Tourie Escobar and Damien Biography
Hip-hop and classical music might seem to be at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum, but not for the young New York brothers Damien and Tourie Escobar. Classically trained violinists, they use their instruments in original music that draws on hip-hop as well as reggae, jazz, and alternative rock. Under the name Nuttin' but Stringz (sometimes spelled Nuttin but Stringz), the brothers have performed for audiences of gradually increasing size, starting in New York City subway trains and progressing to national television audiences. "We broke into the game with something new and different, something string-driven," Tourie Escobar told Evelyn Poitevent of USA Weekend. "People would say it couldn't be done. We proved them wrong."
A little under two years apart in age (Tourie was born in 1985, Damien in 1987), the brothers grew up in the New York borough of Queens. They lived with their mother, Gloria Ponder, a third-grade teacher, on 123rd Street in the tough South Ozone Park neighborhood. The brothers picked up the violin in a school music class, though not out of any strong desire to play the challenging instrument. "There were basically no choices in elementary school," Damien told Oren Yaniv of the New York Daily News. Yet something unexpected happened: Damien, who was eight at the time, took to the instrument immediately. By the time he was ten, he could play the melody from Mozart's serenade Eine kleine Nachtmusik ("A Little Night Music"). Tourie didn't like the violin at first, but after a while he taught himself to play—not an easy feat. His attitude toward the instrument remained more independent that that of his younger brother.
At the urging of their mother, the two enrolled in weekend classes at the Julliard School, the city's top music conservatory. Tourie dropped out of the program but continued to study. The two brothers later attended the Bloomingdale School of Music on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Carrying a violin case through the streets that produced some of rap's hardcore figures wasn't easy; the brothers were teased, and Damien began to drape his jacket over the case. "If a person doesn't know about something, they're scared of it," he told Mary K. Feeney of the Washington Post. "But I never really cared."
For a while the brothers' musical growth was interrupted when they became involved with the neighborhood's gang culture. "It just pulled us in," Tourie told Poitevent. "We hurt my mom so much." Tourie was nearly killed at one point. It was regret over the impact their gang involvement had on their mother, plus the continued pull of the music they had discovered, that turned the brothers around. "I was a product of my environment, but I'm no thug," Tourie added. "I'm relieved and happy that music saved my life."
The brothers began playing in the New York subways—in cars, where people were forced to focus and listen, rather than in stations. They showed their music-business savvy early on. "We broke down the trains on a marketing level," Damien told Poitevent by way of explaining why he chose the "C" train. "It's a more classically driven crowd going out to the cathedral." A two-hour session of playing and passing the violin case might net each brother three hundred dollars. And their talents improved as they logged part of their two to seven hours of daily practice on the trains. Playing together, they began to bill themselves as Nuttin' but Stringz.
In 2003 the Escobars took the first step out of the subway when they signed James Washington as their manager. They started to play at small clubs and school assemblies. Schoolchildren were their toughest audiences. "Your fiercest critic is an auditorium full of elementary school students," Damien told Angelo Rivera of the New York Cool Web site. "They'll tell you the brutal truth. I've experienced it before, and it wasn't pretty." As the duo gained confidence, though, young people began to realize that they were doing something original.
The brothers' originality was the key to their growing success. Many young people from tough urban backgrounds had played classical music, and a few, including violinist Miri Ben-Ari, had introduced classical music influences to hip-hop. Nuttin' but Stringz, however, created new music from scratch, with a basic combination of melodic violin lines, raps, and hip-hop beats that was flexible enough to encompass various other sounds and instruments, including piano and live percussion. Their music had a strongly emotional quality that grabbed listeners; one piece, "Broken Sorrow," memorialized a slain friend.
Nuttin' but Stringz avoided becoming the gimmick of the month. Although their music was often labeled hip-hip violin, they rejected that label, offering the broader "alternative classical" instead to John O'Brien of the Syracuse Post-Standard. "When we make our music, every style of music comes out in one, and we don't even realize it until it's done." They composed their music in a small studio in their basement, sometimes getting up in the middle of the night to work on it if the creative impulse struck. "We create music all night, every night. It's all based on emotion," Damien told Ebony. "Hip-hop violinists, that's not what we are." They drew creative energy from the musical contrast between the two brothers: though they were so closely attuned to one another on stage that audiences sometimes assumed they were twins, they made distinct musical contributions, with Damien's deeper classical technique acting as an anchor for Tourie's more free-spirited approach.
The breakthrough Nuttin' but Stringz performance came at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in December of 2004. Home to a legendary live-talent showcase, the Apollo was renowned as well for tough audiences that indulged in a long tradition of booing and abusing subpar performers. The Escobar brothers, however, quieted the crowd and placed third in the competition they entered.
That led to wider exposure in 2005. Nuttin' but Stringz played some of New York's better-known clubs, including Joe's Pub, Glo, and the Hit Factory, and appeared at Radio City Music Hall and various classical venues. National television producers picked up on the growing phenomenon, and Nuttin' but Stringz performed on Today, the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the Ellen DeGeneres Show, and programs in France and Japan. Making their first foray outside New York, they played at the Publick Playhouse club outside Washington, D.C., in late September of 2005.
As of early 2006, the brothers were awaiting the release of the debut Nuttin' but Stringz album, Struggle from the Subway to the Charts, and a single, the soulful "Dance with My Father," was available on the iTunes music download service. They signed on for a 25-city tour with gospel star Yolanda Adams, where their energetic shows promised to transcend opening-act status. Damien stuck to a favorite violin he called Old Betsy, but they shredded bows and strings with their high-energy playing. Whatever their future accomplishments, the brothers could already look proudly on the admiration they had received from young people. "We actually made a dent in somebody's life. These are our peers," Damien told Feeney. "That's where it starts, with us, with our generation. We've got to set an example."
Struggle from the Subway to the Charts, 2006.
Daily News (New York), January 2, 2005, Suburban section, p. 1.
Ebony, July 2005, p. 136.
Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), May 4, 2005, p. B6.
USA Weekend, December 11, 2005.
Washington Post, September 29, 2005, Prince George's Extra edition, p. T21.
"Nuttin but Stringz," New York Cool, http://www.newyorkcool.com/archives/2005/February/music_4.html (January 2, 2006).
Welcome 2 Nuttin but Stringz, http://www.nuttinbutstringz.com (January 2, 2006).
Interviews on Today Show, NBC News, February 7, 2005; October 22, 2005.