Yes, this is another story about a local hip-hop act. In case you didn't know, Miami-Dade County has become a way station for American rappers, whether it's Houston producer Paul Wall roaming around South Beach (and skipping interviews!), Twista camping it up at Marlin Bar, or Juvenile camping out in a hotel room in Miami Lakes. As much as you rockers, bass heads, jazz heads, and laptop kids may hate it, hip-hop music has been running and will continue to run the city for several months, if not years, to come. Get used to it.
That said, this story is not your typical tale charactered with former drug dealers laundering their money into a flimsy-ass record label, trying to bubble; or earnest suburban youths writing rhymes in their bedrooms, trying to "save hip-hop."
Instead, it features two young friends, both 23 years old, who first met at Parkway Middle School in Fort Lauderdale and found common ground as viola players. After graduating from Dillard High School (now known as Dillard Center for the Arts), Wilner "Wil-B" Baptiste went to Florida State University, while Kev Marcus attended Florida International University, both majoring and earning degrees in performance.
While in college, however, both realized they didn't want to be traditional classical musicians. "Classical music is very structured," says Marcus, who studied with the Miami String Quartet. Ever since he began playing the viola, he remembers, he was often the only black player in the orchestra. He felt as if he would never feel at home in the orchestral world. When he finished band practice, he would go out to his car and bump Biggie, Tupac, and Trick Daddy.
"By the time we finished school, we knew we wanted to do the hip-hop thing," says Marcus of himself and Wil-B. So they became Black Violin.
Marcus and Wil-B had already begun making their own beats before they graduated from college. "We started playing over our own beats, freestyling and doing the whole jazz and hip-hop thing," says Wil-B. In 2003, they tested their formula by taking Black Violin to various clubs throughout the city -- Oxygen Lounge, State, Teasers, and Mansion. "Everybody's dancin'; then we'll stop [the music]. We have to keep them dancing with the violin thing," says Marcus. So they freestyled over popular instrumentals from Ludacris and other rap acts. Miami crowds, forever obsessed with being hip, haven't necessarily warmed to the duo. "Miami has been the hardest place for us," says Marcus, but they've gotten love everywhere else -- in the Northeast in New York and Connecticut, Illinois in the Midwest, and out West in California. Now they have a booking agent at Violator Management (the famed company that handles G-Unit, Missy Elliott, and many others).
Their short career has been characterized by hard work met with uncanny luck. Following the advice of a friend, Black Violin sent off a performance tape to Showtime at the Apollo in 2003. A year later, the syndicated variety show invited the duo to its amateur contest. The group won three times, earning the right to compete in the grand finals; during a show broadcast this past May 28, Black Violin prevailed again, making it Showtime at the Apollo's 2005 champion.
During their first appearance on Showtime at the Apollo -- "They taped us sequentially," explains Marcus, adding that those wins came via three shows taped the same day -- Black Violin met Alicia Keys, who liked the performance so much she invited the two to appear with her during the 2004 Vibe Awards in Santa Monica, California, this past November 15. But thanks to a now-notorious scuffle that jumped off when a man attacked Dr. Dre as he walked onstage to retrieve his Vibe Legend Award, Keys never sang that night. (She was set to appear after Dr. Dre received his award.)
"We were like, Ah, I can't believe it!" remembers Marcus. "We were standing there, waiting with violins in hand, and all of a sudden it was bop, bop, bop" -- the sound of a massive brawl unraveling onstage. "We were like, Oh my god; we can't believe someone just took our big break from us." But Keys arranged for Black Violin to support her at the 2004 Billboard Music Awards, as well as a pre-Super Bowl concert at Jack Rabbits in Jacksonville. "Hopefully we'll get a chance to work on the upcoming album," says Marcus.
Black Violin isn't the first to mix hip-hop and classical music. On Wu-Tang Clan's Wu-Tang Forever, the RZA employed a violinist for the opening track, "Reunited." At the time, he promised he would continue to make classical hip-hop; we got Bobby Digital in Stereo instead.
Then there's Miri Ben-Ari, who calls herself "the hip-hop violinist." Her session work for Kanye West (Twista's "Overnight Celebrity" and West's "Jesus Walks") earned her a label deal with Universal. But despite such high-powered support, the attractive Ben-Ari, who released the jazz-inflected Sahara in 1999 before linking up with West, can't get her album released. The Hip-Hop Violinist was originally scheduled to be released this past March and was even reviewed in a few magazines. Instead, Ben-Ari is quickly becoming yet another example of how much the rap industry, with its rigid pop formulas, is resistant to new sounds and ideas.
On Black Violin's two-volume mix CD, Black Violin: The Mixtape, the duo remixes popular rap cuts such as Common's "The Light" and Fat Joe's "Lean Back" and invites guests such as Wrekonize, P.M., and Tommy Trouble to rap over its original beats, which are usually string-inflected. The CDs include crunk tracks, backpack hip-hop, straight-up instrumentals, and novelty "freestyles." There are even a handful of tracks on which Wil-B sings, inviting comparisons to the R&B dreams of the Neptunes or, closer to home, Cool & Dre. (Wil-B has a pleasant, if slightly halting, voice.)
Will the two get a chance to achieve their full potential? For now, they're going the Jay-Z route. "We want to keep it simple enough so the average hip-hop listener can hear it," says Marcus. "From there we want to take it up a notch, and take it up a notch. And as we captivate you, we introduce you to more things we can do."
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