daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra
San Francisco Debut, Unfinished Symphony
The daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra is a 56-piece band led by Geoff “Double-G” Gallegos, here sampled in two double-CD releases from the Kufala label of Los Angeles. The concept is disarmingly simple: hip-hop arranged for orchestra. It gives a multitude of options for making sounds and beats, but runs an easy risk of dissolving into cacophony. More artists than can be named have dabbled in the style as an augmentation of their more orthodox methods (like Kanye West, Portishead and RZA), but few have tried to carry it through an entire album. Well, these are daKAH’s fourth and fifth releases in under two years.
Their heady arrangements recall Max Roach’s attack in the 1990s, much amplified, while the ride-out sections touch on everything from new jack swing back to the classical masters. The gimmick resonates best, I think, when the strings are used prominently as a counterpoint to the vocals, which recall stuff like Heavenly Noise, Floetry and Princess Superstar. The MCs hold up well in what must be a challenging environment, spitting the abstract “backpack” lyrics that have taken a strengthened foothold in the industry — the rare confluence of commerce and consciousness.
SF Debut was recorded in July 2004. Disc one is comprised of “Reepus II in A Minor,” in three movements of a total 39 minutes. Disc two has covers, rather unique and arguably easier-to-grasp statements of the group’s broader intent. Unfinished Symphony is billed as such because the composer intends to revisit the music from time to time as the ensemble itself changes, something he’s already done once or twice already. The first CD contains the original symphony, while the second is devoted to bonus material.
“Daconcerto” pays homage to fallen heroes Digable Planets (cop that Blowout Comb now, if you don’t have it already). “Invocation of the Clown” is perfectly executed, with a none-too-subtle invocation of Mingus in the title reinforced by turbulent turntables and a robust hook — fast, tight, seamless. “Chillintando” builds from a Dangerdoom-sounding trombone riff by I Timothy, and then folds in ska flavor like whipped cream into chocolate.
It’s a credit to the musicians that it doesn’t really sound like so many people. Maybe 20. The numbers add volume and texture, but don’t muddy up the melodies. Music like this reminds us of how the turntable revival spurred by hip-hop helped expose younger generations to the music of our past, while it was still available. The live album is nice, but they come off best in the studio. Unfinished Symphony is quality hip-hop in its own right, but it has even greater value as a pedagogical tool.
Kufala Recordings: www.kufala.com