There was no real precedent for the music that Florida natives and classmates Kevin Sylvester and Wilner Baptiste began making as Black Violin back in 2004. Both men are, as the title of their 2012 album indicates, classically trained — Sylvester plays violin and Baptiste plays viola. And both men also grew up loving the beats and attitude of hip-hop. Eventually, they just decided to combine the two and give life to a style of music that previously existed only in their imaginations.
"There weren't any examples around of people doing what we were doing," Baptiste says. "We would hear a hard-hitting hip-hop beat and just play string-heavy stuff over it. It was very natural; we didn't think it was weird — it made sense. It was this combination of a very aggressive beat with these softer, melodic instruments on top of it, and it happened very organically."
Classically Trained isn't technically the pair's debut album (they had a self-titled release and a couple of EPs before that), but it serves as the best blueprint for the sound they created. Over a series of hard-rocking electronic beats, Baptiste and Sylvester, a.k.a. Wil B and Kev Marcus, unleash a torrent of dazzling playing from their instruments, weaving incredible solos around one another and creating mournful melodies on a series of songs with titles like "Opus," "Rhapsody," and "Virtuoso."
On paper, it doesn't sound like it should work, but the music tells the tale.
"When you think about hip-hop you get this idea in your head," Baptiste says. "Same thing with classical. You think of people sitting around drinking tea or something; when you think of hip-hop, you think of an aggressive, loud kid. Those two things are very opposite, but we were able to make it work."
Their music is at once gorgeous and tough, taking the best elements of classical music and hip-hop and merging them into something bigger. And in the beginning, that mix of styles seemed kinda weird to the people who heard it.
"When we started out, we played clubs, and everyone would be having a good time dancing, and then you'd see these two black guys walking around playing violins," Baptiste says with a laugh. "A few people would look at us funny, like, 'What's happening right now? Shouldn't they be in tuxedos playing Mozart or Beethoven?' But they warmed up to it."
"Warmed up to it" is a bit of an understatement. In 2005, Baptiste and Sylvester won over one of the toughest crowds in showbiz: The audience at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater. The duo won the theater's Amateur Night competition in 2005 and got a standing ovation for their efforts.
"After we did the Apollo, that's when we realized we had something special," Baptiste says. "They enjoy booing people offstage. They have fun doing that. So to go there and get a standing ovation, you've got to be doing something right."
Since that night, Black Violin has founded their own production company, Di Versatile, Inc., and worked with an array of artists including Kanye West, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, and Lupe Fiasco. They also played one of the inaugural balls for President Barack Obama back in 2013.
The band's 2015 album, Stereotypes (which hit no. 1 on Billboard's Classical Crossover chart and climbed into the top five on the R&B chart) revealed a sense of social consciousness to go alongside their musical innovation. Over an expanding instrumental palette that incorporated electronic pop and, increasingly, orchestral arrangements, the duo took on cultural myths (the title track), racism ("Invisible"), and self-belief ("Another Chance"), laying out an inclusive philosophy to go along with their genre-spanning music.
"We do feel a responsibility," Baptiste says of the band's approach. "We don't shy away from social commentary. When you have a certain platform and people get inspired by you, you should be careful with that power. It's not about being perfect — it's about using the tools that you have to engage people."
The duo's new single, "Dreamer," carries on that message of inspiration, both lyrically and with its video. "This is the day when I finish the race," Baptiste sings in an electronically treated voice as a parade of young people pursue their dreams, from athletics to art to simply raising a happy family, "I'll make it somehow, no matter how long it takes."
The song, a stirring mid-tempo anthem with a goosebump-inducing, ascending melody line and its video both preach determination and individuality, things Baptiste says Black Violin took more from hip-hop than the classical music world.
"Hip-hop has such a bold culture of 'Be who you are, be yourself, express yourself,' he says. "Hip hop is about expression. Whereas on the classical side, you're taught to play this way and this way only. Your interpretation of a piece is very limited. This composer wrote it and he intended it to be expressed this way. Hip-hop is literally the opposite. You have free reign."
That "free reign" is what Black Violin means to celebrate on their new string of live dates, which they're calling the Impossible Tour, where they'll be joined onstage by DJ SPS and drummer Nat Stokes.
"The idea is that we represent that anything is possible, no matter who you are or where you're from," Baptiste says. "We thought about different names and we landed on this one because the impossible is possible."