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From left to right: Rappers Rick Ross, Jay-Z and Jeezy. MASA
Hip Hop at 50

From the street to the stage: Hip-hop is reinventing itself with the help of symphony orchestras

Rappers and classical musicians are increasingly eager to collaborate

Last month, Jeezy stepped on stage backed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to reimagine his 2005 major label debut, Thug Motivation 101: Let’s Get It. The packed house was full of suited-and-booted Black folks who mouthed every word of the album’s signature anthems, while the orchestra reimagined the trap drums and eerie sounds of Jeezy’s breakout album.

The show, promoted by Craig Garrett and “Big” Zak Wallace, was the premiere of Classically Ours, a concert series that pairs Black performers, no matter the genre, with symphony orchestras. It’s a way to draw in younger Black audiences to hear the music they know reinterpreted and celebrated in places typically reserved for rich, white people.

“We’re trying to create this movement where we elevate the experience,” Garrett said. “We want people to have the opportunity to come out, celebrate, and show a side of the culture we don’t often see.”

The concept for Classically Ours continues a paradigm shift that’s happening in both hip-hop and classical music. Over the past few years, several rappers have had their songs turned into orchestral arrangements. Two months before Jeezy’s performance, Rick Ross played the same venue with the all-Black Orchestra Noir for the North American debut of Red Bull Symphonic.

“It’s always fun for me to add that element, and the artists are always appreciative,” Orchestra Noir founder and music director Jason Ikeem Rodgers said. “Hip-hop artists are always like kids in a candy store with the orchestras, so I hope we’re inspiring other orchestras to really celebrate hip-hop.”

Of course, sampling classical instruments and elements has existed for years. Israeli American violinist Miri Ben-Ari made a name for herself by appearing on tracks like Wu Tang Clan’s “Reunited,” Twista’s “Overnight Celebrity” and Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’.” Ben-Ari, who won a Grammy for Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” was crowned “the Hip-Hop Violinist” and Wyclef Jean invited her onstage at Carnegie Hall in 2001.

“I was trying to figure out how I could revolutionize the violin so it wouldn’t belong behind the artist,” said Ben-Ari, who released her major label debut LP, The Hip-Hop Violinist in 2005. “It was a tough struggle to change people’s perspectives and the possibility to view the instrument differently.” 

Ben-Ari wasn’t the only one merging hip-hop with classical instruments. In 2008, Mos Def took the stage at Carnegie Hall with Gil Scott-Heron and the Amino Alkaline Orchestra, helmed by jazz musician Robert Glasper. Four years later, Jay Z played the same venue backed by The Roots and members of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra.

Adam Blackstone, the show’s musical director, had contacted the orchestra’s founding and artistic director, Jeri Lynne Johnson, to arrange some of the songs. 

Johnson passed on arranging, but served as conductor, making the gig her first time performing 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 marrying the two styles of music, it was about blending the audiences for each kind of music together in that space.”

In March 2014, Nas’ performance with the National Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Illmatic was the very first time a rapper performed with the orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Three months later, Sir Mix-A-Lot joined the Seattle Symphony for live renditions of his chart-topping hit “Baby Got Back” and “Posse on Broadway.”

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

“Whatever I write or arrange, the history has to be reflected,” said Hodge, who’s also a Grammy Award-winning bassist. “Everything I do is about acceptance of self, and hip-hop is about trusting that first and not trying to live up to the standards of classical music. It’s trusting what the story is telling you to do and use the orchestra as a real soundscape without trying to force anything musical into that. Instead, let the musicians be a tool for the storytelling.

“I’m trying to make sure the doors are always open for those that come behind me by making sure the scores look immaculate and honor the way Black artists express things,” Hodge continued. “We have to redefine what we call things. That’s what’s gonna redefine classical music, and I’m glad what we’re calling hip-hop now is one of the platforms for it.”

The success of Nas’ performance inspired the National Symphony Orchestra and other orchestras around the country. Kendrick Lamar previewed tracks with the orchestra from his sophomore album, To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015. Common, who later collaborated with the Chicago, Atlanta and Houston orchestras, also shared the stage with the orchestra in 2017. Black Eyed Peas member will.i.am conducted the orchestra for an original work he wrote for NASA in 2018. And in 2019, producer Pharrell Williams joined the orchestra during the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

“Nas opened up the possibility to do more shows,” the orchestra’s artistic administrator/pops programmer Justin Ellis said. “The Kennedy Center had done some things here and there to create diversity, but we weren’t embracing it the same as we have with predominantly white culture.”

Performances were shut down during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and once they started up again, orchestras began incorporating hip-hop into their seasonal programming to broaden their reach and prove their relevance as live performers to younger audiences. Like the National Symphony Orchestra, the Nashville Symphony was hesitant at first but curious to try some new sounds, since hip-hop is a global phenomenon with similar musical elements as classical music.

Illmatic already has so many symphonic influences in it to begin with,” said Enrico Lopez-Yanez, the principal pops conductor for Nashville Symphony. “Musicians are usually concerned with playing quality music, so it gives a new perspective and entry into different styles of music. It’s what society should be doing more of: collaborating, building community, and making something new and beautiful that wasn’t there before.”

Streaming platform Audiomack got in on the action, launching a Trap Symphony web series in 2015 that featured appearances by Migos, Trippie Redd, A Boogie wit Da Hoodie, Chief Keef, Roddy Ricch, Lil Durk, Rich the Kid and Rod Wave. That same year, the Polish National Radio Symphony performed a hip-hop medley. 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne brought musical duo Black Violin to The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon for their February 2016 guest slot.

Keeping in mind that hip-hop is youth-driven, rapper T.I. invited teens from the Atlanta Music Project, a tuition-free music education program, to join him during his 2018 NPR Tiny Desk performance.

“I work with adult professionals all of the time, so it was a chance to really collaborate with the next generation by giving them a platform to guide and direct them towards their passion,” T.I. said. “It was a beautiful moment that I hope inspired them to go further and practice harder.”

Grammy-winning rapper Lecrae volunteered to perform with the project to kick off the grand opening of its practice facility the following year. The “Blessings” emcee was impressed by the project’s grassroots efforts used to raise funds and crowdsource for instruments, hoping that playing with them gave the young musicians a sense of cool with their chosen instruments.

“Playing classical music and hip-hop are both equally as hard, so don’t get it twisted,” said Atlanta Music Project co-founder and CEO Dantes Rameau. “Those appearances with the artists showed the kids how great our music is and that music written for orchestras is not limited to music from Europe. You can play any kind of music on these instruments, and we’ll always celebrate the music of African Americans and the diaspora.”

As hip-hop celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, more rappers and orchestras are treating symphonic music as a new way to experiment and collaborate. Earlier this month, Wu Tang Clan founder member Rza presented 36 Chambers of Shaolin and A Ballet Through Mud with the Colorado Symphony, and he hopes to take the performance to more cities.

“As a Black man, it’s great to see such an evolved orchestra, because there’s a certain stigma between classical musicians and rock or hip-hop,” he told the Denver Post. “Denver is the first place that will see this dream, but it’s something we want to show to other people as well.”

The next phase of collaborations between rap and classical music could be to bring more musicians into the studio to collaborate live. That way artists can begin creating original compositions with symphonies instead of repurposing their catalogs. Either way, both genres are up for the challenge. 

“Hip-hop is magnificent music that came from people that was supposed to be forgotten about, and we made the whole world listen to music that celebrates Black excellence on so many different levels,” Rodgers said. “It can be gritty, classy and belong on many different stages because it is very solid, genius music that will live on for a lifetime.”

Christopher A. Daniel, M.A. is an Atlanta-based, award-winning journalist, cultural critic, ethnomusicologist, Prince enthusiast, and multimedia journalism professor at Morehouse College.