“I personally don’t like that word and just avoid it in general,” says Johan, the co-creator and arranger of Yeethoven II, premiering at New York City’s Lincoln Center on Jan. 18. He’s talking about the word “genius” and whether it applies to Kanye West, a term the rapper-producer has bandied about—about himself—for years.
“I think he’s definitely smart, and I think he’s very driven and wants to change the world,” Johan says. “A lot of people not called genius are capable of that.” Then he hedges: “But if there is such a thing as a genius, then probably.”
When The Root spoke to Johan and his partner, Yuga Cohler, conductor and co-creator of Yeethoven, they were about a week out from the show’s performance at the Belasco Theatre in Los Angeles. The two are classically trained musicians who met as teens in Boston (back when Johan went by “Stephen Feigenbaum”), and are now collaborating on Yeethoven II, a sequel to last year’s widely heralded debut, a mashup of West and Ludwig von Beethoven, another ambitious creative who also broke music conventions, and who also had
asshole tendencies a “prickly personality.”
In 2015, when Cohler became music director of the Young Musicians Foundation in Los Angeles, he approached Johan, a producer who had worked with artists like Vic Mensa, and pitched him on a classical West project. After many conversations, they chose to pair West with Beethoven, which made the most sense. At least to them.
“People more in the classical world would be like, ‘Kanye West? How dare you even make that comparison? I hate all his late stuff.’ And we’re like, ‘That’s exactly what people said about Beethoven at the time.’ As Beethoven got crazier with his music, people were like, ‘What is this guy doing?’” says Johan. “There’s also tons of stories of what a jerk Beethoven was, and I guess people tolerated it because of the music. So I think it’s kind of funny.”
The Young Musicians Foundation provided a 50-piece orchestra to stage the 13-song concert (seven works by West, six by Beethoven) in December 2016. Soon after the first showing of Yeethoven, Johan and Cohler were approached by Lincoln Center, which offered to stage the show in the famed home of the New York Philharmonic. Yeethoven II was born, and this time, it adds works from The Life of Pablo, West’s last studio album.
Johan admits that he did not come to know West’s music until 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Cohler had been down since Late Registration), but both agree that with Yeezus, something shifted in West’s oeuvre. The Life of Pablo is more in the same vein.
“[The songs on Yeezus] don’t work the way most hip-hop or pop songs do, or even some of his old songs. This new stuff has evolved kind of freely,” explains Johan. “Some of these songs go on for, like, nine minutes and have like three different whole parts to them, unrestricted by song formats or pop formats. And I think that reminded us of classical music even more than other hip-hop music, and I think that’s where it started for us.”
“Exactly,” says Cohler. “It’s sort of the formal elements of his music; the way he organized his music in the last two albums are very reminiscent of and evocative of the way conductors try to organize classical music.”
But using live instrumentation to replicate hip-hop is a bit complicated.
“Once we decided what songs we wanted to use, then it was like, ‘What instruments are going to sound like this?’ And in some parts it was easy. ‘Blood on the Leaves’ has trombones in it that are really loud and obvious. Other parts, you have to find the right combination ... so it’s like the viola and the clarinet together doing this particular [...] effect. Basically, the music comes from Kanye, but it’s been expanded and transformed to be its own thing.”
Though there obviously is overlap between classical music fans and fans of West, the concerts themselves are exceptional in that they bring lots of different folks together for a visceral, unique event.
“I think people just want dope experiences; they want to be challenged and experience some cool shit,” says Johan. “For this concert, I want to say, ‘Whatever you thought Beethoven was, there’s people who don’t look like him that are around now, and their shit is on the same level, whether you want to call it genius or not.’”