Trap Karaoke is a thing. It’s the kind of thing that unifies 1,200 friends and complete strangers into swaying back and forth to a one-hit wonder from 2009. The kind of thing that combines regionality with crowd approval; a safe haven for anybody who’s rapped a song hard in the mirror thinking they were the artist. There’s fear in stepping onto a Trap Karaoke stage because it’s just you, your song and a host encouraging you to do your best. You breathe, you announce your name and where you’re from and you just let go, let loose.
"A user-generated concert experience," Trap Karaoke creator Jason Mowatt said in a conversation days after Trap Karaoke owned Warehouse Live. "I used to go to festivals and see 20 feet of barricade separate the fans from the artist. The most important element of Trap Karaoke was to bring fans & artists together."
Mowatt, an original investor of D.C.'s Trillectro festival didn't see TK as something merely marrying trap music and karaoke. He wanted to give attendees the feeling and aura of being on stage with their favorite artist. To him it preaches intimacy, tying together social media with hashtags, Snapchat filters and the community within a certain venue to create what he calls, "a new paradigm".
"A totally new paradigm," he emphasized. "It's like going to church, very community oriented and everyone there to have fun. Warehouse was a little shocked that we packed it out."
Friday night, Trap Karaoke’s continued evolution came to Houston as part of their BET Experience tour. Since the event’s initial debut, it has grown in stature with memorable events in Atlanta (Pastor Troy and his trademark WCW Heavyweight Championship Belt made an appearance), Raleigh (Petey Pablo showed up), New Orleans (Mannie Fresh showed up!) Toronto (NBA All-Star Weekend) and Washington D.C. (allegedly, a Obama impersonator arrived and fooled everyone in attendance). There were rumors of potential Houston rappers making appearances (Slim Thug had to bow out at the last minute), jokes about people trying to use the stage as a platform for fledging careers, the feeling that no genre or era of your teenage and college years was off-limits and more.
Once it got down to business, host LowKey and DJ Austin Millz knew what they had to do. Well beyond his Howard University radio days, LowKey has managed to cultivate a following. Joking and casual, he twists complete strangers into newfound acquaintances. Even as some TK participants shied at first when grabbing the microphone, Low kept it relaxed.
1,200 people watching karaoke sounds like an unbelievable thing. 1,200 people rapping “Mo City Don” word for word during an intermission probably equals the same high as dunking on somebody with their girlfriend watching. Letting a big dude in Jesse Frazier II rap “Big Pimpin” (a Houston cheat code, if anything) all the way to Pimp C’s verse? Instant high. But it wasn’t even the best performance of the night.
A woman clad in a black T-shirt and jeans came onstage during a Wild Card period. She requested "6’7”" by Lil Wayne, one of his first “wait, this dude can still kinda rap his ass off” post-prison songs. Wayne’s fast-paced helium raps from 2011 somehow embodied this woman and she took off, a cappella ripping Wayne’s track to shreds. She received the loudest ovation of the night, even causing LowKey to stop and applaud her efforts.
There were characters at Warehouse Live on Friday night. One blonde-haired man, probably nicknamed Crisco as the Desiigner version of Sisqo, did his best to impersonate R. Kelly and whatever singer of the moment he could think of. Another two dudes body-rolled and air-humped the floor like in-the-moment R&B group Pretty Ricky.
Houston’s song choice creativity blended between sublime (hidden Boosie gems like “Smokin’ Purple” and “Set It Off”) and predictable (Future’s “March Madness”). Yet one bold soul declared that he was going to perform Z-Ro’s “Mo City Don" — only problem was, 1,200 people had technically performed it moments before he had his own solo moment.
Not even a minute and half into his performance, Millz had no choice but to cut it short. He turned to Millz and instantly got heated. “You don’t cut that shit off in the H, mayne,” he said with a drawl as distinct as smelling your grandmother’s cooking on Sunday afternoons. “You don’t cut off 'Mo City Don,' mayne.”
He was so angry and passionate about it that Millz could only shrug and move on to the next performer. As sacred a cow as “Mo City Don” is, the show can’t stop just because of it. Even if a crowd will rap it from top to bottom every single time because of its power.
"Mo City Don was prioritized," Mowatt said. "I think it got played more than a few times already. Low checked the temperature of the crowd and that's what happened. We have plenty of respect for Houston and it's strong music culture, no disrespect at all. We just didn't want it to feel like we were going in a circle."
He continued, "We had a lot of classic Houston cuts. Only thing was - nobody performed them."
The best possible analog to Trap Karaoke would be the black college events of the 1990s, where people from all over the country flew in just to catch the experience. Performers from Memphis and Birmingham and Atlanta came to Trap Karaoke Houston, all wanting to embody the spirit of Yo Gotti, Dem Franchize Boyz and more. For me, it felt like my undergrad days at U of H, remixing songs with my friends because it was the thing to do.
Mowatt has already been in talks to bring Trap Karaoke back to Houston, albeit in a different venue (he joked about the AC at Warehouse) as well as a Texas tour coordinating Austin & Dallas into the fray as well. He and his team have already noticed a larger uptick with the new voting process, allowing fans to feel part of the democratic process in seeing certain performers, their peers mind you hit the stage. His biggest goal? Unifying the country for what he calls "The Million Swag Surf," a move to help raise awareness and money for bone marrow and other blood cancer research.
Trap Karaoke is forever for the people. Even if in the H, you’re testing holy ground by interrupting “Mo City Don."
BONUS: A look at the Trap Karaoke stop in Washington, D.C.: