Carlton, Karmin and Why White Rap is Just Wrong

By Jesse Kinos-Goodin

There’s an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air where Carlton tells Will that he borrowed his Public Enemy tape to jog to. “You like Public Enemy?” Will asks, to which Carlton replies by singing in what can only be described as the whitest, most Vegas showman-sounding voice possible, “Get up get, get, get down, 911’s a joke in this town.”

“That used to be my favourite song,” deadpans Jazz, a line I've used a million times since.

Carlton was the symbolic white person — from his privileged lifestyle and tucked-in shirts to his complete obliviousness to black culture. Carlton’s “whiteness” not only made for one of the sitcom’s funniest running jokes, it also sent a message to a young, impressionable me: Black (Will and Jazz) is cool; white (Carlton) is, well, not.

As a young white kid living in a city that was probably 95% Caucasian and majority redneck — one who blared Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers from my car stereo while everyone else bumped Garth Brooks — I not only recognized Carlton’s awkward place on the show, but sort of felt embarrassed for him, and for me. Is that what I looked like as I drove in my Ford Bronco, windows down, past the farmer’s co-op while a hip-hop collective from Staten Island’s call to “bring da ruckus” played from my speakers?

I got over that feeling, but just like never-ending Fresh Prince reruns, a Carlton moment is never far off to remind me of just how ridiculously uncool us white people can be. Take, for instance, Karmin. The SNL-appearing, hip-hop karaoke-ing, speed-rapping, children’s-theatre face-making, “swag popping” two-piece that has its first album due out in April.

Karmin (made up of Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan) has covered everything from Kanye West to Nicki Minaj on YouTube, and have millions of views to show for it. Things really started for them when they covered "Look at me Now" by Chris Brown featuring Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes. If you haven’t seen it yet, you definitely should. A few things are worth noting: Heidemann and Noonan are without doubt very talented musicians; Noonan gets into his own grooves so much that his head banging resembles a diabetic fit; Heidemann raps really, really, fast; Heidemann’s facial expressions make it look like she should be singing to children and telling them how to tie their shoes, not saying “then I’’m gonna murder everything and anything.”

I’m not a fan of Karmin’s take on hip hop (they should stick to Adele), which comes back to that embarrassment I felt watching Fresh Prince. Carlton made Public Enemy sound like Michael Buble; Karmin makes hip hop sound like a Canadian Idol try out.

To be clear though, Karmin has legitimacy. They’ve performed original music on SNL (unfortunately their original songs also have lots of speed-rapping) and they've performed "Look at Me Now" onstage with no less than hip hop icons The Roots (!), who not only admit to being big fans, but even appear in Karmin’s Super Bass cover. Busta Rhymes is not only NOT offended by Heidemann’s take on his "Look at Me Now" verse, he’s actually seen here giving Heidemann props and telling her he has something they can battle over.

And yet, as a white person, they still make me feel slightly embarrassed to go to a hip hop concert ever again. It's as if I would spend the whole night apologizing (“Ya, I’m really sorry about Karmin.” “No, I swear I don’t sing-a-long to them.”).

In the investing world, securities that are zero risk are called “plain vanilla.” My issue with Karmin is its plain vanilla approach to hip hop. Here are two white kids from a preppy arts college in Boston appropriating rap songs from black artists from places like New York, Chicago and New Orleans. They strip their covers of any risky elements (such as swear words) that might offend white middle-class sensibilities. Their success is based on making it all seem oh so uncool. The entire gimmick is built on an awkward Carlton Banks moment.

Of course, they’re not the only ones: From Vanilla Ice to Asher Roth, I shouldn’t be surprised that bands like Pomplamoose can sell out concerts with twee versions of "Single Ladies," a white girl called Kreayshawn can become an online sensationby acting “black," and something called frat boy rap even exists.

I’m not saying white artists should be relegated to strictly guitar-based music (despite this rant, I do admit that there are some good, even great, white rappers around, but if you even think of saying, “Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake aren’t bad,” we can no longer be friends). What I want is for white artists to show a little respect for the genre, and it isn't a lot to ask. When Karmin makes Kanye West’s All of the Lights seem more like an extended scene from Glee (more specifically, this gruelling scene from Glee), it not only does a disservice to the music, but it means somewhere, somebody is shaking their head, saying “that used to be my favourite song.”

Jesse Kinos-Goodin is a Toronto-based journalist and photographer. He writes mainly about music, travel and culture for the National Post. He is also embarrassingly bad at hip hop karaoke. You can follow him on Twitter @jessekg