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Ensemble Mik Nawooj proves hip-hop is complex art form

Ensemble Mik Nawooj
Ensemble Mik Nawooj

Ensemble Mik Nawooj houses some of the instrumentation found in a traditional chamber music ensemble, the kind that might delve into works from Vivaldi or Bach. But the strings, vocal soprano and woodwinds playing in this Bay Area-based group share the stage with musicians otherwise geared for a dance party: hip-hop MCs.

The repertoire might bring sneers at a snobby symphony hall. There are no scores of Schubert or Stravinsky on the music stands of the Ensemble Mik Nawooj. Rather, it’s the gin-and-juice-laden sounds of Snoop Dogg and rugged East Coast rap from Wu-Tang Clan that get a classical music treatment.

Ensemble Mik Nawooj, founded five years ago by composer JooWan Kim, seeks to present hip-hop elements through a prism of classical technique and composition. This bridging of two distinctively different art forms has created a buzz in the Bay Area musical community and beyond. Yet, EMN’s Saturday show at Sol Collective marks not only the group’s first Sacramento appearance, but its first performance outside the Bay Area.

The concert will leave plenty to ponder not just for patrons of classical music, but hip-hop heads as well.

“If I had to choose a side, I’d definitely say I’m hip-hop, more than classical music, for sure,” said Kim, in a phone call from his Bay Area home. “I thought maybe I could bridge the gap. But there is no gap. Classical music is over. That’s why I say I’m not a concert composer. I’m closer to a pop producer.”

On paper, the notion of transcribing “Gin and Juice” for violin and flute could certainly seem like a novelty. But Kim’s not operating out of ironic principles or seeking to add cheekiness to the classical canon.

Kim, a native of Korea, was trained in composition at Boston’s Berklee School of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He appreciates the work of the “Big Three” – Bach, Beethoven and Mozart – but his tastes gravitate more toward the modern and minimalistic approaches of Arvo Part and Steve Reich. Kim also treats the late J Dilla, revered in hip-hop and pop for his expansive approach to production, with the same reverence as George Gershwin.

I love Bach and Ligeti, but I also love N.W.A.

JooWan Kim

Kim models EMN after a Pierrot ensemble, which is synonymous with the work of Arnold Schoenberg and often augments its small group of woodwinds, strings and piano with other instruments or singers. In the case of EMN, a duo of hip-hop MCs are added to this mix. A key premise is to illustrate that hip-hop has the musical sophistication and artistry normally considered the domain of highbrow genres.

“In 10 years people are going to talk about J Dilla as they talk about Mozart,” said Kim. “Some people already do that. People have this notion that hip-hop has to connect with subcultures like gangbanging and misogyny. They say it’s stupid, it’s not music. Musically, hip-hop has so much flexibility and has firmly established itself as a sophisticated and complex form of art. As a trained classical composer, that’s excited me.”

Fusing elements of hip-hop with orchestral music isn’t necessarily new. Deltron 3030, fronted by rapper Del the Funky Homosapien, toured recently with a 16-piece backing orchestra conducted by producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura. Nas once performed his “Illmatic” album backed by the National Symphony Orchestra, and a “Concerto for Turntable” was debuted by DJ Radar of Arizona at Carnegie Hall.

But Kim wants to take these kinds of fusions further, to not simply create one-off compositions or mash-up rap songs with orchestral instrumentation. Kim’s notion is to create a system that takes elements and motifs from various rap tracks and use them as a springboard or recurring element for larger compositions. For example, the EMN’s interpretation of “C.R.E.A.M.” by Wu-Tang Clan isn’t a mere note-for-note arrangement with violin and woodwinds. Kim uses the song’s familiar piano loop to create a kind of variation on a theme. In a way, Kim samples the source material as a hip-hop producer or DJ might, but in the context of a chamber music ensemble.

All great artists push the envelope.

JooWan Kim

“You hear the melody in a way that people recognize, but it’s flipped throughout the piece,” said Kim. “It’s done in a way that’s not offensive. I’m taking the DNA of the piece, sampling hip-hop and also the methodology of classical music.”

While it’s tough enough to convince some crowds that Snoop Dogg should be uttered in the same sentence as Sibelius, even some hip-hop musicians have trouble wrapping their minds around this approach. Kim is prone to taking many compositional approaches that go beyond the typical musical structure of hip-hop songs.

“Some in hip-hop ask why am I doing it like this,” said Kim. “Why is there no 16 bar rap (structure)? Why is a 2/4 (time signature) inserted there? I say that I’m pushing the envelope, like Kendrick Lamar. All great artists push the envelope.”

Ensemble Mik Nawooj: A Hip-Hop Orchestra

  • WHEN: 9 p.m. Saturday
  • WHERE: Sol Collective, 2574 21st St., Sacramento
  • COST: $12 advance, $15 at door
  • INFORMATION: (916) 585-3136, solcollective.org
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