7 'Hamilton Mixtape' Collaborators on Lin-Manuel Miranda's Genius & Remixing History
After a long buildup, the highly anticipated next chapter in Lin-Manuel Miranda's record-breaking Hamilton run has finally arrived in the former of The Hamilton Mixtape, a 23-track collection of remixes, covers, interludes and demos with a star-studded list of contributors. Executive produced by The Roots and Atlantic Records' Riggs Morales, who also A&R'd the release, the project brings together talents such as Nas, Kelly Clarkson, Jimmy Fallon, Wiz Khalifa, Alicia Keys, Ashanti, Busta Rhymes, Ben Folds, Regina Spektor, Queen Latifah, Common, Usher, Sia and Chance the Rapper, among a slew of others.
Released via Atlantic Records, the project has been months in the making and follows up the Grammy-winning original cast recording that, after 61 weeks on the Billboard 200 albums chart, still sits in the top 10, currently at No. 9 (it peaked at No. 3), having earned 1.3 million equivalent album units to date since its release.
With the tape finally available in full, Billboard spoke to seven artists who contributed to the project about the making of their tracks, the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the significance, and fun, that comes with remixing history.
"Wrote My Way Out"
"The A&R for the project reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in participating in a mixtape. I said of course I would be. And he asked if I was interested in seeing the play. And I said of course I would be. I happened to be in New York on the day they were making the request and he quickly sorted out a ticket for me to go and watch the show. It was an honor. I’d already heard a lot about it from friends who had seen it and had suggested that I listen to the audio of just the music since I hadn’t had a chance to go to the play yet. So I spent a lot of time listening to the music on train rides and plane rides and at home with the family. I became very familiar with the story. But to see it live was icing on the cake.
"I got a different feel for the song, 'Wrote My Way Out.' So when the A&R, Riggs at Atlantic, wanted me to do the song, I took it to my studio and recorded a few different ideas around it. Lin had weighed in on the ideas he thought were best. And just a few weeks ago, actually, I recorded the final version in New York. It went through a few different iterations. There was talk of different rappers who would be on it. But I’m really happy with the final lineup; I’m so glad to be on another song with Nas. I also wasn’t expecting Lin to participate on the mixtape. I thought it would just be songs inspired by the songs he’d written for the play. But it was a pleasant surprise. I was at the studio working on music in London and they sent the music through, asking for our approval of the final version. I was so so surprised to hear Lin on the final verse and happy with what he ended up doing on the song.
"Part of the discussion about me being on the song was that Lin was familiar with my background as an MC and he thought I’d be able to bring that sensibility to my approach on the song. And I think that’s something we share: a respect for hip-hop, but also a respect for writing other kinds of music.
"I hope that the [project's] impact is instructive to hip-hop fans of the present to understand what rap music is and to understand what MC’ing is, so that they can make their comparisons and draw their conclusions based on the contemporary performances that are populating radio [stations] and playlists. MC’ing is an art form that’s very sophisticated. And I think Lin was very astute in choosing the partners that worked on this particular mixtape to showcase that skill. Because without the skill that he was able to develop, instructed by the MC’s who are the best of the best, he wouldn’t have created Hamilton. And I don’t believe that the skill levels displayed in contemporary popular form of rap would lead to something as amazing as Hamilton. I would be extremely surprised if the purveyors of today’s popular forms of hip-hop or rap would have inspired this level of genius."
"Who Tells Your Story"
"I went to see the show with my boyfriend, who’s an actor, and I was incredibly moved, as was everyone else around us. Because my boyfriend is in the theater community he got us backstage, and we met the cast, including Lin. My boyfriend introduced me to Lin as, 'This is my girlfriend, Ingrid' and -- this is the stalker in me-- I knew Lin followed me on Twitter, so he knew who I was, but I wasn’t sure if he was going to recognize me. So he shook my hand, and then he got this look in his eye and he was like, 'Wait a minute... Ingrid... Michaelson?' I became so shy because I had just seen his masterpiece. But he was like, 'I love your music!' We took some pictures together, and a few days later I recorded this 15-second clip of Hamilton’s finale song and posted it on Instagram. Hamilton retweeted it, and Lin said he loved it! A few weeks later, he was like, 'I have an idea. I want you to write the topline for the song on this Hamilton Mixtape I’m making. You inspired me with the clip you posted online.' Thank God I posted that little clip on Instagram! This is the coolest thing to be a part of. Common, The Roots and Ingrid Michaelson? One of these things is not like the other!
"This mixtape reflects such a great variety. Some are straight-up covers, some are reinterpretations. Ours is a track that’s based off of 'Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,' and Common is rapping and I wrote the chorus that’s peeking in between the rap. It was an interesting task, because I had to write my own thing but kind of use the words that already existed. It’s all been very hush-hush -- I wasn’t allowed to send the song to anybody. I can’t believe I’m a part of this. It’s way cooler than I’ll ever be."
"An Open Letter (Interlude)"
"I met Lin-Manuel Miranda through the internet. I think our first connection may have been, he did this event in the White House with Barack Obama in 2008 when he was first elected, there was a poetry event there that included a lot of poets that I know from Def Poetry Jam, so we had a lot of mutual friends and became familiar with each other’s work and started messaging back and forth. And I did one of the #Ham4Ham events when he was running ticket lotteries for the show, then I asked him to [contribute to] my essay collection that was coming up through Plume and he was gracious enough to do that. And then he just invited me to be part of the tape. I was extremely thrilled by it. I haven’t known him for that long; it’s just a mutual aesthetic appreciation that started through the internet.
"This piece was different than most that I’ve ever recorded because for one of the first times ever I was rapping somebody else’s lyrics. Especially when I do double-time stuff, it’s really hard to have someone else write it for me because it’s sort of a rhythmic sensibility that’s hard for somebody to duplicate what I like to do. But Lin is so good at it, it made it really easy. So he had already written a piece -- it was something that got cut from the musical -- and there was a scratch version of it that he had already done. So I listened to that and then I practiced his lyrics and tried to put my own performance spin on it.
"I use the term 'hip-hop theater' to describe Hamilton in general, and that’s what I would use to describe this interlude. It’s a little bit of historical fiction, mixed in with battle rap and it’s basically me just talking shit to John Adams for a minute and a half. It was really fun; it’s just punch lines and shit.
"I think there’s sort of a three-pronged attack that Hamilton has going for it, which I think is why it was so successful. One of them is that it’s an extremely solidly constructed musical in the tradition of American musicals. The second is that Lin is a true hip-hop fan and can really write rhymes, whereas so many folks before him who have tried to write a hip hopera -- a hip-hop musical -- were just not that good as MCs. And so hip-hop heads appreciate the quality of the rhymes, the rhyme schemes and all the different styles that Lin incorporates into it, references to classic hip-hop. People who grew up and are steeped in hip-hop see that and see the appreciation for it.
"The third one is the hardest thing to do: it captured a zeitgeist. It was a piece that said something about America that hadn’t been captured like that before, and I think was the defining piece of art that captured the promise of Obama's America and what that era represents. And now waking up in a Trump presidency, it sucks [because] now I’m saying 'represented' in the past tense. That show I think just captures the optimism of what a brand new America can look like, but also while respecting and being appreciative of the traditions America was built on. So it had that forward-looking and backwards-looking historical gaze that was extremely empowering."
"I’d met [Lin] a few times here in New York -- I split my time between my Minneapolis apartment and my New York apartment. And I had the chance to connect with Lin and talk a little bit about art. We went to an A$AP Rocky show together, we both really liked his most recent record. It was a really exciting call for me. I admire that dude as an artist and as a human being.
"Lin-Manuel is curating the project carefully, which I think is probably true for most things that he does. So he assigned me that track, he said, ‘Do you want to cover the 'Congratulations' track? I will send you a link.’ And I waited by my computer and I listened to the performance that had been recorded as part of the #Ham4Ham series and set to work. I was also emailed some sheet music, which I forwarded to a couple of collaborators in Minneapolis. So it was a pretty quick turnaround -- only six days, I think. We were working very quickly. So the first thing I did after I got off the phone with Lin was text Lazerbeak, who is a cohort in Doomtree, and a guy named Andy Thompson, who I’ve been working with as an arranger for a few months. So I said, ‘Hey, what are you doing right now? Do you have time to devote a few days to a really exciting project?’ And they both said yes. And after assembling that core trio, we started sending out text messages to friends to see if we could find some string players to lend their talent to the arrangement. So over the course of the next few days, emails flew and files were being traded across the country while we recorded.
"Part of the challenge is that Broadway performers often have these really pristine and very well-trained voices. And that does not describe my voice. I’ve spent my career touring the world and the country in nightclubs -- with high-energy shows, a lot of whiskey and great friends. But I don’t have a five-octave voice. I’m no Mariah. I think part of what I’ve built my career on is live performance, strong songwriting and trusting that audiences can tell when a performer really means it, you know? The energy that I’ve run on is to give an authentic, moving, genuine performance.
"So, in receiving this track, one of the challenges was to find a range I could sing it in. My voice is much smaller than the original -- my voice is an alto voice, which is considerably lower in register than the track was originally written in. We kept moving it down and then down again and then down again. [Laughs] I think, for me, I don’t usually rap other people’s lyrics so it’s exciting to find the emotional resonance that can help make the story feel true. And, in this case, I think I’ve been lucky enough to have some lousy, or at least trying, romantic relationships so it wasn’t too hard to get into the ‘jilted lover’ vibe. But yeah, I wanted to deliver it in a way that sounded emotionally authentic and that also fell in line with my natural flow as a rapper. It was fun to rap those lyrics as I was walking around New York and mumbling in coffee shops trying to figure out exactly the cadence that would feel native to me.
"I think we’re always excited by new combinations of ideas in art. I think that on its surface, Hamilton sounds interesting even if you just describe it in a sentence or two. It’s a rap retelling of American history with color-blind casting. That’s just an interesting lead. So I think that the show is great, the music is catchy, the performers... the cast includes some legitimately world class talent. And also, it’s an easy project to describe to your friend, in a way that sounds interesting."
"Stay Alive (Interlude)"
"Even without seeing the play, I heard the soundtrack and it just seemed like a really cool idea. I mean, the idea of the play itself is a really awesome, revolutionary idea and so being able to add an extra layer of something revolutionary on top of that with having a mixtape that accompanies something as revolutionary as the idea of Broadway play intrigued me from the get-go. Of course it helped having people that I knew involved, with Questlove and J.Period and some of the other artists and producers, but the idea of being able to take something like the Hamilton Broadway form and put that in the form of a mixtape was pretty intriguing.
"We were still in the midst of the election when we were working on ['Stay Alive'], as well as a few other things; I think in general the climate of the country has been brewing this way for a while now, but it was easy to take that influence and apply it even without the apex or the climax that it’s taken over the last couple weeks or so.
"I hope that it does the job that the Broadway play is doing, bringing new ideas and fresh ideas to something that’s very old concerning history into a modern form that people are able to relate to. The mixtape I think is a push even more forward, because I feel like it’s already made its mark amongst a certain demographic of people, but I can say that there’s another demographic that doesn’t go and see Broadway plays. sSo I feel like the mixtape is a great opportunity where you end up having this gateway to another gateway to what is ultimately the Broadway play that I think people can enjoy on all levels."
"Stay Alive (Interlude)"
"My job really was to come in and sort of put the whole thing together from the pieces that had been created. I had had a conversation with Riggs Morales at Atlantic [Records] a little over a year ago about the fact that Lin’s original vision for the play was that it was supposed to be the Hamilton Mixtape so that little seed, which he planted in my mind, I took into the theater when I saw the play. During the next year, artists of all strides, as you see on the tracklisting, were creating their individual songs and when we got to the end, I think that feeling of wanting it to feel and flow like a real mixtape was still there. I was brought back into the process by Questlove of The Roots to really kind of take my stab at thinking through how the music would come together, how it would flow, how you would retain some of the narrative elements of the play in a different context outside of the theater.
"There was a lot of tweaking and a lot of going back and forth but I was so struck by the play and the music. I sort of sat with the soundtrack in my car for six months exclusively so I had a lot of this music in my head and I felt that I understood the vision that Lin had and the way that he approached it, both from a hip hop perspective and also from a storytelling perspective. I think that the challenge of bringing all of that into the mixtape world was something that required going back and forth with him and sort of sharing my vision; ultimately I love the way that it turned out.
"I think the challenge in putting this together as a mixtape was in trying to pull some of the emotion and energy of the play off of the stage and putting it in a new context, so really trying to re-contextualize some of those familiar elements. So with that particular interlude, I felt that that energy and the tension of that song from the play was missing from the tracklist that we had at that time so I approached Stro Elliot -- who I work with a lot and was in the studio with at the time for The Roots’ new record -- about this idea and presented him with what my vision was. He came back with some of the drum elements and other parts and I kind of produced the track, put it together and went back and forth with him, but I think that same process happened on a couple of different songs.
"On the Usher record, you’ll hear that there’s an intro that borrows from the original “Wait For It” on the cast album and that was sort of my attempt to have an homage to the cast recording version of it that you’re then kind of wheeling up in the style of a reggae record before dropping into Usher’s version of it. The backbeat of that record borrows from reggae, so that felt appropriate in that context. There are a few other different moments on the mixtape where I try to insert elements from the play to kind of draw that through line from the narrative of the play and also just the feeling of the play that affected and changed so many people’s lives over the course of the last year.
"I think the beauty of what we were trying to do here was taking these songs, putting them in new context, and in doing so finding new meaning, which was what I think Lin did with the play itself. You have these stories that we all envisioned in our minds occurring in one way and he takes them and puts them in different voices and different contexts, and in the language of hip hop and suddenly it takes on a whole new meaning and we all see the result of that."
"Dear Theodosia" (feat. Ben Folds)
"My husband [Jack Dishel] was friends with this director, who’d done a movie that [Lin] was in a scene of, and she and her husband had two extra tickets to Hamilton when it was still at the Public [Theater]. I'd never heard of it because I live under a rock sometimes. And then Jack only heard the words, "It’s kind of like a hip-hop musical" and he was like "Oh, shit. What are we in for? What is gonna happen?" Those words don’t usually kinda go together.
"We were telling everybody about Hamilton. We were like the crazy, "This is the coolest new type of paradigm, work of art!" evangelists. And then I was too shy to come up afterwards to say hi to Lin or any of the cast so I just kind of left. And then I was just like, I have to say something on Twitter about how awesome [the play was]. I started following him, and then, I was really excited to find out that Lin liked my music, and as soon as we had a "You’re awesome!" Twitter moment, he direct messaged me and wanted to talk to me.
"We actually had a phone conversation and he told me that he’d had this idea [for a mixtape] for a long time. We’d have to find this out from Lin, but I may have been one of the early people to do [a song for the project] or at least to talk about it. It took me a while to do it.
"[Lin] had the song in mind. He was really specific. He was kind of more specific about the speed of the song, too, because at first, I thought maybe we could slow it down a little bit more. But actually, he was right. I made it faster and it was much better. He’s an expert in his own music, obviously.
"In the show, the song "Dear Theodosia" is being sung by Hamilton and Burr at the same time at a certain point, and I was saying to [Lin] in the beginning, "You know, it feels kind of weird to do both sides of the harmony," and he was like, "No, it’s cool! Just do both yourself." But it kind of felt like talking to yourself in the mirror.
"And so then I had this idea because I’d hung out with Ben Folds and he was out in L.A. and we were kinda out there at the same time. He hadn’t seen [Hamilton] yet but he has since, and he loved it. But I was like, “You know, it would be so cool if Ben could sing the other part.” So I just asked if he would and [Lin] was into it because he’s awesome. So then it was even extra fun because it was me and Ben Folds.
"[Lin] was just incredibly positive, a very open artist presence. I think because he himself makes art, he sort of knows that when you invite somebody to do that, the fun thing is not to micro-manage. If you’re doing a project like [The Hamilton Mixtape], you just shouldn’t invite people that you would need to micro-manage so I think that because of that, he was just like “Do whatever you want and send it to me" and "I love it." That’s the kind of person that he is. He’s just very positive. I think that the whole show and what it stands for is just amazing.
Interviews by Lyndsey Havens, Gail Mitchell, Adelle Platon, Andrew Unterberger and Taylor Weatherby.