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Paul Dateh: Hip Hop Virtuoso

On his first day at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, Paul Dateh—who had been studying classical violin since the age of four—abruptly dropped his major in Violin Performance.

He enrolled in the Jazz Studies program instead. The change to studying more contemporary forms of music stunned former classmates, friends, and teachers, who seemed convinced that Dateh was throwing away a promising future as a musician.

But in the past couple of years, many people have been thinking that Dateh made the right choice.

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Just how many people? Try 3.3 million—and counting.

With a minimalist, six-minute YouTube video, simply titled “Hip Hop Violin - Paul Dateh and inka one,” Dateh has become an Internet sensation with his lively, genre-breaking style of music. The video has enjoyed more than 3.3 million views and the number continues to rise. A Google search of his name produces more than 75,000 hits. Bloggers rave about Dateh with descriptions such as “amazingly talented” and “the most talented violinist on earth.”

“I remember when my ‘Hip Hop Violin’ video with Inka One first went viral,” Dateh recalls. “It was the first time I witnessed firsthand the power of the Internet as a platform for musicians. It was an incredible feeling to know that thousands, and now millions, of people had seen my work, and it only made me more excited to make more things to share.”

One of those things that Dateh is now sharing is his debut album, the self-titled “Paul Dateh.”

“Rebellion is definitely a prominent theme of my current (and first) album,” says Dateh. “Most of the songs on the album were written while I was in college, and I was mostly feeling boxed in by all the standard issues we deal with during that time.”

In the album, Dateh not only displays his instrumental prowess but also his talent as a vocalist and composer/songwriter. While the velvet tones of his singing employ some distinctly soulful phrasings, Dateh jokes that the hard-to-categorize nature of his music makes it challenging to convey in conversation.

“I guess the easiest way to describe my current musical style is ‘soul/R&B music combined with classical and jazz mixed with elements of hip hop.’ Hmm…in considering that, I guess it’s not very easy to describe after all without being verbose!”

“Both my classical and jazz skills come into regular use in my work,” Dateh explains. “And I’m grateful for having learned both methods for the reason that I think it helps make me a better musician. Plus, it’s always fun to mix things up. I love all kinds of music by all kinds of artists. Shostakovich, Copeland, and Bach are a few of my favorite composers.”

Dateh’s skills as a violinist, vocalist and writer give him something of a triple personality in approaching his work. “I love all three equally, so it depends on how I feel on the day, I guess. Right now, writing is my favorite. But soon, singing and playing will take over—for the reason that I’ll be able to perform what I write!”

“I would say that some kind of melody or chord progression usually kicks off the writing process,” says Dateh. “But I’m not locked into a certain process. Sometimes, lyrics come first. Other times, everything comes to mind all at the same time—music, lyrics, and all. And of course, some songs start off as complete jokes that end up becoming real songs.”

But Dateh is serious about his overall passion for music and the role that it plays in his life. “I’m happy to be done with that rebellious growing period of my life, and now I can start talking about other things that are relevant to my current life. I’ve been lucky to have many mentors, both musical and personal. All I can say is that I am very grateful for all the people that have helped me become the person I am today, and I aim to make them proud.”

“Being a child of (Okinawan) immigrant parents has definitely shown me the value of hard work,” Dateh adds. “It continuously inspires me to strive for the better.”

“I’ve come across a few purists that think that the violin should only be played in a classical context, but I’ve learned to ignore them. I feel bad that they allow themselves to be so close-minded, because they’re really missing out on a lot of fun.”

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© 2009 Japanese American National Museum

hip hop Jazz music musician okinawan Paul Dateh shin nisei violin