Even a unique music act– such as Black Violin’s fusion of classical music and hip hop– is bound to sound familiar from album to album. But violinist Kev Marcus has no problem seeing a difference between Take The Stairs and the previous two albums he has made as one half of the duo, Black Violin. In fact, he can sum it up in one word.
“This is the most authentic album we’ve ever done,” he said in a recent phone interview. “The album is who we are. That was the best part of it. It didn’t feel like we had to try to conform or act like anything else, and we were still able to make an album that we feel very, very proud about without necessarily compromising our ideas in any way– all without being preachy.”
Without dismissing their previous work, Marcus sees several reasons why he and his Black Violin partner, viola/keyboardist/singer Will Baptiste, were able to achieve start-to-finish authenticity on Take The Stairs.
“Our very first album was, it was our life’s work,” he said. “It’s everything up until the point where we were 23 years old, and we put that out. But since then, this is the most authentic album, and I think it’s because honestly, we had a long time to do it. Stereotypes came out in 2015, we were looking for producers, looking for different situations since we had to fight to get out of our deal with Universal. We had so many other things that were happening at that time.
“Then last year, we got together with [producer] Phil [Beaudreau] in like September, and the album was done in like October last year,” Marcus said. “Since then, we’ve just sat on it and been able to fix this note, change this snare, fix this word. I mean, I’m more at peace with every note on this project than I’ve ever been on anything we’ve ever done. So I think that’s some of it, just the authenticity of it. There are no, we would say on previous albums, there were songs that were like breast implants. Like they’re us, we wrote the song, but the song’s on the album because there’s a good feature [guest artist] on it. Maybe it doesn’t perfectly sync up or match with the album. But there’s a really good feature on it or there’s a big-time producer on it or the label really likes it. This album has none of that. Like the only thing that’s on the album, every note and every word, we both loved it and wanted it. Because of that, there’s this authenticity, there’s this real rawness, this genuineness about it.”
Beyond authenticity, Marcus sees musical growth in Take The Stairs. And while the fusion of classical and hip hop remains very much at the core of the duo’s sound, Marcus feels three songs– “Rise”, “Serenade”, and “Elgar Nimrod” — represent a creative breakthrough. He used “Serenade” to explain what was different.
Drawn from classical composer Antonin Dvorak’s Serenade For Strings, the song essentially turns the group’s usual approach to mixing hip hop and classical on its head.
“Normally, in pop or hip hop, when you sample a classical song, normally it would be like you open up Pro Tools or whatever you use to create music, and you’ll start a click [track], with the click being like 120 [beats per minute], and you take that classical piece and you match it to the click,” Marcus said. “That’s how we’ve always done it. That’s how everyone seems to do it when they want a sample or they want to use classical elements [and bring them] into a pop world. ‘Serenade’, we did it differently. We took London [Symphony Orchestra’s] interpretation of it, and then we mapped out a beat to that as if a conductor is conducting with a beat in the orchestra. We’d never approached it like that, and it was much more difficult than we thought in some ways but easier than we thought in others. So because of that, when you hear that song, it’s really a classical song, and it feels like it could fit on a classical [album]. But it does have a very current 2019 hip hop beat to it.
“To me, that’s almost like a breakthrough song for us,” he said. “We found a new way to create and to blend classical and hip hop that we had not done before, and for us, that’s a big deal.
While “Rise”, “Serenade”, and “Elgar Nimrod” are decidedly classical, most of the other songs blend hip hop, instrumentation, and melody more equally. For instance, “One Step” starts out with a sonic blast that’s almost industrial before layering in beats and an R&B-leaning vocal melody (sung by Baptiste, who has grown into a quite capable singer). “Lost in the Garden” has a bit of Marvin Gaye soul while “Spaz”, “Showoff”, and “Dreamer” are good examples of what Black Violin does best.
The musical hybrid of Black Violin is something Marcus and Baptiste began in high school when Marcus had an idea for how to incorporate violin into the Busta Rhymes song “Gimme Some More.”
That idea, however, was put on hold when, in 2004, after winning the “Showtime at the Apollo” talent competition, Marcus and Baptiste were introduced to the manager of Alicia Keys and were then hired to join her band for a performance during the 2004 Billboard Music Awards.
That led to touring opportunities, not only with Keys but Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Linkin Park among others. But the duo never lost sight of creating their own music, and eventually, they decided to stop taking touring gigs and pursue Black Violin in earnest.
Their self-titled debut arrived in 2008 followed in 2012 by Classically Trained and then Stereotypes. Along the way, Black Violin has built a robust touring business, had multiple songs used in commercials, television, movies, and other media, and have also become very involved in a variety of programs, including their own foundation that encourage kids to pursue music or any career they are passionate about– a message that is very much woven through several songs on the new album.
With Take The Stairs, Marcus and Baptiste have returned to the road bringing a unique live experience that includes long-time collaborators drummer Nat Stokes and turntablist extraordinaire DJ SPS.
“It’s more dynamic than the show has ever been because of the new album,” Marcus said of the live show. “The first and last songs on [the album] are the first and last songs of the show. So it’s like we really frame the show around Take The Stairs.
“We wanted to kind of use the character of the album and start and end the show with the two kind-of-like, classic-kind of palate cleansers,” he said. “Of course, we tell kids to dream, tell people to dream, the impossible is possible, just run through walls for whatever you’re passionate about. All of the messaging of the album is pretty much there [in the show].”