“First of all, there’s no such fucking thing as high art anymore,” says Joowan Kim, leader of the Ensemble Mik Nawooj—a group that melds hip-hop and classical music to create singular and postmodern songs.
Kim, who began pioneering this hybrid sound in his final years at the Berklee School of Music, says he wanted to exit the “crazy fucking cult” of entitled Eurocentricity in the classical, “art music” scene. And he found a way out after examining the work of pioneering hip-hop producer, J-Dilla.
“J-Dilla is on the same level as Thelonious Monk and probably Mozart,” Kim says of the late Detroit beatmaker, known for his meticulous sampling and repurposing of recorded jazz and soul music.
In the same way that Dilla meticulously combed through crates of old records—extracting riffs and rhythms, and using the disparate sonic scraps to build beats—Kim is using his classical training and an ensemble of chamber musicians and two emcees, to construct fully fledged hip-hop tracks.
An immigrant from South Korea, Kim doesn’t fit the typical hip-hop mold and readily admits he isn’t an authority on “the culture.” But his use of sampling fits squarely in the genre and the American melting-pot style of creation.
“What I’m sampling is the methodology of classical music,” he says. “The essence of hip-hop is disruption. And the quintessential element that makes hip-hop unique is you can take something that exists already, take it apart and put it together in your own way—creating your own thing. It’s accessible and rigorous at the same time. And it’s definitely not classical.”
Kim forsakes typical hip-hop arrangements for whatever pace tickles his fancy and fits his artistic vision. His tracks substitute the electro-enhancement of modern beats for the roundness of the 10-piece Mik Nawooj Ensemble, which includes a cellist, a flautist, a clarinetist and an opera-trained soprano. For the last Super Bowl, held at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Mik Nawooj were commissioned to reimagine the Marlena Shaw classic, “California Soul.”
Contrasting with the caramel-smoothness of the original, Kim’s version is set to a relentless, head-banging beat—broken up by haunting string interludes and laced with ghostly wails. The group’s two MCs, Do D.A.T. and Sandman, fill the track with a meticulous description of California’s history: namechecking everything from the state’s many indigenous tribes to its better known professional sports franchises and natural landmarks.
The group’s most powerful song comes in a the form of a reimagining of the Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” While the original Wu track serves as a gritty examination of the danger and glamour of street life, Mik Nawooj transforms the track into a melancholy lament of modern greed. In the accompanying gray-scale music video, diverse and dejected Americans break the fourth wall, rapping along with the chorus: “Cash rules everything around me.” The familiar lyrics, along with the additional words provided by Do D.A.T. and Sandman highlight the callousness of the American financial system.
“You can’t top the classic,” Kim says. “So I took musical elements that I found to be essential and then I started tweaking it slowly. By the end, you can’t even recognize it, but it’s a logical progression. We don’t call it a cover, we call it deconstruction.”
Ultimately, the marriage of these two genres shouldn’t shock that much. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s hip-hop musical Hamilton shattered barometers of Broadway success. Nas, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar have all done concerts accompanied by symphonies. And like those artists, Mik Nawooj aren’t a tongue-in-cheek experiment. Rather, they make a bold statement about rap’s place within our culture. Kim considers himself “a serious composer” who crafts the next wave of “indigenous American art music” by elevating hip-hop to its rightful place.
“Classical training made me think a certain way,” he says. “It’s a very logical way. It’s a beautiful system that I can rely on to make it cohere. And hip-hop is very much about expression. It’s a lot like jazz. There’s an exciting creativity. I learned to be rigorous from classical music. Hip-hop made me free.”
Ensemble Mik Nawooj
Jun 11, 7:30pm, $12-$15
SLG Art Boutiki, San Jose
WATCH: Kim Joowan explains the philosophy behind his genre bending group.