The hip-hop violin duo Black Violin, comprised of 34-year-old Wil Baptiste (viola) and 33-year-old Kev Marcus (violin), has been together for a little over a decade. In that time, the musicians, who met while students in South Florida, have released two independent, self-funded albums and performed their blend of classical string sounds and hip-hop with the likes of Alicia Keys, 50 Cent and Tom Petty.
One January night two years ago, they even performed for President Obama at one of his inauguration balls. On Monday, a few hours before a performance at New York’s Rockwood Music Hall, the pair spoke about their upcoming, major-label debut, “Stereotypes,” out on Sept. 18 from Universal Music Classics.
WWD: How did you get your start with violin and viola?
Wil Baptiste: We got started in middle school; for me, it started in 8th grade. I met Kev in high school when he was a sophomore and I was a freshman, in the public school system. We had orchestra second period every day, and we had a great teacher who really cared and motivated us. We got a full scholarship to college [Baptiste to Florida State University, Marcus to Florida International University] and we’re still playing to this day.
Kev Marcus: My mom put me in a violin program, but it was really the program at school that kept us going. You know, every day at second period, we would play classical music, and that was just the life that we knew. The program at school did a lot of the heavy lifting. We didn’t have lessons or anything like that; we just kind of went to class and got better and took advantage of the situation.
WWD: How do you approach the combination of hip-hop and classical?
K.M.: Kids ask us all the time, “How do you blend them together?” And, you know, growing up it was pretty much reggae and hip-hop that we listened to. But second period every day we played classical music. People ask how they can play like us, and you can only play the way that you’re influenced. That’s just how we were — classical by day, and living in the world of rap and hip-hop and making beats at the same time. For our career, we just tried to blend those simultaneously to perfect the proportions. And if you do it that way, you seem to get the classical people and the hip-hop people. That’s our goal in how we try to approach music.
WWD: Where does the name Black Violin come from?
K.M.: First day of college, at Florida International University, I got this tape and it was a violinist just on fire, and it had so much soul. I’d never heard a violin be that organically expressive and I just loved it. I just lived that album for many years, and I gave Wil a copy, and it just changed how I viewed the violin. I thought the violin could only do one thing, or it could be classical or jazz or bluegrass, but this showed that there were things the violin could be I hadn’t thought of. And it was a black guy and I was definitely intrigued by that. The album was by Stuff Smith and it was called “Black Violin,” and that album changed our perception of everything, and when it came time to name ourselves, the name was the first thing that came to mind. The name for us means changing perceptions and breaking stereotypes.
WWD: What can you tell us about your major label debut, “Stereotypes?”
K.M.: We sat down and talked a lot about what kind of album we wanted to make, because Black Violin was intrinsically very broad. Obviously classical and hip-hop are two extremes but we do so much in between, so when we sat down we talked about how we wanted to make really good, pure music, and that’s where we started. We got Eli Wolf, who is our executive producer, who has worked with Norah Jones, The Roots and Elvis Costello, and we wanted an even blend of vocals and instrumentals. We recorded most of the album in Brooklyn, and we got a bunch of musicians together — people who play with The Roots and Ed Sheeran and Jack White — and we locked up in a room for 12 months and saw what happened. There’s a lot of hip-hop and classical but also a lot of R&B, a lot of jazz, and if you close your eyes hard enough you might hear some bluegrass. The message of “Stereotypes” is a message that comes into fruition halfway through. Two black guys playing violin and making music like this; I’ve never heard anything quite like it. We started really rooting our music with the message of breaking stereotypes.
WWD: You’ve been together for quite some time and been making music for awhile; what makes this album different?
W.B.: This album is more refined and polished. We’ve done so many shows and toured so much, and obviously now we’re in a different place, mentally and as artists.. I’m doing a lot of singing on this album, and I’ve grown quite a bit vocally. Performing with these amazing musicians and producers is amazing; ultimately the violin and what we represent and how we approach it is consistent.
WWD: Where do you find musical inspiration?
W.B.: I heard “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons a few years back, and I was like, “Man, that’s amazing.” And to listen to the album, it doesn’t really sound like anything with the song, and I was really inspired by that, that they could put out a song like that that really still blends with the rest of the album.
WWD: Who is someone you would love to collaborate with?
K.M.: Stevie Wonder is at the top of the list for me. I feel like he is one of those artists who never records a song he doesn’t want to record, yet he still has so many Grammys. He is so true and still so successful; a lot of artists now are so successful, but you wonder how much of that is them or them pouring their heart out on the mic or the piano.
W.B.: Any artist who can see our vision. We’re all about expression and allowing the world to see what our artwork is all about. Any artists are welcome to come into the room and expand on creativity and all that.
WWD: What can audiences expect from your shows?
W.B.: It’s a rock concert. I mean, there are violins playing, but it’s loud and there’s an energy to it, and we encourage people to get on their feet and have a good time. Leave all your problems and stress at home, and come to a Black Violin’s concert.