Melding hip-hop, classical, rap and even more musical genres, Thee Phantom and the Illharmonic Hip Hop Orchestra entertains multi-generation audience
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.
For more information visit the Thee Phantom website.
Photos courtesy of Thee Phantom and the Illharmonic
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
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