Orchestrated: Hip-Hop

There is nothing as epic as the sound of an orchestra. The use of orchestras has become more and more frequent in different music genres. This is the first in a serie of articles where I’m taking a look at this phenomenon, starting with hip-hop.

On this journey I’ll share a selection of live performances and studio recordings. Be sure to check out the playlist in the end of the post. Let’s go!

Nas – Illmatic: Live from the Kennedy Center

Hip-hop. Once an underground phenomenon, today the worlds greatest musical genre. Would Nas even believe it if someone told him while writing and recording Illmatic, that he 20 years later would perform the whole album live, backed by the National Symphony Orchestra of the US? Well hell no!

Still, that’s what happened. On 2014 it went down in Washington, D.C. The Kennedy Center was filled with over 2000 people when Nas entered the stage. The concert got recorded on tape and is also avalible as a live album, available at streaming platforms. Check out the hip-hop classic N.Y. State of Mind Below, like you’ve never heard it before!

DJ Premier – Regeneration

Illmatic wouldn’t have been as great as it is in the first place if it wasn’t for DJ Premier. The producer got his start in music as a part of the duo Gang Starr is regarded a hip-hop legend.

Like other producers Premier would sample. For this piece he sampled in a new way. Premier picked out parts that spoke to him from classical masterworks by Vivaldi, Mozart and Beethoven. He pieced them together to a new composition, that he conducted and recorded in the studio with The Berklee Symphony Orchestra.

Joining him on the mic was his long-time collaborator Nas. The track was made as a part of the RE:GENERATIONS project (2011), where five DJs were challenged to make a song in a traditional genre. Check it out:

Jay-Z – The Black Album

Since the dawn of the genre, hip-hop has been sample based. The records that were sampled were mostly old funk and soul records.

Most MC’s rely on a producer or beatmaker to provide them with something they can rap to. In the early 2000’s Jay-Z was in the studio listening to demoes. You can see how it goes down in a video on YouTube. Jay is not digging it. He’s fed up with all the bullshit. But then, out of the blue comes the beat he’s been waitimg for. Once it hits, Jay starts spitting immediately.

What he heard was what would eventually end up as What More Can I Say on The Black Album, released in 2003. The album also featured the orchestral track December 4th. What More Can I say was produced by The Buchanans and sampled Something For Nothing (1973) by MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother). Watch Jay-Z kick off his 2003 Madison Square Garden concert with the hit:

Kanye West – Late Orchestration

Kanye West took it a step further. Instead of sampling an orchestra he simply assembled one, making hiring an orchestra the new bling.

Kanye broke hip-hop norms when collaborating with musicians and artists outside the hip-hop game. For his sophemore album, Late Registration (2005), Kanye reached out to Jon Brion, who had recently been composing the soundtrack for Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind (2003). Brion co-wrote, co-produced and did the string arrangments for the West’s second album.

Following up the success Kanye performed live in Abbey Road Studios. Joining him was an all-female orchestra, led by conductor and arranger Rosie Danvers. The concert also featured songs from The College Dropout (2004), orchestrated by Miri-Ben Ari. The concert resulted in the live DVD and album Late Orchestration (2006) and the rest is history.

J Dilla – Say It

One of the most influencal hip-hop producers of all times was a true music lover and every sense of the word. His name was J Dilla, also known as Jay Dee.

Dilla would dig his way through the whole record store. There were no limits for what he could end up sampling. He would often with the help of his iconic MPC, flip the samples in a way that would be almost unrecognizable.

On the track Say It from Jay Loves Japan (2007) Dilla sampled Arrival in Tokyo, composed by Franz Waxman as part of the score for the movie My Geisha (1962). While the sample originally only lasts for some seconds it plays all the way throughout the track.

Re-Collective Orchestra – All The Stars

No doubt about, Black Panther was an epic movie. One of the factors to the success was the soundtrack, with great original songs. One of the tracks were All the Stars, featuring Kendrick Lamar and SZA.

Re-Collective Orchestra took it to the next level by adding a phenomenal orchestral layer to it. The arrangment was done by Matt Jones, who you can see conducting the orchestra in this live recording.

Lupe Fiasco – Kick, Push

For his debut album Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor (2006), the young rapper wrote Kick, Push, a song about love, skating, and being a misfit.

Lupe Fiasco and producer Soundtrakk got the orchestral elements from the 1982 song Bolero Medley by Filipina singer Celeste Legaspi. How they found this obscure sample we don’t know but you can check out how the sample got flipped here:

Dontea Winslow – Trumpet and A Mic

All Dontae Winslow needs is a trumpet and a mic, and a little help from his friends. For this song Winslow made an extended music video, or short film, where he as a grown man is talking to himself at age 3. Winslow tells a story about growing up in the inner city, about hope and loss.

In addition to writing and directing the video, Dontea Winslow scored and orchestrated Trumpet and a Mic (2019) himself. Check it out:

Karpe Diem – Tusen Tegninger

After the tragic terrorist attack on Norway July 22 of 2011, a National Memory Service was held in Oslo Spektrum. One of the acts performing were Karpe Diem (today known as simply Karpe).

The duo performed their original song Tusen tegninger together with their live band and the Norwegian Broadcasting Orchestra. This special performance ended up being one of the most memorable moments from the service. Even if you don’t get the words you will still be able to feel the emotions:

JIMEKHip-Hop History Orchestrated

We could have gone on and on but let’s wrap it up here. This mashup features 30 hip-hop tracks, including works by artists like 2pac, Dr. Dre, Missy Elliot, Snoop Dogg, Nicki Minaj and A Tripe Called Quest.

JIMEK is the alter-ego of Radzimir Debski, the man who orchestrated and conducted this performance with the National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Check out the performance, that took place in the Spring of 2015:


Still not satisfied? Well then check out the playlist below! And yeah, if you want a good laugh, click here.

Published by Edvard Granum Dillner

Edvard Granum Dillner (b. 1997) is a writer, musician, and multi-artist. Dillner contributes to art and music publications KUNST, Paragone, beehype, Ballade, and GAFFA.

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