Nelly Goes for a Ride With the Columbus Symphony, Invites Classical Fans to Shake Their Tailfeathers

Randall L. Schieber
Nelly performs during The Columbus Symphony’s Picnic with the Pops concert A Night of Symphonic Hip Hop featuring Nelly.

Before a few weeks ago, Albert-George Schram did not have a favorite Nelly song. He didn’t know who the St. Lunatics were. When pressed, Schram, the staff conductor of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, realized he was aware of the St. Louis rapper’s 2003 hit “Shake Ya Tailfeather.” That was it.

Now, though, the Dutch maestro is well-versed in Nelly’s greatest hits -- in fact, he and the Columbus Symphony were joined by the early aughts chart-topper on Saturday for a sold-out show at the city’s Columbus Commons, trading their usual repertoire of Mozart and Mahler for for something a little bit, well, hotter.

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“If you look at his work with Florida Georgia Line and Tim McGraw, he's done so many different things,” says Steve Cook, president of TCG Entertainment, who led the charge on arranging Nelly’s oeuvre for symphony orchestra. “He was a really good artist for us to try this with.” Cook has put on plenty of shows mixing full orchestras with contemporary artists, but had never had a chance to blur the lines between Beethoven and beat-boxing.

Rappers performing with full orchestras is not an entirely new concept. Kendrick Lamar just did it with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2015. Migos -- well, two of them -- performed “Hannah Montana” and recorded a three-song EP called Trap Symphony. Jay Z performed all of Reasonable Doubt with a 50-piece orchestra, and Nas has also given Illmatic symphonic backing. And who could forget Sir Mix-A-Lot's stirring version of “Baby Got Back” with the Seattle Symphony?

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Schram and the Columbus Symphony Orchestra offered the perfect test case for a Nelly-meets-neoclassical experiment: They’d never hosted a rapper at their Picnic with the Pops summer series, which combines the sounds of a full symphony with the music of popular artists.

Getting to “A Night of Symphonic Hip-Hop,” as the resulting performance would be called, wasn’t as simple as the orchestra likely expected. The ensemble had to get accustomed to hip-hop norms, from lyrics (Nelly’s, unlike most canonical lieder and arias, are in English) to composition. “We are used to having clear beginnings, and especially clear endings,” said Schram. “I was fascinated by the fact that [Nelly’s] songs just sort of stop. They don’t have a particular arc, they don’t build to a climax, they just rock on.” He added, “You just sort of shake your booty, and everything will be fine” -- a mantra he might just have picked up from Nelly during rehearsals.

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As the symphony and Nelly opened with “Shake Ya Tailfeather,” it was instantly revealed that, even though they had purchased tickets and likely been looking forward to this evening for a while, the crowd still had no idea what the hell was going on. A few people made their way to the front as soon as the first echoes of the Tomahawk Chop began to drift through the commons, but a rendition that should have had the entire crowd twerking on a headstand saw a few people standing near their tables swaying from side-to-side, with most continuing to munch on whatever snacks they had brought. It wasn’t that Nelly and Co. weren’t already killing it, the crowd just didn’t know how they were allowed to enjoy it.

A symphonic performance is typically perceived as stuffy: Cliché dictates that there are supposed to be people in suits and ties talking about the stock market or their favorite wines. Boone’s Farm isn’t supposed to count. No one is supposed to mention loving it when someone makes their knees touch their elbows, but Nelly did that next during his performance of “E.I.” because, actually, the symphony isn’t supposed to be any of those things. It’s supposed to be great musicians performing music and an audience hearing it.

When members of the St. Lunatics joined Nelly on stage next for “Air Force Ones,” it felt like the crowd started to get it. Nelly challenged those in attendance to prove they had been riding with him since the beginning by recognizing "Country Grammar," and the audience complied, filling in the lyrics when he refused to say Donald Trump’s name (“Bill Gates, Donald Trump let me in now”). Following that, “Ride Wit Me” made sure each person in the audience who had actually heard of Nelly before was on their feet.

After finishing everything he would play from his debut album, Nelly brought the rest of the 5,000-strong crowd into the fold with “The Fix,” which features a sample from Marvin Gaye’s eternally irresistible “Sexual Healing.” This was no longer about how rap was supposed to sound, and it was no longer about how symphony concerts were supposed to feel. It was just a lot of people enjoying some really great music performed by some incredibly talented musicians.

Then came “Grillz.” And it was good.

At this point there wasn’t anyone uncomfortable about dancing, or getting as close to the stage as possible. Even 60-year-old men and women were hyped about the prospect of the whole top being diamonds and the bottom row being gold. And the best part: The show was only halfway over. Once people were done being shy about how much fun it really was, Nelly capitalized. You didn’t have to know every word to “Move That Body”; you just had to move that body because you were already up, so it would have been weird if you didn’t. Same went for "Body on Me." You were standing up, you had to dance.

Given that this was a chance for Nelly to show exactly how versatile of an artist he is, naturally, the man made famous for going down your street in a Range Rover with a street sweeper cocked and ready to let it go performed back-to-back country anthems. Although this change in tempo obviously served to slow things down, it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm permeating the lawn because the audience had heard the songs being performed. “Over and Over,” one of the first real chances Nelly took with dabbling in different genres, proved exactly as universal as he’d intended. And the rapper, whose singing voice is incredibly underrated, had couples of all ages slow-dancing with his cover of Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man.”

“Hot In Herre” sounded exactly like you would expect “Hot In Herre” to sound with an orchestra: perfect in every way. The final dance-floor anthem was greeted with the exact same enthusiasm it receives in every nostalgia-fueled Buzzfeed listicle. No one was in their seat. It didn’t matter if they “didn’t like rap” or had “never been to a symphony before.” It was what can only be described as very, very lit.

The evening finished with a reminder of our protagonist’s range, as "Dilemma" was followed by an encore performance of “Just a Dream,” a fitting end to a show that probably left some wondering if they had imagined it entirely. As Schram put it, “You cannot argue with 5,000 screaming fans.” He was right the whole time: We all shook our booties, and everything was fine.