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Tag: Anne Hepburn Smith

Ensemble Mik Nawooj Mash Up Cutting-Edge HIp-Hop With Classical Drama

There’s been more of a connection between classical music and rap than a lot of people realize. RZA is an imaginative keyboardist and may have played as much as he sampled on all those classic Wu-Tang Clan joints. Bushwick Bill is a big opera fan and did a loosely conceptual album based on it. And Yasiin Bey has been working with orchestras for more than a decade. Ensemble Mik Nawooj‘s album Death Become Life – streaming at Bandcamp – continues in that cutting-edge vein.

Bandleader/pianist JooWan Kim comes from the classical side: he had an epiphany when he first heard NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. On this album, MC Sandman fronts the group as they swirl and leap around, in a mix of original music and variations on well-known classical themes. The music here is closer to Bushwick Bill’s bombast than RZA’s looming, bellicose ambience, enhanced by the dramatic presence of soprano Anne Hepburn Smith. And the beats – all of them live and organic – are on the fast side, pushing Sandman to the peak of his lyrical skills.

Doesn’t it kill you when you hear a riff and you can’t place it? Is that Dvorak that the piano and then the strings echo on the title track? Meanwhile, Sandman’s torrential lyrics build a futuristic scenario and contemplate the possibility of reincarnation, through an unexpected, suspenseful lull on the bridge. It’s the first part of a trilogy: this is definitely as ambitious as any classical-rap hybrid ever devised.

There’s dramatic menace in the chromatics, string cascades, emphatic piano, tense calm and uneasy gusts in May Good Conquer Evil, Sandman firing off a long list of evils but also ways to beat them. That familiar piano riff and variations return in the suite’s conclusion, May Death Become Life, a swaying, understatedly operatic piece: big up to Kim for doing this live instead of sampling the piano intro from ELO’s Evil Woman.

With a mix of the baroque and brooding, cinematic lustre, Everything Ends relates the sudden loss of a dear friend. The band follow that with a low-key, sweeping instrumental aptly titled Hymn: is that a reference to the BeeGees’ How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?

The optimistic Everything Returns to One is the closest thing to a catchy, vintage 90s hip-hop joint here. The heroic, anthemically pulsing orchestration of Who Would Be Born takes centerstage over Sandman’s tersely provocative lyricism.

The album winds up with three energetically reflective numbers based on classical works. Mozart on Joy is a clever mix of famous riffs, Sandman cutting loose with one of his most sharply ironic lyrics here. Beethoven on Struggle fuses variations on the Coriolan Overture and other big hits, a majestic salute to the world’s rugged individualists. The album’s coda is Bach on Transcendence, with a deliciously new orchestration of the Toccata in D: it’s as funny and formidable as the composer ever could have imagined. The group turning in this inspired performance includes both original and new members:  Joyce Lee on flute; Liam Boisset on oboe; Davis Hampton on clarinet; Jamael Smith on bassoon; Craig James Hansen on horn; violinists Philip Brezina, Clare Armenante and Laura Keller; violist Ivo Bokulić; cellist Evan Kahn; bassist Michel Taddei and drummer Lyman Jerome Alexander II.

There’s also a matching series of videos scheduled. And Ensemble Mik Nawooj are a great live act: in their New York debut four years ago, they transcended a hideous sound mix at a ramshackle Manhattan space to deliver an irresistibly fun set. As the world slowly returns to normal, it might be overly optimistic to expect to be able to see them in their native Oakland. But people are flocking to free states like Texas and Florida for live music; maybe the band can hit the road this summer.

Ensemble Mik Nawooj Reinvent Hip-Hop Classics in Harlem

“Rolling down the street, smoking indo!” soprano Anne Hepburn Smith sang, belting at gale force for maximum dramatic effect. A sold-out audience of white tourists exploded in laughter.

“Sipping on gin and juice!” Ensemble Mik Nawooj’s two MCs, Sandman and Do D.A.T. responded. There wasn’t a member of the chamber orchestra behind them who could resist a shit-eating grin. It was as if to say, we can’t believe we’re actually playing this song at all, let alone this way…heating up the coldest night of the year, Saturday night at the Apollo, no less.

In their first-ever New York concert, at the third-floor cafe space there, that Ensemble Mik Nawooj managed to deliver a show worth seeing at all was a major accomplishment. If they’d been able to hear each other onstage, if the sound mix had been even remotely decent, or if bandleader JooWan Kim hadn’t been forced to play the show and conduct the band from the floor, seated in front of the stage at an out-of-tune upright piano whose lid had been ripped off, there’s no telling how much more comfortable this mighty band would have sounded.

They take a well-loved hip-hop formula – moody, lush strings with eerily tinkling piano – to the next level. Hip-hop with a live band goes way back to acts like Rare Essence and Schoolly D, but this show had more in common with Yaasin Bey’s most lavish mashups of rap and classical music. Kim told the crowd that his new arrangements of popular rap hits, most of them from the 90s, would be radical reinventions, and he wasn’t kidding.

Smith didn’t come in until the death-obsessed second number, like Oya with the thunderbolt when things got really intense. The menacing twinkle from Kim’s fingers mingled with the washes of strings from violinist Clare Armenante and cellist Saul Richmond-Rakerd. Flutist Elizabeth Talbert and clarinetist James Pytko animated the set’s funkiest moments while bassist Eugene Theriault and drummer LJ Alexander gave the tunes more swing than any sample or drum machine ever could.

The two MCs nailed the rapidfire rap toward the end of the show’s epic opener syllable for tonguetwisting syllable. Kim directed brisk, catchy ELO-ish chamber pop interludes, starry macabre set pieces and baroque violin passages in between the rappers’ manic flow, bubbly woodwinds interspersed with the lyrics over the tight rhythm section. They mined the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic first album for several joints, starting with C.R.E.A.M. (which to be honest, they played way too fast), then Shame on a Brother and finally their own version of a classic track which they recast as EMN Ain’t Nothing to Fuck With.

They went to their native Cali and made a march out of J Dilla’s Last Donut, and after Gin and Juice, tackled a second Snoop Dogg number, Gz and Hustlaz, shifting from bouncy flute funk to an ominous cinematic minor-key outro. As the show hit a peak, Kim revealed that this live set reflected his response to and eventual bounceback from a series of deaths in his family: it’s not hard to see how hip-hop death fixations and grimness would resonate with him. Beyond that cover of Gin and Juice, the biggest hit with the audience was when the two rappers left the stage, went to the middle of the crowd and dueled without any help from the band. Then again, Vanilla Ice could have gotten a standing O out of this crowd. Here’s hoping that EMN get better sound here the next time around – or play the  main Apollo stage, where the sonics are reliably excellent.