Hip-hop violinists reclaim legacy of black violin

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by Jordan Green

A critic without at least a passing knowledge of the music of Mozart and Jay Z will find himself doubly at a disadvantage when writing about Black Violin.

That the South Florida duo, with Kevin “Kev Marcus” Sylvester on violin and Wilner “Wil B” Baptiste on viola, seem to effortlessly bridge those worlds is a testament to their immense talent and roving imagination. One could easily imagine classical violin with a hip-hop beat thrown on top turning into a novelty good for a fleeting entertainment. It’s easy to understand why Sylvester and Baptiste’s instrumental talents have been tapped individually or in tandem by hip-hop stars P. Diddy, Kanye West and Nas; just as the violin has long provided pathos and gravitas to epic gangster films, the same old-country sonic texture benefits the larger-than-life projection in hip-hop production.

But imagine the violin and viola, not as a production gloss or filigree, but as instruments at the forefront of the music, much as Jimi Hendrix revolutionized the electric guitar or Lester Young raised the saxophone to iconic status in jazz. The models for violin as a respected vehicle for innovation in black popular music don’t seem readily accessible, but listen to Stuff Smith’s 1965 album Black Violin — the namesake for Sylvester and Baptiste’s group — for proof that virtuosic violin-playing has a secure place in the development of 20th Century jazz. And while the Carolina Chocolate Drops have resurrected the tradition of old-time black fiddle music, black violin has never really gone out of style, whether you favor the avant-garde jazz of Michael White or the blues-rock fusion of Papa John Creach.

Word must have gotten out about the formidable talent of Black Violin — or maybe it was Sylvester’s family connections in Greensboro. The theater was packed with a predominantly African-American audience evenly spread across the generations from early twenties to mid-sixties, stylish evening wear mixing with casual hip-hop attire. Black Violin is the second act this season to sell the venue out, with comedian Jeanne Robertson setting the precedent. The former is a tribute to cultural tastes in High Point; the latter, not so much — sorry.

Before leading the group into “A Flat,” Kev Marcus served notice that this wasn’t going to be any staid recital. “If you want to get out of your seat and dance,” he said, “all that means is that the people behind you are going to have to get out of their seats, too.”

With Sylvester and Baptiste trading roles as hype man and virtuosic soloist, or sometimes both throwing down as dueling instrumentalists, Nat Stokes’ providing relentless locomotion on drums and DJ SPS setting off a series of sonic detonations and scratch tracks, Black Violin put on a bumping party. Whether their project represents an effort to bring classical music down to a level of popular accessibility or push hip-hop into more innovative and instrumentally challenging territory is really an academic question.

The music makes perfect sense in Sylvester and Baptiste’s story. The two learned violin in high school orchestra in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. in the ’90s. While they were working at their classical discipline, they were also listening to Biggie Smalls and whatever else they heard on the radio at the time, and trying to replicate the sounds on their violins. After continuing their classical training in college, they found themselves making beats for hip-hop artists in South Florida. They found that when they brought an artist in to hear one of their beat tracks, he almost invariably wanted their strings in the mix, too. Before coming into their own as Black Violin, Kev Marcus and Wil B had to overcome one skeptical promoter by pulling out their violins and jamming over a track blasting from their manager’s Ford Expedition. They got the gig, and wooed the South Beach hip-hop royalty.

While the violins-and-beat combination remains the group’s calling card, Kev Marcus and Wil B are rapidly stretching beyond their own formula. They demonstrated their versatility on the Sam Smith cover “Stay With Me,” with Wil putting down his viola and sitting down behind a keyboard while revealing himself to be an R&B vocalist of exquisite sensitivity.

While the duo delighted the audience with a mash-up containing note-perfect references to Michael Jackson and Bruno Mars, a cover of Imagine Dragons’ 2012 hit “Radioactive” truly pushed the instrument into new territory. Laying down a droning rhythm track, Wil B began plucking out the lead pizzicato style on his viola while vocalizing the song’s apocalyptic lyrics in his expansive tenor. He played the instrument like a guitar and made it sound like one, too.

That alone would have likely provided enough sonic exploration to satiate the appreciative audience in High Point, but a mesmerizing freestyle jam showcasing Sylvester and Baptiste alternating between bowing and plucking, a dope turntable demo by DJ SPS and a percussive overhaul by Nat Stokes transported the set into another solar system.

Black Violin’s High Point engagement was its 24th concert in as many days of the new year. Their relentless touring schedule, unflagging energy and stellar musicianship indicate they’re well on their way to establishing their music as a mainstay. After the show, hundreds of fans jammed into the lobby to meet the group and get concert programs signed, demonstrating a level of excitement and adulation usually reserved for visits by President Obama. (Black Violin performed at the president’s second inauguration, incidentally.)

Near the end of the set, having proven their bona fides in hip hop, jazz, funk and almost any other genre one might want to cite, they demanded respect for their classical chops.

“Do you all wanna hear some classical music?” Wil B asked. “For those of you who don’t want to hear it, we’re gonna play it anyway. Because technically this is our show.”

As Wil and Kev Marcus interpreted a passage of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto with passion and precision, hoots of appreciation began cascading down from the darkened hall well before the beat dropped.