Drop the bass

The Portland Cello Project brings a hip-hop sensibility to classical music with panache. Game respect game.

by Tony

It sounds like something out of “Portlandia”: a group of classically trained cellists playing elaborate, earnest covers of Britney Spears, Talib Kweli, Pantera and Kanye West. Probably with organic soy bows and fair-trade sheet music, am I right?

At first blush it might seem silly, and the Portland Cello Project isn’t the first to try it, but when it comes to rap-covering cello collectives, Portland residents will tell you it’s always best to buy local.

The Portland Cello Project (PCP for short) was formed in 2007 when a group of cellists gathered to rehearse classical music for a bar gig.

“Cellists just all really get along well. It’s kind of a weird stereotype,” said Douglas Jenkins, artistic director and founder of PCP.

Jenkins also said that forming a cello group is easy because of the instrument’s versatile range.

PCP was playing classical music at a few bars in Portland but didn’t receive much attention until they started playing pop covers.

“One day on a lark I was like, ‘Why don’t we do a Britney Spears song?’”Jenkins said, laughing. “So I wrote one of those out and that was immediately a good idea.”

Although PCP still performs a number of classical pieces — including original compositions —  they deal mainly in pop and hip-hop covers. Their latest album, “Homage,” showcases Jenkins’ obsession with late-period Kanye West. The record includes two covers from “Watch the Throne” and several other Kanye West tracks, including PCP’s recent profile-raising take on “All of the Lights.”

But the Portland Cello Project is not notable simply because they cover radio hits on orchestral instruments. After all, the ubiquitous Vitamin String Quartet has released hundreds of tribute albums dedicated to various successful acts from the last 30 years. But their renditions aren’t much more than carbon copies on strings, with all the personality of karaoke sound-alikes.

“It’s not an act of appropriation for us or trying to make things classical or anything,” he said. “We’re really just looking for that human inspiration inside of it and blowing it out in the way that we can with cellos and the ensemble.”

PCP has long since expanded their lineup to include drummers, a large horn section and occasionally a chorus to make their covers dynamic and fully realized. It helps when the original song features dense production with a sense of grandeur and movement, like “Toxic” or “H*A*M.”

When PCP covers hip-hop with dinkier production, like Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop,” Jenkins uses one section and devises a new work out of it.

“I think every university professor should make that an assignment,” he said. “To take a hip-hop theme and do a fugue with it or a canon because hip-hop hooks are great. Some are as good as any Baroque hook, if not better.”

It’s this enthusiasm that drives the Portland Cello Project. Their deep commitment to the source material results in covers that are stunningly accurate, but also have plenty of personality that goes beyond quirk.

“We will never be a heavy metal band, and we don’t pretend to. We certainly never pretend to be a hip-hop group,” Jenkins said. “[But we] love finding all of these different types of music and bringing them together to find that core inspiration.”