The Roots' Black Thought on Lin-Manuel Miranda, Perseverance & 'The Hamilton Mixtape'
Ahead of the mixtape's release this Friday (Dec. 2), Black Thought weighs in on the making of the Broadway hit's next act.
Few things have accumulated the cultural impact over the past 18 months as Hamilton, the brain child of Lin-Manuel Miranda that married hip-hop with the Founding Fathers and brought it to the Broadway stage. Along the way, the production became one of the most acclaimed musicals of all time, pulling in 11 Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album for the official cast recording. That album, released 14 months ago on Sept. 25, 2015 via Atlantic Records, has itself been a breakout success, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and earning 1.3 million equivalent album units to date; after 61 weeks, the Hamilton cast album is still at No. 9 on the chart.
Hamilton: An American Musical was co-executive produced by Black Thought and Questlove of The Roots, the influential Philadelphia-bred hip-hop group and house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon which has been involved in promoting Miranda's vision from the start. And the Roots will reprise their roles as executive producers on the next project from the production, The Hamilton Mixtape, which is due out Friday (Dec. 2) and will feature remixes, original songs and outtakes and as well as the talents of Nas, Usher, Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, Chance the Rapper, Common, Wiz Khalifa, Jill Scott, Busta Rhymes, Sia, Miguel and The Roots themselves on four tracks, among a slew of other notable guests with Miranda as the effervescent ringleader.
In the weeks leading up to the mixtape's highly-anticipated release, Miranda has been releasing tracks off the project -- while Hamilton's current cast has been in headlines of late for asking vice president-elect Mike Pence to "work on behalf of all of us" at a recent performance, prompting a bizarre Twitter reaction from president-elect Donald Trump. Among the songs Miranda has leaked are: "It's Quiet Uptown" performed by Clarkson; "My Shot" performed by The Roots feat. Busta Rhymes, Joell Ortiz and Nate Ruess; "Satisfied" performed by Sia feat. Miguel and Queen Latifah; "Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)" performed by K'NAAN, Snow tha Product, Riz MC and Residente; "Wait For It" performed by Usher; "Wrote My Way Out" performed by Nas, Dave East, Aloe Blacc and Miranda; and "Helpless" performed by Ja Rule and Ashanti.
Ahead of the release of The Hamilton Mixtape, Billboard spoke with Black Thought about meeting Miranda, his contributions to the project both as a performer and executive, a possible second installment and why Hamilton resonates so much in America now.
How long have you guys been working on the Hamilton mixtape?
About two years. We've been working on the tape for as long as Hamilton has been on our radar and that was way early in the game, when it was still coming together at the Public Theater. We were part of the first musicians that Lin invited to check the play out and gauge what involvement might possibly come. So since that day on, we've been fully committed. It was like an instant partnership, instant mutual admiration; it kind of clicked immediately. And since then we've been working on this. Lin's original idea was to present the story in mixtape fashion. So as that idea evolved, it became a musical then a couple different bodies of music, and then it evolved into us executive producing all of the non-stage music that would be associated with Hamilton. And this is like the Hamilton Mixtape Vol. 1, with the very possible potential of putting out a second installment.
Did you guys know Lin-Manuel Miranda before you started working on Hamilton?
We knew of him from being fans of The Heights and having a couple of mutual friends, but no. I don't know if Ahmir [Questlove] had met him, I don't think so; we all met during the process. I met him I guess the first night that I went to see the play at the club, and then shortly after that, Questlove and I met the whole cast as well. The person who knew Lin before they signed on to do this project was Riggs Morales of Atlantic Records, who also executive produced the album with us.
In your role as executive producers, how involved were you?
We were super involved. It's just a lot of responsibility as far as who's gonna be the best artist to execute the vision, what is gonna play together sonically the best -- every minute detail came down to a decision between Lin, Questlove, myself and Riggs Morales.
When did the 'tape really start to come together? Or was it a steady process over those two years?
It was a steady evolution, it was always coming together. But as the popularity of the production grew, more artists wanted to align themselves and wanted to associate with the project. More people on our wish list became available once they realized the importance of the play.
What were the sessions for the mixtape like? Any moments that stick out for you?
My sessions are pretty mellow. It was magical after hearing it all come together and hearing what my DJ J Period did to actually give it a more mixtape feel. So hearing it in its entirety as an actual "mixtape," that was a bit of a moment for me. It was pretty triumphant because there was a lot that we had put on hold over the last two years. We did work on a new Roots record, we have other projects that -- I wouldn't say we put them on the back burner -- but for lack of a better word we had to divide our attention in favor of the Hamilton projects. So doing the original cast recording, doing this mixtape album, it was a huge undertaking and lots of responsibility. It was a bit of a dance to navigate this and still work full time, still do shows, still maintain our personal brands and that sort of thing.
What was it like working with Lin on this project?
Lin is amazing to work with; he's brilliant as a writer, a performer, an MC, he's a great free-styler. But I think above all else, he's personable, he interacts with people well, he's likable. I feel like that likability is a quality that you rarely see in a genius; he's not high on himself, he's very humble. My go-to phrase to describe Lin is that he's a bright beacon of hope and brilliance. I've never seen him upset or irate or drop his cool, you know what I mean? I've never seen him less than enthusiastic about the amount of work he has to do or how hard it is. And I feel like that speaks volumes to his constitution as a person. He's just an honest-to-goodness good guy. And I think that works in his favor.
How did you approach your lyrical contributions to this project? Were you writing with the play in mind?
As in all things, I work in drafts, and I think the first couple drafts I had for the records that I appear on were more literal in that, yes, I was really, really trying to stick to the Hamilton narrative. But as some of the other music came together, I began to gain more freedom in the interpretation of Hamilton and the story. I just wanted to try different things. But every song that I write, I'll listen to what I have -- whether it's a line or a beat or a chorus or just an idea -- and I go over it again and again and again until it begins to come together. It might take two hours, it might take two years.
What do you think it is about Hamilton that makes it so culturally relevant now?
The language of the MC has become a universal dialect. People love a musical, people love hip-hop culture, and I feel like Hamilton was presented in a way that made hip-hop and rap lyrics easily accessible to people who may have before felt alienated or intimidated by the meat of a rhyme. I feel like Hamilton simplified it in a way that made these raps easily understandable for people from eight to 80. And I don't think that was an easy task. But I think that definitely is part of its appeal. And then also just the time in which it came to be. People love a story that has tragedy, triumph, a love triangle, history -- people love a story that's based on actual occurrences, and I feel like Hamilton kind of embodies all those things.
We were talking about the aspirational aspect of the play; that seems to be the through-line of your verse on "My Shot." Is that what you were trying to get across?
Absolutely. What I was speaking to in my verse is perseverance and the fact that as people we're all just walking stories. Each person has a different narrative, so to speak, and the people that you interact with -- at its best -- you're able to walk away after that interaction having gained something positive, or being able to add something memorable that resonates to you and your story. So in all these different stories, you cross paths at certain points in time -- sometimes only once, sometimes you'll cross paths with someone a few different times -- but in my verse I spoke to not being defined by your back story or limited by what someone says your story statistically should be, if that makes any sense.
In the hook on "My Shot," you rap Lin's lyric, "I'm just like my country/ I'm young, scrappy and hungry." What does that line mean to you?
When it was written for the actual production, it personified the country. It was a young, new nation that was brave in that it was going into uncharted territory, but fearlessly and with a thirst for freedom and liberty. I feel like freedom, liberty, equality are sort of age-old desires and age-old gifts that sometimes we're able to achieve through the ages, and sometimes the struggle kind of continues. But that's what I feel the chorus is about.
Do you have a favorite song or favorite feature on this mixtape?
I don't have a favorite. I enjoy it as one body of work. I think the effort that went into it sort of speaks for itself. And it was just a blessing and a gift to be able to be associated with this project in any way, shape or form. I feel like this is the opportunity of a lifetime; this is a shot, no pun intended, of a lifetime. And we didn't want to approach it without the proper gravitas. When a thing is not broken, it's really hard to improve on it. We weren't trying to improve on perfection, we just kind of wanted to go in and do right by the project. Because the legacy of the production and the original cast recording doesn't need anything else. I just was conscious of not doing a disservice to any of the pre-existing work.