The world can be full of so much pain and suffering that we can’t control. When it seems like the world is ending, maybe music can be a cure. That’s what hip-hop orchestra Ensemble Mik Nawooj aims to do: alleviate suffering with music. This past March, the ensemble dropped their album, Death Become Life, which follows an emotional journey full of joy, grief, conflict, and freedom.
JooWan Kim, who produced and orchestrated the album, used his expertise of classical music to share a transformative story told through flutes, violins, oboes, opera, and more. Providing the hip-hop flair Ensemble Mik Nawooj is known for is Emcee Sandman. His poetic rhymes not only keep up with the orchestral narrative but glues the album together. There’s a balance of beauty and ugliness threaded throughout Death Become Life but most importantly, there’s a strong sense of hope. A hope that feels like medicine to the grievances of the world.
As the cover story of our FALL 2021 print issue, Executive Director Christopher Nicholas and Composer JooWan Kim sat down with FRONTRUNNER to discuss the behind the scenes of Death Become Life, adjusting to COVID-19, how the ensemble has evolved over the years, and more.
What’s the story behind the band’s name and how it got started? What was that conversation like between you two?
Kim: It’s actually really not a band because we’re hiring people each time. We do have a set of people that we like to work with but they’re basically freelancers except for our emcee, Sandman. We’ve been working with him for a really long time but other than myself and Chris, it’s kind of changeable. The name of the ensemble is actually my name spelled backwards. There’s this operation called Retrograde where you can write a melody backwards or flip it. So I said “Okay I’m just going to go backwards.” Because if I put it backwards and flipped it, it may not be legible.
Chris: When we tell people that it’s his name backwards, everyone is usually like “Oh my God!”
Kim: It’s actually me trying to rip off Nicki Minaj, but it failed.
As the two people who started the ensemble over a decade ago, how have you seen the group evolve?
Chris: When we first started, we were doing a more thematic project called Great Integration: A Chamber Hip-Hop Opera. It had a storyline and all of the tracks were super long. The shortest one was like ten minutes and the longest one was like half an hour. Then it got even longer because we decided to add two acts to it so it was about a two hour show. The emcees were playing characters so it was very thematic and had a full narrative to it. At that time, we were working with a dance company and we did it for a number of years. Then we started pivoting to doing less theme-driven and narrative-driven stuff. So, we were doing the Great Integration for about four or five years, then around the fifth year we started to do a different project. About three years ago, we partnered with a theater company in San Francisco to do a more modular project. It was called Death Become Life, but it did have a loose narrative. If we were to partner with organizations, we could kind of change some things around but still keep that loose narrative. Then COVID-19 happened so we weren’t able to really work with other organizations so we started to do more music narrative projects.
Kim: To summarize what he said, we started as a musical theater type of thing. I hate to say this because of a few things. I came from Korea when I was 20 years old so I’d always tell Chris, I don’t understand three things in America: football, racism, and musicals. But then Chris kept saying that this was more like musical theater. So we basically got out of that kind of project and Chris suggested we should shrink down the music more like pop. So, I made it shorter so the longest piece is like nine minutes long. We have five-minute pieces. We were trying to figure out what this was because ultimately what we’ve created musically isn’t classical or hip-hop. Originally what I created I thought “Wow, what if I used only classical techniques to mimic people like Kanye West?” What happens is that you actually can’t create exactly what they’re doing. You fail to create a replica but what I ended up with was something different. That ended up being my “Aha!” moment. It seems to me that once I introduce this foreign element to a system that is already complete, I ended up with something different which we eventually crystallized into method sampling which is a principle of borrowing and sampling from different rationales. By reframing them, we’re introducing new material but staying true to ideas that we know really well.
You both went to school for music. How has your music education played a role in your musical career? And for people who want to get into music, is music school a good option?
Kim: I was just a straight-up classical composer so if you want to learn some things, it’ll be harder for you to learn it straight from the book. Maybe some YouTube channel is doing that but still, there’s a difference between having a group of people who are just totally living that way and then interacting with them and learning from them. It’s kind of like if you want to be a really good chef, you need to go under a great restaurant right? It’s the same kind of thing. You don’t really need to go to school, you just need to be good at what you do and constantly be learning. Learning nowadays is not just formal education. To give you a blunt answer, for me to render this kind of music I need classical techniques. Otherwise, I would fail at being a producer, so I needed it.
Chris: I was in school for business but then I changed my major after like a semester. I changed my major to Performance. A few months taking business classes is not a lot. We kind of learned the business by doing it and mainly by looking at other people and what they were doing and trying to see what works and what doesn’t work. Since we were just a different and unique group with a unique sound, there had to be a different approach to it. It was not going to fit in the model a lot of things fit in. Once we figured that out, we were able to get good relationships with press and presenters, and so on and so forth.
As an ensemble that combines genres, how do you see the infusion of different genres changing the future of music?
Kim: I want to push back on the combining part because when a lot of people say I’m combining or mixing stuff, people go to this place of mashups and we’re not a mashup group. For instance, when Charles Darwin was developing theory he actually got the main components for gradual changes of the species idea from geological principles from Charles Lyell. Just like geological changes are happening super-slow, Darwin thought that maybe the species would do the same thing. So he sampled that idea and actually came up with a new idea right? So you don’t say Darwin is mixing geology to make this new theory. In the same way, we’re not necessarily mixing things. We’re actually making a new kind of concert music. I want to emphasize that part of concert music because let’s face it, hip-hop and pop music today is doing fine. The kind of music that needs help is classical music.
What’s the music process like as a group that’s not just a band but a collaborative ensemble with rappers, musicians, opera singers and more? How has that music process been affected by the pandemic?
Kim: The only person I need to think about seriously when I’m writing is the emcee. Everyone else, they’re going to show up, read the music, and then get the fuck out. And that’s the idea because we’re going to pay them to play. They’re not really session musicians but they’re not actually involved in what I’m writing. Before, when we got massive commissions with a short timeline, I would actually write out the music first with pen and paper then I would input it. I’m old school but now and then, I’m inputting in a notation program directly so I’m still very boring in that way. I write the music and then talk about the theme with the emcee very extensively. I send him the mock-up and he listens to it and he comes up with his own version and interpretation based on the things that I’ve given him. I’ll sort of tell him when to come in and when to not come in then he follows that. We talk about his rhymes and usually I say yes to anything he does because I love what he does and that’s how it goes.
Chris: Emcee Sandman has been with us for almost eight years. When the pandemic hit, we were supposed to go on tour in 2020. We were going to go to Alaska, we were going to go to Washington, we were going to go all over the place. Then the pandemic hit and everything was canceled. We had already bought the tickets and flights and we couldn’t get a majority of our money back. Everything kind of got pushed back. We were planning on doing a performance at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. It was going to be in collaboration with the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival. We were going to play there then another week we were going to play at another venue but that all went down the toilet. The best course of action was to see if we could record at a recording studio in Oakland (California) with as much social distancing as possible. We did the numbers and it was going to work with our budget. Everything that was recorded was done in like one or two takes. There isn’t a lot of post-production to it. We had like two hours max but we were able to do it all in one take. Normally I produce Sandman’s vocals but I couldn’t really produce it that much because I was trying to work out logistics for the dance. Everything you heard on the album has very little edits to it.
The last three songs sample Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. What made you choose these composers? What do you think makes their music seem so eternal?
Kim: Those three composers are considered the trinity of classical repertoire. It was a no-brainer for us because everybody knows them. Then the pieces that we chose are also the pieces that everybody knows. I only used my memories on the pieces rather than looking at the score. It was interesting for me to later see the discrepancies of what I thought it was going to be and what’s actually on the score. What we did before was the deconstructions on very well-known hip- hop rappers. I was very happy about that, but this time it was easier for us because all those three people are dead and without legal representation so we don’t have to worry about getting sued. I’d rather work on a bunch of J Dilla pieces because I think he’s very special. He’s the one that kind of confirms that there’s a precedent for what I’m doing because he’s the first one to use drum machines as an instrument. Without J Dilla, none of these people would have been there. I think he’s someone like Mozart.
There are a lot of themes in this album such as life and death, beginnings and endings, sadness and hope, and more. How did you find that balance?
Kim: There are two things. One has been this pandemic. When I started writing the Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven pieces, I wanted to just deconstruct but then this crazy stuff hit. For me, even writing the musical pieces, it was a refuge because everybody was confused and scared. A lot of people were losing their livelihood. You think the restaurants are bad? Forget about the restaurants, have you seen any artists that are even complaining too much? That’s because they’re kind of wiped out right now. We got so lucky. I wanted to actually make myself feel better by writing these pieces. There are moments of serenity and calmness and relaxation in these three pieces. They are correlating with the Greek philosophy and philosophical concepts that have to do with Equanimity. There are different kinds of it. Basically all they mean is how do you deal with crazy things that you can’t control outside and still feel happy inside? That requires cultivation, speculation, and virtue. The other selection of pieces that’s included are about my mom passing in 2014. Not only that, two weeks after that, a longtime family friend who was basically a grandfather figure to me and our family passed. So I was processing a lot. I’m not the type to just cry easily so I wrote three pieces dealing with that. And of course, Death Become Life is about life becoming death and stuff like that. All those things thematically mash. It just came together that way.
I read that the hope for this project is to alleviate the sufferings of whoever listens. What songs have helped you cope or inspired you to make music that does the same for others?
Kim: That’s actually very simple to me. I think that the world is changing. The juices of old ideas have kind of been tapped out. People have been very confused. A long time ago, German philosophers said that God is dead and in a way that has been totally permeated now. What I mean by that is if you look at the secularization of the world, everybody has some sort of political belief as if it were their religion. They don’t think that way but they act that way so based on their political beliefs, they fight to death or they’re thinking that this is the most sacred thing to defend. I don’t know if you remember that South Park episode where they go to the future and all these atheists are fighting because of the weird name changes in the Atheist Alliance versus the Atheist Leagues? That’s the reason that they’re fighting and that’s kind of how I feel. I think there’s a hunger or gap inside on both sides. I feel like there isn’t a mechanism to actually alleviate this kind of hunger and yearning. If you think about the left’s perspective, the world is racist and sexist. There are other categories of that where the world has always been bad and we don’t know how to fight it. So they’re also fighting against the evil of right. Then on the right side, they’re always thinking we need to go back to the good old days which were the 1950s which haven’t been good days for all of us. So, no one has an idea of how to move forward and we feel like what we’re doing is actually trying to create a prototype of a new answer because we need something. Otherwise, we’ll just be wasting our time and energy fighting why things are wrong. So alleviating suffering is necessary more than ever and it has always been necessary. According to Buddhism, confusion is endless so we need to have clarity and healing at all times, especially right now because it’s all very volatile and it’s a time of great change.
Chris: Going along with that mindset: November of last year, when we were eight months deep into the lockdown, we started the project called A Call For Healing. It’s a campaign where we bring virtual programs to people who are affected by the pandemic in medical and economic ways. Our first programming of this whole campaign was at the Asian Art Museum. Secondly, we’re finalizing working with the Boston Music Project. They’re a nonprofit organization that works with inner-city youth to bring music programs and art programs. We’re going to do some educational workshops and partner with some youth to make some music, co-produce it and later release it as a collaboration with the Boston Music Project. So far we’ve raised about $5,000 for the campaign. We’re aiming for $10,000. We’re going to keep going with it. All of this is together with the momentum to heal people from all of this craziness from 2020. Although we’re in a new year, we’re going to feel the effects of last year for a very long time. But we know music has always been a catalyst to heal people.