Pulling the White Strings

Light-skinned acts ride hip-hop’s changing tide with dark-skinned Svengalis

No one understands the importance of the clique factor better than Craig Brewer, white director of the hugely successful Sundance hip-hop film Hustle & Flow. Until John Singleton attached himself to the project, ultimately producing the film, studio execs wouldn't touch Brewer's film because its majority-black cast didn't include a big name, and it wasn't a comedy or action movie. Loosely based on Brewer and his wife's struggle to eke out a living in Memphis, Tennessee, Hustle & Flow wasn't a "black movie" to him, Brewer told indiewire.com. "I felt it was a Memphis movie."

Ben-Ari's project is all about association as well. Tapping all the relationships she's built in the past few years writing, producing, and arranging violins for hip-hop projects, Ben-Ari on her major-label debut pairs her rousing violin scores with vocals from hip-hop and r&b talents like Fabolous, Lil' Mo, Scarface, Anthony Hamilton, Musiq, John Legend, and of course, Kanye West. The hodgepodge of guests makes the album feel inconsistent and a bit dated—Kanye's contribution sounds like a verse he couldn't use on his own album; Fatman Scoop's rants wreck both remixes of the classic "Jump & Spread Out"; and though interesting, J. Ivy's "Lord of the Strings" verse sticks out like a poetry slam artist reading from a piece of paper—but Ben-Ari's orchestral beats, especially when supporting Anthony Hamilton and Scarface in "Sunshine to the Rain," get in your heart. Amped about her first single, "We're Gonna Win" featuring Styles P, she gushes, "It's a groundbreaking song. There were never tracks like that in hip-hop, I should say, history before. It's all about me. It's so, like, strings and it's so freaking gangsta at the same time. It's how I wanted to come out."

Fans "always got me," she continues. "The streets literally blew me up." The problem was the industry, she remembers: "They were like, 'She's crazy. She's dope. What category does she fit?' "

Houston rapper Paul Wall
photo: Mike Frost
Houston rapper Paul Wall


Paul WallThe Peoples Champ
Atlantic Records
Stream "Sittin Sidewayz" (Atlantic Media Player)

Miri Ben-Ari The Hip Hop Violinist
Stream "Miss Melody"
Stream "Fly Away"

See also:

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    Clubrat Special by Robert Christgau
  • Problem solved when Universal Records chairman and CEO Doug Morris entered the equation. As the story goes, he was actually making an exit from a T.J. Martell Foundation event honoring MTV chairman Judy McGrath when he was stopped at the door by Ben-Ari's hip-hop rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." "He had never seen me, like, on TV before and he hasn't seen me with Jay-Z," Ben-Ari explains. But there on the stage fiddling the national anthem "hip-hop-style" with Doug E. Fresh, she says Morris "got it, like, in seconds."

    Christina Aguilera
    photo: Miranda Penn Turin

    "You are the hip-hop violinist, the creator, the visionaire," Ben-Ari remembers Morris telling her, "and therefore you should do whatever the hell you wanna do because whatever you do is right. They're not gonna have like 20 hip-hop violinists in the company. I know what to do."

    So what does all this mean for black hip-hop artists on the come up? "That depends on how long a&r's are around and how long labels are gonna run on the formula," Kon Artis muses. "When that structure collapses, you're gonna hear more real music." Prather puts the onus on the artists. "You just have to go into the hole and invent something new. You just have to make better records."

    Prather is eager to use the changing tide as an opportunity to expand the definition of hip-hop and black artistry in the music business. "One of the reasons I came to Columbia [Records is], it's not as cookie-cutter. I mean, you have to get your money, but it's more artist friendly. Look at John Legend. He went to church, he graduated from college, he can talk. You don't have to be a drug dealer," Prather says. "We have a rapper from Cleveland, Ray Cash. He's not with a crew. He didn't sell records on the street. He didn't do any of that mix tape shit. He's 6-2, real slim, light skinned with freckles and damn near red hair—and he wears glasses. He didn't look like 50, basically. He didn't look tough. But he understood MC shit."

    Black Eyed Peas
    photo: Christian Lantry

    Artists of the future, Prather goes on to say, will have to put out "projects that have a consistent thread, like Usher. He had what people perceived as a soundtrack to a moment in his life with Confessions. Like John Legend's album. It feels like a whole moment in his life."

    As for Miri Ben-Ari, she's seizing her moment. "I never follow what was before. And I express myself with whatever the hell I wanna express myself with. I've paid my dues. I've done millions of shows and, it's like, you know, I do what I wanna do. I don't believe in following any protocol when it comes to artist creativity. I wanna be happy in this world, and if I feel strings and hip-hop, this is what I'ma do.

    In fact, Ben-Ari takes herself out of the black-white box completely. Fans here, she says, often assume she's Latin. "In America [people] differentiate between black and white, [but] I'm from the Middle East," she says. "I have nothing to do with American history. You know, Israel is actually toward North Africa if you look at the map."

    Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is currently at work on her debut novel, Powder Necklace.

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