Too often, debates about what is or isn't hip hop serve little purpose beyond boxing in artists and polarizing listeners, most of whom are fine leaving the labels to PR firms and (ahem) critics. That said, Los Angeles' daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra invites such discourse: Conspicuously different from most of the other bands on the scene, the group challenges the status quo and the current face of the musical form.
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Foremost, the ensemble is huge (we're talking performers, not bodyguards or entourage). Led by conductor/composer/ saxophonist Geoff "Double G" Gallegos, daKAH features a gang of instrumentalists -- full string, horn, and percussion sections; two pairs of turntablists and bassists; a trio of drummers -- and vocalists, with no fewer than eight rappers. The goal in pooling this wide range of talent is to create a vibrant sound that combines the refinement of a classical symphony, the exuberance of big-band jazz, and the youthful energy of hip hop. Toss in rhythmic, melodic, and lyrical nods to old-school rap, R&B, funk, soul, and gospel (from Parliament-Funkadelic to Gang Starr to the Isley Brothers), and you've got a modern hybrid groove steeped in great black music that openly embraces a shiny, happy multiculturalism. A clear alternative to mainstream values -- both the provincial, thuggish posturing of hard-core rap and the overproduced, oversexed schlock of what passes for contemporary R&B -- daKAH stages family-friendly shows that are engaging, inclusive, and positive. (It's no wonder the band has gigged at the home court for L.A.'s Philharmonic: the recently constructed, ultra-pristine Walt Disney Concert Hall.)
Of course, such an approach runs counter to the sensationalist aesthetic espoused by BET, MTV, Vibe, and the other commercial perpetrators of hip hop's popular facade, the one in which sex, drugs, and bling are proffered as the logical, me-first lifestyle combo for those who want to keep it real. On the other hand, daKAH's ethos -- homegrown, collectivist, inspirational -- convincingly represents hip hop's original mission. So maybe it doesn't matter much if the band's beats often seem more attuned to a gospel brunch than a KMEL jam, or that the orchestral colors invoke a Western European tradition that's not unconnected to four centuries of institutional slavery, or that sometimes the vocal melodies usurp the power of the spoken rhymes; daKAH's vision is more like Martin Luther (or Rodney) King's.
On "Rain Revolution," from the group's San Francisco Debut(Kufala), recorded last year at the Palace of Fine Arts, vocalist Rachel Kahn testifies: "We are less different than we are the same. ... It is just this interconnectedness that blesses us/ Loving/ With reckless abandon/ Is the best act/ Of revolution/ Love/ Love." This broad-minded, upbeat message is indeed (as the song says) revolutionary. And speaking such radical truth is arguably -- ideally -- what hip hop aspires to do.
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