Marcus Moody created The Hip-Hop Orchestra as a 19-year-old student at the University of Maryland. The orchestra's first performance was a 45-minute set at Maryland Day 2013. The group only had one song to play, so — as any skilled musicians would — they improvised. David Porter freestyled for the remaining 42 minutes.
That was five years ago. Since then, hip-hop has skyrocketed to the most popular genre in the country.
"Hip-hop is growing and growing and growing," Moody said. "No scratch that, hip-hop is grown."
The Kennedy Center has been taking notice. The establishment invited the orchestra back last Thursday night to take part in "SHIFT," their celebration of American orchestras.
Around 25 performers walked onto a purple-lit stage in an assortment of patterns, colors and accessories — a reflection of the expressiveness and sheer fun soon to come.
The first half of the hour-long set was dedicated to covers. The strings of UGK's "Int'l Player's Anthem" opened the show, billowing into a party of drums and saxophones, melding into Chance the Rapper's "No Problem," followed by Big Tymers' "Still Fly" and eventually the Lil Boosie staple "Wipe Me Down."
There was Bootsy Collins and a plethora of early Kanye West songs: "Touch the Sky," "The New Workout Plan," "I Wonder" and "We Major." All were flawless refreshments of what hip-hop is and what it is capable of.
The HHO last performed at the center in 2016, under the guise of the University of Maryland HHO. Now, it is simply the HHO, which helps garner a broader wave of DMV artists.
"I graduated and realized that it's something that's held back as a student group," Moody said. "I want to work with a lot of artists in the area and experience more songs through our lens."
The final 30 minutes of the show were dedicated to originals — a whirlwind of solos, multi-stylistic raps courtesy of 20NVR and even an impromptu dance floor.
Collaborators John Pellegrino and Joe Martin received shout outs for their help composing some of the songs.
Martin, 26, sings and plays the guitar. Musically, his background is in several genres: funk, blues, pop, soul and rock. However, he doesn't read music, so he'd use his guitar to play parts out by ear. He said the composition process is "a sprint," but is able to adapt easily.
"Hip-hop is one of the most welcoming genres there is," Martin said. "It takes all of the more traditionally instrumental, melodic genres and puts a banging beat behind it."
Pellegrino, 25, is a saxophonist and one-fifth of Box Era, which also started in College Park. He's more rooted in jazz and rock, but said he's also been able to recognize hip-hop's ability to "bring different aspects of music together." Both have been involved with the orchestra on and off, but have always been inspired by Moody's unique talents, appreciation for the genre and his work ethic.
"Marcus always had this vision of finding art around you," Martin said, rather than moving to bigger markets, such as Los Angeles or New York.
HHO tackled the hour with precision and with kilowatts of energy. Each note, transition, lyric, etc. were flawless refreshments of what hip-hop is and what it is capable of. Feedback from the audience included a slew of kind adjectives: "warm," "intimate," inspiring," "calming," "beautiful" and "euphoric."
"I love this project," Moody said. "I love what we do, what we represent. I don't want to give that up."
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article stated 20NVR freestyled for Hip Hop Orchestra at Maryland Day 2013. David Porter was the one who freestyled. This article has been updated.