'Hamilton' Star Daveed Diggs on How Revolutionary New Play Marries Hip-Hop and Broadway
There's a moment in the new hit Broadway musical Hamilton when Thomas Jefferson, played by Daveed Diggs, makes it rain with a handful of political pamphlets in the middle of a big musical number. It's obviously a classic hip-hop move — usually done with Jacksons or Benjamins over the hood of a car or around a hot tub. And yet, falling from the hands of one of our greatest presidents, the move feels strangely natural. That's all because of the delightfully strange musical world Hamilton has managed to create.
Opening Aug. 6, Hamilton has generated tremendous buzz for the way it mixes hip-hop and traditional stage-musical forms to tell a story about our nation's founding fathers. It's been cast as a "hip-hop musical" by most of the publications that have covered it, but the label feels somewhat limiting. Less than half of the lyrics are actually rapped, and the show as a whole draws from numerous musical forms, including R&B and jazz.
What it takes from hip-hop, more than lyricism, is attitude: Alexander Hamilton comes off as a bona fide young hustler who grew out of poverty and hardship but became a legend through the strength of his pen.
No one in the cast has more perspective on how hip-hop works in the show than Diggs. He doesn't come from Broadway but instead works as a touring rapper, with the experimental hip-hop trio clipping. Mic spoke with Diggs over the phone this week about making that transition between stages, and the ways hip-hop culture influences the action of the play, ahead of the show's official Broadway debut.
Mic: I know you've known Lin-Manuel Miranda [the show's composer, lyricist and star] since back in the day. What drew you to the play?
Daveed Diggs: The first time I heard about the piece was me and Lin and Tommy [Kail, the show's director] were doing a gig freestyling at the Super Bowl in New Orleans. We were rapping about celebrities, you can find the clips on the Internet; they're really silly ... And Tommy actually approached me and said, "Lin is working on this new thing. We're doing this reading up at Vassar in a few months." And I was like, "Great. Totally. Whatever." Then they sent me the script, and I was just kind of floored. I was mostly impressed by how much the raps get up. Like out of any context of any musical theater, there was some really impressive rapping happening in the piece. I was hooked from that. I was just like, "What do you need me to learn? Do I need to learn how to sing? I'll learn how to sing for you."
Were you a fan of musicals before getting involved?
No, I wouldn't say I was [laughing] ... I didn't specifically dislike them. It's not like I was ever walking around like "Boo, musicals." But I never felt like it was something I cared to participate in. And maybe it's just because I never had. I didn't understand how to work on one. I just liked plays. I'm such a text guy. I didn't ever feel the need for my thoughts or my beats to be broken up by songs. But for this show, it's all composed, there isn't much text to get broken up, which for me was great because it all felt like working one thing.
How many of the skills that you've gained performing with clipping. transferred over into this environment? Or was it a completely new set?
No, not at all. The great thing about Lin is that once he started working with me, he thought to bring the work I've done with clipping. into the piece. For whatever reason, I've become really good at rapping really fast. So Lin said, "That's great," and started writing things for me that he wouldn't necessarily write for himself or other people, because he knew I'd be able to figure it out. That's really the biggest thing.
Clipping. shows are pretty much an hour straight of pretty intense, high-pitched rapping. But we work really hard on this music so we want to make sure people can hear the words. Especially since we're not one of those acts where people are going to come in knowing all the words ... It's something people often think is secondary at a rap show sometimes. No one seems to complain about how bad sound is at most rap shows ... We're always trying to fight against that. Like I worked really hard on these lyrics and I want people to hear them. And I know Lin feels the same about his stuff. So that skill set became very useful.
I was reading in one of your previous interviews that you've been getting responses from audiences unfamiliar with rap being like, "I can't believe I understood every word." Has the fact that you're now performing for audiences that are not necessarily well-schooled in hip-hop changed what you're doing at all?
It does and it doesn't ... There's a trick to making rap feel universal because it's a regional art form. Having story and character really helps. And the fact that everyone in audience is sitting down and listening to it, and they've been told that it's good, and they've spent a bunch of money to get here — they pay more attention to it because it's not just noise on the radio.
The show does a good job of easing people into it. It's something we do at clipping. shows too. I've always said that almost every rap show should start with an a cappella, because it acclimates the audience to the cadence of the rapper's voice without any other distractions. The show works in the same way. It's a very rap piece that opens, but it's a little sparse and a little slow, and it trades off between speakers a whole bunch. It introduces all the elements before the piece really starts.
Do you think this connection between the musical's theatricality and hip-hop's swagger is an organic one, or one that you had to curate or make allowances for?
I think what makes it organic in this case is Lin. He exists concurrently in both of these worlds, and it comes through in his writing. What I think is cool, potentially, is that at the end of the show rapping is just another tool to tell a story. If you have that skill, you can use it to get a lot of information out in a short amount of time. That's something rap music has always been very good at. Hopefully that's something writers are taking note of and start to add it to their arsenal.
Do you think calling Hamilton a "hip-hop musical" is a fair characterization?
No, I don't think so. Hip-hop is just another tool Lin has to work with. It's part of it, just like jazz is part of it, just like the many dance styles are part of it, Tin Pan Alley stuff — all that's in here. And also, no one from the show has ever said that. None of us have ever put that label on it. It just happens because that's what sticks out to people as new. But hip-hop is 40-plus years old. It's not new.
Yeah, it feels like many of the characters in the play just feel like characters out of hip-hop lore, which adds to it.
Yeah, I mean it was conceived of as a mixtape, not a play. Hercules Mulligan was Busta Rhymes for Lin. These were just voices in the hip-hop world that existed already. There's definitely that element to it.
And for creating the characters you were working on, what was running through your mind when you were making it rain with the pamphlets? Where did you draw inspirations?
[Laughs] Jefferson is such an opportunist. And when he's really rapping for real is in like the second battle, after seeing how useful it is for Hamilton. He's the dude who's a little too old to be in the club, right? But he's using it. Jefferson is very aware of what he's doing all the time. But then he gets his big rap moments later once he figures it out.
Another thing that's cool that Lin's done here is that in the world of the play, rapping is part of the fabric of the world. People who are outside of the world don't necessarily get that right away. Like the King [George III] never raps. And some of us have to come and figure it out.
It seems like the big theatricality of moments like that are really big and "musical" and very hip-hop at the same time. Do you feel there's any conceptual connection between these art forms that makes this work?
I think there is. Hip-hop has always been about showing out. But there is something about the musical and the Broadway musical that is very hip-hop. Broadway is also about showing everything that you got. We're going to throw everything at this. We have the most expensive lights, and the best orchestra, and the greatest performers and we're going to throw them all here and make this big medley that feels expensive and feels pristine and flashy. And that's definitely part of the hip-hop aesthetic as well. It's all about creating personas that are larger than life, and that's why we like them, you know.