Chamber Music, Opera and ... Hip-Hop?

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Shove two people in the same room and who knows? They might fall in love. Same concept here.

Joowan Kim couldn’t have received a more negative response when he debuted his new musical creation to an audience of one. “He fucking hated it,” says Kim of the professor from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music who decried Kim’s brazen mix of classical music and hip-hop. Kim ignored him. Last weekend, when his “chamber music hip-hop opera” group, Ensemble Mik Nawooj, took the stage at apparel store-slash-venue Oaklandish, the crowd was proof that teachers don’t always know what they are talking about.

Since releasing its first studio album, Ensemble Mik Nawooj: A Hip-Hop Orchestra, on Kim and producer Christopher Nicholas’ Golden Fetus Records last July, the group has been dropping jaws left and right with its mix of seemingly un-mixable genres — classical, hip-hop, pop and rock. It’s a 10-piece orchestra, fit with violin, cello, clarinet, upright bass, drums, two MCs (Do D.A.T. and Sandman) and one hell of an opera singer. It sounds a bit crazy, but that was Kim’s natural reaction to the state of modern classical music: good in theory, crap in practice, he says.

“… the violinist going crazy, then the cello and wind and the MCs …”

The group covers well-known songs like Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.,” but we filmed their original piece, “We Will Conquer,” composed by Kim with contributions from Do D.A.T. and Sandman. The composition is about — surprise — overcoming life’s challenges, but the song was a bit of a struggle to make. In classical terminology it’s called a “concerto grosso,” which means the music is bounced back from the group to soloists. With “the violinist going crazy, then the cello and wind and the MCs,” it’s a lot to corral into something coherent, says Kim.

Kim didn’t grow up in the U.S. — he emigrated from South Korea when he was 20 — and he says that makes the whole genre-blending thing a bit easier for him, since he isn’t really shackled to one stereotype or another. If you met him on the street, you’d have no clue that the 36-year-old is a big up-and-comer in the Bay Area music scene. Kim has long, jet-black hair, and instead of graphic Ts and fresh kicks or a conservative tux, he wears traditional Korean clothing — just as he wore while living at the Sixth Patriarch Zen Center in Berkeley for seven years. “Jeans are too restricting,” he says. Apparently, so is the word “genre.”

Video by Melanie Ruiz and Tom Gorman

Correction: the original version of this article incorrectly identified Do D.A.T. as Do D.A.P., and the video’s text incorrectly read “Conquer” rather than “We Will Conquer.”

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