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What Is a Hip Hop Orchestra?

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins

The first proper hip hop orchestra was formed in the late 1990s in Los Angeles, California, by Geoff "Double G" Gallegos, a graduate of the prestigious Berekeley School of Music in Boston. Starting with just 23 musicians, the DaKAH Hip Hop Orchestra soon grew to more than 60 members, blending the traditional sounds of classical and jazz with the driving, urban poetry of modern hip-hop music. Composed of most instruments in the modern orchestra, along with turn-tables, singers and rappers, the group offers genre-morphing music intent on stretching the boundaries of artistic expectations.

Rappers have performed with grand instrumental accompaniment before, such as Kanye West's Late Orchestration effort in 2006, with a 17-piece orchestra that included woodwinds, brass, strings and more. Hip-hop innovators, The Roots, blend rapping with live instrumentation every time they perform. None have reached the breadth of the DaKAH Hip Hop Orchestra, though, and its attempt to leave behind hip hop's rote tradition of accompaniment by electronic samples.

A hip hop orchestra may contain violins.
A hip hop orchestra may contain violins.

According to Gallegos, in an interview with National Public Radio, "The idea is, we want to see the hip-hop community embrace the orchestra, and we want to see the symphonic community embrace hip hop." That started happening in 2002, after DaKAH won a Durfee Foundation Artist Award. The hip hop orchestra was able to tour from Los Angeles to San Francisco, performing at storied venues like the Hollywood Bowl and the Disney Concert Hall.

Gallegos derived the idea for this music group from his first job out of college. Working as an apprentice with Colorado composer Larry Barrett, Gallegos was immersed in classical forms during the day, then shifted gears dramatically at night, when he took his saxophone to play at a local hip-hop club. The juxtaposition led to the idea of forming a grand musical ensemble to tackle modern music in a classical way.

The hip hop orchestra recorded its first album, a live concert in San Francisco, in 2004. This led to a studio effort in 2004, Unfinished Orchestra. The orchestra also recorded a live performance in Los Angeles and, in 2006, an extended play (EP), titled Three by Thirteen, containing just three tracks.

The orchestra's members, called "DaKats," run the gamut of modern instrumentation, from woodwind and horn sections to classical strings and a booming percussion section. There is also a DJ on the turn tables and plugged-in strings like the guitar and bass. The experience may also include biting, observant rap lyrics, and spitting over various styles of accompaniment, from samba and funk to R&B and folk.

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    • A hip hop orchestra may contain violins.
      By: stokkete
      A hip hop orchestra may contain violins.