First, the events started popping up on Facebook like strange dreams. Then, within a few months, they started to sliding into conversations all over the country: ‘Orchestral Renditions’ of whole albums by Kanye West to Dr Dre, occurring every few weeks in the famous basement of XOYO and the main stage at Camden’s Jazz Cafe...
What instrument is best suited to the Notorious B.I.G’s Ready To Die? Not many of you would say violins. ReImagine’s Orchestral Renditions team has other ideas. So far they’ve covered most of Kanye’s discography, with entire shows for each, as well as Nas’ classic Illmatic, and Dre’s 2001 and Biggie’s seminal debut (of course) to come in 2018.
After witnessing Watch The Throne in a way I’d never heard it before, I spoke directly to those who made this musical contrast that seems so strange but sounds so right possible. Chima Anya the afro wielding frontman for most of the renditions answered most of my questions, while we had input from other members of the orchestra throughout.
"Orchestral Renditions of Hip Hop" - it's such an out-there concept but instantly resonates as something that works. How was the idea born?
Credit has to go to the Columbo group, the hospitality and entertainment company that makes this possible. Their head of music came up with the idea of recreating seminal hiphop albums with classically trained musicians and they approached some musicians that they felt could bring it to life. Originally it wasn’t clear how they were going to do it - completely instrumental? playing to the accapellas? live rappers? but it quickly became obvious how the shows needed to go.
There's a lot of community vibes and back and forth between the band and the crowd throughout your gigs. What's some of the most interesting interactions you've had?
The crowds make the show. All the energy, all the excitement. It’s always interesting to see how different types of fans interact with the music. It’s also really cool to meet the younger fans who for example come to an Illmatic rendition. Ultimately we are paying respect to these timeless pieces and when you have a room full of people who are all in love with the same thing, there is an instant connection.
How does the genre exchange work? Have you and the other rappers and singers got any more into classical music? We take it at least some of the orchestral instrumentalists are in to Hip Hop?!
The show wouldn’t be possible if there wasn’t a mutual respect and love for each others craft. Good music is good music and instantly recognisable in whatever form it is. Some of the albums we do the orchestral instrumentalists love more than the rappers! Equally classical music is lit b, everyone knows that.
Is there a rapper's music which lends itself particularly to orchestral renditions more than others?
This is where your imagination needs to come into play. On the surface it may appear that Kanye’s extravagant arrangements may lend themselves more to an orchestral rendition and some may argue this but I think all great music has the potential to be reinterpreted in powerful ways. What is key, is understanding the magic of the source and then infusing it with your own magic, even if it’s just one note. You get the right instrument, playing that one note, with the right vibe - that’s a sick rendition. And often - less is more.
Is there a particularly complex or extravagant track that you've performed that you're specifically proud of in its orchestral rendition form?
Too many to mention!!! The first time we did 'Nas is Like' at the Jazz Cafe… It was like - no lie - a truly transcendent moment. No hyperbole. I also really like the second part of 'Murder to Excellence' by Kanye and Jay Z, and “Big Poppa” by Biggie sounds incredible.
We know you do a lot of renditions of Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and this has got some great word of mouth about it going round. Does the album have a special place in your heart? And what do you think Kanye West, with his ever colourful opinion, would think of these renditions?
Of course. What an album. At the time I did a freestyle on 'Power' that generated some heat. It was the era that I got closest to meeting Kanye - he was at some party I remember - Q-tip was DJing. There were loads of celebs in the house but Kanye was the only one who had security.
Anyway I digress… Hmmm what would he think? I don’t know how he would react to be honest. I hope he’d like it cause I think it’s pretty dope. Talking to all the fans after the shows I feel like it only strengthens their relationship with him especially as we focus on the records that made the world fall in love with in him in the first place.
Who's bars do you like rapping the most? We'll have to push you for a specific answer despite how hard that might be...
Me personally (Chima Anya) - I like the diversity. Learning from all the different rappers and their styles, challenging myself to flow in a way that doesn’t come natural to me. I’m pretty sure Johnny Voltik fave would be the Biggie’s stuff cause it’s like - truly paying homage. He’s not too comfortable with doing renditions of rappers actively touring and performing. With Stxkz without a doubt it would be Kanye West. When I asked me to do MBDTF with me - he already knew that album word for word.
Turning to singer/rapper Sejal Keshwala, this Watching The Throne rendition has been particularly impressive, but on the special encore when I heard you destroy that Nicki Minaj verse on 'Monster' after singing throughout the concert I was astounded... Were you on board to rap before or could you just not resist those legendary bars? How difficult was it keep such punchy delivery throughout that ridiculous verse?
The first time I ever rapped properly was when I got asked to do ‘Fugees: The Complete Re-Score’ with Re:Imagine in 2017. Before that, I would do the odd rap here and there on function gigs, but nothing on the scale of Lauren’s verses on that whole album. So I think that set me up well to do Monster. My voice is quite characterful, and I come from an acting background like Nicki, so I think I’m quite suited to her punchy style. I personally find her flow much easier, where as Lauren’s is less formulaic and more conversational. So actually I was well up for giving Monster a go!
What's next for Orchestral Renditions? Do you have any particularly interesting performances coming up, or plans to expand of differentiate what you're doing in the future?
We are always coming up with ideas and concepts. We are working on a rendition of 808s and Heartbreak. I’m learning how to use auto tune live lol… there are also rumblings of a Tupac rendition. Stay Tuned.
And finally, which of the rappers do the instrumentalists think would be most suited to playing their instruments? (Kanye on trumpet?)
Dan (violin): I’d have to say Dre - he plays nice piano and I imagine he could master the other instruments if he tried.
Keep your eyes open for more news of orchestral renditions on Facebook to get the best of their events, now at EC2’s very own XOYO. Stay refreshing the KEAKIE front page too, as something more than just an article with Orchestral Renditions may be coming to this streaming platform soon...
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