[7 March 2006]
The idea is not to dilute classical music with crossover novelties but to move it back into the thick of modern life. The old art will no longer hold itself aloof; instead, it will play a godfather role in the wider culture, able to assimilate anything new because it has assimilated everything in the past.
—Alex Ross; The New Yorker, 27 February 2006
If it is true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then perhaps it is similarly true that the road to purgatory is paved with bad orchestral crossovers. Not to cast aspersions on good intentions, but it takes more than simply hiring an orchestra to punctuate the melody to craft a competent composition: how many pop groups try to record with an orchestra to underwhelming or just plain embarrassing results? It’s almost a right of passage for aging rock groups of a certain caliber—it’s been a tried-and tested gimmick ever since Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group & Orchestra.
While it would be disingenuous to say that the daKAH Hip-Hop Orchestra is anything but what it purports to be, it still remains an unsatisfying hybrid. In the context of a musical climate where the vast majority of commercial hip-hop is becoming more and more illiterate and anti-musical with each passing day, the prospect of a group specifically designed to counter this depressing trend is heartening. But while the daKAH orchestra lacks nothing in terms of musical acumen, it lacks the vital spark necessary to be considered more than a tepid example of the hip-hop genre.
There’s a particular problem which infects a lot of attempts at creating a hybrid between hip-hop and jazz (and a lot of what appears under the auspices of “classical” in the daKAH’s performances is actually closer to orchestral jazz); and I think this problem could best be called the Phish Syndrome. Not because the music sounds like Phish, but because it falls prey to a great deal of the same cardinal sins that relegated Phish to being probably the least funky group in the universe. For some strange reason, when most jazz people try to play funk—the funk in this instance being the backbone of most hip-hop—they approach it in the sleepiest, most deracinated manner possible, rendering the entire enterprise about as compelling as a bowl of squiggly noodles. Hip-hop is an art that depends on intensity and focus; it deplores noodling and extraneous instrumental baggage. The best example of this is probably the Roots, whom I would go so far as to say are the best group currently active in hip-hop. They play real live instruments and even include a fair amount of instrumental passages in their compositions, but they never indulge in useless “Phishing”. Everything has a purpose and while they may go out on the occasional indulgent limb, they never lose sight of the music’s focus.
On the contrary, the daKAH assembly seems to be simply too large an assemblage of musicians to remain focused in any capacity. The focus of most hip-hop—certainly not all, but most—is the MC. The daKAH orchestra seems to have about a dozen MCs of varying quality, all of whom take turns during the performances. Since you can’t very well be playing a trombone while someone is rapping, this leaves a large percentage of the orchestra sitting on their hands during the majority of the set, or, playing the kind of brief melodic counterpoints that would normally be the realm of samples or synthesizers. When the MCs shut up, the orchestra rises back into the mix, producing brief crescendos and perhaps providing room for individual instrumentalists to solo, but there is no way for an actual movement or progression to develop because the logic of the piece is devoted to the MCs. Also, every piece is built on the similar foundation of a 4/4 tempo beat laid down by a conventional drummer and two percussionists. Hip-hop is a creature of the rock-solid beat, but the notion of rhythm has an entirely different providence in the world of the orchestra. I suspect that the failure of these arrangements to bridge the gap between traditional hip-hop and less obvious rhythmical possibilities contributes as much as anything to the tepid results.
So, is it bad? Eh, I wouldn’t go that far. There are some interesting bits throughout, even if the total effect leaves much to be desired. The sheer multitude of MCs on display is bound to turn up a few gems, although I must admit that the initial effect is very similar to an open-mic night at the backpacker convention: lots of consciousness-raising rhymes about nothing in particular. Each album comes in a two-disc set that expands the content of the first discs to interesting effect: Unfinished Symphony includes a disc full of instrumental and remixed selections taken from the first disc’s “movements”, while San Francisco Debut features group treatments of tracks by the Roots, Gang Starr, Public Enemy and others. A medley of tracks taken from the JBs, the Isley Brothers and Public Enemy finds the most interesting rewards, but tellingly, the symphony is mostly absent in these more straight-forward arrangements.
So while I applaud the ambition required to weld these two disparate concepts together, I can only conclude that hip-hop and classical are two great tastes that, as of yet, simply do not taste great together. It remains to be said only that a successful hybrid is inevitable; but not, perhaps, anytime soon.