I had a chance to go on my first cruise with Butterscotch back in January of 2019. She joined a lineup that included artists like Babyface, Teddy Riley, Doug E Fresh, Slick Rick, Black Violin, Avery Sunshine, Kenny Lattimore, Jon B, Mike Phillips and Floacist.
The two artists that stuck out to me the most, and inspired me to write this, was Slick Rick and Black Violin. Both of these artists shared their stories at some point during the cruise that gave insights into their brand development.
In previous blogs, I’ve talked about basing your brand on elements from your authentic self, but I wanted to use this opportunity to elaborate on why these artists are great brands you can learn from.
For this month’s blog, I wanted to show how Slick Rick and Black Violin pulled from their life experiences to develop their brands, and why they are good examples for other newer artists to learn from.
Why Slick Rick and Black Violin?
Although we saw and met a lot of amazing artists during this week-long trip, these two in particular stood out because of the stories they shared. They were able to develop successful brands based off aspects of their authentic selves.
The common theme between Slick Rick and Black Violin is that they both combine elements of high class, prestige and wealth with the street, lower-class culture (Hip Hop). At the same time, they both represent two extremes in terms of what they experienced that propelled their brands.
Slick Rick turned the unfortunate events in his life into something positive to create his iconic Hip Hop voice, persona and appearance that is still unlike anyone out there.
Black Violin took their experience of learning an instrument that they actually didn’t even want to learn in the beginning, but ended up developing an inspiring concept and message that their brand represents.
Slick Rick made a name for himself as a prolific storyteller. However, he has two distinct elements that made him really stand out in Hip Hop – his signature eye patch and British accent. To top it off, he has this British pimp look going on with the lavish jewelry, gold tooth and Kangol hat. His brand really has the complete package, which is why he’s such an iconic figure in Hip Hop. Not only does he have the looks, but his voice is also unique.
I bring this up because these elements that define Slick’s brand are based on his life experiences. It’s not like he sat around on the couch one day and said: “I want to try this British pimp thing and rock an eye patch.” Hopefully, this helps artists like yourself understand how your life experiences can and should be used as part of your brand or persona.
What people may not know is that Slick Rick was born in London, and his family moved to New York permanently when he was 11. Some people thought his British accent was fake, but it’s not.
In this short video clip I recorded on the cruise, Slick Rick talks about his accent and how it became a part of his brand:
In developing his persona, he knew he also needed to incorporate British vocabulary to sell it. Using words like ‘peasants’ and ‘crumbs’ in his raps really gave his persona life.
A lot of people thought he wore an eye patch just to stand out, but Slick Rick is actually blind in one eye. As an infant, his right eye was severely damaged from an incident involving glass from a broken window. It’s an unfortunate accident, but he was able to use it to his advantage. Clearly, it helped him stand out visually as an artist, which is always useful when you want to be memorable.
Butterscotch, who I use as the cover of my branding blogs, rocks a unique looking eyebrow. I’ve heard people refer to her as “the girl with the eyebrow.”
Another great example, who I think is comparable to Slick Rick in terms of persona, is MF Doom. He too is from London and experienced tragedy when he lost his brother DJ Subroc to a car incident. His loss inspired him to return to the music scene as a supervillain character where he incorporates a distinct visual, a metal mask, whenever he performs.
Michael Jackson was iconic with his single glove, which similarly to Slick Rick, was to hide a serious skin condition called Vitiligo.
The main point of discussing Slick Rick is this idea of transforming your life experiences as building blocks of your brand. He was known earlier in his career for telling vivid stories through his raps.
It turns out that his blinded eye played a big role in that. “I was always pretty shy because of the eye”, he says, “so rather than going out and playing sports, I stayed indoors and wrote stories.”
Although hip hop has drastically changed since the 1980s where Slick Rick first emerged from, his delivery and rapping style was original at the time.
Some might think to themselves, nothing interesting has happened to them that they could base a brand from. As you can hear from the video, he recognized what he had going for him and developed it with the look and British vocabulary to match. Hopefully this gives you an idea on how you can turn a negative situation into a positive element of your brand.
Black Violin (Kev Marcus and Wil B)
On the flip side, you don’t have to have crazy, unordinary life experiences to build a strong brand that stands out. Black Violin, to me, is a good example of being able to base a brand around a concept and message.
Unlike Slick Rick, there’s nothing visually about Black Violin that stands out as a brand, other than the fact that they are two classically trained African American who plays the violin and viola.
At the time, combining classical violin with hip hop was not something people really did. The violin is not really considered a “cool” instrument, especially within the culture of hip hop, and has associations with prestige. However, this duo was able to successfully create a unique sound, bridging two opposite cultures of street and high class.
For them, it’s really about the message and the story of how they were able to manifest it into music.
Here’s a video clip I recorded explaining the message behind their brand:
Where they got the name Black Violin
Having a good artist name can really help your brand, as I’ve talked about in a previous blog. The story of how Black Violin got their name is a great example of how their brand concept and message are all consistently tied together through their life experiences.
Sometimes a good brand name is one that is straightforward and you know what to expect when you hear the name. In this case, they didn’t come up with the name, but rather they named themselves based off an album by the late violinist Stuff Smith.
In college, Kev came across the music of black violinist Stuff Smith, who was known to be the first violinist to use electrical amplification techniques on a violin. He loved Stuff’s sound, which he described as “classical violin with soul and fire.” He ended up sharing it with Wil-B and it inspired him as well. As a result, they formed the band using the name of Stuff Smith’s album Black Violin.
From this moment, their perceptions of what the violin could do changed, which led them to the concept of combining things that people normally didn’t use together – making the violin sound cool with hip hop.
How did they come up with the concept behind Black Violin?
It would seem like artists, bands or even duos with a concept is not quite common. Having an interesting concept that no one has done before can be a good way to stand out.
When they first started, Black Violin had a unique sound that caught people’s attention. It started in high school, where they first met. They would listen to certain hip hop songs on the radio and play the melody on the violin for their classmates. Combining classic violin with hip hop was something that was uncommon, musically.
Black Violin put this concept to the test when they competed in the Apollo Theater showcase in 2005. They ended up winning and it became their first big break. They used their unique blend of classical music and hip-hop to spread the very same message that led them to their success. This is why as musicians, they want to exemplify this concept of thinking outside of the box and making something your own.
The ironic part of this story is that both members didn’t want to play the instruments they play now. Kev Marcus only started playing the violin because his mom enrolled him in the music program in 5th grade, hoping to steer his life away from the streets and into a more positive direction.
Wil B originally wanted to play the saxophone so he signed up for band. They mistakenly put him in the wrong class so he ended up learning the viola instead.
The Messages Behind Black Violin
Because of their own success as artists through this concept, they’ve made it a mission to inspire others with the same messages that got them where they are today.
Their core messages include:
- Thinking outside the box.
- Defy preconceived notions and stereotypes.
- Make it your own.
- Challenge yourself to do something different by looking at things from a different perspective.
It was great hearing stories of how they get kids interested in the violin because it put into a different perspective when combined with hip hop. During the cruise, they mentioned that parents take their kids to Black Violin shows quite often. At first, the kids are turned off when they hear it’s a show with violins, but a lot of them end wanting to play to violin after hearing it with hip hop. The duo also likes stopping by schools and working with kids while on tour.
As Kev Marcus said, “We try to just give the kids just another outlet, and just show them that it’s not really necessarily about the violin. Start thinking outside the box. It’s about taking that passion, that one thing you can’t stop thinking about, just do it over and over. And just do it differently than anyone else has ever done it, you know?”
Not all successful artists have or need a message. However, I think having one makes it more likely that your brand will resonate and inspire people through a deeper emotional connection. To me, that’s a strong characteristic of a good brand.
Hopefully, you now see how their life experiences brought all their elements together to make them Black Violin.
I wrote a blog recently about how to find that one thing that makes you unique so that you stand out. Clearly, Slick Rick and Black Violin have found the angles that work for them.
Is it truly unique? There are plenty of artists who are known as good storytellers. Nas, Scarface, Biggie, Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, to name a few.
There are other musicians who play the violin with hip hop:
Branding is really about taking aspects of yourself that are authentically you, regardless of how “unique” it may or may not be, and making it into your own.
– Don’t be afraid to explore to try something new like Black Violin did and combine different elements. Be creative and take a different approach.
– Something Slick Rick talked about on the cruise was pushing boundaries. Part of the spirit of hip hop in the early days was being innovative and doing things differently, so have fun trying new things. You never know what could happen unless you try. An example that stands out to me is Tierra Whack. When I think about the dominant sound of hip hop today, it all just sounds the same to me. Tierra Whack is someone who, in my opinion, sounds just like every other young rapper/singer, but she creatively presented her music and storytelling in a way that stood out.
– Embrace your differences. As a young British kid, Slick Rick naturally stood out in the New York hip hop scene. Rather than hiding it, he ended up building an iconic persona, and to this day, no one else is quite like him. Remember that there’s always going to be a market for being different. Think about why someone like Hobo Johnson blew up.
– Think about the life experiences that shape the person that you are. How can any of those things transfer into your artist identity and develop into a brand? Sometimes you might not think there’s nothing interesting about your life, but you need to develop the self-awareness to know what could resonate with others. Or, you can talk to someone. Like I’ve said, everyone’s life story is unique, so it’s about how you creatively communicate and tell it.
– Don’t underestimate the power of having the complete brand package where all the branding elements consistently tell the same story. Both Slick Rick and Black Violin, to me, have that complete package. Even the album titles for Slick Rick (The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, The Art of Storytelling) and Black Violin (Classically Trained, Stereotypes) tie into their brand.
– Lastly, be memorable. After all, that’s the goal of a good brand right? Because there’s so much competition now, you really have to stand out. If not musically with a new sound or concept, try visually.
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If you found this blog useful, check out my Branding Guide for Musicians eBook. I took my ‘Basics of Branding for Musicians’ blog series, rewrote parts of it and combined them into one convenient guide. I also included a branding workshop section to provide further help in establishing your brand that you can only find in this eBook.