Thee Phantom & The Illharmonic Orchestra
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Thee Phantom & The Illharmonic Orchestra

New York City, New York, United States | Established. Jan 01, 1987 | SELF | AFTRA

New York City, New York, United States | SELF | AFTRA
Established on Jan, 1987
Band Hip Hop Classical




"Illharmonic Orchestra at Kennedy Center!"

Mixing the formality of a philharmonic orchestra with the upbeat rhythm and tempo of an R&B show, Thee Phantom and the Illharmonic orchestra brought in the New Year at the Kennedy Center. As part of the organization's ongoing hip-hop initiative, Thee Phantom (Jeffrey McNeill) helped bend and meld genres with a remix of classical music and elements of old school rap and modern lyrics.

Describing himself as "part B-Boy, part Beethoven," McNeill and his wife "The Phoenix," combined Beethoven and Vivaldi with backbeats from Lauryn Hill, Nas, Kanye West, and even the Eurythmics. Their remixes of famous tunes like "Killing Me Softly" and "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," lifted up the room, mixing the swagger of the 1980s and 90s with elegant lyrics and swift rhymes referring to modern political times.

The audience embodied the mix of classical, R&B, and hip-hop, dressed in outfits ranging from black velvet tuxedos to track pants, ball gowns, and leather pants.

McNeill and his wife had a sizzling onstage chemistry, and he beamed when he calls her his "partner in music and in life." Dressed in a studded tuxedo and red heels, "Thee Phoenix" almost steals the show from "Thee Phantom" by adding sexiness and soul to his quick rhymes.

Complementing the skilled stylings of the vocalists were full orchestra complete with more than 25 classically trained performers on strings, horns, woodwinds and a pianist. But keeping it fresh the band also mixes in few young break dancers for an extra twist.

A DJ provided the backbeat and the orchestra played over the drum track that he provides. No stranger to either classical music or hip-hop, McNeill became skilled at combining the two into a signature remix.

He mixed The Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere" with Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony," which he composed at the young age of 12. The North Philadelphia-raised singer has a background in flute and piano, which helped him develop his musical stylings, along with his experience singing in the church choir.

With upcoming shows in his hometown of Philadelphia and Austin, Texas later this winter, along with San Antonio and Cincinnati this spring, Thee Phoenix will clearly bring his East Coast stylings to new neighborhoods. Meanwhile, his hot beats warmed up a freezing New Year's Eve in Washington, D.C., as Thee Phoenix invited his audience to dream of a better and more inclusive world in 2018. - Edge Media Network

"Hip-Hop Orchestra Review - Nothing Like a Live Beat"

Fans of early hip hop streamed into the Auditorium Theatre August 24, ready to hear their old favorites presented alongside new compositions with beats that went way further back. Many groups represented three generations of their families, eager to share a special treat with their kids. Hip hop and rap commonly sample classical music, but use of a live orchestra during performances is rare. So, does the use of strings, brass, woodwinds, and a synthesizer throughout a two-hour concert substantially change the experience? In the case of Thee Phantom and the Illharmonic Orchestra it certainly does. A fan of classical music from an early age, as well as the old-school hip hop of his Philly childhood, Thee Phantom felt the presence of musicians was so important that he and his wife and “partner in rhyme,” The Phoenix, created their own ensemble. Although they featured the stylings of DJ Philly C at their Chicago premiere, the group’s preference for including as many live elements as possible created a uniquely intimate performance.

They Called Him a Jerk, Said with a Smirk, “Rap and Classical, that will Never Work!”

The show’s opening, B-Boy Meets Beethoven tells the story of how the eight-year-old Phantom got his start by mixing the allegro from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with the Beastie Boys’ Paul Revere. Besides being the mature form of that experiment and a way to pump up the crowd, the song is also a demonstration of Thee Phantom’s narrative eloquence. Over the course of the performance he adapts his voice and physicality chameleon-like to cover rappers as different as Adam Horovitz and Kanye West, but his own presence is always warm and inviting.

A large part of that warmth, in this writer’s observation, comes from sharing the stage with his partner, The Phoenix. Their no-holds-barred rap battle set to the overture from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville delighted the crowd, but in this reviewer’s opinion, The Phoenix really shines during her ballads. Not only does she cover Killing Me Softly with His Words, with enough power to soar above a full strings section, her take on The Roots’ You Got Me is no less emphatic for being stirringly melodic.

The Greats of the 80s Get an Update

The group’s interests are not limited just to classical music and hip hop; listening to them is a whirlwind of pop culture from the late 70s to the present. Thee Phantom adapts the Commendatore theme from Mozart’s Don Giovanni to describe the difficult circumstance of his birth and childhood (Underdog) but he just as readily remixes Donny Hathaway to express appreciation for the artists and city that inspired him. The original composition The Entertainer is dedicated to the artist’s struggle, with a meditative air thanks to its cello, piano, and woodwind instrumentals. Admittedly, he had a challenge in that the Auditorium is a vast cavern designed to maximize the nuances of instruments at the expense of lyrics. But Thee’s diss track The Hunger came through clearly as wickedly clever with a baroque fiddle beat just as sinewy as the meat of lesser rappers he feasts upon.

This performance’s nostalgia factor was further enhanced by DJ Philly C, whose medley including such greats as LL Cool J elicited widespread cheers. But no song better encapsulated the Illharmonic’s message than the show’s climax with a remix of the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This featuring the voice of Martin Luther King. It was a promise to continue the work of helping other people to find their own voices amid a rich musical heritage and to share this ensemble’s talents through the immediacy of live performance. Hip hop lovers of all eras are encouraged to check out the tracks on the Illharmonic’s site and their future performances. - Picture This Post

"Hip-Hop Orchestra at SXSW"

Thee Phantom and The Illharmonic Orchestra combine the raw energy and passion of Hip-Hop, with the beautiful sounds of live orchestration. Phantom first mixed Beethoven and The Beastie Boys in his living room in 1987 and the group has since graced the hallowed stages of; Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center and the Kimmel Center to name a few. Fronted by husband and wife dynamic duo, Phantom & Phoenix, the ensemble ranges in size from 10 to 50 musicians and they are currently working on a Concert Hall Tour for 2020 and beyond. - Austin Chronicle

"Hip-Hop Orchestra Comes to Cincy"

“Thee Phantom & The Illharmonic Orchestra return to the Queen City, bringing their brand of B-Boy Meets Beethoven. The ensemble combines the raw passion and energy of Hip-Hop, with the beautiful sounds of live, orchestral accompaniment. The group has performed at such hallowed venues as Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, the Kimmel Center and more.” - The Voice of Black Cincinnati

"Watch: Hip-Hop Orchestra Performs "Big Poppa"."

Fusing together the Isley Brothers “Between the Sheets” and the Notorious BIG’s “Big Poppa”, Thee Phantom & The Illharmonic Orchestra pays homage to both classics during an online performance filmed and recorded at Power Station Studios in NYC. The ensemble performed “Big Poppa” along with original tracks and additional covers by some of Hip-Hop’s greatest artists. The video has reached over 62K Views on’s Instagram page.

The groups founder who owns the trademark for the term “Hip-Hop Orchestra” first combined Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere” way back in 1987. The Illharmonic has been performing since 1998 and has reached the stage at Carnegie Hall, sold out The Kennedy Center and has been rocking Concert Hall stages throughout the US. Catch Phantom and The Illharmonic on their upcoming, “B-Boy Meets Beethoven” Tour in 2022. - Culture District HQ

"Thee Phantom - Hip-Hop Meets Beethoven"

Jeffrey McNeill is creating a new narrative around what Hip Hop can do.
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.”

Austin show
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.” - Soulciti - Monique L. Hatch

"Thee Phantom & the Illharmonic Orchestra - Hip-Hop Meets Classical at Apple Store"

Sometimes you can’t make everyone happy. Sometimes you can’t make anyone happy. With his attempts to marry hip-hop and classical music, rapper Jeff McNeil aka Thee Phantom seems to have alienated both sides of the musical coin.

“I was fortunate enough to have one of my first live orchestral performances with members of the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra,” he boasts from his Philly hometown. “Unbeknownst to me, some of the musicians didn’t think too highly of someone looping selections of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and rapping over them.

“Ironically, I also received a great deal of pushback from the hip-hop community,” he continues ahead of an upcoming visit to perform in Japan. “Quite a few of my colleagues viewed my early performances as ostentatious and thought I attempted to show them up.”

The word “ostentatious” comes to mind, as does the word “gimmick.” But McNeill’s mission to merge hip-hop and classical is the natural outgrowth of his musical upbringing. “They didn’t grasp the fact that this was the way that I heard the music,” he insists, “and that I was only being true to myself.”

McNeill was immersed in music from an early age, singing in a church choir and taking piano and flute lessons. He was introduced to hip-hop at eight, when his father played him The Sugarhill Gang’s seminal 1979 track “Rappers Delight.” He was instantly hooked.

McNeill created his first rap two weeks later, and cut his teeth in MC battles at Philadelphia house parties. But he still had strains of Beethoven and Vivaldi running through his head. “The first beat I ever made at age 13 combined Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” with the Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul Revere’,” he recalls. “Hip-hop at that time was mainly drum machine-based with sparse instrumentation and melody. Having taken piano and flute lessons, hip-hop and classical just seemed to fit. I had no idea at the time what I had created. My best friend thought it was awful and said that it would never work. I vowed to prove him wrong.”

Initially sampling classical pieces and then replaying them with live musicians, McNeill’s creative process has progressed to writing his own melodies at the piano and then scoring them with Apple’s Garage Band and members of his Illharmonic Orchestra.

He says the process has become easier as a new generation of classical musicians has come of age. “It wasn’t until I started to incorporate younger musicians who grew up with both classical and hip-hop as I did,” he explains, “that the idea began to flourish.”

McNeill’s efforts can be hear on his 2006 album Hero Complex—dedicated to a murdered friend—and last year’s Making Of An Underdog—both out on his Invisible Man Productions imprint. Outside of the college circuit, where his music has been well received—and the occasional TV appearance—his raps have not resonated with the larger hip-hop community, which still seems nonplussed by his matching of hard-hitting flow to histrionic strings.

But McNeill has hopes of one day playing Carnegie Hall. “The great thing about hip-hop is that good music is still being made and with the advent of better technology, independent artists have the opportunity to get their music heard,” he says. “The main issue is that there isn’t enough variety on the radio, which robs fans of the opportunity to enjoy music that isn’t being force fed to them.”

His Japan visit—delayed two months by the quake—comes thanks to an appearance at the Apple store in New York’s Soho last fall, and he’ll be working with an orchestra recruited by local musician Kazushige Uchiyama. “When I was asked to choose another location that I’d like to perform at, I jumped at the opportunity to rock at the Apple Store in Ginza,” McNeill says. “I’ve heard such great things about Japanese culture, and the fans’ love for hip-hop, that it seemed like a no brainer.”

McNeill’s new autobiographical track “The Entertainer” drops around the same time as the gig, and he is planning to begin shooting scenes for an accompanying video, “as soon as I step off the plane in Tokyo.”

June 9 @Apple Store Ginza. 7pm, free. Nearest stn: Ginza. Tel: 03-5159-8200. - Metropolis Magazine Japan - Dan Grunebaum

"Thee Phantom - Boston Globe Preview"

Holistic hip-hop Featuring strings, horns, piano, a DJ, a soul singer, and a rapping MC, Thee Phantom and his Illharmonic is not your typical hip-hop act. They specialize in blending the vigor of hip-hop with classical instrumentation to create a new subgenre. They will play at Cafe 939 with an ensemble of musicians from the Berklee College of Music. Nov. 8, 8 p.m. $10. Cafe 939, 939 Boylston St., Boston. - Boston Globe

"Thee Phantom - Friday Flow"

Philly native Jeffrey McNeill is one of the few Rap artists who can legitimately promise listeners and those who attend his concerts something they haven’t seen or heard before. 
Under the MC moniker Thee Phantom, McNeill hit upon the formula by mixing the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere” with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony … when he was 12! McNeill took the concept and ran with it, forming the “Illharmonic Orchestra” (essentially a rotating orchestral ensemble with whom he tours and records) and going on to garner attention from all over the world for his distinct blend. 
This Friday, Thee Phantom and an Illharmonic featuring local players headlines Over-the-Rhine’s Washington Park for its free, weekly “Friday Flow” concert.
The event kicks off at 7:10 p.m. with “Def Comedy Jam Poets,” Tracy Walker plays at 8 p.m. and then Thee Phantom takes the stage at 8:45 p.m. 

A documentary crew is following McNeill on tour for the planned From the Hood to Carnegie Hall film, so be sure to look your best! 
- Cincinnati City Beat

"Thee Phantom's genre-blending screams 'Rap Me Amadeus!'"

Many hip-hop artists spend their days scouring record bins for choice samples to rap over, but rarely do they go out and find an actual orchestra. As rapper Thee Phantom, Jeff McNeill is doing just that.

Maestro Fresh Jeff: Jeff McNeill, who goes by the name Thee Phantom, will rap with a 10-piece orchestra.

McNeill has played at New York's famed Carnegie Hall and the Kimmel Performing Arts Center in his hometown of Philadelphia, but he chose the theater space at the Ginza Apple Store for his Japan debut. Accompanying him will be a 10-piece Japanese orchestra.

The title of Thee Phantom's new album, "Making of an Underdog," refers to what McNeill describes as a "tough childhood." However, despite the dangers of growing up in a rough neighborhood and what he describes as a broken home, he says his parents' unwavering support of his early interest in music kept him pursing his dream. It's a journey that his new single "The Entertainer," which features opera singer Sophia Jaber, lays out in detail.

"I'm trying to give the listeners a glimpse of the things that drive me as an artist and have helped mold me as a musician," McNeill tells The Japan Times by email. "The more of myself that I'm able to put into the songwriting, the better I feel about the piece."

McNeill says hip-hop hit him "like a ton of bricks" when he heard it in the 1980s — so much so that by his early teens he had tried making his own track by mixing the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere" with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. He credits that experiment with putting him on his musical path.

When creating his songs, McNeill writes the scores for every instrument himself and then records those parts in a studio. Live, those songs are performed by what he dubs his Illharmonic Orchestra, so the recorded pieces go to whoever he is playing with first so they can get a sense of what he has in store.

"Having the music prepared helps when I'm doing performances live with musicians that I've never met before," says McNeill. In the case of the Tokyo show, he has already forwarded the sheet music to the Japanese orchestra with whom he will perform.

McNeill's fiancee, who goes by the name The Phoenix, came to Japan in 2009 with fellow hip-hop act Steph Pockets. Their anecdotes from that trip piqued McNeill's curiosity about this country and the more "technologically advanced" music scene here.

The rapper originally intended to come to Tokyo for a show on April 15, but it was canceled after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. With some artists still canceling their performances, McNeill says he is "fearless of the aftershocks" and any perceived threat of radiation. Only his mother, he says, has raised an eyebrow in concern.

Thee Phantom plays the Apple Store in Ginza, Tokyo, on June 9 at 7 p.m. Thee Phantom will shoot a music video while in Tokyo. If you want to take part, meet him at Narita Airport as soon as his plane lands on June 7 at 1:55 p.m. (Flight No. 1010). For more information, visit
- Tokyo Times - Mike Hamilton

"On the Up: Thee Phantom"

Time Out Tokyo watches genres collide, as Beethoven meets the Beastie Boys in the hands of Thee Phantom, an up-and-coming hip hop artist with a classical twist, jetting into Tokyo mid-April to take on the Ginza Apple Store, Japanese orchestra in tow.

Hip hop and a live orchestra? What's that about?
I grew up with access to a wide range of music. I sang in the church choir in addition to taking piano and flute lessons as a child. When I was exposed to hip-hop, it seemed to naturally fit with classical music. The first beat I ever made in the late '80s, combining Beethoven's 5th Symphony with, 'Paul Revere' by the Beastie Boys.

Why Tokyo and why the Apple Store?
My fiancee (The Phoenix) toured Japan with hip-hop artist Steph Pockets a few years back, and she raved about [the Japanese] love of hip-hop and how technologically advanced their culture was. I'm also a techie, so it seemed like a great idea to team up with the leading technology company in the world in one of its most forward thinking cities. The Ginza store has the largest theater of all the Apple locations.

How did you pick the Japanese musicians that will be playing with you?
I've had quite a few friends tour Japan, so I used my resources and references. I met Kazushige Uchiyama through a mutual friend on Facebook and we've been organizing the ensemble, which will consist of strings, brass, woodwinds and a pianist.

Can you sum up Thee Phantom in 140 characters or less?
B-Boy meets Beethoven. Thee Phantom combines the raw energy and passion of hip-hop, with the beautiful, sweeping, sounds of classical music.

As a first-timer, what are you expecting Tokyo to be like?
This will be my first trip to Tokyo. Whenever I speak to anyone who has traveled there before, they always refer to Tokyo's love of hip-hop. I look forward to sharing that love. My expectations are that I'll leave Tokyo with a wide range of cultural experiences.

What can Thee Phantom bring to Japan's capital that it doesn't already have?
From what I understand Tokyo has it all! However, if you've never witnessed a fire-breathing MC, a passionate soul songstress and a master mixologist, being backed by a 10 piece Japanese orchestra, this is something that you don't want to miss.

Thee Phantom plays the Apple Ginza Store, April 15, 7pm. His album, Making of an Underdog, is available via iTunes: Making of An Underdog - Thee Phantom - Time Out Tokyo

"Music X Ray Song Review - The Entertainer"

“The Entertainer”. What an awesome track. Fantastic rapping, solid beat, strong chorus melody (and that soprano descant line in the verse is unbelievably gorgeous). The mix functions really well, and I think the aesthetic you’re going for is really cool and is an avenue that hasn’t been fully explored yet. It’s a very smart, well-done composition & recording. - Andrew Fox - Stacks of Wax

"Music X Ray Song Review - The Entertainer"

This is really good. A very unique combo that works incredibly well. It creates a really nice and somewhat chilling vibe. It's a hit, love the melody. - Rudy Haeusserman

"Thee Phantom is Taking Hip-Hop Bach to the Future"

James Johnson
Philadelphia Daily News

Sometimes, giving up your dream isn't an option. For North Philadelphia native Jeff McNeill, also known as producer/MC Thee Phantom, these have been words to live by.

Since his emergence in Philly's indie-music scene as a solo artist, Thee Phantom's unique juxtaposition of hip-hop and classical music has really taken him places. From college campuses in Texas to packed New York City nightclubs, Phantom's b-boy meets Beethoven style has left an undeniable mark on any and all who have seen him.

Thee Phantom, who will perform at the 76ers game and do a postgame concert Monday at the Wachovia Center, sat down recently to talk about where he's been, what got him there and what he hopes will get him over the hump and finally living his dream.

Q: How did you first get interested in hip-hop?

A: My father had taped the Sugar Hill Gang's song "Rapper's Delight" from the radio, and he played it for me when I was 6. As soon as I heard it, I knew that this was something that I would grow to love. I always knew I wanted to do music.

Q: By the time you were 12, you were already mixing the Beastie Boys with classical music. What inspired you to combine the two?

A: I couldn't even tell you where I got the idea from, because up to that point nobody was mixing hip-hop and classical music. I put that together, took it to my best friend's house to let him listen to it. He thought it was trash. [Laughs.]

That was the moment I became bonded to that; that incident hit me so hard - I said, "I'm going to succeed no matter what you think."

Q: You've done well for yourself since then, performing everywhere from clubs and college campuses to the Kimmel Center. What has the response been like?

A: When I started doing it, it kind of got a mixed reaction from both sides. From the hip-hop side, when you're in the back room practicing, and they see you've got a string quartet and all they have is a CD, right away there's some animosity: "Oh, this dude thinks he's better than us."

It was never really like that; it was what I wanted to do with my music. From the classical side, the first major gig I had was at the Kimmel Center [in 2002], and I worked with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. That drew some hard feelings from them because they felt like, "He's bastardizing classical music."

Now, because I've become so progressive with what I do, and I'm composing my own music, I think it's gained a lot of respect. If you actually sit down and listen to it, it's good music.

Q: How did you get that Kimmel gig?

A: I saw an article about Erik Haeker, who worked at the Kimmel Center and was looking to try different things with classical music to make it more accessible to a younger audience. I took my CD down to the Kimmel, met with him, and they booked me to their first Summer Solstice Celebration. Erik ran an organization called Arts In Motion and hooked me up with musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia for my performance. One of them was violist Renard Edwards, who 30 years earlier became the first African-American musician to play for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Q: As of late, you've been touring a lot of colleges. How did you start on the college scene and what's it like doing that as opposed to shows at traditional venues?

A: I started getting my music out through college radio, and I've had a couple of my singles reach No. 1 on quite a few stations. Someone from a college where my song was doing well said, "We're putting on a show, would you like to come and rock out?"

It really took off to where now I'm able to support myself with college touring. It's been great, as opposed to rocking a club or something like that. At the college age, you're really trying to find yourself and you're open to a lot of stuff. You're really not set in your ways. So when somebody brings something new, you're more willing to accept it.

Q: What projects do you have in the works right now?

A: I'm getting ready to release my second album, "Making of an Underdog." That will be available on iTunes on March 30, but I will have advance copies for sale at the Sixers' game.

Q: What artists and musicians have you worked with for this album?

A: This album actually features no MCs. The only other vocalists on there will be the Phoenix and Erin Dusoul. Everything is basically live music, and I've worked with my Illharmonic Orchestra.

Most of them are based out of Philly. I have strings, horns, a piano player, a harp player, a guitar player . . . it's an orchestral hip-hop album.

Q: Not too long ago you moved up to New York. What prompted that?

A: I wanted to get closer to my music goals. I want to get into Carnegie Hall - and this [New York] is the birthplace of hip-hop. I felt as though I accomplished so much in Philadelphia, I just felt that it was time.

Q: You've been trying to perform - Philadelphia Daily News - James Johnson

"From the Hood to Carnegie Hall"

While other underground MCs were rockin' LaTazza and The Five Spot, Thee Phantom was conquering the Kimmel Center. And while his peers are hoping to book a gig opening for Lil Wayne, he's got his eye on Carnegie Hall.

Backed by a crew that could play your wedding — a violinist, a cellist, a harpist, etc. — rapper Jeff McNeill has perfected the most complicated of pop blends: classical and hip-hop. He calls it introducing Beastie Boys to Beethoven. "I was just messing around and took Paul Revere and blended it with Fifth Symphony."

His journey began in North Philly, in the late '80s. "I was like many other kids on Friday nights listening to Lady B's Beat Street show on Power 99," says Thee Phantom. "When I first heard hip-hop, I knew that this was something I had to be a part of." Simultaneous to his attraction to the form was a nagging curiosity for mixing it up. He wanted to experiment with it, to bend its artistic limits. He tried his hand at being a breakdancer, a DJ and graffiti artist, but MCing is where he felt he shined.

Now, an orchestra on a hip-hop stage isn't the rarest thing in the world these days, especially at award shows. Jay-Z and Jamie Foxx have performed alongside live classical instruments, and while Kayne's fleet of violin-playing hotties appeared to be bow-syncing, somebody somewhere played those strings for him.

But Thee Phantom is no mere tourist to this genre-blending. He lives at the border, which is not always a comfortable place. He has to pay the musicians out of his own pocket. And although he does have his fans, he remains largely unknown outside our fair city.

Backing his hard-hitting beats and storytelling rhymes with classical music wasn't his toughest challenge. That seems to come naturally to him. Selling it is another story.

"I pretty much encountered skeptics right off the bat. After my first performance with a string section in '99, I heard things like, 'It's not real hip-hop.' 'It's smoke and mirrors.' 'You're a dope MC, you don't need all that up on stage,'" he says. At age 12, he played his first classical/hip-hop attempt for his best friend. "He ejected the tape and flung it across the room."

There was, however, one person who believed in him besides his mama and that was Eric Haeker, who ran an organization called Arts in Motion. "He was the one who commissioned the musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia to accompany me at the Kimmel Center."

In 2004, Thee Phantom self-released a 12-inch called "Beware." It reached No. 1 on a Staten Island college station. Soon he was performing at universities up and down the East Coast, another road less traveled by underground rappers. His new album, Making of an Underdog, comes out March 15, the same day he performs as the halftime act at a Sixers game (speaking of underdogs).

The next big challenge is Carnegie Hall. It took a whole lotta convincing and campaigning, but the esteemed Manhattan concert hall has decided to give him a shot. On Dec. 5, he'll headline his own show with his crew, the Illharmonic Orchestra. It comes with a hefty price tag. "I'll need to sell approximately 4,000 albums, or 40,000 single downloads from iTunes, to cover the cost of Carnegie," he laughs. "When you consider Ke$ha sold 610,000 copies of her single in a week, I don't think I'm crazy by trying to pull this off." He's also giving other bands a chance to open up for him, so watch for that announcement on his Web site soon.

"My hope is that I can inspire future generations of hip-hop music makers to push the sonic envelope and help the culture continue to move forward."

Thee Phantom plays the Sixers halftime and post-game concert, Mon., March 15, 7 p.m., Wachovia Center, 3601 S. Broad St.,

- City Paper - Deesha Dyer

"Thee Phantom Knows Mozart"

Growing up, Jeffrey McNeill could find anything in his father's record collection "from Motown to Mozart." Every sound in that spectrum made an impression on the artist who now calls himself Thee Phantom, but it was the classical music that stood out as especially passionate and expressive.

McNeill took flute lessons, and although he didn't continue with formal training ("It's not the sexiest instrument. Nobody lies in bed at night dreaming about naked flute players."), he learned to read music and continued to grow in his appreciation of classical music. It was the start, as they say, of something big.

In 1979, McNeill heard the Sugarhill Gang performing a new sound, one that spoke to him more immediately than anything else had. "It was my voice," he says. Two weeks later he was writing rhymes and recording them on his father's tape recorder. Later, at Murrell Dobbins High School in North Philly, he was the lead MC of a three-man rap group called Triple Threat--complete with a hype man, old-school style.

This visceral connection with the new art form called hip-hop is hardly an unusual experience for black kids of a certain age. It's the next step that sets McNeill apart: "Once I heard hip-hop, it just came together with classical music in my mind."

The first track he put on tape was Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, this time lifted from his brother's record collection, laid over the breakbeat from the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere." McNeill recalls the recording method he used at the tender age of 13: first record the Beasties onto one tape deck, then scratch Beethoven on a turntable into the other while dubbing the instrumental. Throw in a Casio keyboard and a Dr. Rhythm drum machine, dub it all, and plug a microphone into the stereo to lay down the vocals. He calls it the "pause/record double-tape-deck style."

It's 20+ years after McNeill first heard hip-hop, and he is still carefully threading together the old and the new--only now his equipment is better.

During his recording sessions at 1020 Sound Studios located on Delaware Avenue, McNeill takes an orchestra-sized sound, shrinks it down, breaks it into pieces, and blows it back up in the shape of an urban symphony. Thee Phantom's instrumentals show a partiality to string concertos and live musicians. "The I'sht," a track he describes as the classic house party joint, features a live sitar player, and other pieces use a live guitarist and violinists.

Asked for his mentors in innovation, McNeill easily rattles off a roster of forward-thinking early influences: Rakim (of Eric B. and Rakim), KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane. Thee Phantom's complex and melodic schemes also bear the influence of Gang Starr turntablist and one-time KRS-One producer DJ Premier. String orchestrations are just one of the many ingredients in the meaty bouillabaisse of Gang Starr's second record, Step in the Arena, a sort of classical music in its own right.

"I do consider DJ Premier one of the best and most creative producers out there. With that said, my DJ, Deuce, did a lot of the very same things Premier did before any of us heard of Gang Starr," McNeill says.

Though he admits he's not the first to dabble with classical music, he seems to have taken it to another level. The batch of tracks he has slated for inclusion on his album, due out in late spring, is a near hybrid of old-school party songs and sweeping orchestral sounds. He compromises neither, and amazes the listener with how well they fit together.

"I want to add to the legacy of hip-hop as an art form. It encompasses several facets of the finer arts," he says, and proceeds to break it down: The DJ acts as the conductor and composer, the b-boy as urban ballet dancer, the human beatbox as musician and the MC as poet. And as for those purveyors of the fifth element of hip-hop, graffiti artists? "I call them the modern-day Picassos."

The reception to McNeill's ideas has been resoundingly positive, even in the staid classical community. He has collaborated with members of the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and is the first hip-hop artist to perform at the awe-inspiring Kimmel Center.

He's also put together a script that takes a wickedly funny stab at the big-business world of the rap industry, using comic-bookesque villains whose vocabulary ranges all the way from "yo" to "yahmean." Actors will bring his story to life in a kind of hip-hopera.

Not everyone thinks pursuing hip-hop as high art is the way to go. One young man who was looking to record with McNeill's label, Beware the Label, in the hope of getting rich told McNeill that he, with his highfalutin' ideas, had it "all fucked up." But that's okay with Thee Phantom. He's got his eyes on the real prize: "to make art that does not fall victim to the laws and formulas that govern mainstream consumption." Wack MCs, beware the Phantom.
- Katie Haegle - Philly Weekly

"Interview With a Phantom"

From the Playground to the Stage
"I watched her struggle, and that was my motivation to do right. I have an underlying fear of letting her down." Thee Phantom is an up a coming artist on the Philadelphia Hip Hop scene, although he's been around for a bit. The 28-year-old artist from North Philadelphia acknowledges his mother as the driving force behind his creativity.

Thee Phantom wrote his first rhyme at the age of 8, and made his first beat at 13. He remembers the beat was a combination of a drum machine, Paul Revere by the Beastie Boys & Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Yes, that is what I said! Thee Phantom defies the boundaries set by regular, redundant Hip Hop. While attending Dobbins High School, he played the flute & the piano. This combination along with his passion for the Hip Hop culture gave him ideas of mixing classical instruments with Hip Hop music to form an eclectic, original sound.

The first group Thee Phantom decided to express himself with was called Triple Threat. The group consisted of a lead emcee, background emcee & a DJ. When in Triple Threat, he was known as MC J. He joked that he didn't want me to put that in here, but don't worry, I don't think anyone is going to steal that authentic name! In 1991 after touring the Greater Philadelphia Region & New York, Phantom accepted an academic scholarship to Florida A & M University. The formula of missing his family & not being able to find work brought Thee Phantom back home to Philadelphia. Upon his return, he discovered his former group Triple Threat had transgressed & changed their name to Better Off Dead. Their style had become Gangsta Rap, & Phantom wasn't down for that. He parted ways with them, and decided to concentrate on his own endeavors. That is when he changed his name to Thee Phantom. "It's more so just a part of my personality. I like to be behind the scenes, & moving in silence."

Thee Phantom built up his equipment inventory and started experimenting with them to create a style all his own. In 1997, he interned at 3rd Story Recording, as an Engineers Assistant. "I mainly wanted to gain knowledge about everything & anything I could." At 3rd Story, he met classical musicians who opened his eyes further to the possibility of a Hip Hop/Classical merge. From the things he had learned during the internship, Thee Phantom was ready to build his own musical stomping ground. The rest they say is history.

Watch Your Back
"Being in Hip Hop saved my life." I am always curious to know where the desire for this culture comes from. We are all individuals and only the person in the mirror can understand where & how we wake up everyday and still feel the connection and vibe with Hip Hop. One night, a situation solidified Thee Phantom's place in Hip Hop. After a graduation party he & a friend were waiting for the bus at 22nd & Lehigh. The time was 1AM (I feel like Sherlock Holmes!). A car rolls up on them, & a guy starts walking towards them with an object that they mistook as an umbrella. The item was a sawed off shotgun. Immediately the unidentified guy demanded money, assuming they were drug dealers. After partying, all Thee Phantom & his friend had, was change to donate to SEPTA. The guy put the gun to Thee Phantom's head, looked at him twice & said, "Oh, hey...what's up? You're that boy I see rapping at parties. I was ready to bang you, keep doing that music." The guy proceeded to get in his car. Shocked, relieved & startled, Thee Phantom & his friend swiftly left the corner, in case someone who didn't happen to party in the neighborhood mistook them for corner boys. His fate was forever sealed to this destiny called Hip Hop.
- Deesha Dyer -

"URB Magazine Top 1000 Review"

Reviewed by Elliott Townsend

Take the drum and instrument samples and replace them with a live orchestra fronted by a passionate, aggressive MC, and what you have is Thee Phantom. Blending roots hip-hop with classical instrumentation, Thee Phantom is a live hip-hop act like no other. Whether it's his mellower flow or his energetic attack, Thee Phantom ignores the DJ-MC hip-hop stereotype and brings beautfiful musical arrangements enhanced by the raw energy and harsh realities hip-hop was founded on. - Elliot Townsend/URB Magazine

"Phantom of Kimmel Center Looking North"

In the late '80s, Conwell Russell Middle School wasn't quite ready for pre-teen visionary Jeff McNeill. His low-fi mash-up of the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere" and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony fell on deaf ears around the lunch table, but armed with a deep well of respect for his old-school influences and a fascination with classical music, McNeill reinvented himself as Thee Phantom in the late '90s. Since then he's worked with classical musicians as much as possible.

"I still get the wide-eyed look when I bring a string quartet onstage," hesays. "Then we bust out with a cover of 'Lean Back' or something and people are like, 'Oh! This is hip-hop' ".

A performance at the Kimmel Center in 2002 with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra helped to solidify local respect for his experiments, but McNeill is always looking for the next hill t climb. His latest: Carnegie Hall in New York City.

McNeill estimates that it will cost about $30,000 to self produce a gig on one of the venue's smaller stages and he's hoping to raise the dough exclusively through iTunes sales of Thee Phantom songs. A challenge, no doubt, but he's already played the Kimmel- twice actually. Why not Carnegie, too? - Bruce Walsh - Philly Metro

"Philly Weekly Article"

What's Up With Thee Phantom
by Kate Kilpatrick
Real name: Jeffrey McNeill

Age: Unknown

Hometown: North Philly.

Background: Thee Phantom is an MC/producer who mixes hip-hop with live classical music orchestration. In 2002 he became the first hip-hop artist to perform at the Kimmel Center. He released his debut album Hero Complex earlier this month.

On Hero Complex: "It's like a comic book within the album. Each song is followed by a scripted and scored scene. The story is that hip-hop is in trouble, and me being the protagonist, Thee Phantom has arrived to save it. I join forces with local artists Reef the Lost Cauze, Side Effect, Verbal Tec and Verso, who all have acting parts, and we basically band together and try to save hip-hop from the evil clutches of Walter Wickwack. He represents all the things hip-hop has suffered through. He's the corporate America who's taken over hip-hop and popularized it."

On Philly's underground hip-hop scene: "I don't know if I've actually been accepted into that scene. If MCs are coming up and they're performing with just a DJ-and oftentimes it's not even a DJ; it's them and a CDR-and then I come with a string section and a horn section, I get the side-eyed look."

On classical music: "I first got into classical music when I was about 8. I was sifting through my father's record collection, and he had Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in there. And you know the sound from that is just so big and so terrifying that I couldn't stop listening to it. That just drew me in. My love for hip-hop and classical music grew at the same time. My first beat I tried to make, when I was about 12, I mixed 'Paul Revere' and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony."

Making the album: "There are a few classical pieces that people would know. Also there are some pieces I built from the ground up. I've been working with Gloria Justin, who's a violinist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and we actually wrote some new pieces for the album."

Classical favorites: "I love Vivaldi's Four Seasons, the whole collection. And of course Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Those are my top two listening pieces for classical music."

Hip-hop favorites: "The golden age, from '87 to '92-Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One."

On mixing hip-hop with classical music: "Although I love any type of live music, the slower jazzy stuff never really captivated me as much as the sound of impending doom, or just the overall scenery that classical music and strings and horns and everything like that provides for me. It's just a sound I really can't compare to any other sound out there."

For more info:
- Kate Kilpatrick

"Thee Phantom Unplugged"

Phantom, unplugged
Jeff 'Thee Phantom' McNeil blends hip-hop, orchestra in show tonight

JEFF "THEE PHANTOM" McNeil has always been about elevating the hip-hop craft to new levels.
But when McNeil and his Illharmonic Orchestra take the stage at Grape Street this evening for a "Philly Unplugged" event, he'll show just how far hip-hop has come as he fuses a live orchestra with his energetic rhyme style.

The result? Hip-hop bliss in A minor.

"I'm looking forward to this show. We have a female vocalist, a DJ, strings and horns," McNeil said recently. "It's not your typical unplugged show. We're definitely hip-hop, and we got a few surprises for people."

"Thee Phantom is one of the city's more original artists for his blending of two genres that otherwise would have nothing to do with each other. He pulls it off effortlessly," said hip-hop artist Gary "Lex" Sweeney.

McNeil has been surprising people since he began melding hip-hop with orchestral backing in 2000 with such releases as "Storming the Bastille." He first hit the local hip-hop scene in the 1990s.

"I was in a group called Triple Threat - it was me, a DJ and a hype man," McNeil recalled. "We rocked the party circuit in North Philly and even did a show at Penn's Landing for the African-American Festival in '91."

McNeil, who grew up in North Philly, attended Florida A&M University, pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering. After the scholarship ran out, he returned to his hometown - and to hip-hop.

But what prompted him to turn to classical music?

"There were a number of things that got me interested in classical music, like digging through my brother's and father's record collection," McNeil said. "My first beat was made up of the Beastie Boys' 'Paul Revere' and Beethoven's Fifth."

He's also taken flute lessons since he was a toddler, though he doesn't play in concert or on his records.

McNeil's newest album, "Hero Complex," features an astounding array of sounds and moods. It's out on the independent Invisible Man Productions label.

"All in all, I had ideas for this album for about 10 years," McNeil said. "It's been a labor of love."
"Rock, Shake, Roll, Bounce has gotten a few mix show spins in other markets," McNeil said. " 'Keep It Movin',' 'Special Dedication' and 'Kiss My' have all gotten such great feedback that I'm considering re-releasing the album with a few upgrades, like a DVD of live performances."

McNeil is about to embark on his first major tour, which will take him to the University of Texas in February to perform alongside UT's renowned student orchestra.

"To perform at a university as accredited as the University of Texas' music program is a tremendous opportunity," McNeil said. "I'll be rocking with their student orchestra and actually have a few musicians from there featured on my album, playing strings."

McNeil's also headed for Carnegie Hall - though he rented the space himself and is raising money to cover the gig's cost.

"That show is more like a hall-rental-type of thing, but I had to go through a crazy screening process before they OK'd a hip-hop show," McNeil said. "That's why I'm on the hunt for sponsorship. Just to have the opportunity in and of itself speaks volumes."

McNeil has performed with his orchestra at the Kimmel Center several times.

"I reached out to Carnegie Hall and they wanted to see what I was all about before allowing me to grace their building. There has only been one other hip-hop act there, and that was [Fugee member] Wyclef [Jean]," McNeil said. "For an indie artist to get the nod is unheard of."

So McNeil is breaking down barriers to places where hip-hop traditionally has not been welcome. In that, he hopes his efforts pay off for the progressive hip-hop artists who will come after him.

"Getting booked for these shows is like a dream coming true. Opportunities like these aren't readily available to poor black males from North Philly," McNeil said. "That's why I feel it's my duty to take this and run with it as far as possible.

"It's not just an opportunity for me, but for hip-hop." - Damon Williams

"Album Review - Thee Phantom - Making Of An Underdog"

Thee Phantom
Making of an Underdog
(Invisible Man Productions ***)

Jay Z and Kanye West have used string players for effect - silly props for award shows, perhaps. But to North Philly MC Thee Phantom (Jeff McNeill), blending the beats and rhymes of hip-hop with the sweep of cellists and violinists is serious business.

Thee Phantom's epic, stately sound makes more sense on the Kimmel Center's stage (where he has appeared) than it might during a basement rap bash. The songs on this, his second album (Hero Complex came out on 2006), feature handsome arrangements of strings, rich choral vocals, and warm brass. His rap's clarity, its singsong flow, and the simmering instrumentation behind his melodies allow ample room for Thee Phantom's positive lyrics. As a storyteller, he makes his point on "Underdog" and "Inspiration" and gets out of the way of the grand, elegant music.

Thee Phantom played Underdog's release-day gig at the Wachovia Center during a 76ers halftime. "Hip-Hop's Love Ballad" is cheery and romantic. "B-Boy Meets Beethoven" seems as silly as it does stoic. But none of this means that this MC, his Illharmonic Orchestra, or his drum programmer/pianist L.F. Daze lacks grit, hardness, or humor. Thee Phantom is one overachieving underdog.

- A.D. Amorosi - Philadelphia Inquirer




When was the last time you witnessed an orchestral ensemble of up to 50 pieces at a Hip-Hop concert? Well, that is but a fraction of what you will get when you catch Thee Phantom & The Illharmonic Orchestra in action. Picture B-Boy meets Beethoven. If you're searching for something that will wow your audience, look no further.

In 2002, The Illharmonic became the first Hip-Hop group to perform at Philadelphia's prestigious Kimmel Center with musical accompaniment from members of the world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.

On November 1, 2015, Thee Phantom backed by a 25 piece ensemble, took to the stage at the famed Carnegie Hall, becoming just the 3rd Hip-Hop Artist to headline his own show at the esteemed venue. In 2016, the ensemble packed 4,000 attendees into the Kennedy Center in DC. The Illharmonic currently averages over 900 Tickets Sold per event on Pollstar. 

Band Members