Ensemble Mik Nawooj merges hip-hop and orchestra

Raoul Ollman and Ken Lew/Courtesy

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Have you been listening to chamber hip-hop operas recently? As of yet, your iPod doesn’t alphabetically list this between blues and classical. Nor does Spotify, Grooveshark or iTunes offer you this section to listen to your favorite rap-cantatas. This is because, as JooWan Kim, co-founder of Ensemble Mik Nawooj, revealed, “People haven’t heard anything like this.”

“Chamber hip-hop opera,” Kim explained, is a type of “hybrid music,” synthesizing hip-hop lyricism with classical composition, without compromising either format, and ultimately creating a new style. There isn’t literal opera being sung, but instead, rap and instrumental music are presented in a shared genre, riffing off each other, giving space for rhymes to tell a story while orchestral pieces are played either as background music or as their own refrains.

In a digital age where, in order to create new music, electronic beats and distortion are used to revamp standard musical verses, it’s a bit risky to pursue anything that doesn’t pertain to one kind of sound or even combines various types of music that would most likely appeal to other listeners. Yet JooWan Kim and his music business partner, Christopher Nicholas, have made the move to Oakland in order to pursue the creation of their music with their group, Ensemble Mik Nawooj.

Kim and Nicholas’ friendship has spanned over 13 years, beginning when they were freshmen roommates at Berklee College of Music. Since then, these entrepreneurs have been working on sharing music that they truly believe in. They have created the record label (or “musical fraternity,” as they put it) Golden Fetus Records in order to maintain their own integrity and produce healthy pop music void of corporate demands for a mass-appealing style.

The Ensemble’s own diverse musical qualities stem from the fact that both its founders come from such varied musical backgrounds. Nicholas received his master’s degree in jazz music. Kim is a classically trained pianist who used to loath jazz and dreaded being subjected to friends playing hip-hop music. But now,  Kim conceded, “Once you go hip-hop … you can’t go back.” The two have musically found a way to reconcile these differences with the creation of their recent piece, “Great Integration: A Chamber Hip-Hop Opera.”

Their latest endeavor is a hip-hop opera about the end of a fantastical reality ruled by materialism. Inspiration for “Great Integration” came to Kim by surprise while he was taking BART one day. He explained, “I had a moment of automatic writing.” He was given the story in an outpour of clear words from a source that he can’t pinpoint. Eerily enough, Kim, who never knew of the Mayan predictions, later discovered that his own “prophecies” matched up quite consistently with stories of the end of the world in 2012.

As the story goes, in a world dominated by five non-human lords born from complete materialism (symbols of corporate tycoons), the hero, the Black Swordsman, must assassinate the lords to save humanity. Yet due to the world being consumed by its own materialism, it must ultimately be destroyed in order to leave a blank slate for a pure, new life to have a chance. Simply put, Kim explained, “(It’s) ‘Fight Club’ meets hip-hop meets ‘The Lord of the Rings.’”

The story itself is even laid out in a fantastical format, staying true to the usual themes of operas, but as Kim revealed, it is even closer to that of a cantata and oratorio. The actual show is not fully staged but presented in a concert fashion, with the orchestra sitting behind the MCs as they perform to the audience. The show weaves in and out of combining rap with classical instrumentation, but at times, will separate into segments of purely instrumental music. Kim’s compositions range from repeating minimalistic motifs to flourishing phrases that resonate on a rich, Wagnerian level.

Reflecting on the music business, where musicians are willing to sacrifice their beliefs to sell their music, Kim said, “I have to be true to myself … and be thinking in the (classical) system I was trained (in). When I was doing pop music, I realized that a lot of these classical composers, now, they are really well trained, but are in this crazy limbo world of non-existing art … We  have no art music or high culture or low culture, there is only one culture. Pop culture.” He continued, “The industry, now, is supersaturated with gimmicks.”

As any artist has to evaluate what they are doing in their field, why they are doing it, and what they hope to attain, it’s imperative to come to terms with the ever changing face of art. Especially in an age where artists are willing to make a splash in the most absurd ways, what Ensemble Mik Nawooj is doing is not completely outrageous. It just seems to be a natural evolution of two integral forms of  music that have more than the right to be integrated.

Ultimately, Ensemble Mik Nawooj’s work is not just a “great integration” of music, but of people, with the ensemble being comprised of a multi-ethnic seven-piece orchestra, two MCs (Rico Pabon and Do D.A.T.) and Kim at the piano. Even their audiences have been a mix of people, ages ranging from 18 to 70 years old. After having worked on the tale of the “Integration” for the past five years and premiering the first act last September, the group is preparing for the full show to be performed next Friday, March 30 at 8 p.m., at the Oakland Metro Operahouse.