Fiddle Ma Nizzle

Black Violin goes where hip-hop has never gone before: the orchestra pit

Yes, this is another story about a local hip-hop act. This is not, however, your typical tale peopled by former drug dealers laundering their money into a flimsy record or earnest suburban kids writing rhymes in their bedrooms and 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. That's viola, as in the middle voice of the violin family. After graduating from Dillard High School, Wilner "Wil-B Simply Sick" Baptiste went to Florida State University, while Kev Marcus attended Florida International University, both majoring and earning degrees in performance.

While in college, they realized they didn't want to be traditional classical musicians. "Classical music is very structured," says Marcus, who studied with the Miami String Quartet. Since he began playing the viola, he remembers, he was often the only black kid in the orchestra. He never felt he fit in that world. When he finished band practices, he would go out to his car and bump Biggie, Tupac, and Trick Daddy.

Hip-hop -- it's all about sex and violins. Just ask Kev Marcus (left) and Wilner Baptiste.
Hip-hop -- it's all about sex and violins. Just ask Kev Marcus (left) and Wilner Baptiste.

"By the time we finished school, we knew we wanted to do the hip-hop thing," Marcus says of himself and Baptiste. So they became Black Violin.

Marcus and Baptiste began creating 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," Baptiste says. In 2003, Black Violin tested its formula at various clubs throughout the area -- Oxygen Lounge, State, Teasers, and Mansion. "We have to keep them dancing with the violin thing," Marcus says. So they freestyled over popular instrumentals from Ludacris and other rap acts. South Florida crowds, forever obsessed with being trendy, haven't necessarily warmed to the duo -- "Miami's been the hardest place for us," Marcus says -- but they've gotten love everywhere else, from New York and Connecticut to Illinois to Riverside, California. Now they have a booking agent at Violator Management (the famed company that handles G-Unit, Missy Elliott, and many others).

It's been like that throughout their short career: hard work followed by 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 pair won three times, earning the right to compete in a grand finale; during a show that was broadcast in May, they won that too, becoming Showtime at the Apollo's 2005 champions.

During their first appearance on Showtime at the Apollo -- "They taped us sequentially," explains Marcus, adding that those wins came via three shows taped on the same day -- Black Violin met Alicia Keys, who liked their performance so much she invited them to appear with her during the 2004 VibeAwards in Santa Monica last November. But thanks to a now-notorious scuffle that jumped off when a man attacked Dr. Dre as he walked on-stage to retrieve his Vibe Legend Award, Keys never sang that night, since she was set to appear after Dr. Dre received his props.

"We were like, 'Ah, I can't believe it!'" Marcus remembers. "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 on stage. "We were like, 'Oh my God, we can't believe someone just took our big break from us. '" Luckily, Keys arranged for Black Violin to support her at the 2004 Billboard Music Awards, as well as a pre-Super Bowl concert at Jack's Live in Jacksonville. "Hopefully, we'll get a chance to work on the upcoming album," Marcus says.

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," 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 mix CDs, Black Violin: The Mixtapevolumes one and two, the duo remix popular rap cuts such as Common's "The Light" and Fat Joe's "Lean Back" and invite guests such as Wrekonize, P.M., and Tommy Trouble to rap over their original beats, which are usually string-inflected. The CDs include crunk tracks, backpack hip-hop, instrumentals, and novelty "freestyles." There are even a handful of tracks on which Baptiste sings. He has a pleasant if slightly tentative voice, inviting comparisons to the R&B dreams of the Neptunes or, closer to home, Cool & Dre.

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