lin-manuel miranda talks 'the hamilton mixtape' track by track
Unless you've been living under some sort of musical theatre shaped rock for the past two years, chances are you know all about Hamilton. A show about the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton it has, since opening off-Broadway in February 2015, been a runaway success in the United States, picking up a record-breaking 16 nominations at last year's Tonys and winning 11, including the much-coveted Best Musical gong. Featuring a diverse cast made up almost entirely of African-American and Hispanic actors, it tells the story of America's founding fathers to a soundtrack of rap and hip-hop and is, if you haven't guessed it already, a cultural phenomenon. The most important arrival on Broadway since Rent, its creator, the Manhattan-born son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has been hailed as nothing less than a modern-day genius.
Before all of this though, was an idea. "I wanted make a concept album the way Andrew Lloyd Webber did Jesus Christ Superstar," Miranda explains over the phone from his native New York. "Rockstars playing the figures of Jesus's life. I thought I would do a hip-hop version." Originally scheduled to come out before the show, once the Hamilton phenomenon began to unfold, Miranda realized he could use it to recruit all of the artists he'd previously only dreamed of. "It's a little like in the Social Network when Mark Zuckerberg says, 'We can't sell ads, we don't even know what it is yet!'," he laughs. "It really was the most organic way to get the heroes that inspired the writing of the show involved."
Those heroes include (take a breath): The Roots, Busta Rhymes, Usher, Sia, Miguel, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Ashanti, Ja Rule, Wiz Khalifa, John Legend, Common and more, each giving their own take on key tracks or moments from the show. "I'm such a fan of all these artists that it's thrilling to even get to talk about it," Miranda gushes. "Rest assured, if you're listening to the Hamilton Mixtape, I probably am too." Press play on 10 key tracks below.
The Roots featuring Busta Rhymes, Joell Ortiz & Nate Ruess, "My Shot (Rise Up Remix)"
"The first idea I had, reading Ron Chernow's book [a biography of Alexander Hamilton] in 2008 was the notion of Busta Rhymes as Hercules Mulligan [tailor and spy during the American Revolutionary War]. As soon as I read the words 'Hercules Mulligan' I wanted to hear Busta Rhymes saying it. Hercules Mulligan! He's got one of the all-time great hip-hop voices. What Louis Armstrong is to jazz, Busta Rhymes is to hip-hop, so that was a real thrill because he was one of the first hip-hop artists to see the show, off-Broadway. Once we had him, we were off to the races. And then the other two MCs are ones who have influenced the show. Obviously Black Thought and Ahmir [Questlove] of the Roots were our partners in producing the original cast album and he is, to me, one of the most underrated and deadly MCs around. And Joell Ortiz actually influenced the writing of a song called 'The Farmer Refuted.' You've got a British Loyalist and Hamilton is matching him syllable for syllable but saying the opposite. I got that idea from the Joell Ortiz Big Pun tribute he did, where he basically kept the syllables the same, the assonance matched, but with totally different lyrics. Then of course, last but not least, Nate Ruess from Fun. He came to the show and really enjoyed it and I don't think there's a more exciting voice in rock music right now. To get him to sing the woahs... I actually got to be in the studio for that!"
Usher, "Wait For It"
"This one is probably the song that went through the most drafts, because I'm very protective of it. I think may never write a song that good again! I'm not being falsely modest there. It's a song that means a lot to a lot of people. So, whereas with most of them, I just sort of said to people, 'go do what you want,' with this one, I said, 'we need to keep that arpeggio, as well as that dancehall rhythm which is sort of the basis for Aaron Burr's character [the third Vice President of the United States].' Then Usher came in and just blew us away with his vocals. We had a lot of conversations about how we wanted it to sound like its own thing, we didn't want it to sound like a replica from the cast album and Usher and the Roots and I were all very involved in having that conversation. I'm really proud of the final product."
Sia featuring Miguel & Queen Latifah, "Satisfied"
"Sia was one of the first people to lay down vocals for the mixtape. What she did was actually take the instrumental of our cast album track and make her own vocal bed. What came back is what you hear. It knocked all of our socks off so much it became about making a track that was worthy of Sia's vocal! Because when you get Sia on it, it gets to this 'Bohemian Rhapsody' level. We were lucky enough to get Miguel to cameo on those eight lines. And, you know, Queen Latifah is one of the reasons Angelica Schuyler [Hamilton's sister-in-law] exists. She's one of my favorite MCs ever. And so when she came to the show I said, 'God, I love your singing and I love your acting and congrats on all your awards for Bessie Smith this past year, but I really want to hear you rap again.' And she was so gracious to do that guest verse on Angelica's song."
Alicia Keys, "That Would Be Enough"
"She just took the ball and ran with it. I was lucky she liked the show. I really always imagined her singing it, even when I was writing it. And she said, 'What do you want me to do with it?'. So I said, 'Take the form and then just do whatever you want.' And I didn't hear from her for a while. Then we got word from her people that it was ready, but she was like, 'I don't want to send it to you! I want to be in the room when you hear it.' I'll never forget it. It was the day of the huge blizzard that we had last year that shut down all the Broadway shows. I was with Jonathan Groff who was playing King George at the time and basically turned to him after I got the call and said, 'Do you want to go to Alicia Keys's studio tonight?' So we jumped in the car and went to the studio and she not only played us the version you hear, which takes the original form but lifts it to some Prince-like Beautiful Ones place, she played us most of the album that just came out! So we got this amazing sneak preview as the snow was falling and we didn't want to leave but we had to otherwise the roads were going to be closed. That was one of my favorite memories of the whole mixtape. Me and Groff at midnight at Alicia Keys's studio."
K'naan, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC & Residente, "Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)"
"This is when nepotism goes right! And it gives me chance to shout out Riggs Morales, an A&R at Atlantic who really is the one who worked closest with me on both the cast album and the mixtape. Riggs is the guy who did the leg work and really made sure everyone had studio time and everything happened. We were talking one day and, you know, my cousin, René [Residente], is the last MC you hear on the album, the most famous Spanish language rapper in the world. He's got about a gazillion Latin Grammys but, you know, it's so interesting, you cross to the English language divide and most folks don't know who he is. And so Riggs was like, 'It would be amazing if we could find away to get René on this mixtape in a way that feels organic.' And René is very politically outspoken and we thought, what if we just took the line from 'Immigrants,' 'We get the job done' and make it a hook? So we went to Trooko who is a great producer René works with a lot and we sort of extended the idea: let's go to our favorite MCs from all over the world and say, 'Okay, this is the hook, what does that inspire you to do?' And once we had Trooko's amazing beats, we went out to K'naan, we went out to Riz Ahmed, we went out to Snow Tha Product and what they sent us back was just incredible. It really expands what the mixtape can be. It's not just covers, it's let's take a moment and blow it up."
Ashanti featuring Ja Rule, "Helpless"
"Helpless was written with them in mind and particularly that genre of hip-hop and R&B. There's a genre of R&B songs that has two verses, two choruses, rap feature, chorus, and we're out. And they're beautiful, you know? I think of Mary J. Blige and Method Man 'You're All I Need,' I think of insert Beyoncé and Jay Z collab here. But for a while, Ashanti and Ja Rule were the masters of it. And I missed that! So I went to Riggs and I said, 'Do you think we could get them?' and he said, 'Let's bring them to the show and see what happens!' And they came together to see Hamilton. I pitched it to them that night after the show and we were in the studio the following week."
Wiz Khalifa, "Washingtons by Your Side"
"That is all Wiz. It is so beautiful. He came to the show and was so wonderful to everyone in the cast. We said, 'We've got this mixtape, are you interested?' and he said 'I want to take 'Washingtons by Your Side,' I have an idea'. I was like, 'Okay!' And a few months later this track came back. That's one of my favorite things about hip-hop. That notion that you take a piece from something you know and you flip it and make it personal. And that's exactly what he did. It's something I never would have thought of in a million years."
John Legend, "History Has Its Eyes on You"
"John came to the show with his wife and again, I pitched him this one. When I was I writing the part of George Washington, I was picturing someone who was basically a mash-up of John Legend and Common. I mean you couldn't get a better description of [actor] Chris Jackson than that. So I always was thinking, what's a great Washington tune for John Legend, so I pitched him that one and he really took it to church. I mean, to me, it sounds like a great old Sam Cooke tune. I was thrilled when he sent that back to us."
The Roots featuring Common & Ingrid Michaelson, "Who Tells Your Story"
"This one actually started with the beat. !llmind is one of the producers on this album, and a lot of this is him just riffing. He's a super fast producer, really gifted. So he made this beat for 'Who Tells Your Story' and I went, 'Holy shit! What are we going to do with this?' And then a couple of things happened surreptitiously. Ingrid Michaelson, who is a singer-songwriter I'm a huge fan of, saw Hamilton, freaked out and made her own Instagram post of her singing 'Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.' And it's so beautiful you can tell she made it at like four in the morning because she was inspired. I thought, 'oh my gosh, what if we have her for this thing?' Because the beat is just a sample of the company saying 'Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.' So I ask her to write a hook and she wrote a great one, as you can hear. Then I invited Common and Black Thought and Black Thought basically elevates every track he's on. He's so wonderful, not just behind the scenes, but also always bringing it back to the themes of Hamilton in a very organic way. The themes of legacy and what survives us. Then Common spoke on that and Common is one of my favorite MCs of all time. Having the two of them go back and forth was just irresistible."
Chance the Rapper & Francis and the Lights, "Dear Theodosia (Reprise)"
"Chance saw the show and I'm obviously a huge fan of his and he said, 'I've just had a kid and 'Dear Theodosia.' I call dibs.' But we already had a Regina Spektor and Ben Folds version, which is gorgeous and one of the first things that got recorded! So at some point Riggs and I just shrugged and looked at each other and said, 'They're going to be so different.' And that's very hip-hop! You know, two artists will take the same material and make totally different things out of it. So it becomes another way in which we expand the rules of what a mixtape can be. It's a beautiful closer. A perfect way to close an album."
The Hamilton Mixtape is out now.
Text Matthew Whitehouse