Ensemble Mik Nawooj, led and founded by JooWan Kim, unquestionably has one of the most intriguing, inventive, and exciting sounds coming out of the music scene right now. Formally trained as a classical composer and musician, JooWan Kim grew tired of limitations within the classical music world and turned his sights toward hip hop, where he found endless creative possibilities in his quest to explore new musical horizons. The group, which consists of two MCs and an eight piece classical ensemble including JooWan Kim on piano, will be headlining The Chapel in San Francisco on Wednesday, April 27th.
Wendy Oakes: I understand that Ensemble Mik Nawooj was the result of an experiment of yours that just went really, really right.
JooWan Kim: I was getting my masters in composition at SF Conservatory [of Music]. I did a novelty piece and people really loved it. Actually the piece itself, compared to what I’m doing now, was rudimentary, but the concept people really liked and there were some elements I thought were good. It got a first page write up in the Oakland Tribune; it was the weirdest thing. After that my MC at the time suggested that I make an album with him, so I spent the next six months writing about an hour of music. Mind you, I wasn’t into hip hop at all; it was a challenging thing for me and I just wrote it. I had to seriously think about what I was doing with my life, because at the time, and still now, I consider myself a serious composer, and you just don’t do that. But then, once I wrote the piece – there’s a piece that’s about 25 minutes long; I believe that’s the longest hip hop piece ever written, probably, it changed [my thinking] like, “Why did I do this? If I’m really happy writing concert music and subscribing to academic aesthetics, I wouldn’t do this.” I liked what I did and I thought about the problems that I had with the normal academic music world, and I found a way out. From then on I started listening to a lot of hip hop music. This performance which became the conception of this group was not necessarily the launching point for the ensemble because I didn’t do that until 2010 officially. Some people think that I was doing it from 2005; officially we started doing things in 2010. I had to recruit my business partner and a lot of things happened in between. 2010 I recruited my friend Chris Nicholas, who I initially formed a record label [with]. Now we have a non-profit for Ensemble Mik Nawooj because we believe that hip hop is the next great American indigenous art music, and we’re on the cutting edge of it. We think that our endeavors are as relevant as SF Symphony or any of the arts organizations that [are] out there. We’re about to release our second album in April.
WO: What’s the title of your second album going to be?
JK: It’s called The Future Of Hip-Hop.
WO: And that’s sort of talking to what you were just mentioning about how you see hip hop as the next great American indigenous music. You’ve compared hip hop to jazz in the past because of their respective progressions in social status, and also because they have a mutual history of disregarding the status quo.
JK: Yeah. And it’s black people’s music. There’s a problem in America. It’s a large problem; it’s a historical problem too. This country is racist so the way they deal with black culture, what black people created, which is actually a big part of American cultural identity, is very unfortunate. In the beginning of jazz people referred to jazz as hot music, jungle music, and all these derogatory terms. The same thing is happening to hip hop, but if you think about it, what really made pop music in the world, came out of African Americans. It is that kind of angst and need for release, because imagine, they were sent here against their will and they got cut off from their language, their culture, and these people developed this amazing artwork to relieve themselves. Basically all of the offspring of jazz and blues became what we know as pop music. I think that hip hop, just like jazz when it hit bebop – if you think about bebop when it first came out with Monk and Coltrane, people hated it because it was very complex and very fast, a similar thing is happening in hip hop. The level of complexity and level of sophistication has reached a point where there’s a quantum jump. If you look at personalities like J Dilla, Kendrick Lamar, Tech N9ne – all these people are virtuosos of hip hop. These things are happening now because hip hop has reached a point where it created a system. At first it was just party music; they were hanging out at a party rhyming or rapping, wasn’t even an art form at all. It was a way for a host, what we call [an] MC, to make the crowd go wild. But now, rhyming became an art form. What I bring to the table is a more rigorous way of looking at certain musical elements. I borrow from a lot of different kinds of music, but this kind of attitude that classical musicians have, I bring to the table and I think that is going to contribute a lot to hip hop.
WO: You moved here from Korea to study, and it wasn’t until you came to the states that you discovered hip hop from what I understand.
JK: No, it wasn’t until I did that piece [that] I discovered hip hop. I did not like hip hop; I actually hated it. I just didn’t get it. It probably had to do with my proficiency in English. When somebody’s talking really fast with rhymes it was harder for me to understand. Now I understand it better so I appreciate it more. It’s also common in any kind of new structure or new kind of art; people hate it at first, so hip hop is not the exception. The conversion experience happened to me while I got into Dr. Dre; I wanted to trace back his musical roots and I encountered NWA and listened to “F**k The Police.” That was the moment, the moment of profound, almost like a religious experience. I always say this to everyone, “NWA dipped me into the river of hip hop and I was born again into the hip hop world.”
WO: And you find the freedom and the open mindedness of hip hop, as opposed to classical music and the rigorousness that you’ve talked about, very liberating and the answer to what you were not happy with in classical music. It gives you a more open field to run on, musically.
JK: Hip hop is still a young field, young genre. I think that I am actually contributing, opposed to learning some old dead guy’s spinoff; that’s not something I’m interested in. Think about classical music. Why is it called classical music? It’s not Korean classical music, or Indian classical music, or even American classical music; it’s Western European classical music. We think that’s classical music but it’s actually not entirely true. The reason this is very prevalent is, of course, there’s some thought out structure I appreciate very much, but a lot of it has to do with winning the war. I understand this is the game that humanity has been playing but I am interested in what is actually superior. No culture or no single race has figured out everything [that’s] great. There are some components of it that are great and I’m going to retain that, and I’m going to use that to create something new, because otherwise what’s the point? I feel like what I’m doing with the ensemble is basically what I wanted to do with classical music, and it was impossible. I think that truly, hip hop [in terms of] musical structure, musical inventiveness – if you think about it, rhyming or rapping did not exist in the history of humanity. Some people read poetry that had background music to it, but not in the way that it actually reacts to the music and follows the music. Jazz – people think improv never existed; actually improv did exist in classical music, it exists in African, everywhere. That’s how we create music, by improv.
WO: And by hybridization, which you’ve spoken of quite a bit.
JK: Yes. Very American. Hip hop itself is very American. To paraphrase Quentin Tarantino, who I respect a lot as an artist, he said, “You pick things that exist already, and by the way you frame it, create the new art.” All his movies are like that. You can kind of vaguely sense his references but the way that he puts it together is very, very him. It’s sort of [the] hip hop aesthetic. Think about how American that statement is. If you think about anything that we consume as American, and therefore probably [as] the world because everybody wants to be like America whether they hate it or not, it’s the way that we as Americans absorb other cultures and reframe [things] in a pragmatic way, and that’s the essence of hip hop.
WO: Along those lines, even with what you do by the hybridization of hip hop and classical music in your work, you are offering your own unique takes on those. It’s not common hip hop musical structure and I’ve heard you talk about how you flip your melodies on the classical side of things.
JK: Just to be completely clear, I am actually not thinking that I’m mixing two genres. Why? Because the minute you put MCs in my music it becomes hip hop; it’s never the other way around. Classical music is already set up in a way – even the people who consider themselves avant garde have to be a certain way, which defeats the purpose of calling yourself avant garde. So, you have to be a certain way to be avant garde. I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna just do whatever I want, and that’s hip hop. That attitude of hip hop is also American because we didn’t listen to Britain or anyone else; we certainly didn’t listen to France! (laughter) My process of writing I actually borrow a lot from classical music ’cause I write on a desk. I write some portions of the music on the piano when I have to; I write the [parts] that I have to play on piano; everything else I write on the desk. I hear every single note in my head. I write everything by hand and I write it with pen, ’cause unless I’m definitely sure I don’t write a note down. Sometimes I make mistakes but…. (laughter).
WO: The MCs that you work with write their own rhymes, right?
JK: Correct. They come up with their own rhymes. I give them parts as if they’re playing violins or whatever, and then they know exactly when to come in and when to go out, because I sometimes have odd meters; it’s not always 4/4, and there are a lot of things that [are] musically irregular, considering that this is a hip hop piece. I give them the theme; they can’t talk about riding down the street having sex with a woman when we are talking about ‘hope springs eternal.’ We have to have consistency in the theme, but other than that it’s very non-micromanagey. They do whatever they want.
WO: You’re a Zen meditation practitioner; how do you think your practice affects your work in music? Obviously that will affect who you are and how you see things.
JK: That’s a strong question. Actually, a lot of times I ]have] shied away from it ’cause it used to be labeled as this New Agey type of person, because I’m not. I’m actually incredibly agnostic. You don’t have to believe anything in Zen; you just have to experience what you’re experiencing, and that’s your personal choice. Having said that, there is a very famous saying in Zen from Rinzai, “Meet the Buddha; kill the Buddha,” otherwise you won’t be free. That kind of independence of mind, independent attitude without relying on any false things that people believe to be good just because we’ve been repeating it for generations, which I honestly think [is] what culture is. Out of necessity we need to repeat stuff; it’s like habit. Some habits are great; some habits are bad. I am the way I am; that’s because I am doing Zen. I’m actually very Zen that way, very much punk rock, very much hip hop, not so much like [a] classical musician.
WO: You have a total of 10 musicians in all. That’s a big tour bus, but fortunately you have a hometown show coming up at The Chapel in San Francisco. Has EMN played The Chapel before?
JK: We opened for John Brothers Piano Company last year. It’s a very nice venue, wonderful sound person; we had a great time.
WO: Also close to home, San Francisco just hosted the Super Bowl and your ensemble was commissioned by ESPN for the occasion. You contributed “California Soul.”
JK: For their Super Bowl 2016 programming.
WO: And your album release is coming right up. Do you have a release date?
JK: April 22nd. We’re very excited about this album. This album is basically our business card to the world, because largely, this album consists of deconstructions of pieces that I like. That includes “California Soul,” which is based on this song that Marlena Shaw [did], and “Gin and Juice” and “Gz and Hustlas” from Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle album, and Wu-Tang Clan – we changed it to “EMN Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’Wit” and “Shame On A N-word,” we actually changed it to “Shame On A Brother.” At EMN we don’t like to use that word because it’s derogatory, and a piece from producer J Dilla called “Last Donut of the Night,” we changed to “Last Donut.” We actually premiered this last year around Christmastime, and then our original piece called “Black Swordsman.”
WO: After your Chapel date, what’s on the horizon for EMN?
JK: My idea has always has been [for a] more theatrical production. The first piece that I wrote for this setup was called “Great Integration,” which was a hip hop opera about the end of the world and the beginning of the world. We’re gonna do that actually. Imagine Cirque Du Soleil without creepy clowns, repopulate the stage with symphony orchestra and MCs doing dramatic narratives, dancers, and theatrical devices. We’re thinking about putting it in a coliseum setting where all the ensemble is present and very much part of the show, and it is also an opera. We are going to start producing a full scale hip hop opera with larger instrumentation and a larger band.
Ensemble Mik Nawooj will be appearing at The Chapel on Wednesday, April 27th. Le Vice opens. Show is at 9.