Hip-Hop Karaoke was the latest in a string of sold-out events bringing hip-hop, jazz and comedy to the Club at Studio K, a weekends-only series held in the Reach’s largest performance space. The people taking the stage — performing tongue-twisting versions of Eminem’s “Rap God,” crooning Wale’s “Pretty Girls” — and those who gathered to cheer them on were younger than those in the Kennedy Center’s main halls. (Well, mostly: A group of older women dubbed “Lisa and the Crew” earned one of the biggest cheers of the night for dancing and rapping their way through Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It.”)
One of the stated goals of the Reach, a $250 million expansion that opened in September, was to attract “the widest possible community” outside of the usual silver-haired orchestra-and-opera crowd, a decision signposted by the Chuck Brown Band and Bootsy Collins headlining the Reach’s 16-day opening festivities last year. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but for Simone Eccleston, the Kennedy Center’s director of hip-hop culture and contemporary music since 2017, it’s exactly the way it should be.
“The opening of the Reach was an opportunity for us to move beyond business-as-usual,” she says. “In our role of being the nation’s performing arts center, we should be reflective of the needs of the nation. It’s important to see this beautiful juxtaposition of formal and informal, dressed up and dressed down, and that everyone can feel alive and supported and embraced and celebrated here.”
The Reach is a sprawling complex with outdoor plazas and multiple levels of galleries, classroom spaces and studios. At its heart is Studio K, which was designed as “a multipurpose room” for performances and rehearsals, with a footprint slightly larger than the Opera House’s stage. The walls are covered with “crinkle concrete,” which looks like balled-up paper and is designed to diffuse sound. A gallery-style balcony allows an audience to watch from above.
For the first few weeks after the Reach’s opening, Studio K was transformed into a visual art gallery for “Portraits of Courage,” former president George W. Bush’s exhibition of paintings of wounded service members. But Eccleston says the plan was always to use Studio K as an auxiliary concert space from January through April.
“It was birthed out of the legacy of the Kennedy Center Jazz Club,” a small performance space in a former Kennedy Center library that opened in 2002 and quickly became known as an intimate cabaret-style space that hosted up-and-coming artists as well as iconic musicians. “But we definitely wanted to extend it beyond jazz, and so with the opening of the Reach, we experimented with a multi-format club that encompassed hip-hop, contemporary music and comedy as well as jazz,” she says.
The night after Studio K hosted Hip-Hop Karaoke — a general-admission event with a hotel ballroom vibe — the room was transformed into a jazz club for two performances by funky jazz-meets-hip-hop quartet Kassa Overall, with guest vocalist Carmen Lundy. More than 40 round tables covered the wooden floor, facing the stage, while high cocktail tables lined the walls.
Each table had four chairs, but there were no servers — anyone needing a drink during the 80-minute set, even if they were in the middle of the room, had to get up and walk to one of the bars along the back wall. And those drinks were pricey: $15 for the house cocktails (the mezcal-and-Aperol-based Pamplemousse Smoke was more sweet than smoky) or mixed drinks made with “luxury spirits” such as Bulleit, Tanqueray, Captain Morgan and Ketel One, and served in reusable Kennedy Center cups; $9 for bottled Sam Adams and Port City beers; $11 for a red orwine by the glass.
While the Kennedy Center has been shifting its attention away from the classical world — pianist Jason Moran became artistic director for jazz in 2014, and Q-Tip, the legendary frontman of A Tribe Called Quest, became the center’s first artistic director for hip-hop culture two years later — the Club at Studio K is providing a venue for modern and pop-focused events on a regular basis, and with ticket prices that aren’t much more than fans might expect to pay at the 9:30 Club or U Street Music Hall. The response has been overwhelmingly positive: Last week, all three events — a performance by Detroit techno trailblazer Juan Atkins; the Time Machine Roast comedy show; and a preview of the local Broccoli City Festival with DJs and dancing — sold out their allocations of around 300 tickets, with prices from $20 to $35. Since mid-January, there’s been at least one capacity crowd each week.
For Eccleston, the early support for the Club at Studio K’s events are validation of the Kennedy Center’s new direction. “I think the Reach is allowing us to become more of who we are, and more of who we aspire to be as an institution,” she says. “In the past few years, we’ve really been leaning heavily into contemporary art forms. So if you were thinking about the growth of our comedy program, the implementation of hip-hop as a programmatic anchor — all of that has forced us to grow leaps and bounds as an institution.
“I think that the Reach itself moves us beyond the ways in which people are accustomed to experiencing us, into a space that feels new and reflective of our aspirations and their interests.”
If you go
The Club at Studio K
Located in the Reach at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. kennedy-center.org/reach.
Both this weekend’s events (performances by Los Angeles rapper ill Camille on Friday and actor/comedian Chris Distefano on Saturday) are sold out. Tickets are available for Bilal’s Valentine’s Day Residency Feb. 13, $45-$60.