London grime rappers vs the BBC Concert Orchestra

Matilda Egere-Cooper reports on a musical collaboration that brings together a crew of London grime rappers and the players of the BBC Concert Orchestra

In Henry Wood Hall, a grandiose venue tucked behind Borough High Street in south London, a handful of players from the BBC Concert Orchestra surround Bruza, a 23-year-old rapper from east London. Kitted out in the conventional uniform of hoodie, jeans and trainers, he sways beside the jazz saxophonist Jason Yarde as he rehearses his track "In the Endz". The drummer momentarily trips up as he attempts to match the rapper's nimble flow.

"Easy, John," responds Bruza, with a cheeky wink.

There are only 10 minutes left to rehearse, and Bruza is soon joined by his fellow grime rappers Purple, Pase, Tor and the beatboxer Face for a quick run through of "Streets 4 Eva", the primary anthem of the 70-minute musical, Urban Classic, they will be performing with the orchestra at the Hackney Empire in east London on 16 February. "London life is more frustrating, we're bored of waiting, lyrically we're orchestrating," sing the rappers on cue.

Timpani thunders in the background while a xylophonist rings out a sinister melody. Yarde wants to practise the piece again, but one of the orchestra members politely informs him that their time is up.

The musicians start to pack up, leaving the rappers having to settle for Face, who instantly spits a rhythm. The grime-rap producer DaVinChe takes to the keyboard and Yarde reluctantly picks up his saxophone. Moments later, when the rappers congregate for interviews, rapper Purple reflects on the orchestra's abrupt departure. "I recognise that they're professionals... but for us, it's a bit of fun," he says with a shrug.

No one ever said this collaboration was going to be easy. But so far, the experimental project dubbed Urban Classic has seen the laid-back, spontaneous culture of grime meet halfway with the conventions of a high-brow orchestra, a first in the UK.

Bigga Fish, a not-for-profit youth organisation that helps budding rappers and musicians, conceived the idea with the help of the music event producers Serious, along with Jason Yarde, DaVinChe and the BBC, which will broadcast the finished performance on BBC 1xtra and Radio 3.

"If you look back in the past, there's a grim graveyard full of very, very bad, failed attempts at doing something very meaningful with two very different types of music," explains Charles Hazlewood, principal guest conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra and, with Yarde, musical co-director of the event.

"If you think of what Elvis Costello and David Byrne have tried to do, you end up with a very worthy idea, but it's been very soapy, pasteurised, middle-of-the-road guff. You always ended up with the same fundamental picture - the orchestra sitting at the back playing fat, sweet, string chords, and the pop music down the front doing their thing looking a bit smug."

Hazlewood says this project made it possible for the orchestra to play a more integral role in such an alliance. "I always believed there must be some way of making a new hybrid - which is generally the sum of the parts of all the people on stage - where there's a sense of collective ownership," he says, "and where the strengths of the disciplines and the particular musical traditions that everyone has in the background are brought to bear and fused in a more interesting way."

It doesn't get more interesting than this. The orchestra has turned DaVinChe's electronic productions into a cinematic soundtrack of the streets, brimming with bizarre sonics, awkward anti-melodies, and a clear urgency that the string section accomplishes only too well. As for the rappers - who are relatively unknown - they relay their tales of inner-city living with the same merciless indifference that's definitive of grime and hip-hop music.

Tor, the only female rapper of the bunch, is less focused on femininity than on battling any dude who's bold enough. Pase and Purple are razor-sharp on the mic and Face, an adept beatboxer, can use his lips to create any sound. Bruza is already well-known within the scene as a skilful wordsmith, but says he was sceptical about working with the orchestra, complaining that its tempo could never match the impossibly hasty grime beat. "I didn't really think that it could work," he admits. Face is less diplomatic. "The orchestra don't improvise," he gripes. "They're like robots."

However, merging grime and classical sounds wasn't new for DaVinChe, and he believed the collaboration would work. "I tell you the truth, I did think I could pull it off because I already had the idea in my head," says the 21-year-old. "I had been using a lot of strings, and a lot of horns, a lot of classical percussion like timpani in what I'd been making before. I'm a very musical producer in the sense that I always try to put chord structures and melodies in the music that I make. So it's been a good progression for me, a natural progression for me."

The only major challenge was arranging the music, a task that has seen Jason Yarde work tirelessly over the past few months. "There are aspects [of this project] that have been done before, but not in the same way or on such a scale," says Yarde, who has arranged for Gregory Isaacs and South Africa's Return to Roots Orchestra.

"It's not unusual for people like Kanye West, who just did a show with strings at Abbey Road, or P Diddy or whoever. It tends to be big names who can command the budget. It's not a problem for them to draft in an orchestra, string section, or a massive choir for a tune or for part of their show. We've not had a particular precedent for what we're doing, so it's not like we have been able to look at an existing model."

The goal of Urban Classic is to change the perception of grime music, allowing both consumers and critics to realise its bigger potential, rather than limiting it by the way it is stereotyped.

"What I love about grime is that there's a real urban grittiness about it, which is what it is about," says Hazlewood. "It always amused me that it has this reputation of being very gun-culture based and therefore bad in a society sense. My sense of grime is that an awful lot of it is not like that or about that at all. The rappers are real poets for a start. They do incredible poetry. Within their particular style, the rhythm that they have - intrinsic rhythm - is fascinating and compelling.

"And they talk about social problems, talk about their own individual problems, and the difficulties and challenges of growing up in an urban environment - but there's a huge amount of beauty in what they discuss and an enormous amount of humour. So it's a very rounded form."

DaVinChe adds, "I ended up coming home explaining to my parents that all of us as young urban kids are sitting down with the orchestra who are older and from a completely different background.

"And we're sitting down and just talking to them and explaining to them about grime, and they're explaining to us what they listen to and we try and compare the two. We've built up a rapport with the orchestra - a really good one. And even they have learnt a lot about not judging by stereotypes.

"I think the media perception of UK urban and black music is that it's a really violent kind of music. But we've shown it's just us making music. The violence and everything has nothing to do with the people that make the music."

Already, there's talk of doing an album and possibly taking the musical around the country. The grime artists reckon the experience of working with an orchestra will change way they record their music. "This is gonna up the levels," says Bruza. "It's gonna make people realise grime sounds good live."

"And once we set the standard, we'll keep going," adds Tor. "And it will still be relatable to people like us."

DaVinChe is also hopeful this won't be the last partnership of this kind. "I hope it opens doors for more collaborations like this," he says. "And I think whole grime genre will come up. "Grime has been using a lot of strings and classical instruments anyway. So I can see that orchestras would be our band - because of the power of our music, giving that film or movie feeling.

"With the orchestra, who just read off a score, we've devised a way of making them stop playing, and start playing on command which is not written," says DaVinChe. "So we've broken the barrier."

"So many British orchestra are like lumps of lard stuck in the 19th century - no imagination, and no creativity really," adds Hazlewood. "But the Concert Orchestra is prepared to embrace, and work so imaginatively in a completely a new way."

The Hackney Empire performance will be broadcast on 1Xtra Live from 12-2am on 18 February and on Radio 3 at 10.15pm on 24 February

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss