Few things sour hip-hop for me quite like when a great MC who made their career riding loops decides out of nowhere to mess with live instrumentation. Maybe they are distancing themselves from samples for an album, or perhaps they learned to play something on their own, but either way it rarely works.
On the other hand, I have always loved groups that approach things organically from day one. Well beyond the Roots, from classic Boston acts like Audible Mainframe to those rocking in other throes, these serious musicians have actually kept me interested in hip-hop when cheap mainstream variations started boring me throughout the years.
While there’s some of that excitement brewing around the distinctive setup of Ensemble Mik Nawooj, on another hand the Bay Area group is a new beast entirely. More like stylistic cousins to the rock- and jazz-inspired outfits I have long admired, their classical hue is unique, but also far more honed and confident than anything that diehards would consider rude experimentation. With machete-sharp vocalists fronting a miniature orchestra tuned by a maestro with a passion for boom bap, they represent a distinct future for the genre that diehards of all stripes should be thoroughly excited for.
We wanted to know more about the EMN process and approach, and so we spoke with composer JooWan Kim (JWK), co-producer and musician Christopher Nicholas (CN), and MCs Sandman (S) and Do D.A.T. (DAT) ahead of their Thursday performance at Berklee—where, it so happens, Chris and JooWan cut their teeth as students and musicians more than a decade ago.
Classical loops always made for some of my favorite hip-hop tracks. How much of a difference is it working with comparable sounds but playing them from scratch?
JWK: We sample elements of classical music like counterpoint, instrumentation (we only use classical instruments, except the drum set without any electronic sounds), consideration of orchestration, formal constructions, etc., and use them to create hip-hop music. As a result, it’s not quite hip-hop, as we don’t follow conventional 16-bar structures nor do we have 808 or drum machines, but also not classical—definitely not classical. The idea behind this process is called “method sampling,” which is a principle of borrowing and sampling rationales or methods and reframing them into one’s own system.
DAT: As an MC you have a lot more options to follow because of all of the different melodies and rhythms present in the compositions. But at the same time you have to follow the music very closely. Regular hip-hop production allows for a different type of flexibility. Personally I think what Joowan does with method sampling is pretty amazing. The idea of sampling ideas. It doesn’t get more hip-hop than that.
S: It’s different because it’s not so loop heavy. The instrumentation is far more dynamic while maintaining rhythmic integrity. I think the instrumentation is executed to have an emotional dynamism, making it more theatrical.
Chris and JooWan—You were in Boston at Berklee around [the early 2000s]. Were you involved with the music scene at all?
JWK: I had no life other than school while in undergrad. I thought I had to know every single technique out there (I was wrong) and spent a lot of time studying them.
CN: While at Berklee I had the luxury to see a lot of great musicians at the school’s performance center. I saw Amel Larrieux, Take 6, and Steven Tyler, to name a few. I also had the opportunity to see Bobby McFerrin, performing by himself, at the Boston Symphony Hall. In terms of the music scene, I was a dual vocal performance and songwriting major, so I was busy with [performances], songwriters contests, and tons of recording sessions. I also co-produced a show outside of school featuring JooWan’s music in his last year.
Where do ideas start? And how do they get executed? I know that JooWan painstakingly writes the music using traditional techniques, but I’m wondering how the actual building blocks work from there.
CN: I co-produce—and occasionally sing background parts/hooks—all the recordings. First JooWan lays downs the instrumental tracks with our players. Then I come in and oversee the MCs and our classical singer’s portion. After both sets are recorded, JooWan and I check out each song and add small electronic layers, or extra vocal layers, if needed to give the track(s) some more character. Finally, we mix and master with our great engineers in the Bay.
DAT: JooWan will provide a rough idea/topic for us to write to along with a midi mock up (which isn’t very fun to write to). Sandman and I will meet and get a basic direction that we want to go in, and boom, there it is. A lot of time JooWan will want to address existential topics such as good comquering evil etc., so I feel like it’s our job to break those topics down to a more everyday type of perspective.
S: Essentially, since it starts with the musical compositions, JooWan sets the tone. Though the pieces are inspired by what’s going on in his life, the concepts tend to be universal. … Luckily he doesn’t suck, so we can write to the music and not hate ourselves for doing so. We otherwise have had plenty of conversations as to what it is we’d like to hear, in terms of sound and sentiment, and he incorporates those elements into the works, when applicable.
With so many ideas and influences—and musicians—bouncing around and adding to the group, what’s the key to keeping the group’s sound consistent? Does it help to have a maestro on hand for this sort of thing? What do you see as EMN’s trademarks when it comes to sound?
JWK: We do have two resident MCs that we’re very happy working with, and I don’t see myself not working with them in the future projects. This is a big part of the consistency. Another main component and the essential part is the compositions themselves. Because of my classical training and love of hip-hop which started over decade ago, I have developed a writing style that incorporates elements of both genres. This wasn’t done in a day; it took years of incremental adjustments and refinements to reach this point. Therefore the sound we have now is organic and distinct.
With feet in the classical and contemporary worlds, are there negative reactions from either side? Classical cats highbrowing you? Hip-hop friends lowbrowing you?
JWK: We definitely have pushback from both worlds. I think any traditionalists would have a problem with what we’re trying to do. Our mission is to create concert music that’s free from Western European aesthetics and reflective of the multiple perspectives which the modern world is comprised of. We feel very much in tune with larger changes that are similar in ethos. There are classically trained chefs who open up burger shops and BBQ joints, graffiti/street artists who are being accepted into the so-called “high art” world. … Perhaps now we are generating a new world by means of method sampling.
CN: You’re always going to have people against change. And when you talk about hip-hop, or really any type of black/brown music, the issue of appropriation is always at its core. If you look at all our features and interviews, we always acknowledge where we’re borrowing from. We’ve even gotten a gracious nod from RZA, given we reimagined his work.
DAT: Yes, a few hip-hop heads have had some not-so-nice things to say about what we are doing, and I totally understand. If I wasn’t involved in this musical excursion, I’d probably be a bit apprehensive about EMN myself. We (people of African descent) have a loooooooooong history of having our style, ideas, culture, and our very identity stolen then sold back to us (cough, Post Malone). This isn’t that, though. This is the next step in the evolution of hip-hop. Hip-hop is finally of the age where the people who were birthed into it are taking center stage in the political theater, in mental health and medicine. Ensemble Mik Nawooj is just the sign of the times.
S: To echo JooWan, the traditionalists define integrity as remaining unchanged, while we see remaining unchanged as lacking integrity and being ignorant to the nature of things. Traditionalists then see what we’re doing [as] aberrant behavior, for the sake thereof, and can’t appreciate the artistry, having stopped paying attention at the realization that what we’re doing isn’t readily familiar. Haters gon’ hate.
You have performed in concert halls and in small venues. Other than the luxury and presumably superior sound of the former, what is the difference between the these settings? And does the group have a preference for one or the other overall?
JWK: If there are people who want to listen to our music and we’re getting paid, we’ll be there playing.
CN: I don’t have a preference. My favorite part is talking to folks after the show. Usually they come in with a preconceived notion of what they’ll hear and always leave with their minds blown.
DAT: Personally I like the small venues. I like the intimacy.
S: Dat and I started out performing without amplified sound in large halls and prided ourselves on being able to do what we do anywhere. That being said, when you do have amplified sound you can be in situations where you can’t hear yourself and start to modulate based on that rather than how you actually sound. So, I usually enjoy small, intimate venues, or large, expensive venues with excellent sound and an embarrassment of riches in high-grade monitors. Yet, we still pride ourselves on being able to play between high- and low-maintenance circumstance.
ENSEMBLE MIK NAWOOJ PERFORMS AS PART OF THE CELEBRITY SERIES OF BOSTON STAVE SESSIONS ON THURS, MARCH 22 AT 160 MASS AVE (BERKLEE). CELEBRITYSERIES.ORG/STAVESESSIONS FOR MORE INFO.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.