Classical music and hip-hop...unlikely allies?
Classical music and hip-hop...unlikely allies? © Radio France  /  MarOne

Classical music and hip-hop...unlikely allies?

An infinite chasm seems to exist between the worlds of classical music and hip-hop. And yet, producers of the latter have often taken great interest in classical music to find influences and samples. Here is a list of five hip-hop tracks that make great use of classical music.

Whilst some are unable to see beyond hip-hop's occasionally shocking lyrics, this genre conceals in reality an endless curiosity for all musical genres, classical music included. Hip-hop producers continuously look through the history of classical music for instrumental passages capable of suiting their needs. Having found this motif, it is sampled (digitally isolating the motif) and transformed, similar to an ostinato often found in the music of Purcell, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt... 

Classical musical is often used in hip-hop to bring a rich and detailed musical background, above which the artist can then place his text. More than just for a pleasant melody, the choice of a sample is far from random, often based on the emotion, the rhythm, and intensity of the original work so as to bring an overall coherence to the final track. Here are five examples of a perfect union between classical music and hip-hop.

Nas - I Can (& Ludwig van Beethoven - Für Elise)

One of the biggest names in American hip-hop, the rapper Nas is no exception to the long list of hip-hop artists who have added a touch of classical to their music. Produced by Salaam Remi, the track I Can (from the album God's Son, 2002) samples the world-famous Für Elise by Beethoven. Released following the death of his mother, Nas's album is an introspective journey, denouncing the injustices of the American society in the hope of passing on a message of hope to the next generation. 

I know I can   
Be what I wanna be   
If I work hard at it
I’ll be where I wanna be

Stupeflip - Stupeflip vite (& Carl Maria von Weber - Die Freischütz, overture)

Produced in 2011, the track Stupeflip vite by the French group Stupeflip, samples the overture to Carl Maria von Weber's Die Freischütz. A fiery and passionate hip-hop track, Weber's original masterpiece adds greatly to the overall intensity: the sample is at the core of the track around which the harmony, percussion, and vocal rhythms are all structured.

Afrob & Sekou - Black Star Line-Up (& Piotr Ilitch Tchaikovsky - Swan Lake, act II scene 10)

An infinitely inquisitive musician, the rapper and hip-hop producer RZA, one of the nine members of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan, has also produced various personal projects through which he sought to promote European hip-hop artists such as IAM and Saïan Supa Crew from France but also the German artist Afrob. The sample used in this track, purposefully rhythmically offset against the percussion on occasion, soars peacefully and innocently high above the rest of the music, often marked by explosions and cries of "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido ("The people united will never be defeated"). Amidst the chaos of the bombs and the conflict, Tchaikovsky's powerful work offers a subtle but constant source of light and hope.

Jedi Mind Tricks, Vinnie Paz & Stoupe - And So It Burns (& Schumann - Symphony no.4)

When it comes to using classical music in hip-hop, none are more well-versed than Jedi Mind Tricks. The underground hip hop group from Philadelphia have sampled composers from all periods of classical music, from baroque composers such as Tomaso Albinoni and Antonio Vivaldi to classical composers including Giuseppe Verdi and Ludwig van Beethoven, and more even contemporary composers such as Carl Orff and Karl Jenkins. In the track "And So it Burns" from their fourth album Legacy of Blood (2004), produced by Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind, very little is added to Schumann's energetic symphony, undeniably the driving force of the entire track: a rhythmic section underneath and the powerful lyrics above.

NTM - That’s My People (& Frédéric Chopin - Prelude op.28 n°4 in d minor)

One of French hip-hop's biggest names, NTM (made up of Joey Starr and Kool Shen) have also taken an interest in the works of classical music throughout their career. The track That's My People, from their fourth album Suprême NTM, (produced by Sully Sefil and Busta Flex) is one of the group's most successful productions. As for the sample, nicknamed « suffocation » for the sentiment of hopelessness that flows throughout, Chopin's Prélude establishes a musical background full of serious and melancholic nuances, but not without hope, reinforced by the powerful words of Kool Shen:

We're all mad, encased by staircases,      
A hostage of the endless floors.   
And in the long run, man, I can assure you, it takes its toll.   
'96, I can still see the ashes burning,   
In the tired eyes of the neighborhood kids,   
Pass pass the mic so that i can spread my contaminated ideas.   
It's true I am undermined but determined,   
From never letting go, what can you do?  
I'm not here to take shots, or even to shut up,   
If the FN [editor's note: National Front] brandishes its flame, I'm there to extinguish it, that's for sure!

BONUS - DJ Premier & The Berklee Symphony – Regeneration

One of the great American hip-hop producers, DJ Premier has collaborated with some of the biggest names including Mobb Deep, The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, KRS-One, GZA, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Rakim, and Mos Def. Named one of the best producers of all time, he joined the Re:Generation project in 2011 and decided to unite hip-hop and classical music not only through sampling but physically, by bringing together a rapper and an orchestra on stage. He joined forces with Stephen Webber, professor at the Berklee College of Music, producer, and composer of the Stylus Symphony.

Together, both artists sampled three major works from the classical repertoire: the Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi, the Symphony no.36 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the Egmont overture op.84 by Ludwig Van Beethoven. Alongside Nas, a new work was born... regenerated, thus the title: Regeneration.

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