Daniel Davis is known right now as the hip-hop violinist from YouTube, but he might be on his way to stardom.
Davis, a Winthrop sophomore from Charleston, is a violin virtuoso who breaks from tradition to create a unique musical experience. On most songs, he layers the sounds of his instrument in with a back beat track, usually hip-hop or R&B.
"Generally, the violin is associated with classical or dinner music," he said. "I'm trying to break the violin from being a background instrument and want people to see it in a different light."
Davis, 19, is one of the state's rising stars, having performed for Oprah in New York and at the African American Church's Inauguration Ball in Washington, D.C. He'll be featured today on ETV's Connections segment, "South Carolina Has Talent." Also on the program are Victoria White of Columbia, a soulful songstress who plays acoustic guitar, and Rayvon, a Blythewood vocalist whose music is a mix of hip-hop and R&B.
With tattooed arms and a diamond stud earring, Davis doesn't look like a concert violinist. But industry experts already have their eye on Davis, one of the youngest artists to work with A.J. Savage, urban promotion manager with New York-based J Records.
"Daniel's one of my favorites," Savage said. "He doesn't just play the violin. He has star quality, stage presence and a certain swagger."
Savage saw Davis perform last year at a church in Columbia and instantly connected with the teen.
"It was like watching a superstar," Savage said. "He's among the best undiscovered talent I've seen in a long time."
With a diverse repertoire, Davis' music crosses all borders. Sometimes he'll play old Temptations' songs, and other times he'll play new tunes from unknown artists. Most of the time, it's just improvisation.
"He'll start out playing Beethoven and then go into a Lil Wayne song," said Reggie Davis, Davis' dad.
This is an especially busy month for Davis. His fiddle-laden remix of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech has become a Black History Month favorite and contributed to invitations to perform at events throughout the region. He played the piece last year at a Barack Obama rally at the University of South Carolina, where he earned a standing ovation.
"He's doing something that's so unique," his father said. "He's taken a traditional, unconventional instrument and gotten people excited about it."
On today's ETV show, he'll perform an older rendition of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and Mary Mary's "Shackles."
"When Daniel came into the ETV studio, he brought so much more than a violin and talent," said Dana P. McCullough, ETV spokeswoman. "His confident, yet humble, manner coupled with his phenomenal talent, is an amazingly appealing mix of qualities in an artist."
A style of his own
Davis didn't set out to become a violinist. When he was 12, he got stuck with the instrument during an exploratory class at the School of the Arts in Charleston.
"Nobody else wanted it, so it was the only thing left when I got there," Davis said. "After a while, it kind of grew on me."
Classically trained, Davis had a hard time following the path of so many violinists before him. He wanted to jam with his violin and spent hours playing along with a friend's karaoke tracks by Akon, Chris Brown and other R&B or mainstream artists.
Without sheet music, Davis said, he "learned the songs by just plucking out the melodies by ear."
He took classical violin lessons for several years and even studied one summer at New York's Juillard School of Music. But the formal training cramped his style, and it became harder to practice improvisation and jazz. Plus, his instructors over the years didn't like his maverick style of playing.
"They said he'd never do anything with himself -- that he was too different," said his mother, Lillie Davis, said. "So we left and found someone new until they said the same thing. Now he's on his own and teaches himself."
Davis never lacked support from his family, though. At one point, his parents padded the garage to make it more soundproof.
"The neighbors were saying they loved his music, but not at 2 a.m.," Lillie Davis said. "We didn't mind, though."
The violin kept Daniel out of trouble during his formative teen years when so many rebel, his mother said. "I knew where my son was every weekend. His whole life is music."
Before graduating from high school, Davis was already a name in the Charleston music scene.
"I was just giggin' around wherever I could," he said.
He made little old ladies cry at country churches and had teenagers on their feet at high schools. He performed at jazz clubs and city functions, including reggae night during the Spoleto Festival and more recently played during a Charlotte Bobcats halftime show.
He quickly learned one lesson during his gigs: No weddings.
"Sometimes those brides get a little crazy," he quipped.
Davis, who practices about an hour and a half a day, came to Winthrop because of its proximity to Charlotte. He plans to major in business and is using his performances as a way to break into the industry.
"I want a suit-and-tie type of job, maybe as a vice president of a record label or something," he said.
Meanwhile, he'll continue to book as many gigs as possible.
His fan base is growing, thanks to Internet sites such YouTube.com and MySpace. Five years from now, Savage expects Davis to be a household name.
"He could easily be one of the highest-rated musicians in the business with a lucrative contract," Savage said. "He's already making a statement."
WANT TO WATCH?
ETV's Connections will air "South Carolina Has Talent" at 3 p.m. today. Hosted by P.A. Bennett, this half-hour program features some of the state's rising stars, including Winthrop student Daniel Davis. For more information, visit www.scetv.org/index.php/ connections.
For Daniel's YouTube performances, go to YouTube.com and search "DDProductions2007."