Karmin: an appreciation

Mad @ Mgmt addresses the concerns of middle market companies, including banking, family and succession issues, turnarounds and performance improvement, and economic life in general. Walter Simson is founder and principal of Ventor Consulting, a firm dedicated to middle market companies.

I received a link to a YouTube video with an urgent message: listen to this. I found an attractive white couple playing under the name “Karmin,” starting a rap cover. He’s at the piano, she’s playing folk guitar.

Acoustic rap. Um, interesting, but let’s just say that I’m not the right demographic.

My correspondent insisted, and sure enough, at exactly 50 seconds into Karmin’s video I was blown away by a full, sweet voice backed up by a soft, smoky one. The voices belong to Amy Heidemann and her partner in music and life, Nick Noonan. They met while studying music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and have been singing together for five years.

These guys, ’08 graduates, have gotten over 20 million YouTube hits and climbing. He is from Old Town, Maine, and she’s from some place in Nebraska that invented the phrase “white bread.” How did they become hip-hop hits?

Look at their cover of Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” – the video I was first encouraged to listen to. It starts out with Amy asking Nick if they can play something more modern than the piano rag he is fooling with. Then after a knowing wink to the audience, she becomes “Amy Renee,” a ditzy teenager with a fixation on a not-so-nice guy at the club. “I said, excuse me you’re a helluva guy … I mean, you’re so shy and I’m loving your tie …” Her eyes wander, her vocabulary is hip-slang, and she’s ready to slap down her teenage competition … then, watch out. The chorus is coming, and the rapper Amy Renee turns into Amy the Berklee grad. She takes a deep breath and flies.

“Boy, you got my heartbeat running away
Beating like a drum and it’s coming your way …”

What a voice.

What does this have to do with business? Just this: In a country that values entrepreneurship, it is always surprising to find the new shoots. These kids graduated with arts degrees in the middle of the worst recession in nearly a century and decided to make a career out of singing from an apartment in suburban Boston. And they are taking their world by storm.

They got recognized first by recording a cover of Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now” where another “Amy Renee”-type character with a mixture of world-weariness and naivete speed-raps (I mean really speed-raps) a song about how she can get any man she wants. Karmin, whether for YouTube or for a larger audience, cleans up the usually shocking lyrics as if to admit they really are just small-town kids.

The business community may not recognize it, but rap and hip-hop are established ways to get wider notice. Before Will Smith, the actor and producer, broke into film, he was a rapper. He won a Grammy at the age of 19. And years ago, I heard an award-acceptance speech given by the rapper Queen Latifah. It was a most touching, heartfelt, and humble thank-you to the family who encouraged her career. And she later said that she knew all along that rapping would lead to business opportunities. It was an entry strategy.

Nick and Amy certainly could be following very knowingly in these artists’ footsteps. After all, how many new college grads hire a manager?

These guys give me hope, as well as a musical spring in my step. Just as soon as I was ready to declare defeat – like, tell the kids to give up their dreams and take up welding – these guys invest everything in their talent. As a matter of fact, I have particular respect for Nick and his parents. After all, it takes a certain fortitude to tell your son to follow his musical career. But imagine being a parent faced with a boy who wants to major in – wait for it – trombone.

That’s what Nick did, and he actually accompanies his future wife on some of their sets.

So here are the words I never thought I would write: Nick, please check out Nelson Riddle’s arrangement of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” as sung by Linda Ronstadt. At the end, it backs up Linda’s big voice with an unforgettable, soulful trombone solo. A song perfect for my age group or, as you might say, a wider audience. And we buy lots of records.

Oh, and you don’t have to be a hip-hop maven to know Karmin. They wrote the theme song, “Take It Away” for the 2011 NBA playoff series. You have probably been humming the tune these past weeks. And the lyrics speak to their generation’s determination:

Close both eyes to the sunrise
You thank God for the journey when you realize,
Long nights mean nothing at all,
Bright lights
You can hear ‘em call …
Anybody got the guts to play?
‘Cause you only live once,
Better live for the day …”

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