Rebellion and modern classical music may not be two concepts frequently held together in people’s minds. For JooWan Kim, composer for Ensemble Mik Nawooj (EMN), that’s totally fine. He has few good things to say about modern classical music, but he has plenty of positive feelings about rebellion.

An act of revolt led Kim to first use hip-hop in his composition during a piece he performed while in his Master’s program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

“I thought I was doing it as an exercise. I also wanted to piss people off because I have this rebellious tendency, something out of the norm,” said Kim.

But the music caught on, both with critics — a performance of the piece was unexpectedly written about in the Oakland Tribune — and with Kim.  Hip-hop solved a problem Kim had with modern classical music.

“I just didn’t get why it was good, even if I understood the theory and I was practicing it,” Kim said. “I am trained, but that doesn’t mean that I want to create incoherent and totally hard-to-understand music.”

Kim grew up in South Korea. He didn’t get seriously into music until he was 18 years old, though he “played the piano just like any Asian kid.” Kim came to the United States at age 20 to train in composition at the Berklee College of Music.

Kim is in awe of the rhyming of hip-hop, the syncopation, the complexity of shifting tempos and the use of sampling. His music takes the aspects he admires and injects them with the formal thinking that comes from his classical training.

The path of combining two seemingly disparate genres of music is not without its critics from both genres.

“I do think there are traditionalists, who think, ‘You’re not black, why are you doing hip hop?’ or ‘Why are you trying to change it? Who the fuck are you?’ Kim said. At the same time, some classical composers think he’s moved too far from his classical training. “But when they look at my music and look at the score, they can’t really hate on it too much, because it’s actually thought out.”

“I’ve been entrenched in EMN for five years. Not a day goes by where I haven’t thought about how EMN is viewed,” said Christopher Nicholas, general manager of Ensemble Mik Nawooj, who co-founded Golden Fetus Records along with Kim —the Bay Area based label under which Ensemble Mik Nawooj is housed. Nicholas and Kim were roommates at Berklee College nearly 16 years ago.

Nicholas notes that music genres aren’t meant to belong to any one person or one group. “It’s an unfortunate state of mind that hinders the growth of a person, his or her community and the art form,” said Nicholas. “There are no laws governing this music or any art. If there are, then I say fuck it and do it anyway.”

Kim understands the tendency of people to restrict their views of music over time. “It’s human nature to settle down on thinking that ‘oh, this is what it is, I want to define this in this way, oh, that’s not jazz, that’s not hip-hop.’ What I do is to actually extract what I think is essential musically.”

This essential music will be the base of of the next two albums Kim already has lined up. The sophomore album will consist of the six pieces Kim composed for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last year that featured three songs from Wu Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers) and three songs from Snoop Dogg’s album Doggystyle. With the third album, Kim plans to integrate dance and storytelling into the production of live performances.

While talking with Kim about his experiments with music, he mentions evolution, DNA, food experimentation and advances in technology. In each example, the best building blocks are maintained, and the rest is changed to create new forms for the future. It’s in that way that Kim views the hybridization of his music.

“I don’t think it’s the evolutionary next step, but it’s one of them because just like in natural selection, there are many different answers and the best one survives. This is one of the answers that I have,” said Kim. “Clearly, it’s the answer for classical music because it should die. I really do think that it should die.”


Ensemble Mik Nawooj: A Hip-Hop Orchestra
Duende Restaurant and Bodega
Saturday, Feb. 7, 9:30 p.m.
Tickets: $15
All ages

About The Author

Katie is the Music Editor at OL. She's a music geek, culture junkie, massive A's fan, and Oakland native. When she was six, she stood for five minutes with a felt pennant stuck under Chris Mullin’s armpit. Check out her Oakland music listings at, follow on twitter/instagram as @craziesthawk, or contact at

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