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Q&A: Miri Ben-Ari

The Grammy Award-winning violinist and producer talks Kanye West, Jay-Z, and serving in the IDF

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So, when you heard jazz, did you think to yourself immediately, I can do this as a violinist?

The instrument for me is a voice, it’s a way that I express myself. And I can speak any language. I fell in love with jazz through Charlie Parker. It sounded like he was talking with his instrument. And I was like “Ooh, I have to break this down and figure it out.” Now, I’m classically trained, I’m not trained to improvise. So, then came my jazz education, figuring out how to come up with my own melody, understand harmony, permutations of time, how to swing, how to groove. Then I lost my scholarship because I had to work, so they failed me at music. Which I always think is funny because I won a Grammy with Kanye West for College Dropout.

Talk to me talk to me about the 20 seconds and Kanye West. Kanye is the master of 20 seconds. He’s able to create narrative and interesting contrast out of those bits. You did a bunch of production on College Dropout.

Tons, not only with College Dropout. Tons. The best thing about Kanye was his mother, Donda. Today I understand it better than I did back then. She gave him the possibility and the opportunities and the education. She was a smart woman, she helped him, she really did. On his tours I was very homesick all the time, and she took me under her wing. It was great. She used to have a group of neighbors from Chicago, they used to come to some shows, and they loved me. I was the one that they connected to. Out of all the rappers, I was the easiest one to connect with. I used to hang out with them. I went to the funeral too.

And talk about his ear and how he hears stuff and the way he’s able to take the bits and pieces and—

I think the most important thing about Kanye’s talent is he’s open-minded, and his ability to surround himself with very, very talented people. When I started working with him, I was extremely open-minded because I didn’t know him yet. I used to compose and arrange entire strings for him, with one violin. It used to take me hours. He used to sit through the entire time, for hours. That’s his talent. He understood I brought something to his production that he didn’t know, and I was his way to get that. For College Dropout, he had a small group of people like John Legend, who’s extremely talented and smart, and myself. And we were the core. We’re the people who went with him on stage.

He used to watch me, and I used to watch him. I remember when we started working together, he had an apartment in Hoboken, he didn’t even have a recording studio. I used to play and wear this headset that was too short. And I have the violin bow, and I’m here and Kanye is right there, and I’m supposed to play without poking his eye. And I remember stepping on him so I didn’t stab him.

Kanye is a smart man, very complicated. I wish his mother was alive. She was his core. I can tell you that because I know. We’re talking about a very well-educated person. He didn’t need any “’hood.” He didn’t need any of that. Was he musically educated? Not really. But like I said, he always surrounded himself with amazing people, and he’s extremely musical, so he figured things out. He’s not afraid of anything, and he likes to recreate himself and recreate stuff. He’s been exposed to a lot of things, and he’s taken his influences wherever he finds them.

I love him, and I wish him the best. As successful as he is, he didn’t have it easy. And out of all the people I have worked with, I can tell you that he really got to me. I just hope that he finds happiness.

Were you involved with him?

No, no, no.

Explain what you do with 20 seconds, how you have to think in order to project a full personality in that span of time.

I’ll explain to you what I didn’t understand back then at Carnegie Hall. As a classical musician you never think. You just perform. As jazz musician, when you’re on stage, first of all, you listen to the groove. You take your time before you take your solo because you want to make sure the drums and bass are together and grooving and they’re not too excited, that they chill. You also want to make sure that they are in good groove for you to start a solo that will give you enough leeway to develop. Jazz solos could be from five minutes to 20 minutes. 20 seconds? It’s not even one note! What do you do with 20 seconds?

Today as a producer, I can go to the studio and produce 20 seconds that would have a beginning, middle, and end, that would showcase me and tell a story. I didn’t know how to do it then. However at the Apollo I had five minutes. I had enough time to tell a story. And the Apollo got televised. It captured my talent on national TV, and it was so successful that had me back for next week. There was like three televised shows, everyone saw, and all the industry was talking about me, I had thousands of people bombarding me. No manager, nothing! My brother lived in L.A., and I said to him, “Honey, come help me.” Jay-Z approached me, Kanye West approached me. Everyone approached me.

To feel the attention of Jay-Z on you, wanting your music, what did that feel like?

Oh, you’re talking to a completely ignorant person who did not grow up in the United States, who did not grow up admiring Jay-Z. It was never a part of my Israeli culture. Because hip-hop did not exist in Israel when I was a kid. And that ignorance helped me so much! You know what it is to get on a stage with Jay-Z, completely oblivious to the opportunity?

It’s a blessing that it happened that way.

Absolutely. Jamming with jazz artists probably intimidated me more, because they’re playing all of this crazy harmony and rhythms. Jay-Z was simple! You know, it’s hysterical. He had Summer Jam, which featured me. And then he had a big televised show.

When you met him, what did he transmit, what did he want, what did you feel from him?

He told me to do my thing. He said, “I’m not a good performer, the stage is not my thing.” He said, “I need people, I need good performances to make my show real good.” He’s amazing person, very humble. He sat through my entire performance with his DJ, you know, and we came up with something, me and his DJ, and that was it! Next thing was the show. And in the second show, I played with him “Big Pimpin’.” It’s insane!

That’s hilarious.

It’s insane! I can always say that I did that. It’s one of my favorite songs. At the time “Big Pimpin’ ” was a huge hit. Incredible. And you gotta understand, I came up with that concept using strings that way first. It was so fresh 10 years ago.

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Q&A: Miri Ben-Ari

The Grammy Award-winning violinist and producer talks Kanye West, Jay-Z, and serving in the IDF