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Classical/Hip Hop Group Aims To Shatter Stereotypes

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

If you drew up a Venn diagram for musical genres, the classical and hip hop categories probably would not overlap, or at least not much. But a duo that calls itself Black Violin is merging those two types of music and adding other influences as well.

The members of Black Violin performed at The Fox in Spokane Saturday night. Earlier in the day, they took the stage at East Central Community Center to talk about their path into the music business.

The principals for Black Violin are violinist Kev Marcus and viola player Wil Baptiste.

“Say hello to Tiffany, guys," Baptiste said as he fingered and strummed his viola. "Yes, I name my instrument, ok? She’s so pretty. Just look at her.”

Baptiste and Marcus are Miami guys. They play a genre that isn’t known for its African American influence. When they joined their high school music program, Baptiste says playing classical wasn’t what they had in mind.

“I went up to the band teacher, I was really excited. Listen, I want to play the sax," he said. "I guess the string teacher was in the same room. When I left, they both said, ‘Let’s play golf. Whoever wins the golf game gets this kid in their class.’ The string teacher won and I showed up in class and I see all these wood instruments and I said, ‘What’s up? Where’s the trumpet? Where’s the cool stuff?’”

Turns out they got to be pretty good at playing strings. Both received college scholarships to continue their development and they played music they didn’t grow up with. But Kev Marcus says they kept their interest in playing the music from their roots.

“We started making beats. We wanted to be like Timbaland or Neptunes. Just be the next hip hop producer. That’s what we wanted to do," he said.

They’d hang around a recording studio in Miami where other hip hop producers were looking for ideas.

“‘We’d play them the new beats. They were like, ‘Yeah, that’s hot. I like that.’ Then we’d go in the other room and grab the violins and start playing that and then on the beats and people would go, ‘Yo, where do you come up with that? That’s crazy,'" Marcus said. "So we were like, ‘Hmmm, what can we do with this to take it to another place.’ From then on, we were just trying to find ways to blend classical and hip hop, but not do it in a way where it loses either side.”

“Stereotypes” is perhaps Black Violin’s most well-known song and the name of its most-recent album. It reached number one on Billboard’s Classical Crossover Chart. Stereotypes is also a theme they address at informal gatherings, such as the one at East Central.

“You may look at us and think a certain way and then we don’t even have to play anything except say, ‘Hey, we play violin’ and people’s perceptions immediately change," Marcus said. "So we kind of weaponized that and created a whole brand and a band based around shattering people’s perceptions of what’s possible and it became my favorite thing about the instrument.”

Black Violin has played more than 100 shows around the nation as part of its “Classical Boom” tour. The duo have performed in Europe and for American troops in the Middle East. They’ve played with some of the country’s top musical artists, including the late Tom Petty, Kanye West, Wyclef Jean and Alicia Keys. Baptiste says that’s indicative of their interest in many types of music.

“Obviously, hip hop is a big one for us and classical as well. I listen to a lot of Motown stuff, old stuff with rich, warm sounds," Baptiste said. "That’s the unique thing about what we do.  We cross genres. We don’t belong in any box, you know what I’m saying?”

“We feel like we’re originators in this and now we go on YouTube and everybody’s playing violin and hip hop. I’m like, ‘Yeah, all right. That’s what’s up.’ We’re proud of that," Marcus said.

Black Violin expects to release its fourth album next year.