Pulling the White Strings

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

Black puppeteers have masterminded successful white musical acts for decades. But while Ruff Ryders producer Swizz Beatz tinkered behind the curtain to make multi-million-selling tracks for the likes of Limp Bizkit, Metallica, and Marilyn Manson, more and more black producers and white artists are celebrating the symbiotic coup of connecting the cred that comes with blackness to the dollar signs studios see when they can market hip-hop hybrids with a white face to white kids. Universal Music and Texas-based label Swisha House are banking on it with their respective September releases of Miri Ben-Ari's Miri Ben-Ari: The Hip-Hop Violinistand Paul Wall's The People's Champ.

The list continues to grow—Dr. Dre and Eminem, Dr. Dre and Gwen Stefani, Timbaland and Bubba Sparxxx, Timbaland and Kiley Dean, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, Pharrell and Justin Timberlake, Rockwilder and Christina Aguilera, the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am and Fergie, Lil Jon and Paris Hilton, Beau Dozier and Joss Stone, Diddy and upcoming ingenue Jordan McCoy. Though there are no guarantees of success, these mixed-race power-couple pairings are worth their weight in potential platinum and gold.

"It's just easier to market white artists. They're just more easily embraced," Kawan "KP" Prather, the newly named executive vice president of a&r at Sony Urban Music, states matter-of-factly via cell phone, on the way to his 21st-floor office in midtown's Sony Building. Black singers and rappers come a dime a dozen, Prather notes, but a white rapper or artist in an all-black crew adds the wow factor necessary to sell records. "If you're the only black person on a hockey team and you're good then it's like 'Oh, shit!' People go for the oohs and ahs," he says—which partially explains how Israeli string prodigy Miri Ben-Ari, better known as "the hip-hop violinist," got off the liner notes and on the stage to tour with Kanye West.

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

"I came from the 'hood. I'm from Israel, yo," Miri Ben-Ari says, asserting her position at the hip-hop table, a place she earned cooking up succulent string arrangements for power projects like Kanye's College Dropout, Alicia Keys's "Fallin'," and Twista's "Overnight Celebrity." Cutting her teeth on Harlem's notoriously merciless Showtime at the Apollo stage, Ben-Ari ultimately earned coveted Apollo Legend status, a segment on MTV's Advance Warning, an NBA halftime show, and two performances on BET's 106th & Park.

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Bubba Sparxxx
photo:Anthony Mandler

First presented to hip-hop crowds by Wyclef Jean and later by Jay-Z at Summer Jam's decidedly ghetto gathering, the midriff-baring white girl blew audiences away, head-nodding her spill of curls to the hip-hop symphonies she teased out of the strings. "I bring, like, a different flavor," she explains, "not to mention that my country went through so much shit [that the people] feel my pain. When people [are] so about keeping it real, representing who you are and the 'hood, [my music] fits right there."

Like Ben-Ari, Houston-based Swisha House rapper Paul Wall doesn't think his whiteness has anything to do with his current popularity. For Paul, an authentic hip-hop identity is not about color, but about a person's life experience. "Somebody questioned if I got a right to recite what I spit, 'cause I've never been indicted or divided a brick, but my life is grit," he rhymed in 2004's "Am What I Am." His new The People's Champ—an inspiring sampling of Houston's chopped-and-screwed marching band–meets–church worship–meets–juke joint–meets–trip-hop music—maintains this heart-on-your-sleeve approach with help from T.I., Three 6 Mafia, and the Swisha House's Archie Lee, Coota Bang, and Aqualeo. Wall says hip-hop's requirement that authenticity means being black and locked up is "a huge stereotype." En route to Miami for his VMA pre-show performance of "Still Tippin'" with Mike Jones, he claims his affiliation with the all-black Swisha House crew doesn't lend him hip-hop legitimacy. "I just hang with my homeboys. I'm just bringing me. I'm just doing my thing."

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Gwen Stefani
photo: Lorenzo Agius

"It's one thing about Paul Wall, I don't think it's the fact that he's white. He's a hard worker," Swisha House label boss Michael "5000" Watts agrees. "Paul Wall always had a big market. One thing about Paul when you meet him and talk to him, you take him for who he is as a person."

But to the majority, who don't get to meet and talk to him, Paul Wall is the whiteboy surprise among a sea of black faces in the backyard blender Mike Jones and video director Dr. Teeth use to visualize Jones's "Still Tippin'." Wall is not, according to Watts, promoted any differently than Jones, and he doesn't have to be, because he automatically appeals to a broader market. "It's just numbers," Sony Urban Music's Prather explains. "There're more white people than black people in this country, and people will get into artists or their projects based on their familiarity."

Kon Artis, producer and member, with Eminem, of D12, also claims that a white hip-hop artist trying to get a deal right now will often get preference over a black rapper with equal talent. But it's a little deeper than black and white, he muses. "Nowadays it's more [a matter] of association." Dr. Dre presented Eminem; Eminem presented D12 and 50 Cent; 50 Cent presented G-Unit.


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?' "

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."

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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."

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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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