Classical music group Ensemble Mik Nawooj reimagines hip-hop songs

Jeff Spirer/Courtesy

From a methodological, classically trained perspective, hip-hop is a revolutionary invention. At least it is to JooWan Kim, a Korea-born composer who trained at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. While earning his master’s degree in San Francisco, Kim composed a one-off orchestral chamber piece that incorporates emcees. The performance received an overwhelmingly positive response and launched Kim into the world of hip-hop, leading him to create Ensemble Mik Nawooj, a hip-hop group consisting of a chamber orchestra and two emcees.

The ensemble is performing Friday for its fifth anniversary at Piedmont Piano, where it will be performing several new pieces commissioned as part of a grant from the East Bay Community Foundation’s fund for artists. This particular performance features an augmented chamber orchestra with a full-string rather than just a two-string quartet rather than just two strings, a soprano soloist, winds, drums, bass and piano, resulting in a 12-piece ensemble. It is the group’s last performance in the Bay Area this year before it heads to the Pacific Northwest for a series of shows.

Kim describes the project as a reactionary response to the elitism of modern classical music and its nonrecognition of hip-hop as a valid art form. In a phone interview with The Daily Californian, Kim said, “I listened to NWA, listened to the raw energy and the audacity at the time to direct it at the police. … They created this amazing, visceral music.”

At the same time, the avant-garde movement he was studying at the conservatory was leaving him jaded.

“I was doing a master’s in classical composition, and I pretty much only listened to classical music — specifically the avant-garde, cutting-edge art music at the time — and I got fed up with all this nonsense of aesthetic sort of bogus,” Kim said. “They have this rhetoric like, ‘I’m pushing the language of music.’ If you’re trying to push the language of music, you can’t just hang out with your loser friend in a room, jerking off and speaking Pig Latin.”

It was that lack of impact, lack of connection to the audience in the avant-garde classical scene that drove Kim toward hip-hop.

Oftentimes, people label the group as a fusion of classical with hip-hop or as an attempt to make classical compositions hip, but Kim insists that these labels aren’t the case.

“I’m doing hip-hop music — it’s as simple as that,” he said. “There’s no real definition of hip-hop yet. So what I was really excited about with hip-hop was the fact that the genre is still really young, and yet it’s mature enough. It can take this kind of thought-out structure.”

Kim uses his technical training as a composer to construct the ensemble’s pieces.

“The piano parts, I would play on the piano,” he said. “But all the other arrangements are done on the desk. I basically hear all these parts and write it down as if I’m writing a symphony.”

Kim also modulates the structure of the songs: “I don’t follow the 16-bar general hip-hop-song form or rhyme structure,” he said. “Sometimes there’s 15 bars or 11 bars, and then there will be one bar of 5/4 and one of 2/4.”

Once he has scored the pieces, he hands the music and theme to the emcees, who compose the lyrics.

As a result, the hip-hop of Ensemble Mik Nawooj is rooted in the analog rather than the digital. The emcees handle the lyricism and poetry, and Kim takes on the role of producer. He is a sort of classical Dr. Dre who writes and relays parts to orchestral musicians rather than working in a digital, synthesizer-based workstation. In fact, hip-hop artists such as Kendrick Lamar have been moving in this direction, incorporating ensembles of live brass and strings rather than synthesized instruments in their sets.

The viscerality of Ensemble Mik Nawooj is not in the lyricism, which lacks the raw anti-establishmentarianism of the black hip-hop artists who inspired the group. Instead, the presence of real classical instruments being pushed in new directions brings a unique flavor to the ever-growing landscape of hip-hop.

Watch one of the group’s live performances here.

Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected].