Melding classical and hip hop: Black Violin brings their unique sound to the Kate
Pondering the sonic and sample-heavy architecture of the average hip hop song, one doesn't immediately think of violin or viola — or classical music in general — as having a big role.
On the other hand, a well-played stringed instrument passage is among the most emotive and distinctive things in all music, so it only makes sense that hip hop could utilize such sounds in a big way.
There was nothing quite so calculated in evolution of the south Florida act Black Violin. A duo of rap-loving and artists, Black Violin are also classically trained players Wil Baptiste (viola) and Kevin Marcus (violin) — joined onstage by a DJ and a percussionist — and the music they make is a distinctive and contagious alloy of beats, virtuosity and styles.
Black Violin play a show Monday at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center that will be taped for the CPTV public television series The Kate. The band is touring behind their magnificent "Stereotypes" album — their first major label effort, which hit #1 on the Billboard Classical Music Crossover chart and #4 on the Billboard R&B chart. Performing across the globe for over a decade now, Black Violin has won the "Showtime at the Apollo" competition, recorded or performed with Kanye West, the Roots, Aerosmith, Tom Petty, 50 Cent, Alicia Keys and Wu-Tang Clan, and also played at one of Barack Obama's presidential inauguration galas.
None of this was remotely planned — conceptually or otherwise.
"We were young kids and, like our peers, we listened to hip hop and R&B," says Baptiste, also known as Wil B. "The thing is, we also had to go to second period."
Baptiste is referring to their high school music class. Marcus was urged by his mother to take a band class despite his lack of interest. He ended up with a violin. Baptiste, on the other hand, at least wanted to play saxophone — but took up viola when it was the only unused instrument in the room.
Introduced to the classical music canon, Baptiste was at first skeptical.
"Our teacher made sure we knew the composers like Mozart and Shostakovich. I hated it at first." He laughs. "It was so difficult, and it didn't make sense. But we'd learn the composers' biographies, and it all started to come through in the music — and suddenly it started to become rewarding and something we enjoyed. Meanwhile, outside of class, hip hop was always there. We loved it, and it made us want to express ourselves creatively. Well, what better way to express ourselves than through our instruments? And it just happened. We definitely didn't wake up one day and decide to combine classical music with rap. It was completely organic."
Once Sylvester and Baptiste began to use their instruments to overlap musical styles, a greater awareness of history started to seep into their consciousness. Baptiste explains, "I suddenly realized that, growing up, listening to my parents' music from the Motown era, there were a lot of strings in there. Motown was always strings-heavy. That sound had always been a familiarity for me — not necessarily the playing or the classical context, but the sound of the strings.
"It dawned on me that hip hop sampled a lot of strings, too, and it sounded very, very cool in the hip hop world. But it was always in the background. We thought, 'Well, sax and guitar have always been in the forefront, so why not violin? Couldn't the violin provide the same melodic context as a vocalist?' And it just kind of happened naturally."
At first, the pair worked in a production capacity, reimagining pop and R&B hits with a classical veneer. But Baptiste and Marcus spent increasing time writing their own material and trying it out in Miami nightclubs — to surprisingly open reaction. They called themselves Black Violin, after the title of an album by African-American pre-bop violinist Stuff Smith. After traveling to New York City, where they won the "Showtime at the Apollo" competition, Black Violin started to take off.
"The audiences weren't taken aback," Baptiste remembers. "The hip hop community would look at what we were doing kind of like, 'What is this?! It's interesting.' Now, the classical world can be a bit more snobby. But we figured out that maybe you have a person drinking fancy wine and eating Grey Poupon and over here's the hip hop kid who's the rebel. Why can't those two have a conversation? And we did it, and it turned out it's surprisingly accessible across the board."
In addition to "Stereotypes," Black Violin has released two other albums, a self-titled project in 2008 and "Classically Trained" in 2012. There have also been two mixtapes, and tunes from those recordings were eye- and ear-opening works with numbers like "The Mission," "Triumph," "Opus," and "Rock Anthem" accentuating the group's distillation of styles in giddy fashion.
As part of the career arc, the material on "Stereotypes" is smart and topical and, indeed, the fusion of styles is at once embracing and challenging music; the tunes, ranging from the gorgeous pop of "Losing Control" to the earnest and textured rap of "Invisible," dart and flow. Instrumental passages are as radio-friendly as pieces featuring guest vocalists or rappers like Black Thought, Pharoahe Monch, Melanie Fiona and Kanadace Springs.
The lyrical tone of the album is informative, reasonable and yearning — and reflects a society that finds itself in upheaval. Sadly, Baptiste says "Stereotypes" is in many ways a result of this, and they weren't completely surprised by the 2016 presidential election.
"I think for us, traveling for the last 10 years — and sometimes that's been in some pretty remote areas — we kind of saw all of this coming," he says. "But the good news is that our fans and our crowds are very mixed and different. It reminds me of a baseball game where you see all different colors and creeds and everyone's there in the spirit of fun to enjoy a baseball game. We see this night after night."
Even more encouragingly, Baptiste says, is the percentage of young people at Black Violin shows.
"Kids are our biggest fans, particularly the young, untainted ones. They're not trying to be cool or impress their friends; they just want to have a good time. You can see the reaction: 'Oh my God! This is Mozart and I'm not bored!' They see the implications of these musical genres coming together and it can be transformative," he says. "We're transformed, too. How can you not be? We see some kids who saw us play 10 years ago — and now they're pursuing violin as a profession."
If you go
Who: Black Violin
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, 300 Main St., Old Saybrook
How much: $45-$55
For more information: 1-877-503-1286, thekate.org
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Erin Sousa-Stanley directs the piece, and her husband, Chris Stanley, is the music director.