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.