Questlove on 'Hamilton' and Hip-Hop: It Takes One

"It's radically democratic," Roots drummer writes of musical. "The only thing that's elitist is how hard it's become to get a ticket"

The Roots' Questlove sings the praises of Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop musical smash 'Hamilton.' Credit: Hilary Swift/The NY Times/Redux; Carlo Allegri/AP

The Roots' Questlove and Black Thought produced the soundtrack for acclaimed new Broadway musical Hamilton, which was released Friday. Below, Questlove shares his thoughts on the significance of the play and the power of Lin-Manuel Miranda's fusion of hip-hop with musical theater. 

Hamilton is Hamilton. Every time I go to look for something to compare it to, I come up short. There's really not a set precedent. The closest I can come is Fela!, a brilliant Broadway musical that did things with the form that no one could have imagined. But Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical about the life of the most interesting and most star-crossed of our Founding Fathers, is something different, something all to itself.

When I first saw Hamilton, I was set back a step. That's not a bad thing. It's a good thing. The musical, and the choices that Lin has made in creating it, sets me back a step because I need that extra distance to really think about what it is. Not what it is subjectively. I know that Lin has done something intelligent and passionate with his writing, something vibrant with his performance. But I can't always figure out what it is objectively. If you're a geologist and you see a rock, you want to know what kind of rock it is. If you're an ornithologist and you see a bird, you want to know what kind of bird it is. If you're a pop-culture obsessive who has spent his life both making things and consuming things that are at the intersection of various art forms (music, television, comedy, politics and technology), and you see a musical that sets you back a step, you want to know what that is, too. If I can't put my finger on it, it just makes for an itchy finger.  

So what has Lin done? For starters, he has brilliantly re-presented American history through the use of race-blind casting. Roles played in history by white people are, in Hamilton, played by Latino or African-American performers, without any explanation. Or rather: the lack of explanation is the explanation. That's been the creative move that has powered much of the show's critical attention, and it's easy to see why: It's audacious and funny and serious all at the same time. It's radically democratic: The only thing that's elitist is how hard it's become to get a ticket. (Yes, even for me, and I work for them.)  

But I think that the reason that Hamilton is blowing people's wigs back is something a little different. I think that Lin is stepping forward, boldly, with the first real synthesis of two great American institutions: the Broadway musical and hip-hop. Before Hamilton, each of them had their monuments. Broadway had its Chorus LineCats and West Side Story. Hip-hop had its Ready to DieIt Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and 3 Feet High and Rising. But the two worlds turned independently of one another. When there was a seismic event on Broadway, the citizens of hip-hop nation didn't feel the ground move under their feet. And when there was a major release or retrenchment in hip-hop, the dancers and directors and dramaturges didn't experience an inner reawakening. Until now. Because Hamilton's isn't just a hip-hop musical or a stage presentation of hip-hop; it's organically and genuinely both things at once, in ways that are too important to be skimmed over.

Let's start with the music and build up from there. When I hear Hamilton described as a "hip-hop musical," even when I'm the one doing the describing, I balk a little bit at the phrase. Even when swearing to friends that it's not "B-boy with spirit fingers," it's hard to capture. The music in the show isn't limited to hip-hop. There are elements of pop and elements of rock and elements of the more traditional show-tune feel. But the very fact that the show draws on all these diverse genres is exactly what makes it hip-hop in spirit. Think back to all the different kinds of music and musical energy that have been absorbed into hip-hop. Run-DMC used American hard rock, in the form of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way," for their song of the same name. Kanye West sampled classic R&B, in the form of Ray Charles, for "Gold Digger." And Jay-Z used Broadway show tunes themselves, in the form of the Annie lament "It's the Hard Knock Life," for "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" (and then, in an encore performance, the Oliver! song "I'll Do Anything" for "Anything"). Hip-hop, at its heart, draws on old pieces of multiple traditions but gives them a new context and new life.

The show's tagline, "This is the story of America then, told by America now," thinks that it's about American history, but it's just as much about American musical history, and specifically about the way that hip-hop has always operated. It locates the past and adds a layer of the present in a way that becomes genuinely forward-looking. That's the first great hip-hop characteristic of the show, to borrow all kinds of music equally, and to turn them toward one end.

The second comes from Lin's profound understanding of what makes hip-hop truly revolutionary. Broadway, at its best, works because of its spectacle: It has precision and scale and energy, and it manages to have these things over and over again without losing a step. A Broadway trouper can hit his or her marks precisely and powerfully whether it's the first time or (in the case of the Phantom of the Opera) the 10 thousandth. Hip-hop comes from a different place. It has immediacy and cleverness and the sense of doing something big with relatively simple supplies (voice, sample, brain).

This is where Hamilton really soars. Every time I have seen it, I have tried to dissect what I'm watching: not to understand it, but to dissect it, analytically, and then count the parts. There aren't that many parts. There are actors and dancers and a script and lighting cues and music. Those are the basic organs required for survival. But they're used with an efficiency and a certainty that can only come from hip-hop, and from Lin's understanding of what hip-hop really is, down at the bottom. That's why I was so thrilled when Lin asked me and Tariq (you may know him as Black Thought) to produce the original cast album and create two companion albums, a remix record and a mixtape.

We're hoping we can use hip-hop to repay Hamilton for what Hamilton has done for hip-hop. The great synthesis moves forward in time. And it moves back in time, too. More than 20 years ago, during the pre-history of the Roots, Tariq and I performed on street corners in Philadelphia with bucket drums and voice. That was all we had and that was all we needed. We built up from there. Hip-hop allows you to drape fabrics over the frame, but it doesn't encourage too many fabrics. It permits you to add trappings, but not so many that you get trapped. Seeing, hearing, what's at the foundation is part of the excitement. Even when the tree is full of leaves, you still want to see the roots. Pun intended, of course.

When I talk to Lin, or when I sit in the presence of the thing he has made, I feel the spirit of hip-hop. He wants the clockwork exposed so everyone can see what time it is. Without straining yourself, you can see all the way down to the idea. Hip-hop and Broadway have met now, and shaken hands, and both have walked away elevated.