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Hip hop gets a symphonic mash-up

By Gary Moskowitz & Photos by Colleen Cummins

Feb 7, 2007 - 12:00 AM

The Shotgun Wedding Hip Hop Symphony is a 12-piece hip hop, classical, jazz and funk ensemble. Getting down on a variety of instruments, they create what the group’s MC calls “a mash-up of everything we can cram into hip hop.”

The Shotgun Wedding Hip Hop Symphony consists of musicians from all background, all of whom are members of a larger collective called the Jazz Mafia.

Members of the Shotgun Wedding Hip Hop Symphony rehearse before playing a gig at Bruno’s, a club in San Francisco’s famed Mission District. The symphony is one of many Jazz Mafia bands that rotate weekly Tuesday night performances here.

It’s an hour before the show, and violist Charith Premawardhana is bowing and plucking his way through rigorous music arrangements that he’s just now seeing for the very first time. Pushing dark-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose, he leafs through a thick stack of sheet music labeled with song titles like “The Girls of Capp Street” and “Boogie Symphonette.”

Charith, 28, is a classically-trained, full-time professional musician. He pays rent by performing weekly gigs with regional symphonies in places like Fresno, Carmel and Berkeley. In less than 60 minutes, he’ll be playing viola with a wickedly talented ensemble in front of an audience, just as he’s done a hundred times before. But tonight’s show is completely different from any other. Tonight he’s performing live hip hop for the first time ever, with the Shotgun Wedding Hip Hop Symphony.

“This stuff is not easy,” Charith says as he scrambles to organize his sheet music. “I’m out of my comfort zone, but I dig it. I definitely dig it. Classical music is all about expression, but this is all about the band being tight as fuck.”

The symphony is a 12-piece hip hop, classical, jazz and funk ensemble based in the Mission District of San Francisco. The group regularly crams itself onto a small stage at Bruno’s, an intimate jazz club in the heart of the neighborhood. Musicians on turntables, saxophones, clarinets, congas, trombone, upright bass, electric bass, samplers, drums, keys, violins, viola and cello perform for audiences what Dublin, the group’s MC, calls “a mash-up of everything we can cram into hip hop.”

“There’s a lot of live, instrumental hip hop bands out there now, but it can easily become cliché and can get dumbed down,” Dublin says. “We are conscious of working at not sounding like just another live hip hop band.”

As Charith and other band members disperse throughout the club for food and drinks and cigarette breaks before show time, Dublin sits at the end of a long bar with a bottle of Newcastle in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other. Slouched in a flannel shirt and tattered jacket, a Ben Davis baseball hat and Chuck Taylors, friends surround him to clink bottles and talk shit.

Onstage, with a mic in his hand, Dublin’s playful, slurred bar talk turns to precise, clean, enunciated rap lyrics. Each sentence builds on the previous one to create a story, paused only occasionally for sweeping string movements, dense horn progressions, bop solos or break beats. His delivery has a sing-song, scat quality to it, which is his take on vocalese, a jazz technique that matches words to the rhythm of instrumental solos. Micah 9 and other members of the LA hip hop group Freestyle Fellowship, one of Dublin’s major influences, honed the technique in the 90s.

Live, the symphony’s h ip h op mash-up ebbs and flows in dynamic waves of intensity and chillness. A verse might feature just the bass line, a string progression and rapping, and choruses often expand into a barrage of turntable scratching, massive drums and horn blasts. Watching their shows is a diverse, twenty-something crowd that likes to drink and dance.

Shotgun Wedding -- which also performs regularly as a stripped-down quintet and belongs to a collective of local “gangsta” fusion bands called the Jazz Mafia – is not the first or only crew to mix symphonic song arrangements with hip hop. Former Oakland resident Angelamia Bachemin started a jazz hip hop orchestra at Connecticut’s Wesleyan College in 1998. Dakah, a Los Angeles-based hip hop orchestra with more than 60 members, played their first show in 1999 in Santa Monica.

Adam Theis, Shotgun’s trombonist, electric bass player and principal composer, says that Dakah is a major influence, but his band doesn’t want to mimic the “epic wall of sound” that the L.A. group puts out. The Shotgun symphony, which originated as a beer-fueled idea for a 2002 Halloween show, is still in its underground phase, he says. Their first album, a mix of songs by the Shotgun quintet and symphony, is due out this year.

“It’s inspiring just to sit back and listen to this band,” Theis says. “We have an expectation to keep the quality really high, and it’s proven to be a lot of fun, having top-notch, badass musicians onstage. It’s like, wow, this is an incredible band. I’ve played hip hop before, but not with a garage band mentality. This band, we get together, drink beer and play tunes. We don’t stress. It’s a unique, weird thing.”

Shotgun may be a beer-drinking, underground garage band, but the level of musical discipline is high. Drummer Patrick Korty, who used to play for the hip hop band Crown City Rockers, practiced hard for two weeks straight prior to his audition.

“They’ve been kickin’ my ass ever since,” Korty says.


Gary Moskowitz is a musician and a contributor to OH DANG! He likes to talk shit with other musicians on his blogsite, Blogowitz.

Colleen Cummins is a staff photographer for OH DANG!

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