What Is a Hip Hop Orchestra?

Geoff “Double G” Gallegos, a graduate of Boston’s prestigious Berekeley School of Music, founded the first proper hip hop orchestra in the late 1990s in Los Angeles, California. The DaKAH Hip Hop Orchestra, which began with just 23 musicians and has since grown to over 60 members, blends traditional classical and jazz sounds with the driving, urban poetry of modern hip-hop music. The group, which includes most instruments found in a modern orchestra, as well as turntables, singers, and rappers, creates genre-bending music with the goal of pushing the boundaries of artistic expectations.

Rappers have previously performed with large orchestral accompaniment, such as Kanye West’s Late Orchestration album from 2006, which featured a 17-piece orchestra with woodwinds, brass, strings, and other instruments. Every time they perform, hip-hop pioneers The Roots combine rapping with live instrumentation. None, however, have come close to the scope of the DaKAH Hip Hop Orchestra’s attempt to break free from hip hop’s rote tradition of electronic sample accompaniment.

“The idea is, we want to see the hip-hop community embrace the orchestra, and we want to see the symphonic community embrace hip hop,” Gallegos said in an interview with National Public Radio. After DaKAH received a Durfee Foundation Artist Award in 2002, this began to happen. The hip hop orchestra was able to tour from Los Angeles to San Francisco, performing at legendary venues such as the Hollywood Bowl and Disney Concert Hall.

Gallegos got the idea for this band while working at his first job after college. Gallegos was immersed in classical forms during the day as an apprentice with Colorado composer Larry Barrett, but shifted gears dramatically at night when he took his saxophone to a local hip-hop club. The juxtaposition inspired the formation of a large musical ensemble to tackle contemporary music in a classical manner.

In 2004, the hip hop orchestra released its first album, which was a live concert in San Francisco. This resulted in Unfinished Orchestra, a studio album released in 2004. In addition, the orchestra recorded a live performance in Los Angeles and released an extended play (EP) titled Three Thirteen in 2006, which featured only three tracks.

The members of the orchestra, known as “DaKats,” play everything from woodwind and horn sections to classical strings and a booming percussion section. A DJ spins the turntables, and strings like the guitar and bass are plugged in. Biting, observant rap lyrics and spitting over various styles of accompaniment, ranging from samba and funk to R&B and folk, may also be part of the experience.