Aminé started his career as Portland’s hottest rapper by recording jokey diss tracks to rival high schools. A Benson alum, the artist born Adam Aminé Daniel would riff on Grant and Lincoln high schools over rudimentary beats, probably never suspecting he’d find himself standing in front of the Oregon Symphony just a decade later.
With his upcoming performance with the West Coast’s oldest symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Aminé joins the small but elite group of rappers who’ve performed live with orchestras. Jay-Z’s 2006 show in New York with the 50-piece “Hustlers Symphony Orchestra” brought his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, back to life for its 10th anniversary—and since then, everyone from Nas and Kendrick Lamar to Migos and Sir Mix-a-Lot have chosen to add a little classical gas to their beats onstage.
Despite moving to Los Angeles, Aminé is all but synonymous with hip-hop in Portland, which remains better known globally for downcast indie rock than rap, despite boasting fantastic underground rappers like Old Grape God and Karma Rivera. Only the young party-rap phenomenon Yeat can compete with Aminé for regional adoration and national reach right now.
When Darcie Kozlowski came to Portland in 2019 to join the Oregon Symphony as director of popular programming, Aminé was on a lot of people’s lips in what she describes as a “this-musician-is-going-to-be-huge kind of way.”
Though the pandemic stalled talks between the symphony and Aminé's team for a while, the success of Nas’ 2021 performance with the symphony prompted Kozlowski to realize “there is an appetite in our community for rap and hip-hop performed with orchestras.” Not long after, Aminé's team got back in touch again.
Orchestral collaborations with nonclassical artists can be a challenge. For every success like the late Pharoah Sanders’ Promises with the London Symphony Orchestra, there’s a muddy mess like Metallica’s S&M with the San Francisco Symphony. And rap-orchestral collabs have long been the target of ribbing, from The Simpsons’ incongruous pairing of Cypress Hill with a confused string section to underground New York rapper Billy Woods’ barb, “I don’t wanna go see Nas with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall.”
Australia’s Tim Davies is the arranger behind many of the most famous orchestral-rap crossovers. In 2014, he arranged and performed at Nas’ symphonically enhanced 20th-anniversary shows for his classic debut, Illmatic. Since then, he’s worked with Kendrick Lamar, ‘80s and ‘90s hitmaker Babyface, and art-pop torch singers Maxwell and Moses Sumney.
Hip-hop frequently relies on loops, samples and repetition, so Davies’ challenge is to keep the symphony busy instead of forcing it to play the same short motifs over and over again. “I try to imagine it in larger sections, considering the shape and where I want to build and release,” he tells WW. “Then I listen to the track and hum, sing, groan, yell, hit the piano, make animal noises. Then I write that down and orchestrate it.”
Given the limited rehearsal time for shows such as these, Davies adheres closely to the form of the original songs rather than radically reimagining their structure from the ground up.
“It is easier to say, ‘Wait an extra eight bars at the start,’ rather than have them learn a whole new version and make them uncomfortable and potentially miss something in the show,” he says. “That said, the trick is to be creative with the orchestra within that framework so that it is a true collaboration and not just musicians playing in the background.”
Aminé's music is uniquely well-suited for an orchestral treatment. The first album he ever bought was Kanye West’s The College Dropout, released in the early prime of West’s sweeping, soul-sampling production style. Aminé's best work—his breakout hit “Caroline,” its parent album Good for You, and last year’s TwoPointFive—has the sunniness, sonic lushness, cheeky humor, and communal spirit of that classic. All those qualities promise to carry over well to a symphonic adaptation.
“He is an extraordinarily creative artist who is inventive and willing to make bold statements with his music,” Kozlowski says. “Those qualities align perfectly with the Oregon Symphony.”
SEE IT: Aminé performs with the Oregon Symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 503-248-4335, orsymphony.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Nov. 9. $69-$95.