Classical music meets hip-hop with Kev Choice, AÏMA the DRMR in SF Symphony video series

San Francisco Symphony, SF Symphony, Kev Choice, From Scratch

Kev Choice in SF Symphony’s ‘From Scratch,’ Courtesy: Kim Huynh.

The San Francisco Symphony, not able to play any concerts since March, has pivoted to alternative programming over the last couple of months, including video and podcast series CURRENTS, illustrating the connection between classical music and the music of other cultures. The four-episode series, which includes not only accompanying podcasts but further reading and educational materials, has focused on Chinese music and jazz, with a future episode focusing on the intersection of classical music and Mexican musical culture. But the current episode, titled “From Scratch,” is a timely look at Oakland hip-hop, Black classical composers and the pursuit of social justice.

San Francisco Symphony, SF Symphony, Kev Choice, From Scratch, AÏMA the DRMR

AÏMA the DRMR and Kev Choice in SF Symphony’s ‘From Scratch,’ Courtesy: Kim Huynh.

The episode focuses on classically trained Oakland hip-hop, funk and jazz artist Kev Choice and his band as well as Oakland MC AÏMA the DRMR, turntablist Lady Fingaz, dance collective Mix’d Ingrdnts, members of the San Francisco Symphony and Oakland Symphony Music Director Michael Morgan. It includes two new compositions, written by Kev Choice and AÏMA the DRMR. Kev’s song, “Movements,” was released as a stand-alone video last week.

“One thing I’m learning is that this is still such a new territory,” said Kev Choice of participating in the project. “You would think—here we are in 2020 and hip-hop one of the most popular [types of] music of the last 30 years—that classical musicians and classical organizations would have a better understanding or a little more knowledge of some of the aesthetics or artists; the historical figures in hip-hop. These worlds are still so far apart… there’s a lot of work to do. And there’s still a lot of work to do to figure out how to bring it together.”

Bringing listeners of the two types of music together was one of the goals of the episode, and the series in general. CURRENTS was curated by the Oakland Symphony’s Morgan, with additional insight and exploration led by San Francisco Symphony conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser.

“What my hope is that people of a particular focus in their listening—whether a classical music listener or hip-hop listener—you can see this as a melding of worlds,” said SF Symphony Associate Principal Trumpet player Aaron Schuman, one of several symphony musicians to play on Kev Choice’s and AÏMA the DRMR’s compositions or to participate in a roundtable discussion on the accompanying podcast.

San Francisco Symphony, SF Symphony, From Scratch, Aaron Schuman

San Francisco Symphony Associate Principal Trumpet player Aaron Schuman (front) and other musicians during the filming of San Francisco Symphony’s CURRENTS Episode III: From Scratch at The Uptown nightclub. Courtesy: Jeanette Yu.

“The focus of this whole series is to bring in different styles of music and say that Davies [Symphony Hall] and the symphony here is a little more of an open door than it may seem,” Schuman said. “These might be first steps in a more inclusive future. Having Kev Choice be able to speak freely on a recording with our name on it—it’s gotta feel good. And it feels genuine.”

Kev Choice said that it was Morgan who invited him to take part, and he didn’t have to think twice about partnering with the San Francisco Symphony.

The artist has several music degrees, including a master’s in jazz. After his schooling, he’s worked with the likes of Bay Area artists Lyrics Born, Too $hort, Ledisi and Goapele. He’s been a musical director for Lauryn Hill and has opened for Robert Glasper and Mos Def. Two years earlier, he collaborated with Morgan at the Oakland Symphony and wrote an arrangement he titled “Oakland Restoration Suite.”

Kev and AÏMA each wrote their own compositions and worked with composer Jack Perla on the arrangements.

“Kev was shocked at how much freedom he was given by the symphony,” Schuman said. The orchestral musicians received the sheet music a day before recording.

“Movements,” serves as both a commentary on justice and Black Lives Matter and a fulcrum between two distinct styles of music, with nods to underappreciated classical composers of color and the stylistic components of the genre. Chopin and Stravinski, are called out, alongside Black composer William Grant Still.

San Francisco Symphony, SF Symphony, Kev Choice, From Scratch,

Filming of San Francisco Symphony’s CURRENTS Episode III: From Scratch. Courtesy: Kim Huynh.

“I didn’t sit down and think about a certain list of points [to make], but I did want to make something that was current and timely to what I was experiencing—what we’re all experiencing—right now; especially around a lot of the social movements for justice [and] for racial equality,” he said. “That was just heavy on my heart at the time. I wanted to speak to that. Also, it was an opportunity to work with such an incredible organization as the SF Symphony to use their platform to bring these issues and that message to those people who follow classical music.”

Schuman said that working on the CURRENTS episode was rewarding because instead of trying to convey the emotions of music makers from 200 years ago, this project was more direct.

“We don’t have to make any leaps,” he said. “This is happening right now. These are my feelings right now, and I’m literally saying them to you.”

The audio recording took place under careful watch at Davies Symphony Hall. The musicians were separated, with Schuman not being able to share the stage with others because he plays a wind instrument—which poses more risk of COVID-19 spread. Earlier that morning the percussion was laid down, with the vocals on top of it.

“I had that in my ear while I played,” he said.

San Francisco Symphony, SF Symphony, Kev Choice, From Scratch, AÏMA the DRMR, Aaron Schuman

AÏMA the DRMR (l), Kev Choice (r) and San Francisco Symphony musicians in SF Symphony’s ‘From Scratch,’ Courtesy: Jeanette Yu.

The visuals were filmed on a separate day at Davies and in various locations throughout downtown Oakland. The club and roof shots were done at the shuttered Uptown nightclub, where Kev Choice has performed many times. Schumer said the shoot was moved to the roof after the crew realized the wind musicians were not even allowed to pretend to play their instruments because of COVID-19 restrictions. Other locations were selected to highlight Oakland’s protest street art. Kev Choice teaches at the Oakland School for the Arts, and one of the murals featured was painted by the school’s students.

“Bringing a piano out on San Pablo is something I’ve always dreamed of doing,” he said. “San Pablo is a historic street in Oakland, and being able to bring a piano out on that street was a classic representation of music and the streets of Oakland coming together. That was dope.”

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