making waves across the country. And there’s one man who you can credit to the marketing excellence behind the brand: Jason Mowatt. As one of the masterminds behind Washington, D.C.’s music festival, Trillectro, it seems that whatever Mowatt touches becomes gold. And that, in fact, has proven true for his latest venture, Trap Karaoke.
So what is Trap Karaoke? Well, it is a full concert environment where the participants get to be Future, Drake, Migos or any “trap” record for 4-5 minutes of their life. Trap Karaoke-goers prepare and perform these karaoke hits, and they take it very seriously. We spoke with Jason Mowatt to learn more about the inception of Trap Karaoke, his goals for the future and how he’s built the foundation for a very successful brand.
Black Enterprise: How did you come up with the idea for Trap Karaoke?
Jason Mowatt: It started out as a joke, with a friend of mine. It was around the time Future released Dirty Sprite 2. I had a friend that’s the biggest future fan ever (and part of the Future Hive) and I was telling him about karaoke and how hilarious it would be if people were doing Future’s March Madness. It started as a joke, and it’s kind of taken on a life of its own. It’s not your typical karaoke bar experience. This is like a real concert experience. You’re really on stage, there’s really lighting and there’s a performance aspect to it.
We’ve evolved into a culture that is interested in themed events, rather than just hitting the club. Do you see a growing future for this?
For Trap Karaoke, I never saw us as party promoters, I see us as community organizers. One of the reasons we’re launching this national tour is because you can create community anywhere. A big part of us announcing all these secondary markets is to bring people together, with all the craziness going on in the world right now, especially with police brutality, etc. To me, that means we’re doing something more than just a party. It’s a community that brings people together.
What’s your business model to grow the Trap Karaoke brand?
Revenue from ticket sales, partnerships and sponsorships. It’s definitely a self-sustaining business, and there’s a really awesome opportunity to bring the Trap Karaoke to different cities and different formats, and we’ll go from there.
Do you think that your background working with Trillectro, and being within the events industry has proven to help you with your current success?
With this idea that came to me, I knew specifically how I wanted to market it and what brands I wanted to partner with. I’m very passionate about it, and what I see people doing now is getting too caught up in strategy and big data marketing. But at the root of all of it, is to ask: how can you make people feel something? I think one of the key insights around Trap Karaoke is that we [are] understanding how culture is changing. The idea of it was to create a user generated concert, where they can do it live in front of a crowd of people. I’ve been really happy to see how quickly it caught on.
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Trap karaoke is about more than hip-hop and more than karaoke
Stepping to the front of the stage before a large crowd, the young woman introduced herself simply as “Boo.” Dressed in a colorful bomber jacket, jeans and glasses, Boo is short with a soft, high-pitched voice.
When the music drops, her demeanor changes.
Performing 2003’s “Shake That Monkey,” by Too Short, Boo paces the stage rapping the raunchy lyrics and dancing with the swagger of a seasoned entertainer. And the audience eats it up.
When her performance ends, the crowd erupts in cheers. “I didn’t mean to be on stage like that,” she says, reverting back into her everyday persona.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, hundreds of people packed into Union Nightclub this month for Trap Karaoke, an event that blends karaoke with a sing-along concert experience. But instead of Bon Jovi, Journey, Backstreet Boys and other classic karaoke songs, the event features exclusively trap, hip-hop and R&B music — think Kanye West, Travis Porter and Migos.
“Maybe 20% of the event is karaoke… but you have hundreds of people who go home and have had the time of their lives,” said Jason Mowatt, 31, the event founder and director. “I think karaoke is an excuse for people to let their guard down and come out and have fun.”
The origins of Trap Karaoke started as a lark. Mowatt was texting a friend obsessed with the rapper Future. “He said I’ll talk to you later, I’m going out to karaoke with my coworkers. And I was like. ‘Man wouldn’t it be crazy if we could do karaoke to trap music,’” Mowatt said.
Mowatt, who has a background in social media marketing and was an investor/organizer of Washington, D.C.’s hip-hop and electronic music festival, Trillectro, quickly arranged the first trap karaoke on New York’s Lower East Side in September 2015. From there, the event evolved into a nationwide tour.
In Los Angeles, duo Brigidann Cooper and Omar Alcibar, dressed in complimentary red and black outfits, took the stage to perform the 1990s 2Pac hit “California Love.”
Cooper was the main performer, with Alcibar acting as hype man. When she forgot some of the words, the audience jumped in — the large screen projecting lyrics to the audience helped.
“I’ve done regular karaoke, never with this kind of crowd,” Cooper, 35, says later, hanging out by the bar. “It’s like a performance; you have to engage the crowd and be entertaining.”
“That’s part of the allure of this event itself. I’ve gone to various karaoke bars, even recently in New Orleans, and even there the hip-hop selection was so low,” Alcibar, 36, says. “Maybe people don’t have time to transcribe Lil Wayne.”
Hip-hop themed karaoke is not a new concept. The Rhyme Along, for instance, which started in 2009, is a monthly event in Los Angeles that caters to the hip-hop crowd, but it’s rare to find a karaoke bar or lounge that has an extensive hip-hop catalog.
There are theories as to why trap karaoke is in relatively short supply. It has to do with the influx of karaoke from Japan into the U.S. in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to Rob Drew, author of “Karaoke Nights: An Ethnographic Rhapsody.”
“The whole song repertoire was 800 songs in 1990, when karaoke first appeared, then it expanded to 1,400 songs by 1992, which is when I started studying it. It was a very selective menu,” Drew said. “Also at that time, even though hip-hop was popular, it was kind of under the radar for the mainstream music industry.”
Drew also spoke about the culture of karaoke, and the differences between singing versus performing hip-hop in a public setting.
“Your generic American karaoke bar, it tends to be a form for an exhibition of singing skill — being able to hit the high notes and the low notes and having perfect pitch,” Drew said. “I think that’s because hip-hop culture is so organically participatory that it never seemed like it needed karaoke.”
But the event, which features exuberant amateur performances, has many similarities to traditional karaoke. One main difference lies in its ability to bring black millennials together to let loose, share in a connected experience and feel a sense of community.
This is why Mowatt wants to expand Trap Karaoke to smaller and lesser-known cities. “From the beginning, my stance on this was we’re not party promoters, we’re community organizers,” Mowatt said.
Here in Los Angeles, the event was held on the same night as Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“So we all saw what happened early this morning in D.C.,” host Lowkey says, drawing thunderous boos. “But it don’t represent our America. Donald Trump doesn’t represent us; he never will represent us.”
From there, the DJ launched into anti-Trump song “FDT” by Compton-rapper YG.
The night concluded with words of encouragement from the host, who repeated something he’d said earlier about Boo’s performance.
“Attack life just like Boo attacked the stage tonight.”
There are few people more influential and more under the radar than Jason Mowatt. As more people look to find ways to converge technology, live experiences, and music, Jason is leading the way by building some of Hip-Hop culture's top platforms, from Trillectro to Trap Karaoke. As a culture, we are moving away from the "influencer" culture where follower counts and hi-resolution photos serve as currency, to a "multi-disciplined curator" culture where people who actually create and build things drive the voice, taste and experiences of the future. Jason Mowatt is the definition of the multi-disciplined curator.
You’ve worked in politics, tech, music and events – how would you describe the Jason Mowatt brand and journey?
I don’t consider myself a brand at all. None of this stuff is calculated, I’m just an extremely curious person. I go where my curiosity takes me. With all the various projects I’ve worked on, the one thing I’ve always found to be true is that one opportunity leads to another. So keep an open mind, and the key isn’t finessing. It’s figuring out how to parlay an initial opportunity into the next.
You bought equity in Trillectro back in 2012, becoming one of the first investors. How did you get involved with the festival?
I started investing in high school, thanks to my social studies teacher who taught me the ropes. In 2011, my friend Kenji Summers came to DC, shooting for Passport Life. He invited some folks to hang out. It was me, Kenji, my homie Keith, Terral, Kunle, and this kid, who I met for the first time. Fast forward to spring of 2012, my investments did well. But what goes up, must come down, so I thought it prudent to exit while the getting was good. Again, it’s all about parlaying. One opportunity leads to another.
After successfully producing the first Kendrick Lamar concert in DC, I approached this same kid with a proposal: if he had more money, could he do something bigger? We discussed a few ideas that really didn’t go anywhere. After a trip to Coachella, he proposed the idea of starting a music festival. From there, a few of us pooled our time, knowledge, and money together, and the rest is history.
What made you believe in the Trillectro brand?
After investing in the market, I realized that the stock market was even worse than gambling. With gambling, at least you know the game is rigged. As an individual investor, there’s little you can do to change the outcome. All you can really hope for is that you pick the right horse, and that a rising tide lifts your ship. With a music festival, by contrast, not only could I contribute funding, but I could also contribute my knowledge and expertise to influence the outcome.
In 2008, I was obsessed with the Obama campaign’s use of digital marketing and behavioral economics. I saved every single book, PDF, article, and video ever produced on the topic. I saw the festival as an opportunity to deploy a lot of those behavioral insights. Sure enough, it worked, bringing the festival to the profitability for the first time. I still meet people to this day who tell me the most innovative thing to ever come out of that festival was my idea to use Thunderclap to let the fans announce the festival lineup, something no other music festival had ever done before. With every project I’ve worked on, my guiding principle, and the thread that connects them all, has always been figuring out how to give the power back to the people.
Robert Hansen // REVOLT Media & TV
As the first crowdspeaking platform, Thunderclap has been doing great around World Humanitarian Day, early voting, mental health, climate change, immigration reform and more. You lead their marketing efforts. Explain your role and why this platform is so important to the world.
All credit goes to our CEO, David Cascino. Probably one of the smartest, best human beings you’ll ever meet ever in life. I literally tap dance to work every morning. My role at Thunderclap is Director of Plot Twists haha, which is a mix of marketing and product management. I was introduced to Thunderclap by my friend Kenji Summers back in 2013, which led me to the idea of using it to announce the festival lineup that summer.
After the tremendous success of that activation, artists, marketers, record labels, and managers started reaching out to me to learn more about the platform. I became kind of a liaison, connecting them with Dave. Eventually Dave told me he had an idea for another breakthrough product called Crescendo, which is like Mailchimp for push notifications. Thunderclap had already proven that there was a strong desire by marketers to cut through the noise and reach their audience. The key insight was that it’s super expensive to build an app and maintain it, especially when the abandonment rate for apps are super high. However, if push notifications are enabled, retention is about 30% higher. This led to an insight: If all the meaningful engagement with an app is via push notification, do you really need your own app or just the ability to send push notifications? Crescendo is a bet that you only need the ability to send push notifications. Open rates go from 0 to 50% within minutes, while most marketers using email struggle to get to 20% within 48 hours. Using Crescendo, I sold almost 400 tickets within 5 minutes. You would’ve thought I was selling tickets to a Beyonce concert.
TRAP Karaoke has now had sold out shows in New York, New Orleans, Chicago, The Bay Area, Houston, Raleigh, Toronto, D.C., Atlanta, and Los Angeles. You’ve also had LeBron, Amber Rose and Wale join in on the movement. Why do you think it has made such crazy waves?
I attribute the success of TRAP Karaoke to 1% inspiration, and 99% execution. The majority of that execution has been thoughtfully deploying behavioral insights that underlie the unique format and marketing of the event. For instance, the concept of collective effervescence, a sociology term that describes how people like to participate in synchronized group activities, which results in feelings of elation, and facilitates group unity and cohesion.
Across cultures, you see this type of behavior again and again. And it makes sense, if you view things from an evolutionary perspective. Think about it: if you’re a creature trying to survive in the wilderness, your odds are a lot higher if you’re part of a group, than if it’s just you by yourself. Consequently, humans have evolved to be extremely social creatures, so anything that facilitates group bonding excites our reward/pleasure system. TRAP Karaoke is formatted in such a way to create as many of these moments as possible. Which is why I like to say, “TRAP Karaoke is like going to church...but instead of singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ you’re singing ‘Back That Azz Up’ haha.” It’s about culture and community.
What’s next for TRAP Karaoke?
TRAP Karaoke is just over a year old, so who really knows. Nevertheless, I’ve always said that we’re not party promoters, we’re community organizers. That means our mission is to go where the people are and create community. That’s why we’ve embarked on this national 40-city tour; not just limiting ourselves to the primary markets (NYC, LA, Miami, etc.).
Early on I had an insight. I think it was maybe our 5th or 6th overall event, but our first time in the Bay Area. The response to the event announcement was unlike anything I had ever seen before. The event sold out almost immediately, and the whole city was buzzing. Keep in mind, this was our first time ever in the Bay Area/on the West Coast. Sure, TRAP Karaoke is a unique event, but from the response you would’ve thought it was a Drake concert. I knew something more had to be going on here. It wasn’t until I got to the Bay and started talking to people that it hit me. The day I landed in Oakland, there was a huge Black Lives Matter protest on the SanFran-Oakland Bridge. Protesters completely shut it down. In fact, DeRay was in the Bay at the time and came out to TRAP Karaoke that night. My friends Lance and Caleb took me on a tour of downtown Oakland, and showed me how the community was changing, and how a lot of people were being displaced due to gentrification. And that’s when it hit me again: these TRAP Karaoke events weren’t just happening in a vacuum. There was all this really important social, political, and economic context.
Every city I’ve been to since has had a similar story. You wouldn’t believe some of the stories I’ve heard in New Orleans, Raleigh, Detroit, Atlanta. I stayed almost 2hrs after a show in Boston listening to folks share their view on the social, political, and economic climate in that city, and how it intersects with an event like TRAP Karaoke. Basically, why brave spaces like TRAP Karaoke are needed. Same for Detroit, a city that as been through so much, and that’s seen so much. I want to use TRAP Karaoke’s platform to start sharing the stories of these cities, not just recap videos of each event. Why? Because sharing stories is how you foster community.
Robert Hansen // REVOLT Media & TV
Where do you see live events and experiential marketing going in the next 5-10 years?
It’s hard to predict the future. I don’t think anyone is that smart lol. I think the best strategy is to remain flexible and keep an open mind. Realize that the future might not look the way we think it will. After all, for the longest time people predicted flying cars; instead we got Uber, which is 100x better in my opinion. Yet no one really saw it coming, because the idea is so simple and subtle. As I think about the future, those are the kinds of ideas that excite me the most. Insights that are subtle, simple and right under our noses, yet when unlocked can have a massive impact.
Trillectro. Thunderclap. Trap Karaoke. You’ve turned them all into powerful platforms that resonate within culture. What is your marketing philosophy? How do you find ways to constantly cut through the clutter?
First, my educational background is in behavioral economics, so I’m always conscious of the fact that seemingly small things, like how options are presented or the color of a button, can have an outsized impact on outcomes. With that in mind, I consider myself more of a product designer than a marketer. Second, I’m a huge believer that culture eats strategy. Whatever you’re doing, you need to start with some kind of cultural or behavioral insight. Once you have that, you can deploy the appropriate strategy to amplify it.
When speaking to young entrepreneurs and creators, what is your key advice to them?
The only way to get good at anything is to work your ass off, and fail. a lot. There are no shortcuts.
What’s next for Jason Mowatt?
Currently working on a project called the Million Swag Surf. The basic idea is to transform the Swag Surf, which is a universal symbol of unity among millennials of color, into a platform, similar to product (RED), to create awareness for bone marrow donations.
Unlike other forms of cancer, blood cancer is a relatively treatable disease, if you can find a bone marrow donor. The rub is that you need to match with someone who has a similar ethnic background as you. Which means, the more diverse your background, the harder it is to find a match. Consequently, people of color have been disproportionately affected by this disease, for no other reason than there’s a lack of awareness. Up until a few years ago, I had no idea how bad the situation was. It wasn't until my friend’s niece died from leukemia a few years ago that the issue came to my attention. She was only 12-years-old. We had the same birthday.
With the Million Swag Surf, we’re going to partner with large-scale events where millennials congregate, such as concerts and music festivals, to organize the biggest swag surf ever. There are two parts to how we plan on signing people up and spreading awareness. The first part is pretty straight forward: if you’re at a music festival with 6,000+ people who are all going to be in the same place for 12+ hours, that presents a tremendous opportunity to educate attendees. And because signing up to become a donor is really simple (you just have to swab inside your cheek. That’s it.), you can sign people up right there on the spot.
The second part focuses on how do you motivate people to sign up and make it sexy. That’s where the Swag Surf comes in. At some point during the event, everyone will participate in a record-breaking Swag Surf. There will be GoPros and Drones capturing this massive spectacle from all angles. This content, paired with a strong call to action, will then be packaged and shared through various outlets.
This project means a great deal to me, which is why I was really proud that the first Million Swag Surf could happen at White House’s South By South Lawn event. The response was incredible. Now I’m currently looking for other large-scale events (music festivals, concerts, etc.), organizations, and brands to partner with. If you’re out there and want to help, hit me @AMZNJSN or @MILLIONSWAGSURF on Twitter.
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