Touring alongside Kanye West, Miri Ben-Ari has played in front of thousands of people. She appeared on BET’s 106 & Park, played at The Apollo, and performed with Wyclef Jean at Carnegie Hall. She has also collaborated with Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Patti LaBelle, and Luther Vandross.
Yet you’ve probably never seen her open her mouth. That is because Ben-Ari is a violinist — stapled the “hip-hop violinist” by Wyclef and Jay-Z.
But Ben-Ari has not always been involved in the urban music genre. She first made strong impressions in the classical and jazz worlds, even releasing two albums. Studying classical music in Israel, she caught the attention of the renowned violinist Isaac Stern. After a mandatory serving in the Israeli army at 17, she moved to New York to pursue a jazz career. In a brief period of time, she worked with the late jazz singer Betty Carter and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
“[Jazz has] given me the experience to produce, to write and I take all this experience and implement it to what I’m doing,” she told andPOP from New York, where she had a rare day off from touring with producer-turned-rapper West.
A mutual friend introduced Ben-Ari to Wyclef Jean, and he invited her to perform with him at Carnegie Hall, as part of the New York City venue’s first hip-hop show. Jay-Z was next to join the Miri Ben-Ari bandwagon, as she joined him onstage at the 2001 Summer Jam and during his live Showtime concert last year.
“It’s funny,” she reflects. “I didn’t make myself the ‘hip-hop violinist.’ Wyclef called me that, then Jay Z called me the that. I was introduced to the hip hop community by hip-hop superstars. They put their stamp on me, like ‘I’m alright’.”
It was not until her appearance at the Apollo about three years ago that she realized her musical destiny. “I think it was the turning point in my career. I became an Apollo legend and I realized it’s who I am.”
In June of last year, MTV cameras were following her around for a feature on “Advance Warning,” a show featuring rising artists. At the same time, MTV President Judy McGrath was being honored by the TJ Martell Foundation, and Ben-Ari was invited to perform the National Anthem. Everybody who’s anybody in the music business was present including record executives, media, and artists like Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, and Michelle Branch. She did not waste this opportunity. Doug E. Fresh joined her to beat-box, while she flipped the anthem “hip-hop style.”
Doug Morris, the head of Universal Music, was also present. “[He] was on his way out and he had to stay. I basically got signed right there.”
It’s almost a year later and her first hip-hop album is “85 percent” complete.
“It’s very hard to be done with an album. There comes a point when you have to stamp it,” she says. “There’s one artist in particular that we’re in communications with that I’m hoping to get on the album and it would be fantastic if it works out.” Even if it doesn’t, guest artists on the album read like a who’s who list of hip-hop superstars: Mya, Scarface, Fabolous, Lil’ Mo, Twista, Pharoahe Monch, Musiq, E-40, T.I., Joe Budden, and Anthony Hamilton.
“I’m so privileged to have all this amazing talent on my album. Even artists that I haven’t performed with in the past were very receptive and very supportive. ”
Almost every track on the album will feature a guest vocalist, but a few will be instrumental. Don’t expect to hear Ben-Ari sing on any of the tracks. “I believe artists should do the things that they do best. My forte is strings and production. I’m not a violinist slash something else. I’m trying to stick to that.”
The first single is expected to drop in about a month.
Few projects like Ben-Ari’s ever arise. The most notable is Santana, whose past two albums combine instrumental pieces with others’ vocals.
She also took charge in the album’s production. She collaborated with other producers, exchanging ideas. She learned from one of the hottest producers, West, who just released his own album, which features Ben-Ari’s violins on almost every track.
“That?s how you find yourself, when you’re in the studio, recording and producing. It’s a creative process and eventually you wind up with your own voice.”
Ben-Ari is perhaps the first artist from Israel to make a significant splash in North America’s hip-hop lagoon. This is something she encircles, and other hip-hop artists embrace.
“Music transcends beyond colour, sex, or religion,” she says. “I bring to my production, to my writing, everything that I had with me. I’m sure that living in Israel is crucial to who I am and the way I play.”
Her military experience in Israel taught her a valuable lesson, one that sticks with her today.
“Something really amazing about the military is every solider is one. Everyone is one. When you go to basic training, nobody cares if you play the violin and won some competitions. You’re now a soldier. You’ve got to be good. There’s no shortcuts. It was amazing doing the training and having soldier-mates appreciating me for who I was. They didn?t know nothing about my playing, and I was already very accomplished with music. My philosophy is to believe everyone is one. We all got the same luck. And it humbles you and is very important to remember.”
Ben-Ari is juggling her time finishing the album and wrapping up the West tour. She also recently worked on new singles from Janet Jackson and Brandy, and appeared in the video for Twista’s “Overnight Celebrity.”
“They say I got the flavour. I have the spice.”