Thee Phantom and the Ill Harmonic Orchestra culminates a decade of intense work into Maniac Maestro
Speaking with The Key last year on the heels of their Carnegie Hall debut and a successful run at SXSW, Jeffrey McNeill — aka rapper / producer Thee Phantom — shed light on his early days in hip-hop culture and his first experiments in forging the curious fusion of rap and European classical that he has become known for. “My brother and I had a B-Boy routine where our walk out music was Darth Vader’s ‘Imperial March’,” he says. “I had that orchestral hip-hop thing from the beginning and didn’t even realize it. ’86 / 87, I mixed Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul Revere’ and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony that year when the single came out. I used my brother’s double tape deck to fuse the two together. It was just what I heard in my head.”
After years of touring with his Ill Harmonic Orchestra, McNeill and company began working on a set of songs that would become Maniac Maestro, a full length that stands as a culmination of decades of intense work and dedicated genre-bending. The album opens with “The Anthem” an energetic crowd-rocker that rides atop a magisterial trumpet fanfare and the classic, hard-hitting “Top Billing” / ”Impeach The President” drums. A fun and enjoyable listen, the album is firmly footed within the seemingly oppositional worlds of hip-hop and classical. This fact is driven home by a scene-stealing appearance from The Phoenix on the track “Double Trouble.” The Phoenix and Thee Phantom trade bars over uptempo hip-hop drums and a string motif nicked from Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville-Overture.” “A Song For You” utilizes a soulful interpolation of Donny Hathaway classic with each of Thee Phantom’s verses act as a self-contained profession of love and devotion to his wife, the city of Philadelphia and the culture of Hip Hop itself.
A strong and ambitious project, the album is full of experimental ideas encased within each spirited, accessible song. Pulling together a whopping total of 17 instrumentalists and 5 vocalists in the studio, Maniac Maestro stands as a lively, enjoyable introduction to Thee Phantom’s ambitious artistic vision. The music’s depth and eclecticism is a powerful example of the malleability of hip-hop, disparate musical forces that shouldn’t work are held together by the strength of passion and lifelong dedication.