“Who’s to say that if Bach were alive right now he wouldn’t be playing hip-hop and blending everything?”Damien Escobar — a two-time Emmy Award-winning violinist — is in the Bach Would’ve Played Hip-Hop camp. And so would anyone who has listened to Escobar’s enchanting fusion of classical violin over hip-hop beats. A simple Google search of the soulful musician reveals a story that should be on the big screen: a thirteen-year old Juilliard graduate goes from playing violin on New York’s subways with his brother to playing on national television on “America’s Got Talent”. The two of them then tour the world and make millions of dollars, only for the band to break up, leaving Escobar in a deep depression, with an empty bank account, and a violin-less existence.
“In 2012, I hit a really low point in my life where I was homeless for a bit and I had to restart my journey. After having an already really successful career with my brother, I had to start from scratch,” Escobar recalls the moment when his life’s trajectory seemed to only be spiraling downward. “When you’re down to nothing and you’re just left with yourself, you can do one of two things. You can either stay where you are or you can learn a lot about yourself and pick up the pieces and move on.” So in early 2013, Escobar chose to try again. “There were high and low points, but I worked myself back up to being one of the most celebrated violinists in the world.”
As he speaks frankly about his story, Escobar’s traits begin to emerge and it’s clear that his sheer determination, constant preparedness, and a lot of hard work are the main players behind his comeback. Forget luck, he suggests, it’s all about knowing when your moment has come — and being prepared to seize it fearlessly when it does. Now his fans are eagerly waiting to hear about it on his new record, Boundless, his first album that features solely original compositions.
“Boundless, for me, it’s kind of a double entendre,” Escobar says. “There are no musical boundaries, there are no musical limits for me on this record. On the other side of it is, there’s no boundaries to me – as a man, as a human being – it’s kind of like a coming-of-age project, where I feel absolutely free.”
The journey to feeling free — feeling boundless — has resulted in Escobar veering outside of a strictly musical lane. Along the way, he found that, while he loves playing the violin, he has an entrepreneurial spirit that was begging to be explored. Cue ambitious endeavors in creating his own violin line, curating a line of wines, and producing a children’s television show.
“My mind is always moving,” He says, explaining his interest in taking his entrepreneurial ideas from dream to reality. “I’m a Gemini, so I always have to continue to move and stay creative or I get bored.”
But the violin was certainly his first love — the instrument has captivated him since he was six, when his then eight-year old brother started playing. It wasn’t until a couple years later, when a young Escobar was walking down the street in his neighborhood, big headphones on, jamming out aggressively to classical music, that he realized he wasn’t like most kids his age.
“My friend walks up to me, he’s like, ‘What you listening to, that new Dr. Dre?’ I looked at him like he was crazy! I was like, ‘Nah man, I’m listening to that new Bach!’ And that’s when I realized that I was different. But I was okay with that.”
The next part of his journey is the accolade that stuns pretty much anyone who hears it: Escobar auditioned for Juilliard when he was 10 years old — only two years after he first picked up the violin. And he got accepted.
“I graduated with my degree in music when I was 13, from Juilliard, which was pretty cool,” He laughs after his casual summary — it seems like this is a part of his story that he’s recounted so often, it’s simply a casual statement of fact at this point. A 13-year old graduating from Juilliard with a music degree. Normal. But Escobar is anything but normal, something that seemed to hang over his young life — a kid with a college degree who loves to rock out to classical music.
“That’s on the music side of it,” Escobar says, referring to his time at Juilliard. “I’m from an area in New York called Jamaica, Queens — artists like 50 Cent come from Jamaica, Nicki Minaj, you know, that’s the neighborhood. It’s a rough neighborhood. Back then it was really rough, when I was growing up, but I was just this young kid that listened to classical music from Jamaica, Queens.” He laughs as he says, “And I thought that every kid listened to classical music from Jamaica, Queens that were 10 years old. I didn’t realize that I was the only one.”
But after years of higher education, constant structure, and violin practice, Escobar found himself completely burnt out — at 14 years old.
“I quit playing violin, I put it down, I randomly joined the neighborhood gang, and I became a gangbanging violinist,” He says, laughing a little at his last comment, but ultimately, he adopts a more serious tone when he adds, “When I was 14, when I was in high school, I made one of the worst mistakes of my life — which ended up being the greatest mistake in my life — I got arrested for a gun charge.”
And suddenly, Escobar found himself in a court instead of on a stage, facing seven years in prison for the possession of a firearm. He was kicked out of his high school and sent to a school for violent offenders. He gained 100 pounds — a side effect of his depression. When his day in court came, he was 15.
“I was a smart kid, I was extremely smart, I just made stupid decisions,” Escobar recounts. “So I presented some evidence to this judge.”
He made a case for himself and the judge was shocked — and believed in second chances. He gave Escobar a week to put together a more formal case to present.
“I went back the following week and I presented the evidence and the judge looked at me and said, ‘Look, I’m going to give you another chance at life. I don’t want your life to stop here, I think you’re going to offer something so special to society.’”
The first thing he did when he got home was pick up his violin. He went back to his old high school. He was recruited to play basketball in college. When he got injured, he turned to the violin for healing. Then in 2003, he and his brother decided to make their act — one they had been performing on subways — a professional one. It turned into a 10-year, award-winning, multi-million dollar career. Until 2012, when the group disbanded and Escobar whittled his bank account down from six figures to zero.
“That’s when I like to say I entered the second phase of my life, the second round of adversity and depression,” Escobar says. “I slept on the subways for about four months. And I quit playing the violin. Again. I put my instrument down. And I moved back in with my mom in Jamaica, Queens.”
Depressed, broke, and with nowhere else to turn, Escobar went to the welfare office in an effort to break through the fog of depression and get back on his feet.
“So I’m in the welfare office and my brother and I, we had a McDonald’s commercial on the air earlier in the year and I get in the office and guess what I saw on the damn TV,” Escobar says. “It’s crazy, they say when God wants your attention, He makes you very uncomfortable. I realized in that moment that it was Him trying to get my attention.”
After another month of couch-bound depression, Escobar finally started to put his life back together. He went back to school. He got his real estate license. He got his first actual job selling real estate. But that only lasted for a month, when his boss scolded him for being late and said something Escobar will never forget.
“She was saying to me, ‘Damien, I don’t care who you used to be.’ And that really stuck with me,” Escobar says. “I remember getting on the E train back to Jamaica and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Do I really want to be a used-to-be guy?’”
When he got home, he knew what to do: He picked up his violin and began to play. And he hasn’t stopped since. In 2013, he put together a mixtape, he started doing covers and putting them on YouTube, he started to build a fanbase, his music really resonated with people. And four years later, here Escobar stands — in an even better position than he was in before.
“It wasn’t about the money this time,” Escobar reflects. “And I think that’s what’s so beautiful about this journey. I want to continue to base my journey off of chasing purpose, not chasing paper.”
Love where he’s been? Check out where Damien is today in our follow-up feature with the talented musician, On the Road: A Quick Chat with Hip-Hop Violinist Damien Escobar.