No matter how many interviews I do, I think I will always get nervous. Every time I have to talk to an artist I go through a cycle of emotions where I am nervous, confident, nervous, relaxed, then want to throw up. Maybe it's a good thing, it keeps me on my toes and means that I still care. After the first couple minutes, the nerves subside, it just turns into me talking to another human being, and before you know it I've been on the phone for 45 minutes and we're talking about pizza. That's usually how all my interviews go, but the chat I had with Miri Ben-Ari, hip-hop's most famous violonist, was different. The more she talked, the more I learned about what she is doing both in and out of music, the more starstruck I was. By the end I was more in awe than at the beginning.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Miri, let's get up to speed. If you've ever heard a violin on a hip-hop song, chances are you are hearing Miri. Born and raised in Israel, and classically trained in violin, Miri has taken her love of jazz and classical music and brought it into hip-hop, appearing on classic songs like "Overnight Celebrity", John Legend's "Live It Up" and even "Reunited" by the one and only Wu-Tang Clan.
"I grew up in Israel. I'm classically trained and I came here to learn how to improvise. I fell in love with jazz music and I won a competition as a teenager and the first prize was coming here to the states. I felt if I came here after my mandatory military service, I can maybe learn how to become an original artist and write and compose my own music. My instrument was a violin so I stuck to that. Today I've become a producer too. I actually produce my own music and have been producing my own music; a lot of people don't know that. And when I say producing I mean from A-Z. Everything from the beats to mixing to engineering."
Her music is important in and of itself, but ultimately it serves a much more altruistic purpose. With her violin as her instrument of change, she has become the UN's Goodwill Ambassador of Music, received the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Israeli Award, and has even performed for the president. But before we get to all that, let's focus on the music.
None of this - the awards, the social change, Alicia Keys' "Fallin'" - would be possible without one song; Notorious B.I.G's "One More Chance." It was the first hip-hop song she ever heard.
"I was in the Village hanging out with friends. I heard it and said, 'Hold on. What's that? What's that sound?!' It was Biggie Smalls' 'One More Chance.' I didn't grow up on hip-hop music, it was so fresh to me when I got here; it was so cool."
Now, I love "One More Chance", but when compared to say, the "Moonlight Sonata", it's just a bit of a change. With her classical background, I wonder what it was about "One More Chance" that inspired Miri. Maybe classical music and hip-hop aren't so far apart. So, as someone who is an expert on both, I thought Miri would be the right person to ask about how hip-hop and classical overlap.
"Music is music and different genres use elements from other genres. If you listen to hip-hop music it has classical elements all over; classical language, classical instruments. I know I brought a lot of classical elements to hip-hop, although the way that I groove it is not classical. I play a classical instrument - you can't be more classical then the violin - but I flip it differently when I play different genres. One of things people say is my signature is the way I play R&B. My favorits feedback I get is when they say my violin sounds like a voice. That is my goal as my artist. The sky's the limit. I've broadened way beyond hip-hop music. My song with Armen Van Buren, "Intense" was the trance song of the year last year. My latest collaborates are with Kenny G and Donna Summer, the queen of disco. But starting my career with hip-hop, the experience of being with on stage with hip-hop artists, definitely contributed to the artist I am today."
One of the best examples of what classical music can do for a hip-hop track can be heard on "Overnight Celebrity." A slightly raunchy, catchy song is given some serious teeth thanks to Miri's input. To me, it's the epitome of bridging that gap, so I asked her about how "Overnight Celebrity" came to be.
"At the time I was recording a lot for Kanye's album and we were just going back and forth sharing everything we were working on. He was working on that, wanted me to open the song, and had a sample. But he didn't want it to sound like a sample, he wanted something more original. Most of my sessions with Kanye, including that one, I would just get a track and he would say "express yourself." He trusted me and I created that."
For most artists, a song with Kanye is a career highlight, but the success and inherit dopeness of "Overnight Celebrity" pales in comparison to some of Ben-Ari's other work, specifically the Martin Luther King Jr. tribute, "Symphony of Brotherhood," where Miri is featured along side the words of Martin Luther King.
"If I had to explain to people who I am as an artist and a person, what I do, I would probably choose this song. For so many reasons. I think to this day it's the only song that introduced and captures violin in a soulful way of playing that hasn't been captured on tape. I've never heard any artist play R&B like that, being featured like a vocalist. On one end it's like an R&B song, and on the other, because of the strings, it's like a soundtrack to the message and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. That also captures me as an individual, as someone who strives for civil rights and creating social balance. That song represents me to the fullest."
Making a song like that is great, but for Miri it's just one of the many ways she enacts change with her music. Some of her most important contributions come when she puts down the violin.
"One of the things I'm very proud of is my non-profit organization Gedenk [Yiddish for "remember"], which you can learn about at Gedenkmovement.org. We have been running the award for tolerance with The Scholastic, a very well-respected origination. Our contest is asking kids to express themselves via writing and art, based on lessons in tolerance learned from the Holocaust.
If you read the kids work, it's incredible. I handpicked the winners last year and there are some brilliant, brilliant children in this country. It's unbelievable what art can do to kids. How art can show the young generation how to educate and express themselves."
UN Ambassador. Award for Tolerance. Needless to say Miri is busy doing so much to create change outside of music, it makes me wonder how she even has time to record music. How does she balance both a career in music and a career as an activist? Simple, she doesn't.
"Instead of having two careers and being two different people - I can not be two people - I brought everything together. For example, I just got back from Seattle where I was at the main event for the Independent Sector Conference, it's where all the big non-profit originations in the United States that care about changing the world in different ways - social, environmental, endless ways - come to figure out how they can all work together. What I really care about these days is combing the art with a message. So you have a piece of art, how can you utilize that as a vehicle for a message and what is your message?"
Honestly, I almost didn't know what to say. I didn't feel like I was worthy, or passionate enough, to talk to someone who is not only so talented but uses those talents for good. Music is the most powerful force on the planet. It can connect generations, races, genders and move people in ways nothing else can. However, that power is often stifled by our own self-centeredness. As someone who has an outlet for their voice, I'm guilty of it too. We become so worried about all the trivial aspects of music, from samples to best of lists, we strip music of that power.
It takes motivated talented and courageous artists like Miri to show us the true power of our weapon and it can't be taken lightly. Whether you are a blogger, a manager, an artist or even a fan, stop and think about what the music you are making and listening to is doing to make the world a better place. Use Miri as a guide, a source of inspiration, but make a change in your own way. You don't need to be accepting awards and performing with Kanye to make a difference.
To keep up to date with all things Miri, give her a follow @MiriBenAri and visit her website miribenari.com early and often. And be sure to check back at the DJBooth for her upcoming album, which she describes as a crossover between Daft Punk and Earth, Wind & Fire.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]