Los Angeles is a city full of characters, and Phillip King is no exception. A tall man who exudes positivity in his seemingly permanent ear-to-ear smile, Phillip has been bringing his distinct style to different corners of the city for the past few years, becoming something of a fixture for locals (during the hour we sat down to talk, two people approached us sheepishly to ask if he was "that harp guy"). I met with him to find out what led him down this very particular path, what he was up to, and where he was planning to bring his unique talents next.
You've become a recognizable performer in Los Angeles. What's your story? How'd you get to this point?
A large portion of LA has come to know me as either, "The Anointed Beatbox Harpist" or simply the "Harp Man." My unique brand of harp music speaks to all generations with excitement and vibrancy, reinventing how this instrument is viewed. I've played venues ranging from celebrity Super Bowl parties and weddings, The Viper room, corporate events, Hollywood and Beverly Hills mansion parties and backyard soirées, all the way to the humble, and sometimes the most gratifying, street performances, like farmers markets, the Santa Monica board walk, the entrance of the Hollywood bowl, and all of my unforgettable experiences in LA Children's Hospital donating my time through HARK (which has inspired me to create my own program for hospitals and hospices). From the deepest part of my heart there is no better feeling than seeing the effect of my music bring people who are sometimes in the deepest of pain to golden moments of joy and elation.
With all that said I feel as if I am at the tip of the iceberg. Last year, I was hired to play the cocktail hour for a fundraising event put on by the production company known as The Industry, for their groundbreaking opera called Hopscotch. That very night I was asked if I could play alongside Philharmonic soloist Delaram Kamareh, and Yuval Sharon, the creator and director (and in my book, a pure literary genius), on the spot asked me to be involved in his masterpiece. Fast forward: just yesterday in our tech rehearsal I was interviewed by NPR and as the LA Times interviewed Yuval, they took a host of pictures of me rockin' out with my harp inside of a stretch Lincoln limo that was fully equipped with cameras for the opera performance and a host of other technical gaits for this intricate machine of moving parts that will become a once-in-a-lifetime opera experience: a mobile 24-car opera. And being that I'm playing the harp, I'm in the stretch limo.
I started as a rapper who graduated into making a public access television show -- that was my means of connecting to the industry that would roll through Milwaukee. I did that for five years; I aired the show in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Berlin. I did a kung fu skit on there that blew up in each city -- this was before Wu-Tang -- that led me to do my first feature, historically the first African-American hip hop kung fu movie, Hip Hop Dynasty Part 1, a tribute to old-school kung fu; words are off like in those movies, with old Shaolin sound effects, and I got some attached hip hop guys. I made the first one in Milwaukee, and then I made the second and third ones mostly in the Bay area. What brought me to California was making the second movie and selling the first one. I left with like $250 in my pocket and two boxes of movies, and the bus company actually lost a box, but when I got there I used that to survive and recruit people for the new movie.
The Bay Area is a mecca of martial arts. As a black man taking part in someone else's culture in such an authentic town, and mixing it with hip hop -- which had become synonymous with disrespect and destruction at this point -- I had to practice ten hours a day, every day, in the places where people who really knew martial arts practiced, to gain the respect to actually be able to get real martial artists in the film, the people who would, no disrespect, not be in a Hollywood movie.
While doing all that, I made a rap song called, "When Your Ancestors Call." The song was written to a piece by Dorothy Ashby, a famous African American harpist who lived in LA. I saw a woman with a harp in San Francisco, and at the time I was listening to the very song, so I ran up to her and asked, "Can you play this?" and she said, "Easy." Any harpist who says, "Easy" to Dorothy Ashby must be a great harpist, so I asked her if she'd come back to my studio and record it. We did so, and we realized from the response of people when they heard it that it was something they'd never heard before. That album was called The Organic Equation, because it was harp, beatbox, and rapping (though I didn't know how to play the harp during that album). So we did that, but in the middle of the album, she had to go back to the Netherlands (where her family was from). She was embarrassed to have to leave halfway, so she brought over this harp that was handmade for her by her teacher. She said, "You're welcome to play with it," but at the time I had my sons for the summer, so I really didn't try too much. But the miracle of the situation was -- I was at this point training into the wee hours of the night, and one day I trained until I just couldn't train anymore. I looked over, and it was literally sitting in the moonlight -- seriously -- and I'm sitting there too tired to do any more martial arts. I walked over to it, sat down, and the first song that came out of me was the first song that's on my first harp album, called The Retune of King David: for the Saul in us All. I still haven't made a song that's more intricate than that. Being able to just sit down and suddenly, miraculously, play, I do believe all the hours of training and opening helped.
So, without any formal harp training, how would you describe your playing style? Have you discussed it with other harpists?
I am an anointed harpist, meaning, "God touched." An Irish harpist I met out here in LA told me the way I play is impossible to reproduce because no finger is waiting, they're in constant motion, going all over the board in different places at different time signatures. That's synonymous with "anointed" because you can't explain God.
At the time I was just like, "Wow." It just felt natural. When I say that it came out of me, a lot of people think I sat down and tinkered around, and was like, "Oh, that sounds good," or they say I taught myself. But how can you teach yourself when your eyes are closed, you don't know what's going on, and the same intricate song keeps happening? Sometimes I just look at my fingers and don't know what's going on. And that for me is the Holy Spirit.
When she came back, I told her, "Look, I can play!" I played for her, she looked at me in awe, and was like, "Your harp's coming back to you. I can't take it from you. That's your harp." She's been a harpist since she was a little girl, she's a professional harpist who's seen many harps and styles of harp playing, and what she said is what every other harpist has said: "I have no idea what that is, but obviously it's something special and ancient." It's all a loving-living experience in learning.
At what point did you fully transition from filmmaker to harpist?
When she gave me the harp, I didn't accept that I was a harpist; I was still holding onto the idea that I made hip hop kung fu movies; that'd be the cool thing I did to change the world. When I got to the City of Angels, that all changed. There's not one person who walks this Earth who doesn't have hard times, who doesn't hit a breaking point in there life where they're like, "Epiphany now?" That's when it's time to change and go with the flow of what life is showing you rather than what you've been planning. After 15 years and 3 movies, I got picked up by a company in New York to do my film, and it was like, "I did it, I finally did it!" Three days later, they called back and said, "The plug got yanked. Sorry, we can't do it." That destroyed me. I was lost at that point. I'd come to LA; I was separated from my wife, not for love, we loved each other through the whole separation, but financially. She got in touch with somebody who I'd done a video for, explained what was going on, and he said I could sleep on his couch. To help pay the rent, I was like, "All I can do right now is play the harp," so I started going to the train stations to play, but that was illegal, and after I got some tickets, I went to Venice Beach. And here's where it all happened.
The story is that, the day I went there, there was a woman on drugs, who was mixed, black and white, and she was spewing racial remarks to both black and white people. And it was destroying business for these Jamaican cats who she was in front of, and they were like, "Hey dude, come over here and play a song for us." And she immediately said, "That's beautiful." She sat down, was quiet for a second, and then she fainted, came to, and said, "Where am I?" To me, that goes within the idea that the purpose of the harp is to dispel darkness, and of course when you're on heavy drugs you're susceptible to deep darkness. So the next day they invited me back to that spot, and we started talking, formed a little circle of elders. A younger guy came up and said he'd heard around about my story, and he wanted to sit down to my harp and try himself, to see if it was in him. I was a little apprehensive at first, but then he said that he was considering buying a harp, and I thought, "Man, we could get another harpist out here?" The elders were like "No, don't let him do it, do not let him sit down." They were really being forward about it. I said, "Look, somebody let me sit down to this harp, and if I can create another harpist by doing the same thing, that's my job." He sat down and couldn't play, and they were trying to rush him off, and then one guy said, "Okay, I get what you're saying." He was in back of me, so I turned around to shake his hand, and the moment I turned my back on the harp, I heard a big smash, and that's these cracks [gestures at deep cracks on the harp]. They go all the way down on both sides. My harp was smashed open. My back was turned, so I couldn't know if it was evil intentions in his heart or just an accident; you need to know how to get up from a harp, you can't just get up. When I saw my harp split open, everybody got blurry -- probably because my eyes were starting to water -- and, as a man thing, I'm like, "Let me get out of here before any tears fall, or before I get mad, because this will be an anger that's not gonna be too cool." I picked it up from them, doing my best to smile, saying, "It's all good, I just need to get it fixed."
I went to a bench and started talking to God, wondering if I'd done the wrong thing. A European woman walked by, she was older, looked like she'd had a hard life. She said her name was Mama G. She said she could hear my harp crying. She asked where I lived, I said Hollywood, and she said, "You're in luck, I live in Hollywood. How'd you get here?" I said I took the bus -- it had been a 3-hour bus ride with the harp to get there -- and I didn't get to make any money before it was broken. She said, "You're in luck, I didn't do my wash last night, and I have a van, so the whole back of my van is padded with clothes. Why don't I give you a ride home, and save you the walk home with the dead-dog effect." Which is what it would've been. It was going to be torture.
On the way home, I told her what happened, I was still kind of welling up, just wondering what I did wrong. She said, "I heard your story, you didn't do anything wrong; you moved with your heart. What you need to understand is you're on a ride right now. You need to sit back and relax. The person who picked you up has been fixing instruments for twenty years. I already looked at it, and it's an easy fix." She was on welfare, though, and said it would cost about 60-70 dollars. Here's where the city comes alive: I had a gig called "Unlit" with a gentleman from London who's become a great friend named Jont Openheart, who just traveled the world and got people with nice houses, mansions, whatever, to open their house for a party where people can listen to acoustic music. I had to call and cancel, and he said, "Why don't you do some spoken word and we'll pass a hat around and see if we can't get your harp fixed?" We did that, and that totally paid for my harp getting fixed.
People kept asking what my name was, and at that time I went by my rap name, Professor Pitt. People said, that doesn't sound like a harpist's name. And I would tell them I made kung fu movies, too. And they were like, "Why do you make kung fu movies? You're a harpist." Everywhere I went, every one in the city kept pointing in the direction of the harp, from the rich to the poor, and I kept hearing the story of King David. I was destroyed from the movie, spiritually and emotionally, and then suddenly all these sovereign things started happening where everybody was on the same page telling me to go one direction. Jont asked me, "Why are you picking such a complicated download to help the world, as far as movies, where you have to raise millions of dollars, get all these things, and somebody has to take the time out of their busy day to sit down and concentrate on what you want to relay to them, whereas you could go anywhere in the world, sit down, and pluck some strings? People don't have to speak your language, they can take a deep breath and feel good. I think maybe that's your purpose." The very next day I met my mentor at that time, Dean Clark, he's the person who first told me I was an anointed harpist. He had a design company, he did the Oscar campaign design for Titanic, and all this stuff, he was a top player -- he said, "Listening to your story, I just want you to know that, that's called 'anointed,' that you just put your fingers on a harp and could play and then a woman just gives you her handmaid harp. You're at a crossroads right now. I'm looking at this movie and I'm seeing anger and violence, but I look at you and your harp, and I see a smile. People are walking up and saying they feel good and God bless you. I have a feeling you haven't chosen your path yet. If you just walk the path of the harp, all of your success has already been written for you." It took me two days, giving up a dream that I put so much in for fifteen years. It's a hard thing to give up. For those two days I had a thumping headache, and on the other side, I finally decided I was going to pursue the harp.
Your newest album (and the Unconditional Love Frequency campaign) involves harp, beatbox, and piano. How'd the addition of the piano come about?
Love Equation, which was the beginning of the Unconditional Love Frequency campaign, started because the President of PRG's global concert touring group, Mickey Curbishley, hired me to play for his wife Jo's birthday/aneurysm-beating party, which was a pure miracle -- she wasn't supposed to be able to walk, talk, or eat again -- that gave birth to another miracle. Mickey has worked with Elton John, Frank Sinatra, and Prince, and Jo helped organize and produce Al Gore's Live Earth concert in South Africa; when I found out people of this caliber saw something in me, I was really honored. Anyway, at this party, a music producer/songwriter by the name of Nikko Gibler -- now he's a member of RICOSHËI -- he just came up and started playing on the grand piano in the backyard. The music was so beautiful. In the first song on the album, "Love in L.A.," you'll hear people laughing, kids, all that; that was that party. I asked if I could record it on my iPhone because I was like, "This is too beautiful and unique. Harp, piano, and beatbox, and the pianist sounds like Liberace!"
Later on, I'm playing at the farmers market, I've got my sound system playing it out, and the Curbishleys were walking by again and were like, "This is so beautiful," and I was like, "That's your party!" They're like, "You know what, we're going to invite you back and invite Nikko, and see if we can't get you guys to do an album." Long story short: we did. He is an anointed pianist -- he's not Christian or anything -- but anointed to me is "God-touched." He sat down to the piano and could just play. When you hear the piano, you'll get it. Each song on the album was a one-take. I've been in the studio my whole life and never experienced that. So I was like, "Okay, God is in the room. There's perfection going on here."
You have a history in spoken word and rap, why'd you only choose to incorporate beatboxing?
The harp is meant to open up the heart, it's a frequency aimed directly at the heart. Everybody's dealing with different things, and words tend to clutter the effect of healing. At the beginning of this movement, let's just let everybody deal with what they have to deal with. For every person who listens to this album, it's something totally different. Whatever it is, let it be that thing for each person. I want it to be universal; that's why it's, "universalharp.com." This is for everybody.
What's the community response been?
Playing at the farmers market, I see so many different walks of life, and all these different people tell me the ways they've implanted the music in their daily lives. Mothers use it at night to calm their kids, businessmen use it to-and-from work to escape their day, transplants use it during their moves. That's been interesting to hear about.
I've had people come up who do not speak the language and they just say, "I like." This is why I love LA, you run into so many people who are just in town, heading back to the Philippines, or they're headed back to Europe, or wherever they're going. And they feel that frequency; that goes back to Jont saying, "You could sit down anywhere in the world and pluck a string, and nobody has to speak your language, and they're gonna breathe, they're gonna feel good." And that's what I want.
Everything that's happened to me has been from playing at the Hollywood farmer's market, playing on the street, all starting about four years ago. Every bit of all of this, anything that's moved me forward, has come from that. And the crazy thing is, that goes back to what Dean said. "Walk the path, and all the people will be waiting for you." They weren't in the offices. I met them on the street.
What should we expect to see next from you?
The answer to this question comes in three parts: local, national and international. Locally, from October 31st through November 22, look for me performing side-by-side with the beautiful LA philharmonic soloist and anomaly herself, singing alto, soprano and Barton, Delaram Kamareh in Hopscotch. As well locally I'm acting in a sci-fi original series as one of many ascended masters in the mystical world of one man's journey through consciousness. Written, directed, produced by Omar Adam.
On the national side, the goal is to become an unavoidable blessing to the world as well as culturally relevant. So, in the interest of magnifying a Heaven-sent harp frequency of unconditional love, that I am literally a conduit of, the same frequency that woke my mother from a coma, I have teamed up with two separate phenomenal electronic music producers and one music production house to create a beat factory as work-for-hire servicing the entertainment community with Deep House, EDM, remixes, instrumentals, movie scores, commercial work, and video game backgrounds. For my own career expect theme compilation albums featuring culturally relevant artists. We've already begun building our library of content.
In my eyes the biggest thing to expect from me is to be the vehicle behind a true harp renaissance in the world. Once upon a time there was only one string instrument in the world: the harp! Now it is almost forgotten in our musical society. With that said, a literal dream of mine has come true: with the divine help of Patricia Taylor, CEO of in8productions, I've partnered with Noah Watermaker and Thao, the owners of We Anything Build to launch Phillip King Harps. We officially opened and began shipping orders on my birthday, July 24, 2015. Our motto is "Learn to create your own songs before you ever learn to play anyone else's."
Each one of our handmade harps comes with an instructional DVD, "Learn to Play the Harp from the Heart Directly from the Start." Our goal is, within ten years, for the whole world to acknowledge a new fact that there are two kinds of harpists in the world: one being a classically trained harpist and the other being a Phillip King-style harpist. Our harps are made for open tuning, meaning they don't have minor strings or sharps. The harp is scientifically and biblically proven to help those listening as well as those who are playing. They say that a harpist becomes a very compassionate person because they are constantly playing the vibration of the strings directly toward their heart. I believe that it's time for the most ancient string instrument on the planet to make a serious comeback in a big way. As a Phillip King Harpist, the moment you feel you have a beautiful song, it is your duty to take your harp into your community and make people smile, feel what it is to brighten a stranger's day, to be a literal symbol of heaven. I cannot count how many people have come up to me on the streets of, no pun intended, the City of Angels, telling me that I must be an angel, that the music flowing through me has drastically helped their day. I call those divine appointments. I once had a Los Angeles police officer tell me he would write me a ticket but was not sure if I was an angel, so he didn't, and left with a smile on his face. Can you imagine a world with an army of harpists on the streets brightening our days? Not with Beethoven or some tune you remember but with their own creativity. Our goal is also to break all the stigmas that follow the harp and make people not want to pick it up. Like, "It won't fit in my car." Phillip King Harps fit in the back seat of a Prius, one of the smallest cars on the market. "It's too expensive." All our harps are exact replicas of mine. The Classic Irish Axe, a handmade full-size with an unheard-of price at $3000, along with our half-size, or lap harps, for $1500. An actual improvement to all small harps is that ours carry bass. Typical lap harps sound a bit like toys. Ours don't, thanks to the genius of Noah Watenmaker's acoustic engineering, a bass player himself, who claims he won't make an instrument that cannot hold bass. Orders are taken online, directly through universalharp.com. The only piece of the puzzle missing now is a hard-nosed manager...