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Rap + Orchestra = Common Thought

A match made in heaven: Common and the Houston Symphony.
A match made in heaven: Common and the Houston Symphony.
Photo by Jalan and Jibril Durimel

The Houston Symphony is known for its Grammy Award-winning recordings, ground-breaking performances and ability to stretch beyond the constraints of your grandmother’s orchestra. The upcoming event featuring hip-hop singer and philanthropist Common expands the noteworthy organization's repertoire, introducing new audiences to the symphony and existing audiences to the award-winning singer, film producer, poet and actor.

“This will be the first concert with a hip-hop rap artist. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do since I’ve been there,” says Steven Reineke, Principal POPS Conductor for the Houston Symphony.

“On the POPS side, we can do all types of music: Broadway, jazz, film, country western, you name it. But the one genre not touched on is rap and hip-hop.”

Untouched no more. And, apparently, audiences have been ready and waiting. Reineke has worked with Nas and Kendrick Lamar in other cities; that experience has paid off as he's built a reputation for producing stellar performances that allow these performers' individual styles to shine through.

“We find the right artist to collaborate with," says Reineke. "Someone who we really feel can shine by collaborating with an orchestra. I love the idea and always wanted to work with a rap artist, but how do we make sure it’s high artistic quality? We also needed to find somebody whose music could lend itself to a full symphonic sound,” he says.

It looks like the match was one made in heaven. In planning Common with the Houston Symphony, the two blended seamlessly to create the union of rap and orchestra.

“We wanted to do something that made it better than the sum of its parts. It’s truly collaborative. The orchestra is not just a backup band. There’s no plug and play. These hip-hop shows are meant to be equal parts collaboration to see how the orchestra can add its own elements and sound to hip-hop,” he says.

“I can’t really think of too many musical genres that the orchestra hasn’t played or collaborated with. This was the last great frontier of being able to do this.”

Naturally, the blend between orchestra and rap required a delicate finesse to achieve synchronicity, and sometimes the exploration between the two art forms leads to even greater results.

“Rap is so much about the lyrics, but the music, we’ve been able to take things about that and expand upon them. We build a lot of intros and outros to set up the songs. We’ve created some mashups by the artists too,” Reineke adds. “One other thing is Common brings backup vocalists and musicians, and there will be a DJ. He adds all his own elements, totally free. He’s not playing to a track. He drops in his own beats and elements. The DJ has become an instrumentalist in the orchestra. I love exploring that synergy between the two art forms."

It looks like the trick to pulling it off comes down to timing, not unlike any show requiring precision, eloquence and a freedom of flow. For example, try fitting a ballet dancer into a tap dancer’s shoes, as he describes, and then try to maintain the balance without a hitch.

“I’ve realized how much rapping is like a dance. Ballet is very important. But tap dancers — you have to get that tempo exactly right. Too fast, you can’t get the words in. Too slow, it doesn’t flow. Yes, with a guy like Common, they’re used to being able to free flow a little bit, and if they don’t come in at a certain spot, the band hangs out, and the orchestra has some down time. I have to be really well in sync with Common in order to keep the orchestra in sync,” he says.

Through maintaining all these different elements, Reineke says Common keeps his cool and is a man of the people.

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“He’s such an incredibly nice and generous person. The thing I love about Common, and why people book him as a first foray into orchestra-with-rap, is his message of love and inclusiveness. He is a lover of all people, and he wants to unite people,” he says.

With the release of his 1992 debut album Can I Borrow a Dollar?, Common established himself in music, film, television and philanthropy and he never stopped. Neither did the accolades.

Common won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for the Erykah Badu single "Love of My Life," the Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for "Southside," featuring Kanye West. He also won the 2015 Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song and the Academy Award for Best Original Song, for his song "Glory" from the 2014 film Selma, in which he co-starred as Civil Rights Movement leader James Bevel.

Common with the Houston Symphony is scheduled for September 4 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For information, call 713-224-7575 or visit houstonsymphony.org. $54 to $145.

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