The first real hip hop orchestra was formed in the late 1990s in Los Angeles, California, after Geoff “Double G” Gallegos, educated at 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 sound of classical and jazz with 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 set to stretch 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-man orchestra that included woodwinds, brass, strings and more. Hip-hop innovators, The Roots, mix rapping with live instrumentation every time they perform. No one has reached the breadth of the DaKAH Hip Hop Orchestra, though, and its attempt to put behind the hip hop root tradition with the accompaniment of electronic samples.
According to Gallegos, in an interview with National Public Radio, “The idea is, we want to see the hip-hop environment embrace the orchestra, and we want to see the symphonic community embrace hip-hop.” It 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 on floor venues such as the Hollywood Bowl and Disney Concert Hall.
Gallegos derived the idea for this music group from their first job out of college. Working as an apprentice with Colorado composer Larry Barrett, Gallegos was immersed in classic forms during the day, then switched gears dramatically at night as he took his saxophone to play at a local hip-hop club. The composition led to the idea of forming a grand musical ensemble to tackle modern music in a classical way.
The hip hop orchestra recorded their first album, live concert in San Francisco, in 2004. This led to a studio effort in 2004, the Unfinished Orchestra. The orchestra has also recorded a live performance in Los Angeles, and in 2006, an expanded play (EP), entitled Three of Thirteen, which contains only three tracks.
The orchestra’s members, called “DaKats,” run the gamut of modern instrumentation, from woodwind and horn parts to classic strings and a booming percussion section. There is also a DJ on the turn table and plugged-in strings such as guitar and bass. The experience can also include biting, observant rap lyrics, and spitting over different styles of accompaniment, from samba and funk to R&B and folk music.
- A hip hop orchestra can contain violins