|daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra - San Francisco Debut|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Stephen K. Peeples|
|Tuesday, 16 November 2004|
If Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Etta James, Jimi Hendrix and Snoop Dogg got together for a gig, it might sound something like this performance by the daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra.
Recorded live at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts on July 31, 2004, and released later in the year as a two-CD album titled San Francisco Debut, it’s daKAH’s second album, following on the heels of Live At California Plaza, Los Angeles, out in early 2004.
The L.A.-based aggregation pays homage to and defies musical convention whenever and wherever possible.
Let’s start with the orchestra’s size: daKAH is the world’s largest hip-hop group, with 60-65 members on any given gig, including this one at San Francisco’s PFA.
Getting past daKAH’s larger-than-life size, you discover the orchestra’s unconventional, experimental approach to combining instrumentation and musical styles. The daKAH lineup includes brass, woodwind and string sections usually associated with classical and jazz; electric piano, guitar, bass and drums from rock, funk and jazz; percussion heard in Latin jazz; hip-hop deejays and MCs workin’ turntables and mikes; vocalists who rap, scat, croon and/or get funky; and, when performing live, modern dancers who flip, flop and fly to the beats.
Composing the music, writing the charts and conducting this gargantuan group is a Berkeley-trained, L.A.-seasoned maestro and musician named Geoff Gallegos, who goes by the name Double G and refers to his role as daKonductor. Cofounder of daKAH in 1999 with its first two dozen members, he’s a linebacker-sized character who weaves his wig in French-braided pigtails, wears a tux and jacket with long tails, and kicks it with a pair of black Converse hi-tops.
Yeah, sure, we’ve heard plenty of genre-blending in recent years, as poseurs have tried to come up with a brand new sound by mixing up old ones. Instead, they’ve usually made musical mud. In the hands of lesser talents than Double G and daKats, as he refers to his multi-cultured musicians, daKAH would sound just as muddy and indistinct – or worse, chaotic, cacophonous and ultimately unlistenable.
Double G, on the other hand, does not blend genres in daKAH. He respects what makes each distinctive and worthy, then matches them up, and finds ways within almost any given piece for the styles to interact while retaining what makes each unique. Within the longer movements, you’ll hear sections of Latin jazz, hip-hop, rock, funk, blues, world beat, classical, all respected and connected – just like Double G hears them in his head, and writes out the charts for each section and part.
Put another way, you could think of daKAH as a ‘hood, and a street gang with smaller cliques who play music together instead of committing crimes. Each clique, or section of the orchestra, gets a chance to bust out for a movement within a long piece. Meanwhile, the other cliques chill respectfully, bobbing to the beats and listening to the messages, occasionally punctuating the flow with a musical “YEE-ah!” or “HELL, YEE-ah!”
This dynamic unfolds with dramatically cinematic effect on the three extended pieces which comprise the first disc of San Francisco Debut – “Reepus II in A Minor, Movement I” (8:07), “II” (13:14) and “IV” (26:50). (“Movement III” was cut from the show for time considerations.) Only “IV” suffers a creative breakdown – the MC’s rap degenerates into a confrontational “What the fuck do you WANT RIGHT NOW?” chant – but resolves in the last few minutes with a more melodic section.
Disc 2 opens with a relatively short (3:01) but soulfully sweet take on Ashford & Simpson’s “California Soul,” featuring daKAH diva Fanny Franklin on vocals. “Rootriology” at 10:09 resumes the extended multi-genre workouts, which also includes “Gang Star Remix” (18:20) and “Gruntriology” (8:55, with nods to James Brown’s JBs, The Isley Brothers and Public Enemy).
The set climaxes with a medley of “Rain Revolution” (co-authored by Double G and Rachel Kann, who guests on the mike) and P-Funk’s “Come In Out of the Rain” (with Franklin on vocals and Amir Yaghmai ripping the electric violin solos). Double G’s goodnight to the appreciative audience wraps the show.
The Palace of Fine Arts set captured here, like most daKAH performances, is not for musical wimps. There’s a lot of stuff to get your ears around, and it requires a bit of concentration to appreciate and enjoy. It’s both a visceral and an intellectual experience; you’re saying, “Damn, that sounded great!” and then trying to figure out how they did it.
You come to appreciate the musicianship and adventuresome spirit that it takes a daKAH player to perform Double G’s charts. As you listen, you stand in awe when a passage is flawlessly executed. You wince and feel the orchestra’s pain when a player hits a clam. You feel their ultimate triumph over the heaving, mortally wounded carcass of the score. You wind up as exhausted after listening to it as they are after performing it. It reminds you you’re alive, and that there are indeed still musical surprises to discover. Thank daKAH.
Getting daKAH’s organized chaos from the Palace of Fine Arts stage onto audio CD was no mean feat. According to Double G, it took the orchestra four hours to set up all the risers on the PFA stage, and mike all the instruments (the players roadied themselves, with a little help from a few IATSE stagehands). There was scant time for engineer Masa Tsuzuki to complete a proper sound check or for recordist David Denny to completely check the portable recording setup, a ProTools HD unit with a 192 converter.
The biggest recording challenge, of course, was to mike everything so each instrument or voice would be heard distinctly, and isolated for sound mixing. They succeeded to mitigate the bleed for the most part, given the less than ideal circumstances, and the number of mikes needed.
Double G reported they used Mix 24, which allowed a maximum of 64 voices. All the strings were bussed in – one each for the violins, violas and cellos – in six-track stereo. The woodwinds were individually miked. Section mikes were used for the brass, and three mikes were devoted to percussion. The drum kit – kick, snare, hi-hat – was individually miked, with a pair of overheads. Bass, harp, Fender Rhodes, electric guitars and turntables all went direct, as did the vocal mikes. Back in Los Angeles, Tsuzuki mixed the concert and the digital recordings for CD release.