These are tough times, but the Florida classical/hip-hop hybrid duo had a mantra in mind as it recorded its new album Take the Stairs, premiering exclusively below: Hope.
“That was the bullet point word on the wall in the studio in Miami. We wrote it in big letters and had a couple of stripes underneath it to emphasize it,” the group’s Kev Marcus (Kevin Sylvester) tells Billboard. “We wanted to be hopeful but not preachy and just make music that comes from hope and shows why you should be hopeful. We wanted the album to be almost like something you refer back to every now and then to recalibrate your need and your desire for hope.”
In that way, Marcus and Wil B (Wil Baptiste) consider Take the Stairs to be very much an album of its time looking for a positivity that’s sorely lacking from popular discourse — evidenced in the titles of tracks such as “Rise,” “One Step,” “New Life” and “Impossible Is Possible.” “There’s so much reason for optimism, so many ways it seems like people can get it,” says Marcus, who met Baptiste in high school orchestra class. “I feel like most streams of media or most streams of consciousness are so polarized. Most of it doesn’t feel like it’s feeding you anything, like you’re eating junk food. We love music with message, so we wanted to make something that felt like a meal, something that would satisfy you and satisfy the soul. That’s part of our brand, our mission; We want to speak to things that need to have light shined on them, and it’s time for us to use this platform to its fullest.”
Black Violin — which has also collaborated with Wu-Tang Clan, Alicia Keys, 2 Chainz, Lil Wayne and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda — recorded Take the Stairs during late 2018, mostly with producer Phil Beaudreau. “We had so much time with this project that we really sat on it and felt like we got every note and every word right,” Marcus says. “It’s purposeful and there is no fat, really, compared to other projects. When I hear it, I don’t get that kind of insecurity you can usually get — ‘Oh, we should’ve done it this way’ or ‘We should’ve done that better.’ We feel like we got everything right where we wanted.”
Take the Stairs continues to celebrate Black Violin’s genre-less approach to music, from the futuristic anthem “One Step” to the elaborate “Serenade,” which weaves in elements of Dvorak’s “Serenade for Strings” atop a beat — something Marcus says he and Baptiste “are ashamed we haven’t thought of before. We could’ve been doing this for 15 years.” “Al Green,” co-produced with Salaam Remi, takes melodic inspiration, as well as an introductory spoken sample, from the legendary singer, while “Impossible Is Possible” has the soaring pop liftoff of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida.”
Black Violin is spreading its message primarily on the road; The duo plays 200 or more concerts a year, including school and youth performances, and is active in philanthropic endeavors such as its own Black Violin Foundation and the Kennedy Center’s Turnaround Arts program. “I’m still surprised by it,” Marcus says of the decade and a half run. “Every time I’m playing I have moments where I can’t believe I’m still playing this violin my mom put me into class to learn 30 years ago,” Marcus says. “Half of me is ‘I always knew we could do this’ and the other half is ‘I can’t believe it worked’ — kind of both of those at the same time. It’s been really rewarding, but we feel like there’s a lot more for us to do, too.”