Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on May 2011Sometimes 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.www.itunes.com/theephantom