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Classical 101

A Roof Concert with Hip-Hop Violinist Stephen Spottswood

Stephen Spottswood plays his violin outside on WOSU's roof terrace, with Columbus skyline in the background.
Ryan Aills
Stephen Spottswood, artistic director of the Columbus Cultural Orchestra, plays a hip-hop medley on WOSU's roof terrace.

It’s a good bet that you still love the music you listened to during your teen years.

That’s definitely the case with Stephen Spottswood, host of Classical 101’s seasonal program New Perspectives: From Bach to Biggie. He’s a classically trained violinist and a music teacher, but when he’s not fiddling on Bach or Beethoven, he’s playing electric violin covers of hip-hop and R&B songs that inspired him in his youth.

At a recent jam session on WOSU’s roof terrace, Spottswood fired up a backing track and let loose with a medley of hits by hip-hop stars Pharrell Williams, Snoop Dogg, and Jay-Z.

All the songs were released in the early 2000s and were topping the charts when Spottswood was in middle school and high school.

“That was my teenage years, so it’s nostalgic,” Spottswood said. “And Pharrell Williams’ music has a lot of melodic elements that just pair nice with the violin.”

Spottswood’s violin croons on Williams’ hit single “Frontin’” and on the Williams/Snoop Dogg single “Beautiful.” The medley ends with some sizzling violin bowing in Jay-Z and Williams’ hit “Give It 2 Me.”

“Just songs to get people up movin’ and groovin’,” Spottswood said.

Moving and grooving is what some young Columbus music students did this summer during the Columbus Cultural Orchestra’s first annual Debut Strings camp. The week-long camp gave string players aged 9-16 a chance to hone classical playing technique on their instruments while playing hip-hop and R&B hits. The students’ final concert featured Spottswood’s arrangements of songs by Earth, Wind & Fire, Alicia Keys, Rihanna and other popular artists.

“I’m able to write music that caters to the students’ skill level, so that it doesn’t sound gimmicky or corny, but it’s challenging for the students (and) also on their grade level for them to be able to learn how to bow, how to pluck, how to count,” Spottswood said.

Since 2020, Spottswood has also taken his hip-hop string arrangements into school orchestra classrooms with increasing frequency. He created his Hip-Hop Strings Workshop in response to invitations he received from fellow Columbus-area string instrument teachers who wanted to give their students experience with a range of music that is culturally relevant today.

“Mixing hip-hop into the orchestra classroom is fairly new in the past few years,” Spottswood said. “You would never see orchestra directors playing hip-hop in the orchestra programs when I was a kid.”

And that’s why Spottswood today strives to erase the traditional genre divide between hip-hop and R&B music and the classical orchestra. If an orchestra can play the classical masters, it can also play music by the stars of hip-hop, R&B, and rap.

“We have to herald Jay-Z the same way we hold up and honor Beethoven,” Spottswood said. “We have to think of them in the same light.”

A new season of New Perspectives: From Bach to Biggie begins in September. Tune in Sundays at 1 pm on Classical 101.

Classical 101
Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.