This Violin Duo Makes Sweet Music By Mixing Classical With Hip-Hop

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A cafeteria rap battle is just about the last thing you’d expect to launch the career of a classical musician. But then again, as one half of Florida’s classical/hip-hop fusion act Black Violin, Wil Baptiste thrives on turning expectations on their head.

A security guard at Baptiste’s middle school overheard him rapping and told him that he should join the school band, adding that he could make money on the weekend by learning saxophone and busking. But when Baptiste went to sign up and learn the sax, he was placed into a strings class instead and forced to learn the viola.

“I was stuck in that class for two weeks,” he says of the summer program, but found that he enjoyed the viola so much that he transferred schools to keep playing it when his local school’s program was cancelled the next year.

That constant sense of shifting and unexpected turns is one of the only throughlines in the story of Black Violin. In spite of gaining tutelage as members of chamber orchestras throughout high school and college, both Baptiste and BV violin player Kev Marcus immediately returned to hip-hop after graduation.

“After college, I came back down from Florida State. And we wanted to be beat producers,” he reveals. “We were trying to be the next Neptunes.”

He said that the idea to mix classical and hip-hop sounds together was never a conscious thing, that it grew organically out of their work as producers.

“We’d make a beat and have artists come by to listen to it,” he tells us. “They’d be listening to the beat, vibing and we would go into the next room and pull out violins and start freestyling. The artists would always be like, ‘That’s dope! I want that.’ It’s always been something we’ve done, we didn’t think anything of it.”

Around 2004, Marcus and Baptiste began performing at clubs in Miami, using their ability to riff over hip-hop sounds to shock clubgoers.

“It got a great reaction. People were always just a little confused,” Baptiste admits. “You know, they’re in the club, so they’re already a little tipsy and all of a sudden they just see these two big, black guys playing violin.”

That gobsmacked reaction to watching them perform fueled their careers. But nothing illustrated how special their unique blend of sounds was more than the reaction they got performing in front of the notoriously tough crowd at the Apollo Theatre.

While the mix of sounds that makes Black Violin a special act was an unconscious outgrowth of the music Kev and Wil loved, Baptiste says that the group very consciously rails against stereotypes from all sides.

“We’re breaking stereotypes in so many different ways,” he proudly professes. “We’re challenging the idea of what a violin can do and what a black man can do. If you come to a Black Violin show, you’re going to see a big black guy not only playing violin well, but doing it in a way that’s never really been done before.”

Baptiste and Marcus use their own atypical story to inspire kids coming from the same impoverished background that the duo came from.

“The kids go crazy over our show,” says Baptiste. “They look at the way we look and the way we dress and are blown away that we’re doing this…You can see the kids are forever changed. ”

While Baptiste doesn’t necessarily want kids to grow up to be another Black Violin, he hopes to inspire them to think outside the box.

“The world needs people who are going to do it differently than anyone’s ever done it,” concludes Baptiste. “We need a world of thinkers.”

If you’d like to hear more Black Violin, you can buy their album Stereotypes on iTunes or Amazon.