Classically Trained Black Violin Duo Brings their Hip Hop Sound to the Cascade
● By Phil Reser
Striking a Chord
Story by Phil Reser
Photos courtesy of Black Violin
In terms of improvisation,
beats and rhymes,
My dream is to see hip-hop
incorporated into education.
- Quincy Jones
NAMED AFTER AN ALBUM by swing-jazz violinist Stuff Smith, Black Violin is a violin- and viola-playing hip-hop duo consisting of classically trained musicians Kevin Sylvester (Kev Marcus) and Winer Baptiste (Will B).
Sylvester and Baptiste, who have been performing together as Black Violin for more than a decade, initially began to reinvent radio hits, infusing pop music with Bach-informed baroque and the sounds of old-school rap from their youth.
The duo’s first tracks which they performed in nightclubs around Miami consisted of both original compositions and mash-ups – songs created by blending two or more pre-recorded songs, usually by overlaying the vocal track of one song seamlessly over the instrumental track of another. When they first tried to get attention for their unique mashup of classical music and hip-hop, club owners in south Florida didn’t quite know what to make of their sound.
“It didn’t sound like anything that would make sense to them,” recalls Sylvester, “until we’d take out the violins on the sidewalk, open the trunk of the car and blast the radio, and then start playing on top of the radio hits. We’d draw a crowd of people, and then the response was, ‘OK, I get it now, you can come in and do this.’”
Sylvester and Baptiste first met, appropriately enough, as part of the orchestra at the Dillard High School of the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Baptiste hoped to play the saxophone but somehow got stuck in the string section and learned to love the viola instead. Sylvester played the violin, as he had since age 9. Through their classes and rehearsals, they developed as classical musicians, while in their free time they listened to hip-hop and R&B.
The friends attended different colleges on full music scholarships and reconnected after graduation, finding new inspiration from the legendary violinist Stuff Smith, who was the first to use electric amplification techniques on a violin.
When Black Violin moved to New York City, Sylvester and Baptiste hit popularity through their performance at Amateur Night at the Apollo, winning the Harlem theater’s “legend” title in 2005.
That led to accompanying Alicia Keys at the Billboard Awards and collaborations with performers like Kanye West, Tom Petty and Aerosmith.
They perform about 200 shows per year, sharing their tunes in 49 states and 36 countries, appearing at official NFL celebrations for three Super Bowls, entertaining troops in Iraq and playing at former President Barack Obama’s 2013 inaugural ball.
The duo has released two mixtapes and three albums: 2008’s self-titled debut, 2012’s “Classically Trained” and 2015’s “Stereotypes” (which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard classical crossover chart and No. 4 on the R&B chart).
“The entire concept of Stereotypes,” says Sylvester, “is about the life that we know and live. We didn’t want to just make music, but make music that has a message and can possibly make social change.”
One of Black Violin’s most important commitments is performing for thousands of kids across North America each year, along with conducting school workshops called “Jump Training” with the objective of promoting improvisation and finding one’s personal musical voice.
“We don’t just want to be known for really cool violin shows. If we’ve got you up in the aisles dancing and you’re having a transformative experience, we want to give you something more. Since we always have kids in our audience, we talk directly to them. If I were a 10- or 11-year-old playing violin or bass or trumpet, or if I was a dancer and I saw Black Violin with beautiful strings on top of a hard beat that is related to what they listen to on the radio, to see that mashup and then have us tell them that the show they’re attending isn’t just about the violin. It’s about thinking differently about what you want to do, and if someone tells you that you can’t do it, then you use it as a fuel to make sure you do it. Who knows what that does to someone impressionable at that age? Who knows what tree grows from that seed? We try and inspire young people. Whatever you love to do, do it over and over and over, and do it in a way that no one else has even thought about doing it. Then you’ll be more successful than you ever dreamed.” •
Black Violin • Jan. 30 • Cascade Theatre, Redding