Hip-Hop is Remaking Itself With The Help of Symphony Orchestras

Last month, Jeezy went on stage with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to perform a new version of his first album with a major label, Thug Motivation 101: Let’s Get It, which came out in 2005. Black people in suits and boots filled the packed house and sang every word of the album’s signature anthems while the orchestra recreated the trap drums and spooky sounds from Jeezy’s first big album.

Craig Garrett and “Big” Zak Wallace put on the show, which was the first in a series of concerts called Classically Ours. These concerts pair Black musicians from any genre with symphony orchestras.

It’s a way to get young black people to come to places where rich white people usually go to hear their music reinterpreted and celebrated. Garrett said, “We’re trying to start a movement where we improve the experience.”

“We want people to be able to come out and show a side of their culture that we don’t often see.” The idea behind Classically Ours is part of a trend in both hip-hop and classical music to change the way things are done.

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Several rappers’ songs have been turned into orchestral arrangements in the past few years. Two months before Jeezy played there, Rick Ross and the all-Black Orchestra Noir did the North American premiere of Red Bull Symphonic at the same venue.

“It’s always fun for me to add that element, and the artists are always grateful,” said Jason Ikeem Rodgers, who started Orchestra Noir and is in charge of its music. “Hip-hop artists are always like kids in a candy store when they play with orchestras.

Jason Ikeem Rodgers

I hope we’re inspiring other orchestras to really celebrate hip-hop.” Classical instruments and sounds have been sampled for a long time. Miri Ben-Ari, an Israeli-American violinist, became well-known by playing on songs like “Reunited” by Wu-Tang Clan, “Overnight Celebrity” by Twista, and “Fallin'” by Alicia Keys. Ben-Ari won a Grammy for playing the violin on Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” and Wyclef Jean invited her to perform at Carnegie Hall in 2001.

“I was trying to figure out how to change the violin so that it didn’t belong behind the artist,” Ben-Ari said. In 2005, she put out her first album on a major label called The Hip-Hop Violinist. “It was hard to change people’s minds and give them the chance to see the instrument in a different way.”

Ben-Ari wasn’t the only one who used classical instruments in hip-hop music. In 2008, Mos Def and Gil Scott-Heron performed at Carnegie Hall with the Amino Alkaline Orchestra, which was led by jazz musician Robert Glasper.

Four years later, Jay Z played at the same place with The Roots and members of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra. Adam Blackstone, who was in charge of the show’s music, had asked Jeri Lynne Johnson, who was the orchestra’s founder and artistic director, to arrange some of the songs.

Johnson didn’t do the arranging, but she was in charge of the performance, which was her first time at Carnegie Hall. “As an African American woman, it means a lot to me to be there with these great artists at such a legendary, storied venue in classical music and performance,” Johnson said.

“It wasn’t just about combining the two kinds of music; it was also about bringing people who liked both kinds of music into the same space.”

Nas performed with the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in March 2014 to honor the 20th anniversary of Illmatic. It was the first time a rapper had done so.

Three months later, Sir Mix-A-Lot performed live versions of his number-one hit songs “Baby Got Back” and “Posse on Broadway” with the Seattle Symphony.

Derrick Hodge, who wrote the orchestral arrangements for Mos Def, Jeezy, and Nas, said that turning hip-hop into classical music is “making honest art, not high art.”

“The history has to come through in everything I write or arrange,” said Hodge, who is also a Grammy Award-winning bassist. “Everything I do is about accepting myself, and hip-hop is about putting that first and not trying to live up to the standards of classical music.

It’s about going with what the story tells you to do and using the orchestra as a real soundscape instead of trying to force music into it. Instead, use the musicians to help tell the story.

“I’m trying to keep the doors open for those who come after me by making sure the scores look perfect and respecting the way Black artists express themselves,” Hodge said. “What we call things needs to change.

That’s what will change the way we think about classical music, and I’m glad that what we now call hip-hop is one of the places where that can happen. The National Symphony Orchestra and other orchestras around the country were moved by how well Nas’s performance went over.

In 2015, Kendrick Lamar played pieces from his second album To Pimp a Butterfly, with an orchestra. Common, who later worked with the orchestras in Chicago, Atlanta, and Houston, also performed with the orchestra in 2017.

Will.i.am, a member of the Black Eyed Peas, led the orchestra for a piece he wrote for NASA in 2018. And in 2019, when the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing was celebrated, producer Pharrell Williams joined the orchestra.

“NAS made it possible to do more shows,” said Justin Ellis, who is the artistic administrator and pops programmer for the orchestra. “The Kennedy Center did a few things here and there to make things more diverse, but we didn’t embrace it as much as we did with a culture that was mostly white.”

During the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, performances were canceled. When they started up again, orchestras started adding hip-hop to their holiday shows to reach a wider audience and show that they are still relevant to younger people as live performers.

Like the National Symphony Orchestra, the Nashville Symphony was hesitant at first but eager to try out some new sounds. Hip-hop is a global phenomenon with musical elements that are similar to classical music, so the Nashville Symphony was curious to try out some new sounds.

Enrico Lopez-Yanez, who is the principal pops conductor for the Nashville Symphony, said, “Illmatic already has a lot of symphonic influences.” “Most musicians care about making good music, so this gives them a new way to look at and listen to different kinds of music.

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Collaboration, building community and making something new and beautiful that didn’t exist before are all things that society should do more of. Audiomack, a streaming service, joined in the fun by putting out a web series called Trap Symphony in 2015.

It featured Migos, Trippie Redd, A Boogie with Da Hoodie, Chief Keef, Roddy Ricch, Lil Durk, Rich the Kid, and Rod Wave. The Polish National Radio Symphony put on a hip-hop medley that same year. In February 2016, 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne were guests on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

hip hop symphony orchestras

They brought the music duo Black Violin with them. Hip-hop is driven by young people, so rapper T.I. invited teens from the Atlanta Music Project, a tuition-free music education program, to perform with him at the 2018 NPR Tiny Desk.

T.I. said, “I usually work with grown-up professionals, so this was a chance to really work with the next generation by giving them a platform to help them find their passion.” “It was a beautiful moment that I hope encouraged them to go further and work harder.”

Lecrae, a rapper who has won a Grammy, offered to perform with the project at the grand opening of its practice space the next year. The “Blessings” emcee was impressed by the project’s grassroots efforts to raise money and crowdsource for instruments.

He hoped that playing with them would give the young musicians a sense of cool with their chosen instruments. “Both classical music and hip-hop are hard to play, so don’t get it wrong,” said Dantes Rameau, co-founder, and CEO of the Atlanta Music Project.

“Those performances with the artists showed the kids how great our music is and that orchestral music doesn’t just come from Europe. On these instruments, you can play any kind of music, and we will always celebrate the music of African Americans and the diaspora.

This year, hip-hop is turning 50, and more rappers and orchestras are using symphonic music as a way to try new things and work together. Rza, a founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, performed 36 Chambers of Shaolin and A Ballet Through Mud with the Colorado Symphony earlier this month.

hip hop symphony orchestras

He wants to take the show to more cities. “As a Black man, it’s great to see an orchestra that has changed so much,” he told the Denver Post. “There’s a stereotype that classical musicians aren’t as cool as rock or hip-hop musicians.”

“This dream will be seen for the first time in Denver, but we want to show it to other places as well.” When rap and classical music come together, the next step could be to bring more musicians into the studio to work together live.

So, artists can use symphonies to make new music instead of just reusing songs from their catalogs. Both types of music are ready to take on the challenge.

Rodgers said, “Hip-hop is great music that came from people who were supposed to be forgotten, and we made the whole world listen to music that celebrates Black excellence in so many ways.” “It can be rough, elegant, and fit on many stages because it is very solid, brilliant music that will last forever.”