Editor's note: This story is featured in the Nov. 2 print edition of CityBeat.
Photo: Mark Clennon
Black Violin will bring its melding of hip-hop and classical music to Cincinnati's Aronoff Center.
Any music act with a unique sound – such as Black Violin’s fusion of classical music and hip-hop – is bound to sound familiar from album to album. But violinist Kev Marcus has no problem seeing a difference between Take The Stairs
and especially the previous two albums he has made as one half of the duo, Black Violin, which will visit Cincinnati on Nov. 15
In fact, he can sum it up in one word.
“This is the most authentic album we’ve ever done,” he says. “The album is who we are. That was the best part of it. It didn’t feel like we had to try to conform or act like anything else, and we were still able to make an album that we feel very, very proud about without necessarily compromising our ideas in any way – all without being preachy.”
Marcus allows that the first Black Violin album, a 2008 self-titled effort, was also very authentic. But he sees several reasons why he and his partner in Black Violin, viola keyboardist/singer Wil Baptiste, were able to achieve start-to-finish authenticity on Take The Stairs
“Our very first album was, it was our life’s work. It’s everything up until the point where we were 23 years old and we put that out,” Marcus says. “But since then, this is the most authentic album, and I think it’s because, honestly, we had a long time to do it. [The previous album] Stereotypes
came out in 2015, we were looking for producers, looking for different situations since we had to fight to get out of our deal with Universal. We had so many other things that were happening at that time.”
“Then [in 2018], we got together with [producer] Phil (Beaudreau) in, like September, and the album [Take The Stairs
] was done in, like, October,” he continues. “I mean, I’m more at peace with every note on this project than I’ve ever been on anything we’ve ever done. So I think that’s some of it, just the authenticity of it.”
Marcus says Take the Stairs
avoids special attractions like guest artists.
“There are no – we would say on previous albums, there were songs that were like breast implants. Like, they’re us, we wrote the song, but the song’s on the album because there’s a good feature on it. Maybe it doesn’t perfectly sync up or match with the album, but there’s a really good feature on it or there’s a big-time producer on it or the label really likes it,” Marcus says. “This album has none of that. Like, the only thing that’s on the album – every note and every word – we both loved it and wanted it. Because of that, there’s this authenticity, there’s this real rawness, this genuineness about it.”
Beyond authenticity, Marcus sees musical growth in Take The Stairs
. And while the fusion of classical and hip-hop remains very much at the core of the duo’s sound, Marcus feels three songs – “Rise,” “Serenade” and “Nimrod” – represent creative breakthroughs. He uses “Serenade” to explain what’s different. Drawn from classical composer Antonín Dvořák’s “Serenade For Strings,” the song essentially turns the group’s usual approach to mixing hip-hop and classical on its head.
“Normally in pop or hip-hop, when you sample a classical song, normally it would be like you open up Pro Tools or whatever you use to create music, and you’ll start a click (track), with the click being like 120 [beats per minute], and you take that classical piece and you match it to the click,” Marcus says. “That’s how we’ve always done it. That’s how everyone seems to do it when they want a sample or they want to use classical elements [and bring them] into a pop world.
But Marcus says Black Violin did things differently with “Serenade.”
“We took London [Symphony Orchestra’s] interpretation of it, and then we mapped out a beat to that, as if a conductor is conducting with a beat in the orchestra,” he says. “We’d never approached it like that, and it was much more difficult than we thought in some ways, but easier than we thought in others. So because of that, when you hear that song, it’s really a classical song, and it feels like it could fit on a classical [album]. But it does have a very current hip-hop beat to it.”
“To me, that’s almost like a breakthrough song for us,” he continues. “We found a new way to create and to blend classical and hip-hop that we had not done before, and for us, that’s a big deal.”
While “Rise,” “Serenade” and “Nimrod” are decidedly classical, most of the other songs are more of an equal blend of hip-hop and classical instrumentation and melody. For instance, “One Step” starts out with a sonic blast that’s almost industrial before layering in hip-hop beats and an R&B-leaning vocal melody. The tune is performed by Baptiste, who has grown into a quite capable singer.
“Lost in the Garden” has a bit of Marvin Gaye in its soulful sound, while “Spaz,” “Showoff” and “Dreamer” are good examples of the melding of hiphop and classical. This musical hybrid is something Marcus and Baptiste first began forming in high school, when Marcus had an idea for how to incorporate violin into the Busta Rhymes song “Gimme Some More.”
That musical idea, however, was put on hold when, in 2004, after winning the Showtime at the Apollo
talent competition, Marcus and Baptiste were introduced to the manager of Alicia Keys and were then hired to join her band for a performance during the 2004 Billboard Music Awards. This led to opportunities to tour not only with Keys, but Jay-Z, Kanye West and Linkin Park, among the notable acts.
But the duo never lost sight of the idea of creating their own music, and eventually they decided to stop taking touring gigs and pursue Black Violin in earnest. The self-titled debut arrived in 2008, followed in 2012 by Classically Trained
and then Stereotypes
. Along the way, Black Violin has built a robust touring business and has had multiple songs used in commercials, television, movies and other media. The duo also has become involved in a variety of programs, including their own foundation, that encourage kids to pursue music or whatever careers they are passionate about – a message that is very much woven through several songs on Take The Stairs
With Take The Stairs
out and concert venues reopening, Marcus and Baptiste have returned to the road, bringing along drummer Nat Stokes and turntablist extraordinaire DJ SPS—both long-time touring members – to create a unique live experience.
“It’s more dynamic than the show has ever been because of the album,” Marcus says. “Of course, we tell kids to dream, tell people to dream, the impossible is possible, just run through walls for whatever you’re passionate about. All of the messaging of the album is pretty much there (in the show).”
Black Violin plays at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Downtown. There are no known COVID-19 protocols in place. Info: cincinnatiarts.org/aronoff-center-home.
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