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Hip-hop violinist infects Billboard charts

By Simon Umlauf
CNN Headline News

Miri Ben-Ari
Violinist Miri Ben-Ari can be heard on songs by Janet Jackson, Twista and Kanye West.

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Miri Ben-Ari

(CNN) -- Violinist Miri Ben-Ari studied Beethoven and Bach as a child, but her passion followed the rhymes of rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac.

In the past few months Ben-Ari's strings have given the songs of Janet Jackson, Twista and Kanye West a dramatic edge you won't find anywhere else. Her violin gently caresses Janet Jackson on the single "I Want You." And her soaring strings seduce a young beauty on Twista's "Overnight Celebrity."

Whether it's laying down a background or juicing the hook, the result is the same: Ben-Ari gets the crowd jumping.

The classically trained violinist grew up near Tel-Aviv, not Brooklyn, but the top names in the rap industry recognized her talent and embraced her like a sister. Wyclef Jean and Jay-Z have invited Ben-Ari on stage with them to perform in front of thousands.

"My first hip-hop performance was at Carnegie Hall with Wyclef," Ben-Ari says with a delicate Israeli accent, "I got a little feature and he announced me as the 'hip-hop violinist.' The next night I played at the Apollo."

An Atlantic Records executive sent Ben-Ari to Wyclef after he spotted her playing at an open mic night in New York. "I had my own steady gigs and I was writing my own compositions. They where very R&B," Ben-Ari recalls, "And I was very serious about jazz. Wynton Marsalis was on my last CD."

Mastering jazz laid the foundation to melt rap beats into violin scores. "Jazz gives you the possibility to improvise, to understand timing and how to grove on a beat," she says.

Other classical violinists are grooving to Ben-Ari's beat as well. One might think the tight community of violinists in New York would view such a leap with critical eyes, but it's quite the opposite.

"The reaction is unbelievable," describes Ben-Ari. "I'm coming from a classical background, and other violinists know that, once they see my hands and how they move, they know I play classical. For them, they look at me like they want to do what I do. For them, they know I'm legit because of my technique," says Ben-Ari.

Right now, she's touring the United States with Kanye West helping promote his critically acclaimed album "College Dropout." Whenever she has free time, Ben-Ari jets back to New York to put the finishing touches on her debut rap album, which is due this summer.

"Basically the hip-hop and R&B community are getting together to pull this off," says Ben Ari. "I have Anthony Hamilton on one track, Scarface on one, Ghostface on two tracks, Joe Budden, Mya, Kanye (West) and the list goes on, it's amazing."

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