Chamber hip-hop opera 'Great Integration' returns with a second act

Kirby Dominant, the MC in act one.
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Perhaps you've seen the billboard on your daily Bay Bridge commute: simple white background, a hand with two fingers pressed together, and in bold type, the words Great Integration: A Chamber Hip-Hop Opera.

If you, like many commuters, are intrigued by the concept, allow me to shed some light. The two-act performance, which takes places this week, is a true blend of classical music and hip-hop; it's 90 minutes of continuous flow, MCs spinning a dark and moral tale of modern corruption over a live ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, drums, and bass. It's a production spearheaded by the duo behind Oakland's Gold Fetus Records – Christopher Nicholas and Joo Wan Kim, musicians who met in the dorms at Berklee College of Music, and Kim's Ensemble Mik Nawooj. For this particular piece, Nicholas is mostly behind the scenes in organizing mode, and Kim is the music director who wrote the lurid tale at the heart of Great Integration.

“I think in order for something like this to happen, there has to be a general hybridization,” says Kim, “if you think about 'crossover', it generally means you’re compromising the genre, but what I’m doing is not necessarily hip-hop or classical, but bringing the elements of [both] and creating something new. In that way, to my knowledge, I don’t think anybody has done this – or to this length.”

The basic storyline follows five material lords, each corporate tycoons who represent  fundamental elements of the world – wood, fire, earth, water, and metal – and what happens when the Gods decide to assassinate the lords. Kirby Dominant is the MC for act one of Great Integration, playing a character in this act called “the Black Swordsman of Dominance.” Rico Pabón, the MC for act two, plays a character dubbed “the Water Bearer.”

Initially, Kim planned to base Great Integration on a comic book, but Dominant disliked the idea and pushed him to look deeper. The final plot came to Kim in a vision during a routine BART ride between San Francisco and Berkeley. It was those cryptic messages about God coming to earth and the material world's end that inspired his story.

Creating the initial concept behind the chamber hip-hop opera itself took even longer. If you'll allow it, I'll reach farther back into Kim's musical past to illuminate the hybridization. Born and raised in South Korea, he got his bachelors at Berklee, studying Western European classical music, and later received his masters at the San Francisco Conservatory Of Music . He was introduced to hip-hop by his friend, drummer Valentino Pellizzer, and initially hated it.

“I just didn’t understand it, then one day it clicked to me, I realized it was actually good,” Kim says. “I listened to NWA and really liked it. People think it’s really weird, because I’m totally into classical so they’re like ‘you might like J Dilla or Mos Def’ or some like, conscious hip-hop, but no, I listen to gangster rap.”

In 2005, Kim wrote a piece that started as chamber music. Pellizzer suggested he add an MC on it, so Kim contacted  Dominant and they did a show together. That was the musical precursor to Great Integration, long before the storyline was written. With the concept, the plots, the ensemble, and the MCs all in place, Kim and Co. presented the first act of Great Integration in 2010 with live dancers. They later performed it again at Yoshi's and the Red Poppy Art House with just the musical elements. Now, for the first time, Great Integration premieres the second act, and the debut of MC Rico Pabón in the production – all going down this Friday, Sept. 30 at the Old First Concerts. Kim hopes the piece will expand the public's understanding of what you can do with a piece of music.

“For our culture, the only thing we have is pop art. And unfortunately some of it, is really bad,” he complains, “People running the business don’t really care about good or bad, as long as they make money.”

Though he also sees the importance of music for the people: “On the other end of the spectrum there are people who are in school, getting grants, and writing this work that has nothing to do with anything – so nobody gets that. They drink wine and talk about fucking Stravinsky. Stravinsky wouldn’t like that. When he was writing music, he was writing for people. What Golden Fetus is doing, we’re bringing sophistication, but we’re not snobs. We love NWA as well.”

Great Integration: A Chamber Hip-Hop Opera
Fri/30, 8 p.m., $14-$17
Old First Concerts
1751 Sacramento, SF

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