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Killer Mike Overture

For the last 10 years or so, I have been lucky enough to work on shows for the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and the National Symphony Orchestra. This started with NAS and the Twentieth Anniversary performance of Illmatic, continued with Kendrick Lamar, Common, Babyface, Maxwell, Ne-Yo and, most recently, Killer Mike. Along the way, I have done one-offs for many other shows and orchestras and whole shows for Aminé and Tech N9ne. The process for putting these shows together has evolved over the years to a place where now I get the call and set up a meeting with the artist and their musical director and we work out the set. They have full say on what the program will be, I just work with them on timing and balancing it. They then send me the materials, and I get to work. Once I’m done, I send off the scores and parts to the orchestra and it is show time.

One thing I have to do with these concerts is to make sure they are true collaborations, rather than the orchestra just playing ‘backings’. This can be tricky. We have very limited time to rehearse with the artist, so their parts mostly need to be the same as they perform on every other show. This means that, for most songs, the forms will be the same, which leaves limited space to feature the orchestra. What I typically do is pick a few songs and add a new orchestral opening. This works well for introducing the orchestra and is usually easy for the artist to grasp, but you don’t want to do it on every song or your edgy hip hop show ends up going to Broadway. I might add a section in a song for the orchestra, but it has to be super easy for the artist and their band to keep track of. Sometimes the players in the artist’s band are not readers, so it is not as easy to communicate these things to them as it is to the orchestra. We also often use backing tracks, which need to be edited and double-checked if I make any timing adjustments.

Each artist has been different with how they start their show. Some have an opener already in their set, others just start right in. As it is the beginning and they have not ‘started’ yet, this is a great place to insert something for the orchestra. It could be an extended introduction to the first piece, or, in the case of my recent show for Killer Mike and the National Symphony, an overture. His shows normally start with the band and singers walking on to an Aretha Franklin song. As much as I love Aretha, I have a whole orchestra sitting there, so writing something new seemed like the perfect way to start the show.

Just like in musical theatre or opera, I give the audience a taste of what is to come and feature the orchestra. But how does one do that when the artist is a rapper and most of the hooks are spoken? My trick is to wait until the end, after all of the scores are finished. By this stage, I have a good idea of all of the music and I can go through the scores and find suitable parts to feature. Firstly, I look for things the audience will recognize and latch on to. Then, I look for big orchestral sections that I can paste in and not have to spend a lot of time creating!

In the case of Killer Mike, I knew I had a few sure things. Down by Law, which features a sample from Curtis Mayfield, and Kill Jill, which features a sample from Aura Qualic feat. Hatsune Miku, offered the most ‘musical’ material. Never Scared has a catchy riff and a melodic refrain, like a football chant that I knew the crowd could latch onto. Don’t Let the Devil had some great material. It was different to the others though as it was mostly things I had added without being based on existing material. It also had these great stabs that I thought would have a lot of impact at the start. Similarly, I had written an introduction for Spaceship Views that had some material that could come in handy.

Quick tip is a great resource for finding the source material, which can really help when it comes to understanding what is going on and getting a cleaner version to transcribe. Also great is for breakdowns of the lyric meanings and very useful information about the song history. All of these things help with writing a more informed arrangement.

I had a rough form in my head: start with the big stabs from Don’t Let the Devil, end with Down by Law, and Kill Jill in the middle. I only used one verse of Don’t Let the Devil to open it up, then went into Never Scared [13]. I was lucky they were originally in the same key so I did not have to work out any modulations. Never Scared had two big elements I knew the crowd would dig: the bass riff, which is identifiable right away (you can hear the crowd in the recording recognize it), and the vocal refrain. I decided to have this in the brass, loud and unison, marching band style. I knew the next big part would be Kill Jill so I had to get from Em to Dm. I then had the idea to use the material from the Spaceship Views introduction [SCORE HERE]. It is amazing how these things work out [40]. The first phrase is in Em, then drops a step to Dm, resulting in a perfect transition. Kill Jill has a great tune, sampled from Aura Qualic. In the Killer Mike version, it is the original that plays off the track. For the overture, I picked the trumpet to play the tune first [47]. I knew it would be lyrical, but also have the power to cut through, should the room be noisy. My instincts would normally lead me to put it as an oboe or English horn solo. Ironically, the oboe microphone was very hot at the opening of the show, so it would have been heard. I actually went to the sound person and had them turn the oboe down and the horns up after hearing the overture.

We are now at the last part, Down by Law, that features an orchestral sample that I had transcribed. It is in C# minor, so I just had the bass and cello play a unison D and drop to C#, then brought in the violins on a G# to set the key [69]. One of the challenges of arranging for orchestra in this genre is that the backing is often very repetitive. I have done arrangements where the backing is a one bar loop for 3 minutes. In the case of this song, it is an 8-bar loop, based on the sample that is sped up and chopped up. I am not going to repeat the same thing every 8 bars in my chart, so I usually start by writing the biggest version, then reduce and do variations. In this version, you will hear I start with a reduced variation in the woods [73], then go to the full version [81], then a variation where no one plays with the sample [89], all new material followed by another big version where the original choir part is in the brass and the choir sings material from the sample [97]. I then bring it down and the strings play new material while the woods play the sample with big chords to the end. You see the band and singers walk on and then join in and then Killer Mike is introduced.

The show versions of all of these songs have tracks featuring drums, samples, and loops, none of which were used for the overture, so I had to fill in some things, in particular the percussion. I did not, however, try and make them sound like a drum kit, which is a very tricky thing to make work. I did, however, borrow ideas from marching percussion writing to add interest and propulsion. Riffs in the strings also help in this area.

The other thing I did with this overture to make it work with as little rehearsal time as possible was to make sure all of the tempo changes were ‘in the clear’, the orchestra is then well prepared for the next section and can play it perfectly together. Check out [13] and [71].


You will notice the score is very ‘Tim’. There is no descriptive text, no micro managing of dynamics and articulations and no redundant ones! I was going to say and no tenuto, but I did actually use it on a few string parts to get the bowing I wanted.

Slides– I love slides (glissandos, portamentos, whatever you want to call them). When I use the straight line, I intend them to stay on the same string, if it is the wavy, they can change. As you can see all of the ones in this example are easy and obvious on a single string. You do need to tell them to start right away as their default behavior is to wait and slide at the end of the duration.

Woodwinds. A trick I use a lot and explain in detail in Error Code 7 is to take a single line and turn it into multiple parts. In this case, the line in the violin, which is a synth part in the original, is broken out and expanded for the woodwinds. The original also has delay and is quite blurry sounding, so I added a few notes to give it that effect.

You will notice the woodwind section is non-standard. For several years now in the studio and live (when suitable) I have been writing for woods that are needed and work for the score or show, not just using a standard double or triple wind lineup as most would. Of course, there is more flexibility with doublings in the scoring world, but it is not quite so in the live concert world, so never expect that if you just have one oboe, they will double on English horn. But my main point to doing this is that, on these concerts, the woods are there for embellishments and some solos, NOT as thickeners. The minute you get into microphones and amplification, the usual doubling and blending rules and techniques do not apply, at least in my experience. There is no point having bassoons honking away doubling the cello all show long. They simply aren’t heard, and if they were, the result isn’t what you’d expect, nor is it a pleasant sound. So I give them the night off. I like having flutes, but I avoid just having them doubling the violins endlessly. It is a similar thing, they are either not heard, and if they are, they change the sound of the violins in a way that does not suit the music in this genre. I find having two regular clarinets and a bass gives me a lot of options. The clarinets can play up high with the others woods and the bass can play down on it’s own or with the brass and low strings. Mindless doublings can quickly turn your expansive symphony orchestra into a expensive accordion.

The Demo
Once upon a time in the live arranging world, you were never expected to send a demo, you just did the chart and sent it off. Nearly every job these days needs one. Some want them to give notes and approve, others just want them to hear what is going on and to prepare, and this really helps conductors. If I am conducting then I will know the music pretty well, but if it is someone else, they will be no where near as familiar so a good demo really helps them learn the music. For a song, I will usually ‘layback’ the orchestra demo over the original track, that way they hear everything and it saves me having to worry about any vocals or rhythm parts that never work well played out of notation software. Thanks to AI tools like Moises, we can now even strip out the vocal or split the rhythm parts and give rehearsal versions to the artist or edit things around that are not possible with the full mix.

On a high budget project, for example a song arrangement like the one I recently did for Alan Menken‘s next score, Spellbound, I had to mock it up properly in Cubase. There is just not the time or budget to do that in this world. Most arrangers I know use NotePerformer right from their notation program. It does a pretty good job of interpreting the notation. I mention in Over-Notation Nation that many people often fill their score with things that are redundant to players, but are needed for the playback. I do understand this but I recommend either using hidden expressions in the same score, or just do what I do and make a copy and you can go to town on it. As you can imagine with my super minimal approach, I do need to add a few things to get a decent playback. The one let down for me with the NotePerformer sounds has always been the strings. You can now get around this in the latest version where they have ‘playback engines’ for other libraries and you can mix and match libraries from many developers with the original NP sounds. We have found that we can get a good result by using Cinematic Studio Strings for the strings through NotePerformer with the rest of the orchestra still using the original sounds. The next biggest weakness in NP is the percussion but replacing it with other libraries can be hit or miss. In this case, CinePerc works better. This is what you hear in this demo.

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