Conductor-composer-arranger Steven Reineke thinks it’s time for hip-hop to take its place on the orchestral pops stage.
“We’re giving it its due as a real American art form,” said Reineke, who will conduct the Chicago Symphony’s annual Corporate Night with Common and members of the orchestra on June 3. “We already do jazz, the great American songbook, Broadway, classic rock, bluegrass — now we’re branching out further.”
Reineke, the principal pops conductor for several North American orchestras, has worked with several rappers, but he said, “Common’s a great starting point for an orchestra that wants to collaborate. His music works well for backing with a symphony, and he has a message of love and bringing people together.” It plays out in the concert audiences, too — Reineke recalls conducting Common and the San Francisco Symphony last year and “seeing this elderly white woman [in the audience] being embraced by a 20-something African-American man.”
Hip-hop/rap collaborations do draw a different audience than a subscription classical concert. “A lot of the time, people aren’t sitting down,” Reineke said with a laugh.
“This was an achievement for one of rap’s good guys and the genre as a whole,” the Washington Post wrote of Reineke’s concert in 2014 with Nas and the National Symphony. “On this night, the backing musicians were just as important as Nas. The fact that Nas was performing [his hit 1994 album] ‘Illmatic’ with an orchestra was unique and momentous, and even he looked amazed at times, sometimes briefly pausing to fully embrace and capture the moment.”
One of Reineke’s first thoughts was how to take the style of this music and make it work symphonically, he said, but he is pleased with the work that the Los Angeles-based team of arrangers has done, and his rap collaborators so far have been “pretty cool with it.” All of them, he said, are “true artists, and really open to the collaborative spirit between them and the orchestra.”
In fact, Reineke keeps coming back to the word “collaboration” to emphasize that the orchestra is not a backup band. In reinventing the original rap tracks, “it really is half and half.” Of course, 70 instrumentalists with sheet music on their stands can’t be as spontaneous as a small combo, but in particular spots, “we’ve built in safety valves for something spontaneous to happen.” For Corporate Night, Common will be bringing a few of his own musicians, including a DJ whose tracks “become another instrument of the orchestra and layer in without overpowering the sound.”
Tempo is very important in rehearsing or performing with rappers, Reineke said, similar to the way that tap dancers need a steady beat that is not a tick too fast. “When you’re doing these rapid-fire lyrics, sometimes a little variation will throw the whole thing off,” he said. That’s why, for a few numbers, he listens to a click track via earphones. The collaboration “can’t be gimmicky,” he said. “There’s a through line of storytelling. It’s not all party songs. There are some great social justice anthems and some love songs.”
Rap is essentially about the rhythm and the words, but “when you take it apart, you find melodies,” Reineke said. “It’s poetry. Poetry in motion, and some of the most inventive lyrics out there. To write a good rap, or to freestyle off the top of your head, it’s a unique talent.”
Classical musicians are already used to playing Broadway tunes or movie soundtracks, and Reineke said that the rap arrangements, while not overly difficult, should still have something to interest the CSO’s musicians. “I hope they feel invested and feel proud to be a part of it,” he said. “The San Francisco Symphony loved it, but they’re used to being adventurous because of Michael Tilson Thomas,” the ensemble’s longtime music director. And audiences have been enthusiastic; some musicians have asked, “Why don’t they cheer like that for Beethoven?” Reineke’s answer is, “It’s a different kind of cheer.”
Hip-hop began in the African-American community, but Reineke says it belongs to everyone now, as evidenced by the success of Broadway composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, whom he called “a modern-day Shakespeare.” But it still shows its roots in the experience of suffering, in many forms, even though up until now, “it’s been looked down on by the orchestral pops world as lesser, or a stepchild,” he said. “It’s a distinctly American art, and we need to celebrate it.”
TOP: Conductor Steven Reineke will lead Common and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the annual Corporate Night concert June 3. | Photo: Sian Richards/Peter Throm Management