Beethoven, Biggie Smalls or both?
Tchaikovsky, Tupac or the two together?
Mozart, Mos Def or most anything you’ve enjoyed hearing in three-plus decades on the planet?
The answer for Black Violin has always been all of the above.
The name of the group, which comes to Knight Theater Tuesday and Wednesday, tells just part of the story.
In the first place, only Kevin Sylvester (aka Kev Marcus) plays violin; Wilner Baptiste (known as Wil B) plays the slightly larger and deeper viola.
In the second, they come with a band, including a drummer and DJ SPS on turntables. You need an ensemble to fuse classical training with hip-hop, rock, R&B and bluegrass. (And maybe a touch of jazz: Black Violin takes its name from a 1965 album recorded by American jazzman Stuff Smith, who died before they were born.)
And the weird thing? These two string guys, ranked among music’s most diverse performers after 13 years together, didn’t intend to be performers at all.
They met at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., then went to separate colleges to study music. When they met again afterward, the idea was to become ... producers.
“In college I didn’t think about any of the stuff we eventually did, the hip-hop fusion thing,” says Wil B. “I was just a performance major who’d go into a room in my apartment complex at 2 or 3 in the morning and play any type of piece – experimenting, but nothing for real. I wasn’t thinking of any goal.
“Then I moved back to South Florida, he bought a condo, we moved in together and started producing music for rappers and singers. We’d perform with local artists, we saw how the crowd looked at it and thought, ‘Well, let’s do the artist thing.’ But listening to a hip-hop tune and putting violin and viola on top of it was something we did for fun. We didn’t think people would like it, actually!”
They accompanied Alicia Keys at the 2004 Billboard Awards and won the 2005 Showtime at the Apollo Legend title. And somewhere along the way, they stopped thinking outside the box because they realized there was no box.
“I don’t think anything is off-limits to us,” says Wil B. “I (can respond to) something about all genres. I don’t listen to country music, but if there’s a beautiful country song, that might speak to me.
“I’m a big content guy. If what you’re saying isn’t feeding me, it’s garbage to me. It can’t bring me to any negative space. Things like that are off-limits to me as a player. But you could put me with a heavy metal band, which is not something I typically listen to, and I could respond.”
Are he and Kev ever tempted to trade jeans for tails and hit the road – however briefly – with Mozart’ masterpiece, the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola?
“Not at all, but I do miss it. Every time we get an opportunity to sit in an orchestra, even with some kids, it’s a treat. I love chamber music. I love Brahms and Shostakovich; they’re my favorite composers. But to go back and wear a tux ... That feeling of prestigiousness is why a lot of kids don’t connect with that music, particularly in an inner city.
“We’re showing kids that you can do anything you want with an instrument. We bridge gaps. If it feels right to us, we do it, and hopefully it will feel right to the masses.”