Thee Phantom talks performances, inspiring students

By Megan Bradley, Staff Writer

Thee Phantom, born as Jeffrey McNeill, uses his musical background to create combinations of hip-hop with classical orchestrations. Thee Phantom’s performances have spanned college campuses across the country, being one of the only hip-hop artists to headline at Carnegie Hall and the first to perform at the Kimmel Center with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The Daily Illini spoke with Thee Phantom about the upcoming release of his new album, “Maniac Maestro,” and his unique participation in the music industry.

Daily Illini: How did you originally become involved in music?

Thee Phantom:

My mother put me in flute and piano lessons when I was a child, and I grew up singing in the church choir. Music was all around my house; my father had a huge record collection — everything from Motown to Mozart — so I would spend hours in front of the record player listening to everything.

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By the time I was 8, I was writing my own lyrics and songs. Then, my father introduced me to hip-hop. Within the next two weeks I was writing my own rhyme, and it started out from there. When hip-hop really started, it didn’t have a whole bunch of melodic influences; it was basically bass and drums and was very rhythmic. In my head, having already been exposed to Beethoven and Mozart, I heard violins and piano and all these types of things over these tracks that I was listening to. So when I was 13, I got the idea to mix the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere” with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and that’s pretty much how Thee Phantom started.

DI: Do you play any other instruments beyond piano and flute?

TP: I plan to go back and learn the violin — one of my favorite instruments. Playing the piano really opened up the world of music for me because you really have the entire range of instruments right there on a piano. Your lower keys are your cellos and bassoons, and your higher keys are your flute, your violin.

DI: Where do you find inspiration in creating your music?

TP: I see music in color. I can just be walking around the street, and I’ll hear a sound that will remind me of a record that I played when I was listening to my father’s collection. Present artists that inspire me are Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and musicians like Kamasi Washington. People who really believe in what they’re playing and rapping about, those are the types of things that inspire me to keep doing what it is that I’m doing.

DI: How do you make your music unique from other hip-hop artists?

TP: Every song that I make is with the … purpose of performing it live with an orchestral ensemble. So if I’m sitting down and I start banging out a track, I’m always building out around it. So if I start with piano, I’m thinking about ways I can layer woodwinds, or I can layer strings upon it. Having familiarity with these instruments, I try to score in a way that when you come to a concert, you’ll be able to see the intention of the music.

DI: You were one of the first hip-hop performers to headline at Carnegie Hall in 2015. How was that experience?

TP: The first major concert hall that I performed at was the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. We opened that building in 2001, and that’s when I realized that things I had been doing since 1987 were really coming to fruition. For me, performing in these concert halls is sort of like a brand new presentation of the music, taking it out of the club atmosphere or something like that and giving the audience a different presentation.

DI: How do you choose musicians to be part of your orchestra, the Illharmonic Orchestra?

TP: I have some mainstay musicians, who have been with us since 1999. When we tour, we usually open up opportunities for musicians from the area to come and perform with us. We visited the University of Illinois a few years ago, and we used some University of Illinois musicians. So when we do that, we grow the Illharmonic family. What we do is we send the sheet music and MP3s ahead of time and allow them to practice, and we practice when we get there and then we put on the show. Over the course of the years, these musicians have become family. For me, growing the ensemble and giving the musicians the opportunity, most of whom haven’t had the opportunity when they were going to school to perform at the Kennedy Center or Carnegie Hall or things like that. So as much as it’s an opportunity for me, I would be (remiss) if I did not share that opportunity with others.

DI: Do you plan to return to the University of Illinois for any more shows?

TP: I do think so! I think after this album, we’re going to put together another college tour, and I would love to come back. We had such a great time when we were there, so it’s definitely one of the schools on my list.

DI: What motivated you to choose to do college tours and invite students to play with your orchestra?

TP: For me, I know going to college was such a pivotal moment in my life, where I really started to find myself and started to figure  out what it is that I wanted to do with my life. So for me, sharing that experience with college students — from musicians to someone who maybe wants to be a DJ at the college radio station or someone who wants to write in the college newspaper — sharing my music and my inspiration with you guys is really what keeps me motivated in this.

DI: Do you have any advice for students who are interested in entering the music industry or any other competitive industry?

TP: Being true to yourself really carries you through. Whether I succeed or I fail, I do it as myself. A major regret would be me chasing something that’s current only to have that fizzle out and having to wonder what would have happened if I had stayed the course of being true to what it is that I wanted to do.

So if there are any musicians out there who are trying to figure out what it is they want to do and how they want to do it, be you. I mean, there’s billions of people in the world; you don’t need to follow anyone’s fan base — you can develop your own.

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