July 16, 2012
Borderline, Orange Yard, Manette Street, London, E8 2EB
There’s a lot of hate in the world. These days, a lot of that hate seems to be geared towards people that have gone “viral” on the internet. It seems that becoming well-known on the world wide web can be more of a curse than a blessing. Over the past few years many artists have become famous and released albums by putting music online and becoming “internet sensations” – it began with MySpace and people like Kate Nash and Sandi Thom, then progressed through to YouTube and people like Jessie J, Lana Del Rey and current figure of journalistic hate, pop duo Karmin.
Karmin is made up of Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan, two Berkley music students who began posting covers of other people’s songs online. Originally just singing, they recorded a cover of ‘Your Love’ by Nicki Minaj that including Amy rapping, something she’d previously only ever done in the shower. Afraid of the possible backlash, she was hesitant about posting the video online, but guided by Nick she posted it and the rest, as they say, is YouTube history.
I discovered Karmin’s cover of ‘Look At Me Now’ by Chris Brown, Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne, which I had previously never heard. With just a keyboard on some kind of organ setting and a condenser microphone, Amy skillfully made her way through one of the fastest raps I’d ever heard, sounding like a cross between Jessie J and Nicki Minaj. She and Nick sang the chorus (adding a melody to an otherwise flat, spoken hook) and by the end of the track I was completely blown away. Not only could Amy rap with better flow than a lot of male and female “rappers” (despite rapping someone elses lyrics – I mean, come on – that never hurt Cher Lloyd, right?) but she has lungs on her too. I bought their cover of ‘Look At Me Now’ from iTunes, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I even played it to a hiphop obsessed guy I was seeing at the time who said “if I heard that, and then I heard the original, I’d have been really disappointed”. And he’s right, I was. The strength of the Karmin version was in taking an incredibly dull song by some very talented people (I mean, the original has Busta Rhymes on it, for God’s sake!) and making it quirky and interesting, by bringing the rap to the fore and giving you a chorus to sing along to.
So, after collecting all their covers (some great, some good, some passable) I was excited to see them playing their first (and only) European gig at London’s Borderline. They had a disastrous appearance on Saturday Night Live (sound familiar? Lana Del Rey anyone?) and have been savaged by a lot of the media (a “critic” for the Gawker, who published “The Haters Guide To Karmin” said calling Amy a rapper was like “calling a rapist a lover” – ouch!). I liked their homemade videos, but had not been bowled over by their over styled official promos and TV appearances, so I was curious to see what a live gig would entail. As I knew they had an EP of original songs coming out (again, I hadn’t been overly impressed with the original songs I’d heard previously) I wondered, in a headlining slot, what to expect.
Joined by their guitarist Zack, Amy and Nick bounded on to the stage brimming with excitement to be playing in the UK for the first time, and their excitement was infectious. Being the nice guys they are, they introduced themselves (to a crowd who probably already knew them) and launched into their first song.
Who do you think you are?
A super s-t-a-r?
Amy spat along to an acoustic guitar, as they launched into a rendition of ‘Crash Your Party’. A brilliant hook driven pop song, with a small dose of Amy’s now trademark “white-Nicki Minaj” rap style. As an acoustic song, it sounded almost innovative with the current trend for overproducing music. Amy and Nick have what seems to be limitless energy, and as they went straight in to ‘I Told You So’, with its stomping drums and acoustic guitar, it was clear this was going to be my gig highlight. The most interesting of the songs on show here, it has a hip hop lilt without trying too hard to fit in, the epitome of the “swag-pop” genre they’ve carved themselves into. Amy raps at high speed and is a powerhouse vocalist and the music has a sense of fun to it that can be missing from pop music – a kookie kitsch-ness, like Daphne And Celeste but with talent, if you will. As the quest for “real music” makes the divide between pop music and credible music even bigger, the saccharin niceness of Karmin’s stage persona as well as their songs will grate on some people. There’s nothing overly innovative about the music, especially if the studio production leans more towards the commercial than the acoustic, but it’s good, honest fun, and I had a great time listening to it. Amy and Nick are a joy to watch, and as they treated us to two covers as “that’s what made us famous” (the aforementioned ‘Look At Me Now’, and ‘Superbass’ by Nicki Minaj) they look as at ease with other people’s songs as their own.
The 50’s cheerleader stomp ‘Too Many Fish’ and its hook of,
If you caught one, you can catch another one –
had me singing along having just heard it once, and the acoustic falling in love summer jam ‘Walking On The Moon’ is still stuck in my head. Closing the set with new single ‘Broken Hearted’, they told us it’s been getting a lot of airplay on Capital FM, and I can see why. It’s yet another brilliant hook driven pop song with a splattering of kookie rap thrown in, and having already sold over 500,000 copies worldwide, I’m sure it’ll be a big hit over here this summer.
My feeling about Karmin is articulated in the lyrics of their song ‘Hello’. With its Nirvana inspired chorus, it’s intended to be a direct comment to all the “haters”, not only in the media and the world of the internet, but also in their real life. The biting lyrics,
Too nice, Too clean,
Too white, Too green,
Little haters, big dreams,
I don’t care what you think about me –
bring up an interesting point about Amy’s race, and its bearing on her ability to rap. I listen to a lot of hip hop – and when I say hip hop, I’m not just talking about Jay Z and Kanye West, I’m talking about proper hip hop. I’m talking about political hip hop, with something to say – artists like Speech Debelle, Erykah Badu, The Roots etc., so I have a working knowledge of rap, and feel like I’m semi-qualified to comment on Amy’s ability to rap. I also listen to a lot of Femcees, and I’m telling you that, especially as far as pop femcees are concerned, Amy is right up there with the best I’ve heard. This girl’s technique is better than most male rappers. The difference? She’s white, she’s not poor, and she’s nice. In 2012, I really thought that we would be past class and race distinction, in both music and society but there still seems to be a general feeling that white people shouldn’t rap – and even when, like Amy, they are good at it, they are vilified for trying.
I’m not saying Amy is the greatest rapper in the world – she has an unusual flow, a Nicki Minaj style kookiness, that I find very interesting, and I find her reality refreshing. Karmin don’t try to gain respect by appearing “ghetto”, neither do they claim to make hip hop. Amy raps because she can. They write pop songs, pretty well judging from this gig, and Amy’s vocals are astonishingly good. In a market where Rihanna can carve a career singing songs that other people have written and autotuning her almost constantly flat vocal, you’d think that bedroom popstars like Karmin would be applauded. Yes, their music is a product of their surroundings and owes a lot to their contemporaries – there are heavy leanings towards Jessie J, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj on almost every song – but the question remains, would the negative press be there if Amy were mixed race or black? A black femcee who could spit like that, sing like that and write songs like that, as chart fodder as they are, would be huge. It’s also telling that the majority of her critics are white music critics, whose knowledge of hip hop seems to be limited to ’99 Problems’ by Jay Z – I would personally rather trust the opinion of Questlove from The Roots, who was so blown away by Amy’s skills he invited Karmin to perform with them when they were in Boston, calling them “my favourite shit ever!”
Whether their EP will suffer from the over-production that most pop artists are subjected to is yet to be seen – but in an acoustic setting, with minimal instrumentation (just like the YouTube videos they’ve become famous for) their talent is undeniable. Sod music journalists – if it’s good enough for Questlove, it’s good enough for me.