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Hip-hop and classical music meet in this unique orchestra

Ensemble Mik Nawooj stand against a black background with JooWan Kim and Sandman in the center. On either side of them are musicians with their instruments.
Pat Mazzera
JooWan Kim is the artistic director, founder and composer of Ensemble Mik Nawooj while Sandman, who has been with the ensemble from the start, is its emcee.

Ensemble Mik Nawooj is an Oakland-based group that's led by JooWan Kim. The group fuses together elements from hip-hop and classical music to create something completely new.

If you’ve ever wondered what it’d sound like if you took the music of the Wu-Tang Clan and gave it to classically trained musicians, then you will want to know about Ensemble Mik Nawooj.

The group fuses the worlds of hip-hop and concert music together. JooWan Kim founded Ensemble Mik Nawooj in 2010 and is the artistic director and composer. Kim fell in love with classical music while growing up in Korea. But it wasn’t long after he moved to the U.S. to study it that he traded Bach for NWA.

"The reason I liked classical music since I was in Korea was that it was so new and so rigorous and interesting to me," Kim said. "But then when I got here, I realized that it was very old European music, and I wasn't really into tradition because I been always the kind of person that wanted to break everything."

The group calls themselves a "hip-hop orchestra" that includes among other components — a string quartet, bassoon and French horn. As the members prepare for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, they're taking their show on the road.

Sandman is the group's emcee, and he explained some of the unique things the band is doing with its music — like rapping in five-four time versus the standard four-four time that almost all hip-hop songs are in.

Kim speculates why that is.

"Hip-hop’s focus is ... a lot of it is the rhyming, so in order for it to develop, it needs a constant. The music has to kind of support the emcee," Kim said.

Whereas with Ensemble Mik Nawooj, Kim wanted the music to challenge the emcee — in this case Sandman who recalls the song “Hope Springs Eternal,” which does exactly that.

"There was one verse that was went from five-four to two-two to four-four," Sandman said. "I remember when I was listening to it, I was like, 'What? What is going on with this?' "

Despite the challenge, Sandman embraced it. He has always felt frustrated by how the public views hip-hop, associating it with misogyny, gangs and drugs. With Ensemble Mik Nawooj, he’s not only challenging himself but others on how they see what hip-hop can be.

"What's problematic to me is that it's still there's still this kind of denial that these are still individuals who have a craft," Sandman said. "They're actually taking rhyme and meter and, if we're talking about it from a craft standpoint, have actually advanced the craft of rhyming."

Which is exactly what Kim intended to do with this project: to push the boundaries of both hip-hop and concert music, using elements from each genre to create something completely new.

"I’ve always been the kind of person that wanted to break everything," Kim said.

Ensemble Mik Nawooj plays Feb. 10 at the Edmonds Center for the Arts. Learn more about the group's tour on its website.

Grace Madigan is KNKX's former Arts & Culture reporter. Her stories focused on how people express themselves and connect to their communities through art, music, media, food, and sport.