Toronto’s Hip Hop Karaoke drops the mike, ending after 10 years | Toronto Star

After a decade of making rap stars out of everyone from hardcore hip-hop heads to mousy-looking nerds, the organizers of Toronto’s legendary Hip-Hop Karaoke are finally hanging up the mikes after one last jam on Friday — for now, anyway. “Not...

Toronto’s Hip Hop Karaoke drops the mike, ending after 10 years | Toronto Star

After a decade of making rap stars out of everyone from hardcore hip-hop heads to mousy-looking nerds, the organizers of Toronto’s legendary Hip-Hop Karaoke are finally hanging up the mikes after one last jam on Friday — for now, anyway.

“Not to say that the event itself isn’t stimulating, it’s just we’ve all got other activities and things have changed over the 10 years,” said co-founder and host Les “More or Les” Seaforth before conceding the main factor: “We were really feeling burnt out.”

The “we” Seaforth is referring to is the three-person team responsible for throwing the event on the third Friday of every month at Revival in Little Italy: himself, co-host Andy “Abdominal” Bernstein, and co-founder and DJ Luke “Ted Dancin’ ” Ballon. They were all in their 20s when HHK made its debut in February 2006, Seaforth said; in their 30s, life has started to get in the way.

“It sort of sounds depressing in a way, but at the same time it’s also us being interested in other things and maybe being able to pursue those things more wholeheartedly.”

It’s been a good run.

Take almost every part of the image that pops into your head when you think “karaoke” and throw it out the window; there are no TV screens at HHK, for starters and, as participants and organizers take pride in proclaiming, no “bouncing ball” to help you keep track of the lyrics. If you really do need lyrical guidance, there are printouts for the hundreds of (mostly ’80s and ’90s) tracks available, but more often than not performers already know the words by heart, with Seaforth and Bernstein serving as hype men and backup in case someone chokes or stumbles.

The backing track is also DJ’d live — no cheesy MIDIs here — as performers are put onstage in front of their cheering, dancing and head-bobbing peers, spitting into the mike for audiences of anywhere from 50 to 300.

“For three minutes or however long your song is, you get to be a rap star, as close as you can get to being a rap star without a record deal, right?” said Morgan “Chef Mo” Torell, who’s been attending for around six years. Torell, an actual chef at Hidden Burger in day-to-day life, attended every HHK for a three-year period and, as a result of support from the community, has started his own rap channel on YouTube.

A few stars have been spawned out of the HHK core group, too; most notably, Mandy May Cheetham, who performs as “Mandy Mayhem,” a regular from 2006 who was retired from the event after winning the annual championship three years in a row. She has gone on to write lyrics and star in MUTHA, a comedy series for truTV.

“It’s immeasurable, how much it helped (my career),” Cheetham said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where she recently relocated. “It was a safe space for develop my skills. There’s no expectations with karaoke, but I treated it like it was a stadium every time. So if I failed, I came back harder.”

Cheetham sealed her last championship win by performing ‘Slam’ by Onyx, which she said was probably her favourite performance she ever did.

“I crowd-surfed, I took my shoes off . . . I had this sequined coat on and I threw it on the ground and it was just an explosion, everyone was just not contained in the slightest, and if you can turn a Toronto crowd into a massive, raging, screaming mob, then I think you’ve done some service for the world, because they’re a little hard to please sometimes.”

Torell said the HHK crowd is warmer than some might expect. “Hip-hop people usually get a bad rap as being a little cold or a little hard or something like that, but this is very much the opposite,” he said.

“Even if you screw up, people are always welcoming and accepting of people, and that was always the coolest part.”

The idea of Hip-Hop Karaoke is, admittedly, not original; though they take a back seat to no one in their love for old-school hip hop, the founding members — Seaforth, Ballon, DJ Dalia Cohen and DJ Noel “Numeric” Dix — were inspired in part by a flyer Cohen’s friend brought from New York City advertising an HHK down there.

After receiving the original HHK organizer’s blessing, the four set up the first Toronto version at The Boat in Kensington Market. It was a Thursday night — they couldn’t get a weekend slot at the time — but Cohen said that when they arrived a few hours before opening to set up they knew they were on to something.

“There was a lineup and people had apparently been calling The Boat all day to find out what time we start . . . People drove in from Oshawa and Pickering,” recalled Cohen, who’s married to Ballon and stepped back from organizing after having a child six years ago.

The event spent most of its infancy at The Boat before outgrowing it. After a brief stint at the Gladstone Hotel, it landed at Revival, which has been home ever since. When Seaforth briefly relocated to Montreal in the first year, Bernstein joined the team, bringing with him the idea of dollar-store prizes awarded to every performer. Dix left in 2014 to pursue other interests.

Just like the organizers, HHK’s seen a mix of both steady and rotating attendees.

“We definitely have a very local core group of followers who come out every month and I think, for them, it’s more than just a party, it’s really become a family,” Bernstein said. “People become close friends and hang out outside of karaoke, so yeah, for a lot of those people, and us included . . . it really is the end of an era

For Seaforth, the “family” part became quite literal: he met his future wife, Susan, at HHK in 2009 after announcing onstage that he was newly single.

Cheetham made a connection that changed her life, too; she met American rapper Fatlip through Hip Hop Karaoke, who invited her to perform with his group The Pharcyde in Los Angeles. The reaction to her performance — some loved it, others hated it — inspired her to start writing MUTHA.

“I feel a little bit emotional about it (ending), to be honest,” she said. “It seems silly, it was just a party, but it wasn’t . . . I didn’t even know that I needed it when it first arrived, but it became a place to express something that was inside that just had no outlet.”

Although average folks are the lifeblood of the events, HHK built up a reputation for bringing in quality guest DJs and rappers from time to time including, Ballon recalled, an unexpected special guest when Phife Dawg (now deceased) performed at the fifth anniversary. Just before the Tribe Called Quest star was set to go onstage, Ballon got a text from a former regular.

“He said, ‘I’m at the back door of Revival, let me in, I’ve got some people with me you’re going to want to meet,’ so I went back and opened the door, and this guy came in . . . And he had brought Naughty by Nature with him. I couldn’t believe it,” Ballon said. The trio ended up giving a 20-minute performance for free.

But even with all the highs, the back end — the planning, booking guests, printing posters, putting up banners — is still, nonetheless, a grind, one that’s become harder to keep at over the years.

“It’s just honestly so much work,” Bernstein said. “There’s only three of us doing it these days, so there’s very little financial compensation; we all have full-time jobs, some of us have families, so yeah, it’s kind of hard to maintain it.”

Seaforth agreed.

“(We’re pulling) a Seinfeld, rather than let it go down in flames from horrible ratings, we were just like, ‘Nah, let’s just end it on our terms.’ ”

And so, on Friday, the crew will hang up the banner at Revival again and, with the help of legendary DJ and rapper Pete Rock — who, coincidentally, was on the flyer Cohen’s friend picked up in New York all those years ago — make rap stars out of otherwise regular people one more time.

Although it may not be the absolute final chapter — Seaforth, Bernstein and Ballon all said they’re considering turning HHK into a semi-annual event down the line — it will be nice to hit pause for awhile.

“I think months, or maybe years from now, I’ll definitely miss it. I’ll be like, ‘Oh, it’s a Friday and I’m not at karaoke,’” Seaforth said, “I think it’s going to feel weird in a few months, I think, especially when summer kicks in, but for now it’ll be good to relax.”

The Toronto Star and, each property of Toronto Star Newspapers Limited, One Yonge Street, 4th Floor, Toronto, ON, M5E 1E6. You can unsubscribe at any time. Please contact us or see our privacy policy for more information.

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.