From Viola to Hip-Hop: the Story of Black Violin

November 30, 2016, 8:46 PM · With so many classically-trained musicians auditioning for an ever-shrinking number of orchestra jobs, sometimes musicians need to find a new path toward employment and artistic fulfillment.

Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste have done just that. Their band, Black Violin, is something quite out of the ordinary: a meeting and meshing of hip-hop, popular and classical styles.

Florida-based Sylvester and Baptiste, who go by Kev Marcus and Wil B, are two musicians with degrees in classical music performance who have been performing together as Black Violin for more than 10 years. They've made two major recordings, Classically Trained (2012), and Stereotypes (2015).

This year they are busier than ever, performing live concerts all over the United States, with educational workshops at nearly every stop, and a gig as the featured act at the 2017 NAMM Show Grand Rally for Music Education in January in Anaheim. They've also just co-scored the soundtrack for FOX’s new baseball drama "Pitch", along with composer Jon Erlich.

"Violin became cool to me when I realized it was like a weapon I could wield in different ways," Sylvester said. "I could put on a cummerbund and play Walton Viola Concerto, or I could put a beat on and the people in my dorm room would start rapping to it. Eventually I found a way to make the violin into a voice for me."

I spoke to Sylvester earlier this fall about how Black Violin evolved, his thoughts on music education and his recommendations for the best set-up for violinists who want to get into composing and performing with electrics and pedals.

Sylvester's musical training began when his mother placed him in a Saturday music program back in the fifth grade, to keep him out of trouble in their tough neighborhood in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He started mid-year, so on his first day, there were no more "cool instruments" left. "That's what the fifth graders thought: no more cool instruments, all that's left is the violin. So I picked it up." He went to class every Saturday, and his mother's plan worked: the next year he went to Parkway Middle School of the Arts, where "every day, second period, I had classical music, I had orchestra."

When he auditioned several years later for Dillard Center for the Arts High School, the orchestra teacher said that if he switched to viola, "I guarantee, you'll get a full scholarship to college." Sylvester was intrigued. "I was always a strong student, but it was intriguing to me that (the viola) could open a door," he said. "So I ended up going to that high school, and in high school I started becoming very good at the instrument."

He had considerable training before college: "We had music theory classes in sixth grade, ear training classes in high school. There was theatre, dance, art -- every year we would do a musical, I'd play in the pit. There was even a rock band class, so I was in a rock band in high school -- just a lot of different ways to be exposed to the arts."

"I met Wil in 10th grade, he's a violist as well," Kev said. They were both accidental violists -- Baptiste started on viola from the beginning, but he had originally wanted to play the saxophone. "He was a year behind me, and we met as stand partners in orchestra. We didn't come up with this whole idea in high school; but the vibe that was set in high school definitely moved into what eventually Black Violin eventually became.

A lot of it also boiled down to "this teacher caring, and telling me, 'Look, you can do whatever you want,'" Sylvester said. His teacher pushed him to play in youth orchestras and to play chamber music. "My quartet played chamber gigs all around town -- four black kids, and we were all really good. It was a job for us; we actually made pretty good money, doing six, seven gigs a month. I was sort of the manager of it. So that's what got the business side of it going, and then we kept getting better and better as musicians."

Sylvester and Baptiste parted ways for college; Baptiste went to Florida State University and Sylvester went to Florida International University, where he studied with Chauncey Patterson.

In college, "after I'd finished all the practicing I needed to do, I would just sit around and make beats, try to find ways to blend the hip-hop music and the popular music that I love with the classical music that I love," he said. "I wanted to do it in a way where it wasn't pretentious, it wasn't preachy, and it wasn't out-of-reach of someone who doesn't understand both genres."

Sylvester values his classical upbringing but also emphasizes the need find one's own voice. That process is something Sylvester and Baptiste focus on when they work with students at schools. They call their master classes "Jump Training," and as part of it they put students on the spot a little, having them try some simple improvising.

"Once they're finished, I ask how it felt. They say, 'Man, it was nerve-wracking. It was exhilarating,' and I say, "Well, don't you want to do something with your craft that gets you going, that gives you that feeling like you're riding a roller coaster? That's what music is about, that's the thrill of it," Sylvester said. "It's about being able to pick up your instrument and play whatever it is you love. I may play something magical, I may play something and never remember it ever again. But it's your own individual expression," he said. "I don't feel that violinists are taught that. (My classical training) was always geared toward replicating the best music that has been created -- and to give my own take on it, to an extent; but not to go too far. If you're playing Bach, you have to play Bach a certain way; if you're playing Brahms, it has to also be a certain way. There are different things for different styles. You're interpreting other composers' works. But I think that the violin became cool for me when I created my own interpretation of my own music that I was creating."

People might not think of violin or viola as a "hip-hop" instrument, but that did not limit Sylvester's imagination. "Never for an instant did I think that it couldn't work or it wouldn't work," he said. "I always felt like when I played, I could sing with my instrument. I felt like if I played it choppy and rhythmically I could make rap cadences with it, and I tried that very early. So I never thought about it as it 'can't' or 'shouldn't.' I thought the violin is a great replication of the human voice, and I try to use it as such."

Sylvester and Baptiste have also made use of the latest technology, and Sylvester shared with me his advice for getting a good set-up.

Will and Kev
Wilner Baptiste (left) and Kevin Sylvester - Wil B.and Kev Marcus, of Black Violin.

"I play an electric on stage, and I have many acoustics I play. I practice primarily on an acoustic," he said. When they formed Black Violin, Sylvester switched from viola to violin and Baptiste continued to play viola, so that they would have one soprano and one alto voice.

"So I don't really play viola any more, I'm pretty much all a violinist; but I still think like a violist, and I still feel like I want a viola tone," Sylvester said. "When I search for violins, electric or otherwise, I'm constantly searching for the deepest, warmest, roundest-sounding violins, with the thickest, roundest-sounding E string that doesn't sound thin or wiry. So I'm constantly looking for a viola in violin form! But I think that it works well in the context of playing popular music because it's more boomy and present that way."

Right now Sylvester has two electrics, the Yamaha Silent Violin (SV250) and the new Yamaha Electric Violin (YEV). (Sylvester is a Yamaha Artist).

"I play the SV250, it's the four-strings but the highest level of the Silent Violin model," he said. "I love the look of the YEV, I love the way that it plays. The YEV I use for scoring because when I plug it into a computer I find it sounds strikingly like an acoustic violin, especially in the lower registers," he said. "The 250 I use on stage because it has so much balls, it will cut through anything. That's honestly what I don't like about it, too, because I have to shave off the high end quite a bit because it's too bright and again, I'm a violist at heart, so I'm shaving off the high end."

"I also am a strong proponent of effects, so I'm constantly trying to find different ways to effect my instrument - yet I'm still a purist, so I want it to be as acoustic as possible," he said. "There are certain electric violins I hear and they sound like they should be in a rock band, and that's not what I'm in for. I'm a classical purist so I want my instrument -- we play Bach on stage, we play our version of Simple Gifts on stage -- and I want you to close your eyes and feel like an acoustic violin is playing. But I want it to have the power, and I want it to shave through, like an electric violin."

For those who wish to compose and record, "you can start doing things with Garage Band; it's a great starting point. Also, effects-wise, a great multi-effect pedal will allow you to have more vocabulary in your instrument. An effect pedal that I use right now is the Boss ME-80 Multi-Effects Pedal. It's made by Rolland, but Boss is the brand. It's a $300 pedal; if you buy a YEV and a Boss ME 80, you can do anything. And you get Garage Band to record it. But as far a performing situation, if you have a a YEV and a Boss you have reverb, you have distortion, you can pitch-shift your violin down an octave so you don't even need a five-string. I don't like five-strings, if I play a five-string and get too comfortable I feel very weird going back to a four-string and weirds me out. I'm a classical violinist, I don't like feeling foreign on my home instrument."

And how about Baptiste?

"Will plays viola, and there is no five-string electric for him that matches viola. Will doesn't play electric at all; he just puts a Fishman cello pickup on his acoustic. He feels the cello picks up more of the bottom that's required in viola; whereas you use the violin pickup it's too thin because it's trying to process E string all the time. So he uses a cello pickup on his viola, and that's a big part of his sound, especially live."

"When we record, we make sure all the top line that you hear is acoustic violin," he said. "On our albums, we're going to make really hard beats, there will be some violin production aspects that are electric, but all of the solos, all the prominent top violin you hear is 100 percent acoustic. That to me, is what will bridge the gap, with listeners who may not like hip-hop. For example, our Shaker melody is a beautiful violin top line, it's just 808 basses and hard snares underneath it. I think that's the key to the gumbo, where you don't lose anyone."

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December 1, 2016 at 03:08 PM · Great article! Made me think of ThatViolaKid on Youtube, a black viola student at Juilliard! He is also a great comedian:

December 3, 2016 at 01:36 AM · Is the video overdubbed with the Yahama electric?

December 3, 2016 at 06:46 AM · Thanks for the interview, Laurie! It's stimulating to hear someone talk about breaking out of the mold in such a creative way.

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