Just in case you were wondering why he's Big Phill -- as opposed to Li'l Phill or Medium Phill -- anyone who's spent time with Phillip Thompson knows it's his big ideas, big opinions, big connections ... and he's kinda tall. DJs are normally quiet people in public, preferring to do their talking with their hands. Not Phill. In my first five minutes with him, he covered everything from Afrocentricity to Kill Bill, from Bush's terrorism response to the silliness of "niggas who don't eat meat."
Make a hip-hop cultural faux pas, and he'll take ya ass to court. Meg Fitzgerald, a bartender at Kelly's Bar & Lounge in East Liberty, recalls starting a booty-house night at the Shadow Lounge, and putting out admittedly "obnoxious" fliers to promote it, complete with ass and such all over them.
"I got an e-mail from him the next day," says Fitzgerald, telling her basically she had to cut that out.
As much as he'll chew cats out, he gives props where deserved. After a call from Paul "DJ Madbuddah" Dang, Phill's giddy about Dang's work on the upcoming documentary Still City, about house culture in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. He's even more excited about Dang's work than his own documentary series on 412 hip hop called The Archives -- the first chapter of which was released in 2003. He's finishing up a highly anticipated, but closely guarded, second installment, due this year.
Call Big Phill the Gordon Parks of 'Burgh anthr-hip-hop-ology, with hundreds of videos in his possession: 8 mm, VHS, digital -- even Pixelvision, the early '80s camcorder that used audio cassettes. His obsession is in the cuts.
"Editing footage is like DJing," says Phill. "When you edit [video], you can't just sit in front of the monitor and know what you want. You gotta dig and dig and dig through footage to find what you need," much like diggin' in the crates.
Phill began recording and editing footage in the early '80s. He was turned on by the early 'Burgh work of Precise Records artists Mel Plowden, Tyrone Green (who put out the hilarious "You Ain't Right Eddie Murphy" in response to an SNL skit) and the Hardcore Crew: Mel-Man, DJ Double K and Luv Letter. Back then cats were getting it on the national stage, with rappers including Sinisters of Sound dropping singles on New York label Get Live Records, that put out 12-inches by Big Jaz and a teen-age S. Carter before the Roc-A-Fella age.
Coming into the '90s, Phill was part of the Hi-Lo team, which, along with Strict Flow and Rook & Bishop, formed a holy trinity of 412 hip-hop religion. Phill blossomed into a DJ and producer alongside fellow legends Supa C and Assassin, while harnessing relationships with rap outfits across state lines in Cincinnati, including Lone Catalysts, Mood and Universal Dialect.
But what about his upcoming documentary? Phill only teases with clips: A legendary DJ battle that Supa C shut down by simply showing up; classic basement performances in Wilkinsburg's old Turmoil Room; RXC's original Theraputix sessions at the old Kingsley; and a parking-lot football game between Hi-Lo and Strict Flow after they opened for The Roots. There's also his 6-year-old son, Phillip III, practicing on his dad's turntables. When you're talking local hip-hop history, it's little scenes like this that make the big difference.
"If I hear one more person say, 'I'm putting Pittsburgh on the map,' it's gonna be a chokefest," says Phill. "Pittsburgh cats got Grammys and platinum records already -- we been on the map."