In a bare rehearsal room at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, a goateed hip-hop emcee launches himself onto the lid of a grand piano. The classical quintet warming up beside him stops. “How y’all feel?” he says. “Y’all good?”
They nod at Tarik Davis, a rapper who goes by the name Konshens (pronounced “conscience”). Then they arrange their sheet music to an 18th-century ballad by German composer Franz Danzi and get to work. Konshens’s head swims in rhythmic circles as the French horn swells. Forty seconds pass before he lifts his eyes to chime in on the hook: “All they want to do is see my people round up.”
Classically Dope is five conservatory-trained grad students, a piano player, and Konshens, a 33-year-old rapper from Petworth who wears a flat-brimmed black cap with his handle stitched on the front, the “o” in Konshens replaced by a skull. “Danzi might be like, ‘Whoa, what in the world is this brother doing to my song?’ ” piano player Brian Cunningham says of the unexpected collision.
That’s the point. Konshens and his band are stepping out of their respective bailiwicks in pursuit of wider appeal. The theory, as Konshens puts it, is that “people get a kick out of seeing different shit.”
Konshens is more of a virtuoso than he lets on. By age four, he was playing the piano. He was lead talker in the go-go band High Image as a teen. He also skipped a few grades, graduating from Archbishop Carroll High School on a partial music scholarship when he was 15. The next year, he recorded his first rap track in the basement of a Georgia Avenue barbershop. Then life took one of those turns. It would be another 13 years—after college, after a six-year stint at the Department of Commerce—before Konshens would commit to making music full-time.
“To just come from performing in a small venue, where maybe like 50 people can fit, and it’s sweaty, it’s dark, we’re only like 15 years old, getting drunk on Christian Brothers and smoking weed in this little club,” Konshens says, “to do that and to see myself now performing with a quintet, it’s like I can truly say that I really came up.”
It was a University of Maryland clarinet professor with an ear to the local arts scene who connected Konshens and his quintet. While the collage of hip-hop and classical music isn’t entirely novel—both Nas and Kendrick Lamar have played the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra—the ensemble’s French-horn player, Josh Blumenthal, insists that the Classically Dope way of doing things is: “What we’re trying to get away from is having classical music as just a background color.”
The group hopes to cut an album by October, in time for Grammy consideration. “The initial shock value of this [collaboration] is very attention-grabbing,” Konshens says. “But once the music starts, it’s an easy win, man.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Washingtonian.