Many genres reach the point in their lifecycle where they openly and regularly borrow and mix with other forms of music. Hip-hop is a genre whose very existence came out of such innovation. The hip-hop artists I tend to enjoy the most are either mainstream (Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, and the like), or the ones that incorporate rap as one of many unexpected musical styles. Artists like Mos Def, who masterfully employed his rock and funk all-star band, Black Jack Johnson, as back up on The New Danger, is one such example. Miri Ben-Ari, the hip-hop violinist, is another.
Ben-Ari’s background and rise has been well documented: She is an Israeli-born child protégé who was recommended for an America-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarship by Isaac Stern. Following a two-year stint in the Israeli army, Ben-Ari came to the United States and found jazz. After producing two acclaimed jazz albums, she was discovered by Wyclef Jean, which eventually led to her writing, producing, and performing all of the strings on Kanye West’s debut, The College Dropout. That exposure directed Ben-Ari to this project, The Hip-Hop Violinist.
It’s a Miri Ben-Ari album because she wrote and arranged the strings and plays violin on it, but at the end of the day it is simply an excellent hip-hop mix-tape. Featuring, on its best cuts, Akon, Fatman Scoop, Kanye West, John Legend, and Doug E. Fresh, among others, The Hip-Hop Violinist caters to the MC. After a 40 second intro of studio chatter where Ben-Ari introduces herself as, what else, “the hip-hop violinist”, the disc opens with “We Gonna Win”, featuring Styles P. Ambitiously claiming that “This is theme music / This is dream music / This is that ‘get free’ music,” the menacing beats and Ben-Ari’s violin merge in a horror/gangsta mix that builds to an unbelievable crescendo before finally exhausting itself. While the song might not necessarily achieve Styles P’s claim that “This is art”, it is a great opener.
Switching quickly to an unbelievable reggae vibe, Fatman Scoop and Vicious deliver “Jump and Spread Out”. The bass is thumping in your chest and you have to actually fight the natural urge to follow Fatman Scoop’s commands to “jump”, “stomp on the floor”, and “get your lighters up”.
One of the rare tunes where you feel like you might get to know Ben-Ari is on the Fabolous/Kanye West cut, “Fly Away”. What opens with interesting strings ends up just a tease as it quickly turns to another hip-hop song that happens to include strings. Akon’s rap/R&B hybrid delivery shines here with “Miss Melody”. Akon’s rhymes and Ben-Ari’s strings antagonize each other in a tense exchange. It is one of the few tracks where the MC and Ben-Ari complement each other and you feel the two are on equal ground.
The bombastic “New World Symphony” is a shot over the bow of the Republican powerbrokers. Co-written and produced by West, the left-leaning, anti-Bush rant is delivered flawlessly by Pharoahe Monch, as he warns “We are the future / You are the past / Don’t get in our way / ‘Cause we’ll kick your ass / You might be on top now / But time moves fast.” The Deep South party call “4 Flat Tires” featuring New Orleans’ Baby, Lil’ Wayne, and 6 Shot is another late album standout.
Ben-Ari is drop dead gorgeous. And the MCs on the album often circle back to that, as well as the “hip-hop violinist” moniker, throughout their rhymes. It all comes off sort of gimmicky after wading through the whole album, although the results ultimately end up in Ben-Ari’s favor. Of the 15 tracks, seven are killer, three are good, four are weak, and one is a remix of a killer track. Taken as a compilation of entertaining rap, The Hip-Hop Violinist succeeds.