ALL EARS Ensemble Mik Nawooj is the sort of band that solves problems you didn’t know you had. Problems like: I want to wave my hands in the air at a chamber concert! And: I sure wish this hip-hop show had some opera. A chamber ensemble with two MCs and (yes!) a lyric soprano, the group fuses classical music and hip-hop with the intent to explode expectations of both.  

Composer and pianist JooWan Kim founded Ensemble Mik Nawooj (EMN, for short) in 2010 and was later joined by spitfire Oakland MCs Do D.A.T. and Sandman. EMN recently completed its most ambitious work to date: a full-length, hip-hop oratorio entitled Death Become Life. The piece premiered at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival in June and has caught the attention of Opus 3 Artists, which manages the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Alvin Ailey, and recently added EMN to its roster. Sat/16 at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland will be the first of a few more chances to hear Death Become Life in the Bay before EMN takes it on tour.

Kim, Do D.A.T., and Sandman took time to share the rebellious energy that fuels EMN, an experiment that began as an attempt to destroy concert music and may just be its salvation.

48 HILLS JooWan, in a recent interview with Upworthy, you talked about creating your first hip-hop piece partly to piss off the teachers at your conservatory, which is funny. But how did you know that bringing hip-hop and classical music together would work?

JOOWAN KIM I didn’t know it was going to work at first. My answer on Upworthy isn’t really far off from the initial motive of doing the piece. I have a lot of problems with the postcolonial and Eurocentric concert music aesthetic. It’s absurd that a guy from (insert any non-European country, including America) thinks that the highest form of performing arts is to play the violin at Berlin Philharmonic. It’s fascist, archaic – and most importantly, no longer working.

I wanted to create a new way of doing concert music that reflects the life we lead today. After doing a novelty piece at SF Conservatory of Music, I went through a gradual initiation to hip-hop, which allowed me render the current hybridization. 

48 HILLS Do D.A.T. and Sandman, what made you want to join EMN and experiment with classical music? Were you into the idea from the get-go, or did it require some convincing? 

SANDMAN I never imagined performing with a classical ensemble specifically because I had so often heard promoters of classical music shit on all Black music, going as far as to say hip-hop music isn’t music at all. This didn’t make me biased towards classical music, just doubtful. But I always wanted to perform with live instrumentalists because there is a way that their performance encourages my own and vice versa. 

It’s important to note that hip-hop, from its inception, assimilated many different genres, including classical music, via samples, so it wasn’t an alien idea to me. I felt presented with a challenge, and was eager to meet it.

DO D.A.T. Sandman and I used to be part of a hip-hop group called The Attik, and our unofficial slogan was, “Why imitate when you can innovate?” Joining EMN was the perfect way to live those words. 

I didn’t need any convincing because I liked the music, and I identified with its rebellious energy and ambitious vision. As a writer, I welcomed the challenge of sculpting verses to JooWan’s compositions, and as a performer I loved witnessing people’s reactions to these two worlds colliding. In short, I recognized the opportunity for creative growth. . . . And JooWan threatened me with physical violence. (Just kidding, he’s a sweetheart.) 

48 HILLS How does your collaboration work? Do the MCs ever give feedback on the music, or vice versa, or does everyone pretty much stay in their lane? 

SANDMAN Feedback has always been welcome, and sometimes the feedback comes in the form of healthy debate. JooWan and I have gone back and forth about making dance music. When I first began working with EMN, a lot of the pieces had a heavy classical aesthetic, and I felt the music could be even more potent, or impactful. As we’ve continued to collaborate, I think the music has gotten further from the classical aesthetic and just become good music. I’m not saying his repertoire has become twerk-worthy, but it’s definitely adapted more of a groove. 

JOOWAN KIM As far as the lyrics, I give them the theme of the piece and trust their immense talents to come up with something incredible. And they never fail me.

EMN’s reinterpretation of “California Soul,” commissioned by ESPN for Super Bowl 50:

48 HILLS Your last album was entitled The Future of Hip-Hop, but it seems like a lot of people also think you’re the future of classical music. Why did you choose one title over the other?

JOOWAN KIM We thought in choosing hip-hop instead of classical we’d get more mileage out of it. However, what we continue to do is create a new concert music for the future. Eventually, what we call classical music will cease to exist and be replaced by “hybrids” of different systems. We believe that we’re the prototype of this trend.

48 HILLS Have you ever gone into a situation where your audience didn’t know what they had signed themselves up for (either a classical audience not expecting hip-hop, or vice versa)? How did that go?

SANDMAN The most startling part about performing with EMN has been the crowd demographic. I remember performing at a festival at Oakland’s Cathedral of Christ the Light. Sitting in the from row was an elderly white gentleman, with his walker folded to the left of his seat. I couldn’t help but think, “We’re about to give this guy a heart attack.” After the show, he made his way over to me, needing much effort to do so, and said, “I really enjoyed that . . . with the music, and you all doing the scatting. It was great.” 

I had an internal jaw drop. Though he was totally not a fan of hip-hop, but rather thought we were scatting, he enjoyed himself. No crowd or setting has since topped that performance in terms of feeling out of place, but either way we’ve found it doesn’t matter. Everyone comes away satisfied, having experienced something standing side-by-side with someone they otherwise never would have shared space with.

JOOWAN KIM People generally like us. Must be the good looks of Sandman & D.A.T.

48 HILLS You seem to have honed in on the work of Wu-Tang Clan, J Dilla, and Snoop Dogg. Why those three? 

JOOWAN KIM As for Wu-Tang & Snoop, we were commissioned to reimagine six classic hip-hop tracks of 1993 by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for their 21st anniversary celebration. For J Dilla, he is one of the main reasons I am doing what I am doing now. His inventiveness, natural talent, and ways of treating samples as pieces of musical motives to build larger ideas really struck me. He is like Monk or Mozart. A natural genius with profound influence on the next generation.

48 HILLS Do you all tend to agree about your favorite MCs, or do you argue about who’s best and who you should cover?

SANDMAN There was an instance in which D.A.T. and JooWan had a debate about a Kendrick Lamar song, which resulted in JooWan composing a piece that sounded exactly like what it was: an effort to prove a point. I asked D.A.T. not to debate with JooWan again, since apparently nothing good can come from it.

EMN’s deconstruction of “C.R.E.A.M” by Wu-Tang Clan, commissioned by YBCA:

48 HILLS Do D.A.T. and Sandman, when you’re reinventing another MC’s work, how do you decide when to play off the original lyrics and when to go in another direction?

SANDMAN I’m an artist, so I tend to want to limit the amount of another MC’s lyrics that I incorporate into my own. Mostly what I try to do is match the sentiment of the verses. What I like about “C.R.E.A.M.” is that both D.A.T. and I took on both the micro and macro perspectives of the subject matter, where in Wu-Tang’s version, they kept the personal perspective throughout the song. 

My first verse, with the more impersonal/macro perspective, began:

We can trace back to cash and fiduciary conflict 

every slug to the bonnet war and conquest

pillage a populace for the ore in the continent

bronze, iron, gold, platinum, oil, or diamonds

The next verse, with the more personal/micro perspective, began:

I ride for the survivors / the god incarnates

who hide god knows what behind their garments

and try to spark it / supply the market

and made their rise in the US of A’s armpit

An example of where I cited an MC’s verse was on “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin To Fuck Wit.”  Method Man, who ranks as one of my favorite MCs, had such an iconic intro to his verse, I felt I had to pay homage by referencing it directly and following a similar rhyme scheme.

DO D.A.T. I LOVE WU-TANG CLAN. They pretty much are the reason why I rap, so for those deconstructions, I just choose my favorite lyrics and incorporate them into my verse. For EMN’s deconstruction of “Shame on a N****,” I chose not to use any of the original lyrics but convey the energy of the original work, which is: I’m the illest rapper breathing, and my crew can’t be faded! 

Much of the rap that I enjoy contains these grandiose statements of how much an MC out-classes their competition. These are important declarations for the historically disenfranchised to make because we receive the opposite messages and often times feel unseen in so many areas in our lives. 

So when Method Man says: 

You could never capture the Method Man’s stature

For rhyme and for rapture

Got n***** resignin’, now master

My style? Never! 

Or when I say, “I got em head over heels like a 69, Why I get Deja Vu every time you rhyme? inspiration or imitation a thin line,” we are simply stating that our existence has value, our lives matter, and we want the respect!  

Dancers stepping to EMN during YBCA’s 21st anniversary celebration

48 HILLS JooWan, what makes Death Become Life your most ambitious work to date?

JOOWAN KIM There is a continuous development of common themes from “Death Become Life” (the title track of the work) that appear throughout the work. Also, the work itself is a semi-modular performing arts piece with the music as the central unit. You can add and subtract different components like dance, theatrical narrative, and backdrops. We will also create regional variations.

48 HILLS Can you explain what you want the audience to get out of Death Become Life?

JOOWAN KIM I think this prayer sums up the essence of the work: “May good conquer evil, light banish darkness, and death become life.”

48 HILLS Have you gotten any interesting or funny responses from the kids you’ve met through your educational outreach work?

SANDMAN We were invited to play at The Sacred Heart Catholic School in San Francisco. I felt a little awkward because much of the subject matter in our lyrics is adult, and challenges institutions from policing to religion. We walked into an auditorium full of uniformed kids, silent and staring blankly. I thought, “Uh oh.” As we concluded the first song, they went nuts. At one point, we selected one girl and one boy to come to the stage to do an impromptu performance, and each time they uttered a word or phrase, the auditorium went absolutely crazy. It turned out to be a dope experience. 

EMN will be returning to The Sacred Heart in November to teach creative writing/rhyming, and music composition/musicianship, which will culminate in the students executing their own hip-hop orchestra project.

DO D.A.T. [Sandman and] I have also been doing non-profit work with youth since high school. The majority of my time was doing artist development for BUMP [Bay Unity Music Project] Records. I’ve also worked as lead artist for Beats Rhymes and Life, where the focus is getting “at-promise youth” to process trauma and build strong connections to their fellow group members. 

Just the other night I was ciphering (having a rap session) with a couple of young MCs at a fundraiser. I could tell they were newbies because of how hesitant they were to step to the mic and rap. After a couple of rounds of timid mumbling, I essentially started cheerleading and ad-libbing while they freestyled. It was a trip to see how these young men came out of their shell with just a little bit of encouragement! It was night and day in a matter of minutes. They may not show their full, charismatic, witty, artistic, bold selves anywhere else, but that’s who they were in the moment. With enough practice, they could be that person all the time. It made me happy to be a hip-hopper.

ENSEMBLE MIK NAWOOJ PRESENTS DEATH BECOME LIFE

Saturday, September 16, 8pm, $5

Pro Arts Gallery, Oakland

Tickets and more info here.

Complete list of upcoming performances here