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A technical question came up during a production meeting last week that hasn't often arisen before at Orchestra Hall.

"Do the strings need to be amplified over the [prerecorded] track beats in that song?"

Matt Allen, the high-energy rapper who's made a name for himself as Nur-D, debated a bit with Minnesota Orchestra's sound engineer Jay Perlman and other crew members. Ultimately, the local hip-hop star convinced them to try something Minnesota's Grammy-winning institution isn't known to do very often: wing it.

"Let's see how it sounds once we get in there and go with it," Allen concluded.

Give the Minnesota Orchestra credit for following that mantra on several levels in the case of this weekend's two concerts with Nur-D.

When the orchestra first paired up with a Twin Cities hip-hop artist, Dessa, in 2017, the concerts were essentially a see-how-it-sounds experiment. But the orchestra went with it.

Four runs and one stirring live album later, the Dessa concerts proved to be one of Minn Orch's best-received collaborations of the 21st century. The shows consistently sold out, even drawing repeat attendance from audience members who don't know Jay-Z from Chuck D.

So now Orchestra Hall is testing the cross-pollination of hip-hop and classical music once again with Friday and Saturday's concerts starring Nur-D, who freely admits he doesn't know Verdi from Vivaldi.

"I'm a really big fan of 'Fantasia,'" the comics- and animation-loving rapper laughingly offered, summarizing his previous classical music exposure.

As different from Dessa in hip-hop terms as Beethoven is from Chopin — although each has fought rap music's misogynistic and violent stereotypes — Nur-D is more of a whimsical, old-school rapper. He blends sly, prodding lyricism with blusterous tinges of R&B and gospel music, all laced with a positive, joyous spirit that has earned him ample comparisons to Chicago hitmaker Chance the Rapper.

A native of the south metro exurb Rosemount — where he was often the lone Black kid in class, and was too often reminded of that — Allen came to the fore from 2018 to 2019.

In a year's span, he triumphantly headlined First Avenue's Best New Bands showcase with his horn-blown band, debuted at the Soundset Festival and won City Pages' Picked to Click newcomers poll and Go 95.3′s Shut Up & Rap contest. (R.I.P. Soundset, City Pages and Go 95.3.)

Then came the pandemic. And then came George Floyd's murder.

As his booming career temporarily got put on hold, Nur-D went from rapping about comic books and video games to writing songs like "Mr. Officer" and "Brighter Day," referencing police brutality and his hometown's racial reckoning.

While the set list for this weekend's concerts is under wraps, Live at Orchestra Hall's principal conductor Sarah Hicks made it clear she and the rest of the orchestra welcomed those topical themes in this collaboration.

"It's part of the Minneapolis experience, and part of his expression as an artist, so we were definitely open to those songs," Hicks said.

"That's what artists do: offer commentary on what's happening in the community around them, along with creating joy. Both are things Nur-D is really good at."

Twin Cities rapper Nur-D (Matt Allen) explained some of his wild ideas with members of the Minnesota Orchestra's production crew last week.
Twin Cities rapper Nur-D (Matt Allen) explained some of his wild ideas with members of the Minnesota Orchestra's production crew last week.

Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

'A third entity'

You can imagine just how joyful the rapper felt when — coming out of the forced career hibernation from the pandemic — he was offered these gigs.

"It was so out of the blue, I thought it was a joke," Allen recounted. "It's been a wild ride since then, a lot of it filled with this feeling of imposter's syndrome."

It was actually Dessa who recommended Nur-D to the orchestra. Her longtime collaborator Andy Thompson was put in charge of translating and arranging the songs for the performances, as he's also done for the orchestra's collaborations with the local bands Cloud Cult and the New Standards.

It was mostly left up to Allen to choose the songs, though. And that proved to be something of a new and revelatory process for him after a steady half-decade of cranking out songs.

"I was writing like a fiend when I came on the scene," he said. "I just felt like I had to get all this stuff out. I released nine projects in the span of five years. So to sit back and look back at my catalog to decide which songs I want to do, it was a challenge.

"And then when Andy Thompson sent back the first mock-ups of these songs, it was shocking. I was like, 'Is that really my music?' I heard all these parts or elements of the songs I didn't really think about. It almost felt like somebody else's music. Knowing it was mine, it made me proud, but also I was just incredibly blown away to be able to share all this with the orchestra."

Without naming specific titles, he said he'll be doing "a lot of the songs of mine people like hearing, but also some songs people have never heard me perform anywhere."

Other details that can be revealed: Nur-D's usual backers, the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Band and his turntablist, DJ Hayes, will be incorporated into the shows. So will a choir. And so will props, inflatables and even a presidential impersonator.

In other words, just because he's taking on the fanciful Orchestra Hall, he's not killing the fun that's come to be expected at his other live performances.

"It's like two families coming together for a backyard barbecue," he said of melding his crew with the large orchestra team.

Hicks used the word "fun" over and over in describing the preparations. However, she also made it clear the orchestra is taking Nur-D's music very seriously.

"Whenever we collaborate with a local artist, we try to make it more than just bringing two acts together — we want to sort of create a third entity," the conductor said. "Matt has so many ideas and so much energy, it's been really incredible working with him to finding that third entity."

As last week's production meeting wore on with myriad details required of such a grand-scale performance, Live at Orchestra Hall director Grant Meachum explained, "We want to have everything in place so that once the orchestra gets on stage, Matt is freed up to do what Matt does so well."

Freshly returned from a well-received trip to the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Conference in Austin, Texas — where rising acts still go trying to break into the national realm — Allen came to the meeting with a little extra swagger in his step.

"It felt good to represent Minnesota at South by Southwest and say, 'Hey, we really got a scene going on up there,'" he said.

"I mean, just look at the fact that I'm about to rap with this massive orchestra. That should tell you where hip-hop is at in Minnesota."

Nur-D & Minnesota Orchestra

When: 8 p.m. Fri. & Sat.

Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.

Tickets: $33-$99,