“In hip-hop, the music leads first,” rapper Jay Z once said. “So usually, you have a hit record and then [the record executives] throw this person on stage who has never been on stage before. So they don’t have any experience on how to perform in front of people, hold the mic—all these different things you need to know as a performer.”
Hip-hop deserves more than a guy shouting on stage next to his buddies, which is perhaps why many rappers have burnished their credentials by performing live with the backing of an orchestra.
It shouldn’t work, but when it does, when the synthetic riffs, Roland TR-808 beats, and classic samples that are the foundations of rap music are combined with booming live percussion, soaring strings, and brassy horns… it lifts the soul. Things have changed since Chuck D of Public Enemy rapped: “I cranked the beats, tearin’ up the streets and the park / And it ain’t Mozart.”
Here are some of the best examples of performances that have bridged the musical worlds of hip-hop and classical over the years.
K. Dot teamed up with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC earlier this week to perform cuts from his already beloved latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly.
Kendrick’s performance ticks all the boxes: an ambitious rapper, a desire to show that rap belongs anywhere (including concert halls), and a stage to show that one’s work is classic by pairing it with classical music. Nowadays, you can’t have a classic rap album unless you’ve played live at least once with some strings and horns.
Southern rappers often refer to cocaine by the names of famous white female celebrities. With that in mind, witness this symphonic performance of Hannah Montana by the two members of the Atlanta trio who aren’t in jail, Migos:
The video above begins with interviews with the classical musicians, most of whom haven’t heard the trap music of Migos. When one violinist says that her favorite composers are Bach and Beethoven, the interviewer asks if she’s heard of hip-hop producer Zaytoven. (She hasn’t.)
As one of the members of Migos puts it: “To go back to the roots of the music and where it came from, you can’t compare that to computer beats and shit.” The rappers and an orchestra led by musician John Cleary made the song as part of a free three-track EP for the music downloading service Audiomack called Trap Symphony.
Shawn Carter—a pioneer outside the world of hip-hop—has done more than any other rapper to break down the barriers between rap and classical music. Coming out on stage in a white Lexus GS 300 and a white tux at Radio City Music Hall in 2006, he performed the whole of his classic first album, Reasonable Doubt, for its 10th anniversary with a 50-piece orchestra dubbed the Hustlas’ Symphony.
That same year, Jay performed in London’s Royal Albert Hall—the first rapper ever to do so—backed by an orchestra and featuring a rendition of “Dead Presidents” with Nas and Coldplay’s Chris Martin on keys.
Jay would later become the first rapper ever to perform in Carnegie Hall in New York, bringing his symphony with him.
In 2014, Jay Z’s one-time rival took a page from his book and celebrated the 20th anniversary of his own classic debut, Illmatic, with a performance of the entire album backed by the National Symphony Orchestra. “Twenty years ago, I was writing that rhyme in a small room in a small apartment,” Nas recalled on stage after one song. Whoever thought that hip-hop would take it this far?
Nas and legendary producer DJ Premier also partnered together with the Berklee Symphony Orchestra for the Re:Generation Music Project. For the project, “Primo” was given a crash course in classical music theory by a former Juilliard professor and later taught to conduct by the head of the 58-piece orchestra.
After Kanye released his second—and dare we say best?—album, Late Registration, he decided to record symphonic versions of songs from both his albums in the Beatles’ home away from home, Abbey Road Studios in London. The name of the album? Late Orchestration.
But that was the young Kanye. The post-Swift Kanye has been on an artistic tear for a few years now, most recently teaming up with Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary classical musician Caroline Shaw, an alto from Roomful of Teeth, for a recent show.
And then there’s this:
Just before he performs a certain rap anthem celebrating the female posterior with the Seattle Symphony, Sir Mix-a-Lot says: “What I want to do now is something you really should not do.” We beg to differ.