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Image of Mik Nawooj's band

Hult Center Podcast: Ensemble Mik Nawooj

The following text is a transcript from the Ensemble Mik Nawooj episode of the Hult Center Podcast, recorded on January 17, 2022.

Rich Hobby: Hey, this is Rich Hobby with the Hult Center. We’re so lucky today we’ve got two members of Ensemble Mik Nawooj an amazing hip hop and classical group that are coming to the Hult Center in early February. So, welcome to the show. And we have Joowan and Sandman.

Sandman: Yo.

JooWan Kim: Hi. How are you?

Rich Hobby: Excellent. Well, yeah. So we’re so happy to have you guys and very excited to have you guys coming for the show. And one thing I just wanted to do was to kind of, if each of you could kind of give us a little introduction about yourselves, and kind of like your musical history, and why don’t we start with JooWan.

JooWan Kim: Okay, so my name is JooWan Kim. I’m the artistic director and composer for Ensemble Mik Nawooj. And I started this group, I guess, 12 years ago, gosh, time flies with our Executive Director, Chris Nicholas. And the genesis of this group started when I was at conservatory, San Francisco Conservatory of Music doing my masters. I did a piece that had hip hop and chamber music in it. And I did it to basically demonstrate against the oppressive aesthetic of concert music, which I wasn’t connected connecting to at all at the time, by the time and so I want to shake things up and added MC at the end of my piece. And everybody got mad, especially the teachers. But to my surprise, we got a big, full page write up on Oakland Tribune, which was a very respective newspaper at the time. And my MC at the time, suggested that we make an album. So I spent next six months writing about an hour of music, not knowing exactly what I was doing, and had to seriously rethink about my sort of career as a composer. Because I was, I mean, I still think that I’m serious composer, but I just really wasn’t a hip hop head. Let’s just say that. And then subsequently, I got into hip hop, and basically had a eureka moment or like a conversion moment for me, which came when I was listening to NWA. And it was this specific piece F the police. And I felt like I was dipped into the river of hip hop and reborn as like a free musician. So that’s, I think it should do it.

Rich Hobby: Excellent. Well, yeah, I love the NWA story. And I think it’s, it’s amazing to hear that story is still kind of a catalyst in many ways, decades from from its original release. But Sandman, while you give us a little rundown of your involvement.

Sandman: Yeah, I guess, you know, my beginning, as an emcee, were with a group called the attic. It was a local Bay Area group. Essentially, we kind of all met in high school. And we all met in high school, and we’re kind of, you know, I guess you could say, in a sense, hip hop nerds and that we really love to, to kind of research all of the different independent and underground artists that were out there. I was introduced to a radio show that was out at the time called the wakeup show which was a show that came on from I believe it was 10pm to 1am every Friday night. And so we listened to that you know on regular radio you know, they will just play like most of the pop artists and then you know, the the nationally or internationally syndicated stuff, but there you got to hear just you know, everybody who was out there doing something fact best the first time I heard Eminem when he was just really just a battle rapper. He never really put out an album. You know, I got to hear Mos Def before he came out and Talib Kweli and also got to hear KRS ONE do interesting things and then also you know, one of innovative artists and artists who I feel like from the independent perspective did something great tagging you know, and so I just got to hear all this when I fell in love with hip hop was kind of like ninth grade. And I was like, wow, hip hop can can’t just be anything especially from an MC standpoint because I got to hear all these artists who were just really playing with the craft or not playing with the craft but but experimenting and doing different things. And so you know, we begin to perform became 18 year olds you know, got a little bit of notoriety. And then, like many groups, we kind of had a split. And then in my late 20s, we kind of reformed the group. And that a performance is where we were one of the MCs was already performing, which on by he introduced us to each one. And then that’s kind of how our relationship started, went over to his house and had some tea , you know, started with one song, which was first song and went from there.

Man conducts from behind a piano.
JooWan Kim conducts Ensemble Mik Nawooj.

Rich Hobby: Excellent. Cool. One thing I think we would love to kind of get a grasp for is, what is an Ensemble Mik Nawooj show like, like, what what can people expect? What’s the energy in the room like?

Sandman: Okay, well, go ahead.

JooWan Kim: I go, No, no, no, you can go, go go first.

Sandman: What now, what I can say is that, you know, even something I learned from because, you know, when, when I began doing this, you know, it was it was totally experimental. For me, it was just like, Okay, it’s something different try it out. And what I noticed is that it kind of didn’t matter, whatever crowd we were in front of, from, from young to old, or, or, you know, any race, like, people just loved the music, it was moving, it was it was high energy. It always had an introspective element to it. And we found that people weren’t sure what just happened, because I’d never seen anything like it. But they were like, you know, that we always got this incredible response. So you can definitely expect a lot of energy, you know, there’s, there’s a lot of energy in and wants music. But there’s there’s also points of reflection, you know, points that, that feel healing or have a resolve. And it’s very, it’s almost even narrative based. And so you kind of feel like you’ve been, you’re, you’ve been taken on a bit of a journey. And so we always get incredible responses from crowds. They’re all based on those individuals reference from music, because they need a reference for us. Because, you know, we’re kind of the only people who do you know, even though there are people out there call themself Hip Hop orchestra, like, a re you… that the sound here is entirely you know, our own. So, you know, some sometimes, you know, one time we’re doing the show at Cathedral by the lake in Oakland, it was a, it was a festival. And there was this older 80 year old gentleman who was who was kind of sitting in the front row, you know, and we were doing, what, to me was a hip hop show. And so I had never performed in front of like, an elderly crowd. And so it was very weird for me, you know, it’s odd. And I have like it, you know, this isn’t a good idea. You know, that’s what I initially felt. But, you know, we went on with the show, and, you know, one of the MCS was like, throw your hands there, and he had his hands in the air. And then he comes up to me after the show. And he’s like, I really enjoyed all the music, the instrumentation and just scatting, and it’s like, the only reference he had for what I was doing, because he didn’t listen to hip hop himself was, you know, I was scatting. You know, or there was another gentleman who came up at a different show, I forget exactly where it was. We were definitely out of state. But he was like, you know, you guys are like, the first time I saw the Wailers. And like, Okay, we sound nothing like the Wailers. But, you know, in what he’s describing is like, a transformative effect, I guess you could say. And so I guess that’s where people can expect lots of energy and to just see something that you’ve never seen before.

Rich Hobby: Excellent. Juwan. What do you have to say?

JooWan Kim: Well, actually, he touched on the things that I wanted him to talk about this thing that he just described. Two things, actually. One is the age barrier. I can I always remember when Sandman add to me, told me about that this music actually crosses the generational gap, because he’s performed in front of a bunch of different races. That’s not a problem because a lot of hip hop has younger people, you know, of any race, love hip hop. But it’s this this is distinctive, because it actually crosses that generational gap. And in doing so, we cross bunch of biases that each generations have. And then, you know, kind of like bring, it’s a cliche to say, but actually bring people together. They actually enjoyed some thuggish looking Latino, you know, tattooed gang gang guy would be like right next to a tuxedo where, I’m sorry, not tuxedo, but regular, you know, semi-formal wearing, you know, white dude with a glass of wine glasses of wine on. So that’s important. And then the second thing that he said, the point of reference for people for this music is very varied. It’s simply, it’s almost like, I don’t know whether you heard of this phenomenon, like, when Columbus came to America, the native Indians could not see the ship, because they just have never seen anything like that. So they were like, they just didn’t see it. That’s why when, when, even though the music has a lot of impact, the form is very new to them. So people are like, Oh, it’s like wailers, oh, it’s like scattering, you guys did a great scatting guys, or somebody would point something that is like part of the classical sort of reference that I’m doing. So, it’s really interesting to see that how this music kind of like, triggers people in different ways. And I think that it’s what I can say is that the whole point of us doing it, is to actually invent new form. Because there’s a whole sort of academic sort of focus about decolonization of thoughts. And it actually came out of the, you know, colonial resistance against colonial like residues, like from Africa and such, but I think it’s really important, especially now that the diversity, and you know, identity politic is kind of used in a way that to divide us, but in this case, our differences actually invent new things. And the mechanism is what we call meta sampling. So..

Rich Hobby: It’s fantastic. And that’s, that’s just the kind of events we like to kind of have at the Hult Center where you get to kind of fuse, or create this opportunity for different audiences to kind of meet in the middle. One side of, or another side of why we wanted to bring you all to the Eugene area, is that with the show, you also have a number of education workshops that will be happening. So we’d love if you could just touch on, you know, why do you do education workshops? What’s the value of doing those kinds of things and interacting with students?

Dances at a concert.
Dancers under a spotlight during an Ensemble Mik Nawooj performance.

Sandman: Well, yeah…

JooWan Kim: So no, no, go ahead.

Sandman: Well, I’ll say this, just because of somebody, you know, my, my, you know, origin of discipline, you know, as an artist is hip hop. And I, you know, in the media, you hear Hip Hop spoken about in a variety of ways, but never as to what it actually is, right. And so, you know, I hear, you know, like, your, there was no, I remember a long time, she was never left my marks, I remember watching it, like Oprah was having a show. And then like, you know, her position is hip hop is so violent, misogynist, and it’s, and it’s, it’s, and I’m like, Well, no, I mean, there’s a reflection of that, because people who are the artists in hip hop come from, from that sort of environment. But Hip Hop itself is a is a contemporary Renaissance art culture. And that’s actually what it is. And so they’re varied crafts that exist within it, and in which anybody can participate. And to say that it is just this one thing is, you know, extremely limiting and, and, and really just wrong. So a lot of what you know, I like to do when I talk about hip hop is to is to really, you know, help people understand that hip hop actually wasn’t any of these things until the industry got ahold of hip hop. And then the industry, you know, chose and cherry picked everything that was most sensational, that was most that was most optimistic and everything. And then even then even then, why just those artists in that way, like for instance, when Scorsese puts out a film that has misogyny, drug use, violence, you know, in the end, even racism, we don’t say that he’s all of these things when we say it’s no, he’s an incredible artist, because he’s shown you something with his craft and filmmaking. And so then there’s never this this, I feel like there’s a there’s a lack of opportunity for people to look at this from being a craft, especially when it comes to to rhyming because if you look at, you know, rhyming meters, that hip hop is actually, hip hop music is actually an advanced. But we don’t like to look at it from that lens, because it’s there’s just a judgement of its content. And the content in and of itself is very, if if, especially if you go outside what is just mainstream. So this is this is generally when I’m talking about hip hop, you have educational courses, what I like to highlight.

JooWan Kim: Okay, so I think that that’s, I think he put the nail on the head, I think that the framing of hip hop, as this, like misogyny and like, filled with materialism, and all this stuff, is very not the essence of hip hop, the essence of hip hop, in our mind is meta sampling. What does that mean? That means that you can actually sample anything that’s available to you. And by reframing them, creating new work. And much like, producers actually take snippets of the recordings that they could find iand create. And then they actually stretch them, they slowed down or like, make it very fast, and so on and so forth, and create new pieces. And we do it, we actually extrapolate that idea. And we actually now sam ple rationale sample methods. So, and then once I start seeing this way, I start seeing this pattern everywhere. And like, you know, I obviously there’s gastronomy, examples of gastronomy, like for instance, like guy goes to France, learn all these French techniques, come back to United States open a burger joint, but he would like Sous vide the hell out of the burger, so on and so forth. So and then when you do that, do you call it? Is it like American food? Is it French food? No, it’s just new kinds of things. Because you learned something that wasn’t here as a convention, and you break the convention, and then you actually create new, new stuff. So this is why in, in teaching people about the kind of music that we do, I think it’s actually a larger project, because what we need right now is not just to like, go with this one ideology or left or right, this, these two, two polarities are like good or bad. I think they’re all bad right now. Because they simply because they can’t really invent new things. And we believe that meta sampling can actually you know, ushering in like more inventions. And then in order for us to invent it requires diversity it requires something foreign, right, by the virtue of it so in doing so we can satisfy the need for like happy including everybody but also satisfies need for this growth and like, rebirth and so on and so forth. So that’s the point that I read and really focusing on and as for me as a composer during this is that really American classical music has two kinds of like flavor. That goes either with not everyone longjia school where you learn the techniques and then you actually apply. Ironically, Quincy Jones studied with Nadia, Nadia as well as Phillip Glass right and then all the other like Copeland and all this Americana people. But the the other side is this German sort of, you know, like serialism School, where the in some ways like French school of like doing the spectralis stuff. These things, aside from Nadia Boulanger school, which actually has a real application of like, either pop music, or at least Phillip Glass, his music is all like, you know, in pop culture, because he actually does film scores. All the other stuff like German, French, like super high art, music, these things do not connect with American people, simply because it’s really one sort of frame, like it’s a European sort of thing. Right? So I think that it’s time for us to actually create new music that can be radically inclusive and innovative, and working in the world now, which IE, generate income for the musician so that they don’t have to apply for grants. It’s actually supported by the people.

Rich Hobby: Yes, fantastic. Well, you know, I think you guys even touched on this a little bit earlier. And I think this kind of won through thread in here, especially like with the meta sampling with that is kind of some of the influences that have impacted you. And I was wondering if each of you could kind of talk about both a hip hop song and a classical song that you found like had an inordinate impact on you in a unique way. And yeah, how about we start with Sandman?

Sandman: Oh, man, hip hop song. Well, I mean, the classical song is is easy, because, you know, like, you know, I I love Bach. You know, even though you know, I guess, technically Bach is Baroque, not part of the classical period, but in broad terms done my classical music. Bachs music is different. And when I first heard Toccata and Fugue, like that’s that, you know, that was like, Oh my gosh, that made me like, Okay, well, what else is out there? Just because it was an incredibly dynamic. Now, I only heard it in snippets and pieces before, you know, it, everybody’s heard that, but like, you know, it’s been ever you could find it anywhere in pop culture. But when I actually heard the whole piece all the way through, I was like, this is incredible. You know, in fact, this if it were made, now, you know, I feel like people would be incredibly drawn to it, you know. So there’s that in terms of classical music. And Hip Hop is difficult, because it’s, you know, there’s so much…

Rich Hobby: Well, even if you can’t get it down to a song, even I just, I had this moment where I actually put on Mos Def, Black on Both Sides. For the first time, it probably, you know, five years, but then I had a person in the room with me would never heard it. And it just like, every song just clicked in more and more for me about oh, my god, there was a time where this was this, like, always in the the CD mixer, right? Like, there were so certain CDs that never left, you know, that thing, but was there any album like that, that just made such an impact for you?

Sandman: Well, you know, that, you know, Outkast ATLiens was was an album like that, for me, you know, I used to listen to that over and over, just because they, you know, Big Boy and Andre, Andre 3000. They used to just play with the styles and they said they were MCs to me, who just had like, a real idea for craft and doing something entirely different, nobody else sounded like them. And so I just used to love to listen to the music, and then also the, you know, they were, you know, produced by Organized Noize, and, you know, which was, you know, an actual band. And so it had, very much this, this soulful feeling to it. And so, I used to play that album all the time. In my younger, younger, younger years, in fact, it was was actually one of the first two CDs that I ever bought so. So yeah, no, I can’t pin down. In fact, I think I think Return og the “G”, probably the most, you know, incredible songs in hip hop. But yeah,

Rich Hobby: I think, I think, yeah, anything with Outkast you can’t go wrong with but how about you for JooWan classical, and also like, we don’t have to be so specific. It can be a composer, or an album that you found impacted you?

JooWan Kim: Well, obviously, for hip hop. I mean, I would, I would have to take two sort of influences in hip hop, like, obviously, it’s Dre, NWA type of like G funk thing, and especially NWA the Straight Outta Compton was like a transforming, transformative album for me. And, but also J Dilla. J Dilla. For me in hip hop. He’s like, Thelonious Monk. He’s like Mozart, he’s the person that actually truly sort of looked at the production of hip hop and like transformed it into a an actual art form, right? It’s not just like, obviously no, no, dissing everybody that’s came beforehand, but it’s for him to do all this like, without basically play the drums there’s a technical term for it, like without quantizing it play the drum, a machine as if they’re all instruments. So he made it organic. There’s always this loose, sort of like floaty feel to it, but also always kind of like moving forward, and his phrasing is odd. Like, there’s a piece called E = mc2, which has like two four bar in the middle of it. Obviously, he makes it into four four like, you know, in an aggregate for like five, four or five bars, whatever. But then it’s really weird if you actually listen to it and say, but just like Monks music, if you listen to it, it sounds really smooth, which is exactly like Mozart. Exactly like Bach. And for me for classical and would have to Beethoven because when I heard Beethoven Symphony Number Five, when I was 10 years old, I kind of realized that you know, what, this was serious. It was so cohesive. And I sat through the whole cassette tape when I was in Korea, right, so, and then I found that he was deaf. I was like, what? So that’s why I would have to choose Beethoven’s Symphony Number Five and NWA Dr. Dre / J. Dilla.

Rich Hobby: Well those are definitely some clutch selections. I think also naming J Dilla. I think you just earned a lot of hip hop, credit for for, for all the purists that I know out there. Because, yeah, Donuts was a phenomenal album. And it definitely like just one that still was in heavy rotation even on my own turntable. So I can’t agree with you more there, who’s going to be on stage with you guys? How many musicians are going to be on this tour with you?

JooWan Kim
JooWan Kim

JooWan Kim: So we actually have augmented our group generally we have 10 piece now we added like string quartet, and then french horn and bassoon. So there’s gonna be four winds instead of just regular two winds. So we have what like 15 piece crew, and one of them would be turf dancing, and not a musician. But a turf dancer was actually legitimately way more famous than we are. He works with like Britney Spears, but he loves us. So he’s coming with us, he’s been performing with us for a couple years now. So it’s a bonafide Chamber Orchestra with full string section. Although it’s not like full, full, but it’s String Quartet and a bass. And then we have four winds and French horn with the body. And we have amazing drummer and I will be performing playing the piano and then conducting and MC Sandman will be on the mic just spitting truth and fire. And then we will have a soprano. So…

Rich Hobby: Well, excellent. And if you had a chance to perform, since the pandemic has started to kind of loosen up.

Sandman: Yeah, yeah, we have.

Rich Hobby: What was that first? You know, getting back on stage? Did you have butterflies return? Or was it just like getting back to normal?

Sandman: I mean, it was it was kind of like knocking some dust off a little bit. Yeah, you know, it’s me, you know, just because we were so used to perform, you know, we would perform we were performing often. Prior. And so yeah, so So for me, you know, even though you know, crowds generally don’t notice when you make mistakes, but you know, it’s like, oh my gosh, I’m making mistakes everywhere. But, but yeah, it was it was kind of knocking some of the dust off. It was it was a lot better for the second performance, though. But the first performance back, you know, I just noticed, like, wow, it’s been a long time. You know, so…

JooWan Kim: Well, I mean, I was actually going to quote him (Sandman) basically after the show, he said, I didn’t know how… I forgot how healing this thing was. That’s what he said. That’s what Sandman said to be. Remember. Yeah. Yeah. So I mean, it was spiritual experience. It’s like, you know, if it was performing in front of people and then actually sharing and then bunch of people came up to us and they said, like, Thank you for coming. This was so needed in Reno. This is so not like Reno. I don’t know what that meant. But I was like, Okay, thank you.

Sandman: This is not this is not at all and that’s what needs and like something like that.

JooWan Kim: But yeah, I was like, Okay, what is Reno like?

Sandman: Yeah, it was something a little bit more cryptic and deeper going on there. But yeah, you know, but yeah, no, I mean, I guess that’s also part of it, I think. take for granted. If you if you’re performing all the time, I think sometimes you take for granted, the fact that you’re able to perform and then what what it does for you as an artist, you know, and then you you know, and then when it taken away from you. And then you’re able to get back to it, you’re like, Wow, this is I guess this is why I do it. And so yeah.

Rich Hobby: That’s a beautiful sentiment and we’ve seen in ourselves in the hall just people coming back to the shows. And seeing that excitement on their faces. So we’re very excited we have you guys on February 8th, 2022 and we encouraging everyone to come out and check out this amazing and also go online and find all the amazing videos and songs that are available from this group. And just I encourage everyone to check it out. I want to thank you both again for finding some time and connecting with us. Any other notes before the show?

JooWan Kim: Uh no, maybe, I’m really excited about going back to Eugene because we went there a long time ago before we had Opus 3 as our agent. And then we performed at this place, but it was a country music kind of looking venue and certainly people looked very not like hip hop or classic people but they enjoyed the hell out of us. It was a very interesting experience.

Sandman: Oh it was cottage grove

JooWan Kim: Cottage Grove, it wasn’t Eugene, right? Different city.

Rich Hobby: That’s just down the way from us, that’s amazing. But yeah, were super excited to have you guys up here. We will have to show you how Eugene Rolls. We’re really excited for it.

Black silhouette of a man holding a microphone and wearing a hat.

Ensemble Mik Nawooj