The heat of a summer night is sitting on your neck as you and your boy stare down the barrel of a shotgun. It’s 1 a.m. in Philadelphia and you can tell by the look in his eyes the gunman wants to kill you, but suddenly he pauses, his expression softens, and he lowers the gun. He recognizes you as an MC that performs in the neighborhood and decides to let you live, leaving one final instruction before he departs: “Keep rapping.”
Facing death has a beautiful way of waking us up. For Jeffrey McNeill – professionally known as Thee Phantom, leader of Illharmonic Orchestra –fatefully escaping that situation was a caramel macchiato straight into his veins.
“This could’ve been the end of my story, “ McNeill says.
It wasn’t. It was the beginning of a career brimming with purpose. It was the primordial ooze from which Thee Phantom & The Illharmonic Orchestra emerged. It was the moment that lead to Thee Phantom using himself as an instrument of change through conducting a full orchestra while dropping mad dope verses.
McNeill took to heart the words of the gun-wielding urban oracle and continued to rap as if his life depended on it, further embracing his love for combining Hip Hop and Classical music.
A new narrative
McNeill aims to create a new narrative around what Black people and Hip Hop can do. After accomplishing a few of his top goals – specifically, playing Carnegie Hall – he is reaching back and pulling others up with him.
“I would like to do a series of concert halls along the lines of Carnegie and bring young, urban musicians [and] urban audiences into places they wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity to be so that they can have a different experience. Seeing someone who looks like you, playing an instrument has a huge impact,” McNeill says.
He is also providing young musicians the chance to be a part of his orchestra through online contests via his YouTube channel and by reaching out to music schools for additional musicians as he tours.
People are saying Hip Hop is coming full circle, and it’s not about the lyrics. I say, why does it have to come full circle?
And as for the state of rap and Hip Hop in the era of mumbled lyrics?
“Hip Hop is us. And if we’re not trying to push the culture forward, that says a lot about us,” McNeill says. “People are saying Hip Hop is coming full circle, and it’s not about the lyrics. I say, why does it have to come full circle? Why can’t it keep growing outward? Why are we settling for someone who’s not saying anything? We can say things and still have it be dope.”
The concert space was setup in a way that resembled a cypher, with McNeill and his wife, vocalist Andrea “The Phoenix” McNeill, in the center. The orchestra, comprised of strings, horns, a piano, and a DJ, took up the back wall, while the audience completed the circle. In this manner, we jammed musically together to Ill-renditions of hip-hop classics, songs from the group’s albums Hero Complex and the upcoming Maniac Maestro, and a beautiful cover of Killing Me Softly (the Fugees version) by The Phoenix.
Just find your voice and put it out to the world.
Thee Phantom & The Illharmonic Orchestra’s recent show at the University of Texas’ Bates Recital Hall on Sept. 30 made me a believer, as their performances have done for so many. The entire sold-out event was a seamless integration of two seemingly contradictory styles – live orchestration and rhyming – that was both entertaining and soul-nourishing.
“We want to make music that matters,” said McNeill before the show. We want to inspire people to also make music that matters even if it’s outside of the current trends. Just find your voice and put it out to the world.”