JooWan Kim waits for his interview in the coffee shop, sipping tea from his own mug, with his legs neatly folded in the chair. His glasses and long black hair give him the look of a quiet intellectual, or a busy college student. Nothing in his appearance suggests that Kim is behind one of the Bay Area's most innovative hip-hop acts, Ensemble Mik Nawooj. The ensemble's shows combine a well-written classical score with legitimate hip-hop emcees.
It started by accident. In 2005, Kim was a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and wanted to do something different for one of his shows. His drummer at the time introduced him to MC Kirby Dominant, and the pair collaborated on a song. After the show, Dominant suggested they should make an album together. "It eventually transformed my whole perspective on music," Kim says.
Five years later, after a few twists and turns in the music industry and a lot of soul searching, he was composing full-time for Ensemble Mik Nawooj, and running the label he co-founded, Golden Fetus Records. Kim recently spoke with SF Weekly about his musical projects and Ensemble Mik Nawooj's show this Saturday, Sept. 7, at Milk Bar.
A lot of hip-hop/classical combinations seem like they're really good at one or the other. But your stuff is pretty legit in both categories. What's your approach to collaboration between genres?
That's a question I'm actually writing a book about -- I call this type of music "hybridization."
Since the beginning of the 20th century, all music was influenced by the fact that somebody was introduced to something completely new to them. Claude Debussy heard a piece by Mussorgsky called "Boris Godunov" and he was amazed. Then when he came back to Paris, he was exposed to gamelan music -- which is an Indonesian style of music -- at the Paris expo. In Parisian terms the music was a disaster. But what Debussy did that was really genius, was he emulated the gamelan music. He failed at that, but he created a style of writing music that everybody started to follow. That was the beginning of 20th century music.
Gershwin was a songwriter initially; he created a hybridization that's not really classical, but you can't call it jazz either, because it's not improvisational. Astor Piazzolla was a tango composer who studied with a woman named Nadia Boulanger. She taught him all these new musical techniques, and then he went back to Argentina and introduced all this jazz and other things and called it "nuevo tango," and people hated it. But it was a hybridization.
Of course, that happened because there was a new music called jazz, that came from the African American community in the U.S. After jazz, you could say the history of all contemporary pop music is hybridization. You have rhythm and blues, and blues became rock 'n' roll and went over to England and came back here. And funk, and now we have hip-hop. Of course, hip-hop draws a lot from funk.
Then most recently we have dubstep. So hybridization goes on all the time. And what I'm doing is essentially what everyone else was doing. But because I'm classically trained, I'm using those techniques.
Hip-hop traditionally has a lot of improvisation, but for a symphony, things have to be planned in advance. How do you keep that "in the moment" feeling at your shows?
The music that I write, it's easier music for a lot of high-level players, but it isn't a string pad -- like one sort of note that only changes a few times. It's technical enough that it engages the players.
I try to use the same players over and over again, so they get better every time. The way you're trained in classical music is you play it differently each time, because you feel different each time -- kind of like hardcore actors in plays. You have the same script but it's always fresh. Now this requires good writing, and that's a problem that I often see in hybridization. Sometimes the classical is just for color. But if you show my score to anybody, they'll respect it.
A lot of older hip-hop fans, who grew up on artists like Run DMC, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and KRS One, like to bemoan the current state of hip-hop. What's your take on today's crop of hip-hop superstars like Kanye West and Jay Z?
I like Kanye West. Some of his stuff is really good. I guess these days being a star means you have to do some obnoxious things, but I just listen to music. Purely musically, I think some of Katy Perry's stuff is produced flawlessly. But I think these days, a lot of people are just made.
I mean, if you're one person, and you're trying to make music, and be CEO of some company, and have endorsements, and this reality show, then something has to give. I'm not saying people shouldn't be successful -- I want to make pop music -- they should just be clear about what they're doing.
J. Dilla and Dr. Dre were major, major influences on me, especially Dre's older stuff -- The Chronic, N.W.A., even The Chronic 2001 -- there were a lot of things going on in there; you could just feel the vibe of it. But I heard that Dr. Dre doesn't even produce his own music anymore. If a person is really into their craft, they aren't going to give up on it. I'm always going to be a composer.
Oakland has been in the news a lot lately, for its art scene, street festivals, progressive politics, and, of course, crime. Has living in Oakland affected your sensibilities as an artist?
I like small towns. I'm pretty hermetical, because I need a lot of time to do this stuff, but when I walk around in Oakland I feel relaxed. Oakland happens to be this wonderful hotbed of stuff and that's great, but personally, I just like smaller towns. I'm naturalized but I grew up in Korea so I still feel like a foreigner -- everything is pretty exotic for me.
You have shows coming up at Milk in SF, Yoshi's in Oakland, and even the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Those are very different venues with, presumably, different crowds. Do you change the show to suit different crowds?
We don't change anything, unless they don't want any swearing. Then I'll tell my emcees not to swear, but that's it. I think if the music is good, people are going to like it. I'm not trying to make some avant-garde statement. I'm not trying to break the gap between hip-hop and pop or classical. This is just pop music, it's written for everybody.
Our goal with the label is to have acts that have universal appeal and have the music industry be healthy again. That's what I would like to do eventually, in some small way.
What does Mik Nawooj mean?
It's my name spelled backwards. It's my professional habit, because when you're composing, you take the melody and invert it.