They’ve spent the last 15 years breaking stereotypes with their genre-busting songs and instrumentals. Now, Black Violin is adding a heavy dose of full-out inspiration to the mix.
That mix is embodied in Black Violin’s most recent recording, Take the Stairs. However you might imagine a classically trained violinist or violist to be, Take the Stairs shatters that image - and all the assumptions that go with it - with the musical inspirations of the band’s classically trained front men violinist Kev Marcus and violist Wil B. in original tracks that blend of classical music with hip-hop, soul, rock and pop sounds – all with a hopeful spin.
“I think that we’ve grown individually, just personally,” said Kev Marcus in a recent phone interview. “I think as a band, musically, we’ve kind of matured and kind of fallen into not just what we feel comfortable in, but falling into music that seems to have a message behind it, which feels like it grows with us.”
Black Violin brings the inspiration and the music from Take the Stairs to Columbus on the band’s Impossible Tour Sunday, Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at the Palace Theatre.
With Take the Stairs, Marcus says Black Violin has focused its message on inspiring the younger generation to believe that they can achieve their dreams, whatever challenges they may face.
“I think this time around our message is a bit more focused on making sure that we’re doing right for our children all around the world and all around the country,” Marcus said. “The inspiration (for Take the Stairs) is that a lot of times people think of life as instant gratification, everything that we do is so quick, and success can be right there. But sometimes it takes a long journey.”
Continued Marcus, “For us, we’re looking back over 15 years and all the cool things we’ve been able to accomplish – we’re able to look back at it because we took a road less traveled and now we’ve paved our own way, and we own the path that we’ve laid. And it’s not the easiest way to do it, and that’s why we think about it as taking the stairs. But there’s something to be said about the journey that you take when you’re trying to do something impactful and important. This album as sort of the culmination of all of that, but with a hopeful ending to it.”
All that hope and optimism bursts through the seams on tracks like “Impossible Is Possible,” a high-energy dance tune with a sound ripped from pop radio.
The title cut from Black Violin's debut album, "Stereotypes"
And there are still plenty of tracks rooted in the classical sound and repertoire. The albums’ opening track, “Rise,” is a gorgeous, ethereal instrumental that takes the acoustic string orchestra sound to the next – amplified – level.
“We always like to do what you don’t expect, so ‘Rise’ felt natural,” Marcus said. “It’s just this really lush, beautiful progression that’s been in my head for as long as I remember. When I wake up in the morning, that’s the progression that I hear, the chord progression. It makes me feel like the morning. We wanted to put it on the album and it just felt like it just started, and it’s going to be the morning.”
Black Violin's signature "classical boom" sound - classical tunes bearing the vibe of hip-hop and other popular music - is ever present on Take the Stairs. The track called “Serenade” unites the main theme from Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings with the world of hip-hop. The melody, Marcus says, has been with him and Wil B. since their earliest days making music together and is now the basis of a track that shows Black Violin’s mix of hip-hop and classical music hard at work.
“We’ve just loved that tune. That was a tune we played, I think it was in junior year of high school. It just had a special place in our hearts,” Marcus said. “In hip-hop we would just take something and we’ll sample it, and we’ll sample it to just a normal pop beat. In ‘Serenade’ we did the opposite – we’ve actually never done this before – we took the classical nature of it and we allowed the beat to work within the classical framework instead of bringing the classical into the hip hop. So that’s why that song to me is really special. It’s one of my favorite songs that we’ve ever done. We put a beat to something, but it still feels like a conductor is conducting it.”
The track on Take the Stairs that is perhaps most emblematic of Black Violin’s unique sound and style is “Al Green,” a tribute to the legendary soul ballad artist. This instrumental ballad takes the theme from one of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances as its starting point and gives the singer’s role to solo viola over a soul beat and bass line. The Dvorak tune is cleverly interwoven with a countermelody that quotes the iconic riff from the introduction of Spandau Ballet’s hit ballad “True,” itself a nod to Marvin Gaye’s contributions to the soul ballad genre.
“We were in the studio with (note record producer) Salaam Remi,” Marcus said, “and I played Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. And he was like, you know what would be crazy is if we kind of put like one of these Al Green-type of bass lines on it. And then Salaam started playing the bass line. And then Wil started playing this soulful viola solo. And I was thinking, I’ve never heard a song that’s entirely a viola solo. And that’s what we wanted to come across with, but we did it with this soulful Al Green vibe with Dvorak’s Slavonic dances cut into there.”
The Black Violin story:
Black Violin’s roots go all the way back to its founders’ high school days in the 1990s. Marcus (real name Kevin Sylvester) and Black Violin co-founder Wil B. (Wilner Baptiste) met on the first day of orchestra class in 1996 at Dillard High School for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The two became and remained friends, becoming roommates after graduating from different Florida colleges.
They started joining classical tunes with a hip-hop beat and developed an act that they performed in Florida dance clubs.
"A Flat," from Black Violin's second album, Classically Trained:
Black Violin’s big break came when they won the Showtime at the Apollo Legend title in 2005, gaining the attention of noted popular music recording producers and scoring performances on bills with Alicia Keyes and Mike Shinoda, and other collaborations with Tom Petty, Aerosmith and other popular music legends.
Take the Stairs is Black Violin’s third album, and it’s an album that delivers on the musicians’ welcoming inspiration from all corners – an album that proves that the seemingly impossible task of mixing classical music with hip-hop, soul, pop and rock in a cool, uplifting way – is absolutely possible.
“We take inspiration from everywhere, “Marcus said. “I don’t think we intended to have a couple of Dvorak-inspired things. It just sort of happened that way. We grabbed onto the tail of the music, and we let it take us on the journey, and this is where we ended.”
Black Violin performs Sunday, Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at the Palace Theatre.