Against All Odds
Hip-hop-inspired musicals are nothing new, but Lin-Manuel Miranda changed the game with his Broadway play, Hamilton. Now the rapping thespian is continuing his momentum with The Hamilton Mixtape featuring rap’s biggest names.
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands Dec. 27.

Musical theater isn’t the first thing rappers typically enjoy during their downtime, yet one man has enticed many of hip-hop’s best and brightest to head to Broadway. Lin-Manuel Miranda, an esteemed actor and playwright with his own rap history, has welcomed the likes of Kanye West, Eminem, André 3000, ?uestlove, Busta Rhymes and Rick Rubin into the Richard Rodgers Theatre to experience Hamilton: An American Musical, a rap-driven look at the rise and fall of U.S. Founding Father and the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton inspired Miranda to write the hip-hop-infused musical, which initially began as a mixtape idea seven years ago. Now, the mainly Black and Latino cast use rap to tell the story of young rebels shaping the future of an undeveloped country.

Since its Broadway debut in 2015, the show has earned a slew of accolades; 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, to name a few. Thanks to the help of Miranda, 36, hip-hop has successfully found its place on the Great White Way.

The writer, who also penned the award-winning musical In the Heights, has even bridged the gap between MCs watching Hamilton and being involved in the show by tapping them for The Hamilton Mixtape. Nas, Wiz Khalifa, Ja Rule, The Roots, Chance The Rapper and Dave East are among the rap luminaries to be featured on the new 23-track project, which was created with Miranda’s hip-hop heroes in mind. He even spits a verse on “Wrote My Way Out” alongside Nas, East and Aloe Blacc.

While Lin-Manuel Miranda eagerly awaits the mixtape’s reception, he opens up about getting the best in the business involved in the project, the New York rapper who inspired the Hamilton character Hercules Mulligan and an ATLien who surprised him backstage at the show.

XXL: It’s definitely an out-of-the box idea to put out a mixtape based on a groundbreaking musical. What sparked that idea?

Lin-Manuel Miranda: To be honest, the idea was actually the first idea I had. When I picked up that Hamilton biography [Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton] that sort of started this whole thing. I sort of fell in love with the idea of Hamilton, you know? What connected Hamilton to hip-hop for me was the fact that he wrote his way out of his circumstances, he wrote his opportunities, he wrote his way into trouble and out of trouble. He was a writer and that’s not a huge leap to MC for me... I remember that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar was a rock album first. It was a concept album that sort of told the story through these songs and so I said, Okay, this will be my version of an Andrew Lloyd Webber concept album. It will be the Hamilton mixtape because it’s rooted in hip-hop.

Who helped get all the big names involved for the tape? Was it you reaching out to people like Nas, Wiz Khalifa and The Roots?

I would say it was kind of an all hands on deck approach. One of the first people that came was Busta Rhymes. Busta Rhymes was the voice in my head when I was writing the character of Hercules Mulligan. To hear him actually say “Hercules Mulligan” on the mixtape was like a dream come true. And then it was really about, I made a dream wish list of like, here are all my favorite MCs, singers and then we set about inviting them to the show, making sure they saw the show so that then they could go off in any direction they wanted. And then once they saw the show and said yes, it was pretty hands-off. Every track on this is totally different.

The song “Wrote My Way Out” featuring Nas, Dave East, Aloe Blacc and yourself has a strong message about determination that not only rappers can identify with—pursuing a dream in the face of adversity—but also their fans. How was that song created?

To me that’s one of the most powerful things that connects the story of Hamilton to the culture of hip-hop. This idea that if you’ve got bars, you can win, you can make your specific experience universal. It makes me think of songs like Nas’ “One Mic.” “All I need is one mic...” That’s why we went to Nas with [“Wrote My Way Out”] because I really thought he could speak on that.

Illmatic was his debut CD, a flawless hip-hop CD. He did exactly what Hamilton did. He wrote about his circumstances, he wrote about his neighborhood and he made that feel like a shared experience for people all over the world and there’s power in that.

Did you go into this planning to rap on the mixtape as well?

I had sort of said at the beginning I’m not gonna be on the album. I’m just here to sort of facilitate it and make sure we get amazing artists and make sure everyone feels inspired and happy with what they contributed. And then I heard that [“Wrote My Way Out”] beat and I said I can’t not be on this beat and broke my own rule because it just spoke to me.

Especially when I heard Aloe Blacc’s chorus, which he wrote. The way he flipped the hook to my song from the show, “Hurricane,” into something even more universal and profound, I had to speak on it. I jumped on last minute. I think I jumped on a week before I mastered the album.

There’s also a verse from Dave East, a 2016 XXL Freshman.

Yeah, he’s one of your Freshmen. I became a fan of his through listening to Nas. That was also another no-brainer. He also has an amazing, compelling personal story, which he spoke on, on the track as well.

You tapped Chance The Rapper for “Dear Theodosia (Reprise).” What’s the story behind that collaboration?

He just had his first child; you know, he just had his daughter, so, he’s like “This is the only song I wanna do.” And we’re like “Great!” That’s kinda what this is about. It’s not about tryna fit anyone in any role. I obviously made suggestions to some artists thinking they might be a nice fit for the song but then they get absolute freedom after they say yes.

With Chance, we already had another version of “Dear Theodosia”—a really beautiful version by Regina Spektor and Ben Folds. I was like, Well that’s gonna be totally different from a Chance version so just put ’em both on [the mixtape]. I also think having them both on speaks to how different artists can make a song feel totally different. That’s really cool. That’s what we do in hip-hop when we flip a sample and suddenly this song that was about this thing also speaks to this song.

Which rapper did you get a chance to watch record?

I was in the studio with Ashanti and Ja Rule when they were doing “Helpless.” So amazing. Ja lived through one of my favorite eras of hip-hop [and] is a leading light of that. So many stories to come out of that time to kick it with him. Then when Ashanti came in, it was like a party and a reunion. Like, really one of the most fun nights. I think she recorded like—I might be getting this wrong—I think it was on her mom’s birthday so they were coming from a party.

And then they sang “Helpless,” which is like the perfect atmosphere in which to sing that song, which is Eliza falling in love with the love of her life at a party. So it was a total party vibe in the studio. We stayed up late [and I] managed to sleep just enough to have a voice for my performance in Hamilton the next night.

Have you ever met Ja Rule before the studio session or was that the first time?

I met him when he came to the show. So he and Ashanti came to see Hamilton together. When I was writing the song “Helpless” I was thinking of Ashanti and Ja. I was thinking of that sort of, they kinda perfected that cocktail of like great R&B singer, two verses, two choruses, here comes the guest verse from Ja and sing together on the way out.

It was just this really great alchemy. If you listen to the structure of “Helpless” on the cast album it’s Eliza talking about meeting Hamilton, two verses, two choruses, Hamilton comes in saying “Eliza,” the way I deliver the last line it’s homage to Ja. I go [in Ja Rule voice], “As long as I’m alive, Eliza” I kinda try to do the guttural [voice]. That’s my tip of the hat to them. So when they came to see the show I went full Ja for that verse.

I’m learning from all these guys. I’m the novice when it comes to this mixtape. I’m here to learn when it comes to watching these MCs. I will never forget watching Joell Ortiz lay down a verse flawlessly and then do his own hype track, do that second layer of vocals where you kind of emphasize the cadences on certain words. No one teaches you how to do that. That’s called being an MC and you just learn from watching the best to do it. So, I watch these guys a lot of times and soak up everything I could. When it comes to writing musicals I’ve done enough that I could be called an expert but when it comes to making magic, like making these magic hip-hop tracks, I’m just getting started. So I really felt more like the student than anything.

Hamilton has had overwhelming success since it began. Why do you think the hip-hop aspect and the story combined resonate with people?

Well, one, I think everything works if it comes from a place of love. And I don’t mean that like in some highfalutin, love will heal the world way. I mean that in a very for real, you can’t listen to Hamilton, if you’re a hip-hop fan, and not hear the million little homages and references to the culture and to how much I love it. I think the fact that I come from a lifetime of studying it and just trying to honor it; in a lot of ways, it’s my love letter to hip-hop. It’s my love letter to musical theater. Two genres that don’t meet but I love them for the same reasons because they tell stories and help us transcend and put us in someone else’s life for a few minutes. I think that’s why people respond to the musical aspect of it because I just think they sense the care with which it’s done.

You thought about certain rappers while writing the musical. Who were some of those?

Hercules Mulligan, Busta is the clearest one. I just heard the syllables, Hercules Mulligan, and I immediately wanted to hear Busta Rhymes saying those words because I think he’s got one of the greatest voices in hip-hop. That’s immediately where my mind went. And then Hercules, I just look at him like this invincible dude. Hercules resonated with me and him.

The other thing it was very sort of deliberate. When you write a musical, the good ones that I like anyway, you’re assigning musical feel to different characters. When this person walks in a room, the music changes to feel like this. When this person is having a fight, the music changes to reflect that. I wanted to extend that to the flows and cadences of the founders. For me, Hamilton himself, he’s in the Rakim line of MCs. He’s the guy who’s spitting polysyllabic, rhyming seven syllables on a line while everyone else is going “I’m John Lawrence in the place to be.” For me, when he starts spitting it has to be like it’s from the future. Let me just contrast that with George Washington. He’s a military dude. He came up through the military. So his flow is much more on the beat and regimented than Hamilton’s, which will go over the line break to make the rhyme work.

Was there anyone that came to see the musical that surprised you?

That’s a good question. It was amazing to meet André 3000. I grew up in New York in the 1990s. I think my influences reflect that. I think you can hear New York 1990s all over. I also think that André 3000 is one of the best living MCs. One of the best MCs ever, ever, ever. He and Big Boi redefined the game and redefined what hip-hop could be.

So, it was an honor after the show. That was an unexpected one and a real honor for me. He loved the show. I had a funny experience with him. He met me. He said, “Congratulations. You were great in the show.” And I met him and thanked him for coming. And then I left, I had other guests and then [Hamilton actor] Chris Jackson grabbed me back and said, “André wants to meet you again. He didn’t realize you wrote [Hamilton] too.” Then I went back and had a longer conversation about the writing and that was great.

Check out more from XXL’s Winter 2016 issue including our Travis Scott cover story interview and more. 

See Photos of Lin-Manuel Miranda and The Hamilton Mixtape

More From Y105