"People don't look at me as a rebel," says hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari. "They look at me as a pioneer. I've got a whole new school of violinists after me -- it's so cool!"
Classically trained, Ben-Ari has already recorded and performed with heavyweights from Mariah Carey to Britney Spears to Patti LaBelle; played Carnegie Hall with Wyclef Jean; signed a deal with Reebok; and won a Grammy for her contribution to Kanye West's "Jesus Walks." But with The Hip-Hop Violinist, out this week, Ben-Ari finally makes her solo debut.
Bringing highbrow musicianship to the street, integrating everything from classical to R&B, klezmer to dancehall, and jazz to gangsta rap, The Hip-Hop Violinist is an amalgamation of Ben-Ari's prodigal talent and eclectic roots. "There's a saying: 'How do you get to Carnegie Hall? By practicing,'" says the Israeli-born Ben-Ari. "But I didn't practice to play for Carnegie Hall. I practiced to play for the hood."
The daughter of classical musicians, Ben-Ari caught the attention of violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. When Ben-Ari was twelve, Stern's foundation presented her with a violin -- one she bowed while landing first place in a series of music competitions. But, even at a young age, Ben-Ari knew the classical scene was not for her. "The whole time, I knew I wasn't going to be a classical violinist," she explains. "I didn't know what I wanted to be. I was really good with the violin. It was fun playing so fast on the instrument -- almost like a sport. But I wasn't feeling the orchestra thing."
At seventeen, Ben-Ari won a scholarship to study music at a program in Boston, where she was exposed to jazz for the first time. After hearing a Charlie Parker CD, she knew where her future lay. "I had to study whatever it was that Parker was doing," she says. "I had to be able to improvise like he did. I had to learn that language!"
Following obligatory service in the Israeli army, Ben-Ari packed her bags and left to study jazz at Mannes College of Music in New York, much to the chagrin of her parents. "They didn't get what I was doing," she says. "I said I was going to study jazz. My dad said, 'You'll have no future.' I was in tears."
Ben-Ari was kicked out of Mannes just one year later for poor attendance -- but she says that was because she had to hustle gigs to pay the rent. "If I walked into a club and there was a stage," she says, "I'd pull out my violin and play. If there was no stage, I'd still play. At first I'd get my ass kicked. But you go home, practice all day and go out and get your ass kicked again."
Ben-Ari gigged relentlessly and earned a spot on BET's hip-hop video countdown show 106 & Park. Due to the onslaught of fan mail, the network brought her back within weeks, and she soon caught the eye of Jay-Z. The rap mogul asked Ben-Ari to headline as one of the three featured artists at New York radio station Hot 97's annual Summer Jam concert, where she received a standing ovation from an audience of 20,000. "I was a nobody," Ben-Ari says, "but I had the second feature, after Missy Elliott."
Beyond her natural skill, Ben-Ari attributes her success to Israeli chutzpah. "I'm a gangsta, straight-up," she says with a brassy laugh. "I don't follow protocol."
Her persistence paid off when she was invited to peform at New York's Museum of Modern Art alongside a bandmate of Wynton Marsalis. Marsalis was in the audience and later came onstage for a solo. As he tuned his instrument, Ben-Ari hammered out her own improv performance. "I was playing my ass off!" she says. "He raised his eyebrow. He was like, 'Damn, this chick is taking over my solo!' But he liked it. He thought I was gutsy."