KEVIN SYLVESTER– known as Kev Marcus in the duo Black Violin – was looking for a new home in a community nearby his long-time home of Fort Lauderdale, Florida recently.
He got a few laughs from the process.
“The Dolphins training facility is like five minutes from where we’re moving,” says Sylvester, who checks in at six foot two and a muscular 275.
“So every place that I go, every realtor thinks I play for the Dolphins. They automatically assume it, which makes sense because I work out and I’m a big guy,” he says.
“I’ve gotten that my whole life, but in these type of situations, this realtor yesterday was like ‘Yeah, I’ve sold to a lot of players in this neighborhood.’ He just kind of went there,” Sylvester recalls.
“And he was like ‘So, are you playing for the Dolphins? What are you doing?’ And I’m like ‘No, I’m actually a violinist.’ I love that moment when they’re just not expecting to see that.”
Marcus’ counterpart in Black Violin, Wil Baptiste (Wil B.), is also classically trained and is six foot two, although more of a slender build. And they relish the idea that they’re breaking stereotypes – not just by not looking like typical violinists, but in the ways they bring together classical, hip-hop, soul and pop in their music.
The seeds for the musical path they’re pursuing sprouted in high school, when one day Marcus had an idea for how to incorporate violin into the Busta Rhymes song “Gimme Some More.”
“I had a Sony Ericsson phone that you programmed the ringtone, and that particular song was all quarter notes,” Marcus says.
“So when I figured out the notes, I put it in the phone and when my phone rang in orchestra class, the ringtone started playing. So my teacher took my phone from me and then gave it back to me at the end of the class, and after class my friends were like how do you do that? Did you download that? People were just blown away that my phone made that song.”
After high school, Marcus and Baptiste went to different colleges, but stayed in touch and began making beats and producing tracks for hip-hop artists.
When artists would stop by the studio, Marcus and Baptiste would often pick up the violins and start playing along with the tracks.
“Every time we would play a song people would know, we’d play it on violin, their minds were exploding,” Marcus says.
“We were like ‘This is so easy, why don’t we just monetize this?’ That’s sort of how it all started evolving, because it was something we did effortlessly that people just lost their mind for.”
But before they could try to really explore and establish the hybrid of classical and hip-hop, their musical paths took an unexpected – and fortuitous – turn.
Looking to make their own break, Marcus and Baptiste in 2004 used up their entire savings to fly to New York to compete on “Showtime at the Apollo,” the program that provided the template for “American Idol.”
Things didn’t go as the duo hoped – at least in one respect.
“Apollo told us we needed to be there for a week, because if we won the show, then we’d need to come back the next day and perform again, and then the next day and perform again,” Marcus explains.
“But when we went, we ended up winning the first show at 12:30, then we won the next show at 4:30 and then the next show at 7:30. We won all three shows, and once you win three shows, you have to come back for the finals. So we won all three shows in one day and we had six more days in New York City.
Wanting to take advantage of the time, they contacted their manager. He had become friends with the manager of Alicia Keys, and was able to arrange a meeting for Marcus and Baptiste.
“We went to his office, went upstairs, performed for him,” Marcus says. “He didn’t really seem completely involved with our performance, but that’s how music executives are, which is what we learned later on.”
Almost as soon as Marcus and Baptiste landed back in Florida, their manager got a call saying Keys wanted the duo to join her band for a performance during the 2004 “Billboard Music Awards.”
This performance opened the door for Marcus and Baptiste to land a series of jobs performing in the touring bands of several, shall we say, notable acts – including Kanye West, Jay-Z and Linkin Park, as well as Keys.
Eventually, though, Marcus and Baptiste decided they couldn’t abandon the musical idea that began back in high school with that Busta Rhymes song. That meant focusing on Black Violin.
“It was weird because in the beginning we started our career really on the ‘Apollo,’ but the Alicia Keys and the whole us being part of a band for a major artist, that kind of took off before we were able to establish what Black Violin was,” Marcus says.
“So we actually had to stop taking gigs with the artists in order to develop ourselves. It was one of the hardest things we had to do, because we made great money playing with these artists. We made great money playing with all of these people. But we knew there was something about what we were doing and we wanted to develop that.”
Black Violin’s career move seems to be working out. Over the past couple of years, the duo has been able to build a presence in writing music for commercials, television, movies and other media.
Meanwhile, Black Violin’s audience has been growing as the duo has released three albums – “Black Violin” (2008), “Classically Trained” (2012) and “Stereotypes” (2015). The latter album showed considerable growth musically, as the synthesis of classical violin and hip-hop (with bits of pop and soul filtered in as well) became more seamless and dynamic. The music rocks at times (as on “Another Chance” and ‘Runnin’”) and the beats are assertive.
But Marcus and Baptiste also show a gift for melody, and the musicality of songs like the ballad “Addiction” and the punchy “Send Me A Sign” helps make their sound appealing even to those who aren’t fans of hip-hop.
The duo is working on a new album. Marcus sees further development in the songs being considered for the as-yet-untitled next album. He noted that Baptiste has really started coming into his own as a lead vocalist.
“I’m just really excited about showcasing Wil’s vocals more, but still keeping the violin lush and beautiful and still making it something that shouldn’t go together, but we’ve found ways of making it harmonious and digestible to anyone, whether you love Mahler and Beethoven or you love Drake and Kanye West,” Marcus says.
“That’s always been our calling card and we’re sticking with that, but we’re just spreading the genre out a little bit more.”
Marcus says people who see Black Violin on tour this summer and fall will get a preview of some of the new songs. As on recent tours, Marcus (on violin) and Baptiste (on viola and vocals) will be joined by drummer Nat Stokes and turntablist extraordinaire DJ SPS, and Marcus believes the group’s energetic performance will be a unique and thrilling experience for concert-goers.
“The four of us combine to really give a show that, we can basically guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it,” Marcus says. “It ends up being a great show.”