Dial 1-900 Mix-A-Lot
I’ve just woken up in Seattle – in complete daze – having been working nonstop for the last 25 hours finishing the editing of the score & parts for my new Violin Concerto (premiering in 2 months) – which along with the 8 hour time difference makes this coming Friday’s world premier concert with Seattle Symphony feel even more unreal….
About a year and a half ago Seattle Symphony invited me to compose a new orchestral piece inspired one of the musical icons of Seattle, as part of their Sonic Evolutions program. The artist that I found most interesting and exciting on their list was hip-hop legend Sir-Mix-A-Lot.
I have got a long-standing relationship with hip-hop, having produced over 50 hip-hop tracks (or at least, UK sub-genres of hip-hop: like Grime & Garage) in my previous life as a hip-hop/electronic producer, plus I’ve been a big fan of hip-hop & related genres ever since I was a kid.
So, the chance to compose an orchestral piece that is explicitly inspired by a hip-hop icon, was naturally very interesting to me, but, as is always the case with this kind of cross-genre project – quite dangerous, with the potential of being an embarrassing ‘cross-over’ rail-crash between two musical worlds. But I think these risks need to be taken; many musical innovations have been made in hip-hop music that can bring new energy, sounds and rhythm to the classical world. But it would essential that I was continuously critical of what I composed and make sure that the piece was had musical integrity. Fortunately, my past life of programming beats and making dirty bass-sounds, is still embedded in my musical mind, so I hoped that doing a more openly hip-hop inspired piece would still result in a natural and honest piece of music, and lements of hip-hop and related genres have already appeared in many works of mine (e.g. Jerk Driver from Cello Multitracks, 3rd movement of Concerto for Turntables), and that has always happened in a very natural way.
Fortunately when I was in Seattle back in October 2012, (when Seattle Symphony were performing my Concerto for Turntables), I had the chance to meet Sir-Mix-A-Lot in person. He was really one of the softest spoken rappers I had ever met, a real gentleman and really passionate about all aspects of music. Though he is best know for his mega-hit Baby Got Back (which over the years has practically become a cultural institution in the USA, even featuring on the TV program ‘Friends’…), his biggest passion is working in the studio as a producer (hence his moniker ‘mix a lot’) and the success of Baby Got Back has often meant that his impressive contribution to production and musical history of hip-hop doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Unlike many of his contemporaries one of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s main influences is Electronic Music, and he is quoted as saying that it was watching a performance by German Electronic act Kraftwerk that first inspired him to make music. This interest in Electro gives Sir Mix-A-Lot’s music a tougher, more minimal, and metronomic feel, and makes him stand out from a lot of other 90s hip-hop which tends to retain a more of a funk & sample based sound.
In fact Mix-A-Lot personally programs all his beats with a Roland 808 drum-machine, rather than sample James Brown drum breaks. And it is his relentless, detail-laden beats which make him so unique, and give his music that colder, starker feel which perhaps reflects his Seattle roots. He also pioneered an unusual approach to sampling by actually reprogramming the microchips of the DMX drum machine with new 8 bit samples he had made himself, giving his productions a very unique sound.
So my aim with this new Sir-Mix-A-Lot inspired Orchestral work was to really get inside the musical mind of Sir Mix-A-Lot; to understand how his rhythms, textures, sounds and harmonies worked, and to create a contemporary orchestral composition that was true to the music of Sir-Mix-A-Lot. My aim was to make an orchestral fantasy that evolved out of the wildest musical elements of Sir Mix-A-Lot, and took all the central elements of his music into a contemporary classical orchestral setting.
The first step for achieving this was to deconstruct several of his tracks and get inside the inner workings of his beats and his raps. The next step was to actually orchestrally recreate two of his tracks: Posse On Broadway and Baby Got Back. I made these orchestrations as faithful to Mix-A-Lot’s original electronic arrangements as possible, and therefore I had to build an orchestral pallet that created the same sound pallet as Sir Mix-A-Lot and I became very familiar with many of his rhythmic patterns.
And these two Orchestrations will be performed with Sir Mix-A-Lot rapping live with Seattle Symphony this Friday (6th June 2014) in Benoroya Hall.
To recreate Mix-A-Lot’s ground-breaking range of sounds, I’ve had to ask the orchestra to use some unusual playing techniques and use several customised percussion instruments, including an acoustic ‘Scratcher’ (made by scratching a credit card against a metal guiro), a ‘jackdaw’ (a friction drum that creates a frog like noise), bunches of bamboo cracking agains the sides of drums, and various drums laden with chains and cymbals to create distorted drum and clap effects.
Dial 1-900 Mix-A-Lot
- The new ‘Sonic Evolutions’ orchestral piece, commissioned by Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot.
This work moves through five sections, and explores several aspects of Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s music and lyrical character.
It opens with a declamatory introduction, with big orchestral outbursts inspired by the rhythms of some of his most famous lines of rap performed orchestrally. For example, from Posse On Broadway, there is “I’m the man they love to hate, the J.R. Ewing of Seattle”, Then his infamous line: “I Love Big Butts” (from Baby Got Back, also the source of the title ‘Dial 1-900 Mix-A-Lot’ ) - which becomes a central motif in the work, at times becoming an insistent haunting call (which I’m sure it sometimes feels to Sir-Mix-A-Lot).
Then a dark, syncopated dance-rhythm enters, inspired by a particularly creative drum pattern from his track A Rapper’s Reputation, this then gains an almost Russian sounding orchestral character when a aggressive String theme enters, driving insistently forward like a fast Mix-A-Lot rap.
The next section shows the darker more mysterious side of Sir Mix A-Lot, with hi whining flute & clarinet creating an electronic type effect above the menacing bass, also a xylophone enters recreating the ubiquitous 808 electronic cowbell type effect.
Then follows a contemporary classical evolution of a Mix-A-Lot type groove in the less usual time signature of 5 beats to the bar (hip-hop almost never strays from 4 beats to the bar).
After this we can imagine that Mix-A-Lot’s drum-machine gets overloaded, as the tempo accelerates into mayhem, and then the triumphant final section gradually emerges, and the “I Love Big B….” mantra gradually takes over, crescendoing to reach a final tutti climax.
I hope that the man himself approves…