Is Hip Hop Hip to Strings?
One of the things I love about music is listening to and watching talented instrumentalists. During the “classic rock” era, people who were great at playing instruments were stars. Names like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton still invoke a sense of awe. Yet somehow the great instrumentalists got brushed aside as rock music was replaced in the market place by the repetitive melodies and drum machine grooves that defined the music known as disco.
You would have thought that after a while the public would have thirsted to hear great instrumentalists again, but after the death of disco a new music sprang up that had even less use for instrumentalists. It was made up largely of pre-recorded sound loops, snippets of other recordings (samples), record scratches, and someone talking to a beat. So began the reign of hip hop.
Many people were drawn to the new sound, but not I. I was drawn to music, from the beginning, because I loved instruments. By my teens I was playing rock guitar professionally, but I turned my attention to the cello in order to blaze a new path. I wanted to do for the cello what Hendrix did for the guitar. But by the time I was old enough to get out there, the music had changed. I was saddened when the classic rock era ended, but I thought if I could just wait out the disco movement my time would come.
I remember the first time I heard what was then called rap. It was a summer afternoon in the early ’80s when suddenly I heard this loud music blasting out of a “boom box” carried on the shoulder of a big black guy walking down Amsterdam Ave. in my neighborhood in NYC. My heart sank as I heard this music without melody, and I remember saying to myself, “Don’t tell me this is going to be the next big thing. How the hell am I going to fit a cello into that?”
Yet, a few years later, I wrote a hip hop soundtrack for a film about inner city life called, “Dream City” (produced by Steven Seigel). The music was made up of drum loops, synthesized bass lines, guitar, and cello…funky, distorted, electric cello. I programmed the bass and drums, and played the instruments. A vocalist named John Brown did the rap. This may very well have been the first time a cello was used in hip hop. Certainly it was the first time a cello was featured. Though the songs did not become widely known, the movie did win awards at several film festivals.
Then in the 1990s I rewrote the words to one of the songs, creating the “Cello Player’s Rap,” which I recorded on my first CD, Breaking The Sound Barriers. Starting out with an electric cello version of a Hendrix-style “Star Spangled Banner,” the song blends into a hip hop groove with a rap about an angry cello player who can’t make a living playing the cello because all people want to listen to is rap!
The song sometimes provoked an angry reaction, the gist of which was, “What right do you have to express anger in a rap? You are a middle-class, white cello player. Rap is about poor people from the street who have a right to be angry.” But the fact is, I was angry too! I was driven from my dream of being a revolutionary rock cellist by disco and then by rap, and had no option but to work in stifling orchestra jobs and club date gigs, barely making a living between the two. But even those jobs started drying up. The classical audience was shrinking and orchestras were folding for lack of funds. And in the club date field, DJs were putting trained musicians out of work in droves.
So, aside from my gigs, I had to teach music and even manage a building to pay my rent. After all the years I had spent struggling and experimenting, trying to come up with a new style of cello playing, I could not turn my dream into reality. I felt I had plenty to be angry about and I let it all hang out in that song. You can download an audio clip of it here: http://www.voncello.com/music/ANTHEMCELLO_PLAYERS_RA.mp3
The years went by and a few brave souls made albums and toured using strings. Nirvana used a cello on some cuts; Metallica did a tour with an orchestra. David Bowie did some performances with a string quartet (some of which I played). Several other famous groups used strings here and there, but the string players were always in the background. There were even a few bands that featured strings but they never achieved great commercial success. There were quartets that played in a rock style, and several violinists made stabs at rock stardom, but most stayed under the radar of the general public.
Yet surprisingly, the sound of strings has recently been creeping into hip hop. I first noticed it in Sisqo’s “Thong Song” (of all songs)! Though the words were about how much Sisqo likes to look at girls in thongs, it did have a sophisticated string quartet-type sound in the hook of the song. As time went on, hip hop producers became more and more willing to experiment with all types of sounds, from Middle Eastern grooves to the latest electronic sounds to strings.
Enter Miri Ben-Ari. A classically trained violinist, she came to the U.S. from Israel many years ago and quickly embraced American sounds from jazz to hip hop. First noticed by Wyclef Jean, Miri has performed with many hip hop and R&B luminaries, from Kanye West to Alicia Keys to Jay-Z. She is now being promoted by top hip hop entrepreneurs as “The Hip Hop Violinist.”
Believe it or not, I used to play Orthodox Jewish weddings with Miri! When I first heard that she was getting known as “The Hip Hop Violinist,” I couldn’t believe it. But upon checking out her music and seeing how she has been embraced by the hip hop community, I felt happy, not just for her, but for all string players. Could it be that hip hop will be the popular musical form that will finally get hip to strings?
As for me, I have not been standing still. I’ve been working with an up and coming hip hop producer by the name of Rick Budo. He came up with the concept for a rap tune using nothing but cello and drums. We laid down the tracks at JSM Music Studios with the assistance of Ali Dee, a producer who once had a few hip hop hits of his own (and hired me to play on several tracks with his artists). Rick is finalizing a deal for his band Bully Pulpit, (featuring MC Keith Spitz) and if all goes well, I may yet get my cello sounds out there in a big way. You can hear a ruff mix of the song (minus the rap) here: http://www.voncello.com/music/VCraptune.mp3
Who knows? I may become “The Hip Hop Cellist”. But even if I just became known as a cellist who plays some hip hop, that would be fine. And wouldn’t it be ironic if the music I once saw as robbing me of my opportunity for rock stardom became the very music that gave me my big break? But beyond my own personal situation, I can only hope that the use of strings in hip hop will grow and become a milestone in that pop string revolution I have been fighting for.
Now that hip hop is hip to strings, it is time for string players to get hip to hip hop. Once upon a time, African Americans started playing European instruments, and jazz was born. This was a great thing, but the strings were largely left out of the jazz revolution, and later the rock revolution. Now the cross fertilization that seems only possible in America is bringing new music to life once again.
And what could be hipper than the beautiful sound of the classic strings mixing with the raw energy and power of music from the American street? It speaks to something beyond the music. It speaks to what Dr. Martin Luther King called “a color blind society”, a society where people of all backgrounds can bring their talents to the mix, creating perhaps the most beautiful music of all.
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