‘Hamilton,’ which started as a mixtape, eventually got to the real thing
The star-studded soundtrack helped cement hip-hop’s place on Broadway
If Hamilton is its own universe — and, to its stans, it is — The Hamilton Mixtape was the Big Bang.
Long before Lin-Manuel Miranda took Alexander Hamilton’s life, and his own love affair with hip-hop, to Broadway and beyond; long before stars such as Beyoncé, André 3000 and the Obamas gave the stage play their gaudy seals of approval; and long before the cast delivered a poignant message of inclusivity and compassion to Vice President Mike Pence, Miranda’s cultural supernova began with a simple idea rooted in hip-hop: the mixtape.
“I was going to write a concept album called The Hamilton Mixtape,” Miranda told Entertainment Weekly in 2016, “wherein I would write some songs that were highlights of Hamilton’s life, a la Jesus Christ Superstar or Evita, and then someone would figure out how to stage it later.”
Even after he wrote the show, the word “mixtape” remained in the title until roughly a year before Hamilton hit Broadway in 2015. In hip-hop lore, the mixtape dates back to the genre’s infancy and is tied to the rise of some of its most influential stars.
Interestingly, the idea of Hamilton dates back to 2008, a period when the future of the mixtape and its place at the center of hip-hop culture was under threat. A year earlier, the state of mixtapes sat in a hazy fog. Many understandably presumed the future of the subgenre was on life support. In January 2007, Atlanta police, working with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), raided the offices of DJ Drama. At the time, there was no more influential mixtape quarterback than the Clark Atlanta University alum. His Gangsta Grillz series made Atlanta the mixtape capital of hip-hop. Drama had already produced a litany of paradigm-defining projects alongside artists such as Young Jeezy, T.I., Lil Wayne, Slim Thug and Pharrell. Simply put, Drama’s co-sign was, arguably, the most prestigious stamp in rap.
By their very nature, mixtapes skirted the law on copyright and record companies were sometimes happy to look the other way in exchange for the valuable street-level promotion of their artists. But the RIAA made no distinction between counterfeit CDs and DJ Drama’s line of artistically altered, but still unlicensed, compilations. In all, recording equipment and more than 81,000 discs were confiscated. DJ Drama and business associate Don Cannon were arrested and charged with violating Georgia’s anti-corruption law.
The arrests shook hip-hop to its core. No other genre of music moves at the pace of hip-hop. Albums can’t come fast enough, in part because of the corporate politics and legal restrictions involved in making them. Mixtapes have always been the impulsive cousin who operates on her own schedule and plays by her own rules. Traditionally, mixtapes have boasted exclusive remixes, guest features, unreleased freestyles and nonalbum cuts. Names such as Ron G, Doo Wop and Kid Capri are respected forefathers of the mixtape. “DJ Clue … really revolutionized the mixtape game and took it from being pretty much a DJ’s set on tape to making it about exclusives and new records,” DJ Drama told Billboard a decade after the raids, “and almost being its own project and its own form. Clue birthed a whole era.”
As hip-hop changed, so did the mixtape. Starting as DJ-centric projects, projects that propelled the careers of artists such as 50 Cent, Cam’ron and Lil Wayne, and then morphed into street albums with original production. Now, the internet is having a sweeping impact on the sound, aesthetic and fan’s access to mixtapes.
Which brings us back to Miranda and the mammoth success of Hamilton. The play won 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. The original cast album debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 – the highest premiere for a cast album since 1963. Released in 2015, it is now the bestselling original Broadway cast recording of all time.
So what was the significance of creating The Hamilton Mixtape now that the original project no longer was using that name? Aside from making a cultural phenomenon an even bigger one?
Part of it was the talent Miranda attracted. Momentum begets momentum, and many artists couldn’t pass on being part of history in real time. The behemoth, 23-track tape released in December 2016 combined rap, pop, R&B and gospel, and featured heavyweight rappers such as The Roots, Nas, Dave East, Wiz Khalifa, Queen Latifah, Chance the Rapper and singers such as Jill Scott, Miguel, Ashanti, John Legend and Kelly Clarkson.
Wiz Khalifa cried when he saw the stage version of Hamilton, and he knew Aaron Burr’s jeering “Washingtons By Your Side” was the track he wanted to tackle for the project. But he wanted to flip it and reference money instead of the country’s first president. “I was just happy he liked the idea,” Wiz Khalifa told Entertainment Weekly, “instead of thinking it was kind of weird.” That’s how most of The Hamilton Mixtape was developed — through creative freedom and mutual respect. Four years later, that ranks as perhaps the project’s most endearing quality.
It debuted as the No. 1 album in the country the same year Rihanna’s Anti, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Drake’s Views and Solange’s A Seat at the Table did the same. The mixtape was even a factor in the niche market of cassette tape, whose sales increased by 35% in 2017 (mostly due to Guardians of the Galaxy, but Hamilton was No. 6). The Hamilton Mixtape was a game-changer stylistically and sonically to Broadway and beyond. And financially, Hamilton figuratively printed its own money.
But aside from being a star vehicle and printing money, part of its significance was that Miranda was trying to do an album rooted in the free-for-all energy that mixtapes embody. There is little that is more structured than a big, Broadway musical, and the chaotic, counterculture energy of a mixtape would appear to be a poor fit for its typically bourgeois audience.
As The Notorious B.I.G. — whose presence looms heavily in the stage play — asked on his 1994 single “Juicy,” Whoever thought that hip-hop could take it this far? It’s unclear whether he could’ve surmised that he or the genre would not only see Broadway, but dominate it. The Hamilton Mixtape could never be in the same orbit as DJ Clue’s The Professional, DJ Screw’s June 27 or 50 Cent’s 50 Cent is the Future because, well, those are actual mixtapes, whereas Miranda’s labor of love is a mixtape by title.
Still, what The Hamilton Mixtape did was break ground in a manner that has long been a hip-hop calling card. It took the most undeniable tour de force at the time and gave it a fresh lineup.