Featured photo: Jeffrey McNeill, aka Thee Phantom and his wife Andrea Coln aka Phoenix make up the two halves of Thee Phantom and the Illharmonic Orchestra. (courtesy photo)
Jeffrey McNeill grew up in a musical household, naturally gravitating towards the bass-filled beats by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five and other hip-hop artists that emitted from his dad Stanley’s record player.
“When I heard hip hop it immediately sounded like my voice, he says. “It sounded like something I could do.”
When he was 13, he noticed the lack of melodies in the genre and tried his hand at audio mixing using his dad’s dual-cassette/turntable, blending the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere” with Beethoven’s Fifth. He excitedly ran to a friend’s house ready to show off his masterpiece, only to be met with a less than favorable review.
“He looked at me, popped the tape out and threw it across the room. He told me it would never work,” he says.
Despite his friend’s resistance, McNeill, who goes by Thee Phantom, bonded himself to the idea that hip hop and classical music can work together. He derived his name from The Phantom of the Opera, saying he’s a lover of music and performance.
In the early 2000s, McNeill pitched the idea of an orchestra backing his rapping to his then-girlfriend and now wife, Andrea Coln. He succeeded in 2002, becoming the first hip-hop artist to perform at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, joined by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.
Soon after, he began seeking talent to form his own orchestra, aiming for, but not limiting himself to, younger musicians of color who listened to hip hop and could relate to what they played. Thee Phantom also wanted the audience to be able to see themselves on the stage.
In 2003, Thee Phantom and the Illharmonic Orchestra made their debut at the Kimmel Center. Of 25 musicians, 20 were of color. And on Jan. 15, Thee Phantom and the Illharmonic Orchestra will be bringing their fusion to the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro.
Since 2003, the group has graced the stage of several prestigious performance spaces on the east coast, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC and Carnegie Hall in New York City. In fact, the group was only the third hip-hop act to perform at Carnegie Hall, after Wyclef Jean and Jay-Z, respectively.
Coln, also known as Phoenix, serves as the orchestra’s vocalist. She based her stage name on the phoenix, a bird in Greek mythology that is repeatedly born again, rising from the ashes of its predecessor. She says the phoenix describes the way she’s been able to adapt to the life path she chose, deviating from her original plan of becoming a dancer.
“I’ve been able to rebirth, regrow and reinvent myself,” she says.
Growing up, Phoenix reserved her singing for her schoolmates on the bus, never intending to make a career of it.
“I remember being in high school and the What’s the 411? album coming out and singing the whole Mary J. Blige album on the back of the bus and the whole bus being quiet while I was just belting out all of the songs,” she says.
She continues, “Apparently it was meant to be.”
The 25-member ensemble contains violin, cello, trumpet and more, designed to make the listener think about how sounds are created when recording music in the studio. Phoenix believes listeners will gain a new perspective as many instruments in music are electronically simulated today.
“When they see it to orchestration and it’s a Jay-Z or Kanye song, the connections are made visually and mentally, and you’re able to appreciate hip hop in a different way,” she says.
This will be the orchestra’s first trip to North Carolina, something Phantom’s excited about for more reasons than one.
“I grew up as a Tar Heel fan, so North Carolina has always been on my target,” he says.
The orchestra tailors the songs they perform to the audience and location at which they’re performing. The setlist contains original songs by Thee Phantom, fan-favorites like “Big Poppa” by Notorious B.I.G and several covers of songs by hip-hop artists from North Carolina, including Phoenix’s favorite, J. Cole.
She’s also eager to perform for an audience that’s likely to enjoy and understand the songs.
“I’m looking forward to going to a place where we know there’s a large population of people who look like us who can relate to what this is about,” she says.
According to Phoenix, the show can’t be explained, but must be experienced. It’s not for people who opt to stay seated while watching.
“It’s a house party in a classical venue,” she says.
Thee Phantom and the Illharmonic Orchestra will perform at Carolina Theatre in Greensboro on Jan. 15 @ 8 p.m. Tickets are on sale at carolinatheatre.com. Learn more about Thee Phantom and the Illharmonic Orchestra at theephantomhiphop.com, Facebook and Instagram @illharmonic.orchestra.