Last week, Russell Simmons announced that he'd be bringing hip-hop to Broadway with the production of The Scenario, a new musical culled from more than 30 years of the genre's hits. Simmons enlisted hip-hop historian-author Dan Charnas (The Big Payback) to pen the script — think Love Story meets Public Enemy, says the hip-hop mogul — and is planing to debut the musical in late 2016 with a mix of actual rap songs and musicalized versions of classic tracks.
Hip-hop has had a mixed run on Broadway in recent years. While the Tupac Shakur-inspired musical Holler if Ya Hear Me barely made it out of previews before closing last year, Hamilton, the new Lin-Manuel Miranda musical examining U.S. history through hip-hop, has broken records off-Broadway and has already sold $6.5 million worth of tickets, four months before its July 13th Broadway debut.
Simmons spoke to Rolling Stone about The Scenario's rock & roll inspiration, its differences from Holler and why he's so confident the show will be a success.
How did the idea for a hip-hop musical start?
I met the guys at [The Scenario production company] Big Block and they took me to see [hard-rock jukebox musical] Rock of Ages. I saw it and said, "What the fuck? This is exactly what I need to do." It was the most obvious thing in the world to me. I was inspired when I saw it. I must be getting old because what I'm doing now is right squarely in the middle of Broadway, which is squarely in the middle of America. It's overdue.
So is it fair to call The Scenario the "Rock of Ages of hip-hop"?
Yeah, that's a fair statement. My ex-wife said, "Why don't we just call it Rap of Ages?" I was like, "Can we be more original?"
What do you envision The Scenario looking like?
It'll be half-concert, half-storytelling. Something like this deserves a little bit of a love story and a little bit of [Public Enemy's] "Fight the Power." It's not easy to write, but it's easy to conceive of. It's all the old people going to the Broadway theatre and seeing rebellious youth culture [laughs]. Two generations later, rap still has that rebelliousness; it hasn't changed. At the same time, though, it's successful pop culture. We've never had an American cultural phenomenon like this that has spanned so many generations.
The life story of hip-hop is Ice Cube's Are We There Yet?, not [N.W.A's] "Fuck tha Police."
How do you balance that rebelliousness with Broadway's more mainstream tendencies?
With black pop culture, we changed the landscape where it doesn't have to be rebellious; we're proud of it anyway. It doesn't have to be hated by the mainstream. I don't think we're going to face any resistance. Anyone who resists this is just a foreigner to pop culture. I'm old. Rap's old. It's accessible. It's mainstream. Putting a bunch of guys onstage to tell poems for six years [in Simmons' Def Poetry Jam] was unheard of. So I did fun, alternative shit. This. Is. Not. One of them. This is the least alternative shit, but it's a celebration of hip-hop.
Broadway has long been prohibitively expensive for many people, including younger fans that may gravitate towards the show. Does that concern you?
We're going to just make it. It's going to scale because it's going to suit pop culture. We hope people can see it. We'll figure out ways, I guess. We just have to make the art the way it's supposed to be and there's a huge audience for it. I'm not worried. Ticket prices are what they are, unfortunately. If everybody doesn't get access to it, maybe they'll film it. I've already gotten calls from people about the movie, which is shocking. I don't see it as being a difficult ride.
[Simmons receives a phone call about Codes of Conduct, a new Steve McQueen-directed show he's producing for HBO.]
See, Codes of Conduct is a piece of art. That's a different, alternative piece of work. [The Scenario] is not. This is a commercial story. I read the script [for Scenario], I better cry and laugh a lot and go on an emotional roller coaster. It should be no more difficult than Mary Poppins. There will be social commentary of some kind, though. You can't escape it. I'm not going to whitewash it in any way, but I want it to be honest and accessible.
When I spoke to Saul Williams after Holler If Ya Hear Me closed, he said, "We knew that we were entering a zone where entertainment had been fully aligned with escapism." Are you worried The Scenario may face the same fate?
I'm sorry it didn't go, but this is a whole different thing. This is a celebration. I loved Tupac, but I don't see his life story aligning with. . .Look, the life story of hip-hop is more like mine. End up going to yoga every day and living in Beverly Hills. The life story of hip-hop is Ice Cube's Are We There Yet?, not [N.W.A's] "Fuck tha Police." It's Ice-T [playing] the longest-running cop on TV. That's hip-hop. It's "Jesus Walks" as much as it is "Fuck tha Police." The celebration of poetry is not defined by one poem. This is not the same scenario [as Holler]. It's a whole different world. We're talking about something that's right down the middle versus something that's really alternative.
Do you already have particular songs in mind that you want to include in the show?
There's no one song that will define this show. There's no theme song. If somebody says, "No," we move on. If we write the show and it requires a song, then we'll get it. I can't imagine we won't. We're not looking to rob anybody, but no one's going to hold us up because there's no one song that can hold us up. We have to shoot ourselves to kill us and do this wrong. I want to be very hands-on. I can drive it home. I think I have the sensibilities to make it. Look at me: I'm a 90-year-old hip-hop guy. I'm the perfect person to do this.