HipHop Bway 1 1200x450
HipHop Bway 1 1200x450

The History of Hip-Hop on Broadway

To quote Hamilton, “There’s nothing like summer in the city.” So it only makes sense that hip-hop was born during the sizzling season in New York City. With freedom and independence buzzing in the air, two teenage siblings, Clive and Cindy Campbell, hosted an end-of-summer party at their Sedgwick Avenue apartment. Clive began looping tracks of funk and soul songs on his turntables with his “merry-go-round” techniques, bringing the innovative genre into the world.

While Clive — known as DJ Kool Herc — was inventing the first hip-hop beat in the Bronx on August 11, 1973, the casts of Broadway musicals such as A Little Night Music, Grease, and Pippin were taking their bows in the Theatre District. The 1970s Broadway landscape was developing an edgier and darker reputation than the preceding Golden Age, with the debut of musicals such as Chicago, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Rocky Horror Show, and Sweeney Todd. Hip-hop began to be lightly peppered into Broadway by way of musicals like Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, Dreamgirls, and The Wiz, but it would be nearly two decades before Broadway saw its first musical steeped in hip-hop culture.

Both a musical genre and a culture, hip-hop is rooted in four basic elements: deejaying, utilizing the turntable techniques established by DJ Kool Herc and other hip-hop DJ pioneers like Grandmaster Flash; breakdancing, a style of dancing centered around self-expression, incorporating movements such as power moves and freezes; graffiti, a visual art form of spray-painting names, drawings, and other inscriptions on public spaces; and rapping, the vocal delivery from a rapper/MC (Master of Ceremonies) that blends poetry, rhymes, and rhythmic flow.

As the cultural movement of hip-hop spread its way across New York City and across the country in the 1980s and 1990s, rappers began to incorporate famous musical-theater rhythms and melodies into their own recordings, dispelling the idea that hip-hop and musical theater didn’t have any overlap. Beastie Boys’ “Electrify” sampled Company’s titular song, Big Daddy Kane sampled The Wiz’s “Ease on Down the Road” in “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’,” Missy Elliott sampled Sweet Charity’s “Big Spender” in her song of the same name, and Jay-Z sampled Annie’s “Hard Knock Life” in “Hard Knock Life” and Oliver!’s “I’d Do Anything” in “Anything.”

Beyond the proof that hip-hop and musical theater could melodically work together, the genres’ strong roots in storytelling seemed like a natural pairing. Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe tapped into this when he and Savion Glover developed the tap/rap musical revue Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk.

After premiering at Off-Broadway’s Public Theater in 1995, the success of Bring in ‘da Noise led to a Broadway transfer the following year. The musical chronicled the events of Black history, including slavery, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and the emergence of hip-hop, all told through tap dancing, rap, poetry, and hip-hop. Set to hip-hop and funk music, Glover’s tap choreography interacted with the words of Reg E. Gaines to tell its narrative, providing social commentary along the way, like in the Bill “Bojangles” Robinson parody “Uncle Huck-a-Buck Song,” which expressed the cost Black performers had to pay in order to gain popularity in white, mainstream entertainment. This foray into hip-hop musical theater on Broadway certainly seemed to resonate with audiences and industry members alike, as the production earned nine Tony Award nominations, with Wolfe winning for Best Direction of a Musical and Glover winning for Best Choreography at the 1996 ceremony.

Meanwhile, one future Tony Award winner was organically learning about the potential to successfully mix hip-hop culture with Broadway musical theater: Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Growing up, Miranda listened to Broadway cast albums with his parents while simultaneously borrowing his sister’s hip-hop records. His in-depth familiarity with both genres resulted in his Broadway shows living at the intersection of musical theater and hip-hop.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the company of In the Heights. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Lin-Manuel Miranda and the company of In the Heights. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In 2008, Miranda teamed up with book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes to tell the story of bodega owner Usnavi and his surrounding community in Miranda’s home neighborhood of Washington Heights. Inspired by the area’s Latino communities, In the Heights incorporated sounds of salsa, R&B, and hip-hop that had yet to find a home on Broadway. Miranda starred as Usnavi, Christopher Jackson starred as Benny, and Robin de Jesús starred as Sonny (a performance that earned him a Tony Award nomination), the musical’s main trio of rappers in numbers like the titular opening song, “96,000,” and “Benny’s Dispatch.” Graffiti Pete, played by Seth Stewart, paid tribute to hip-hop’s graffiti and breakdancing elements.

Nominated for 13 Tony Awards, the musical took home Best Musical, Best Choreography, Best Orchestrations, and Best Score in 2008, with Miranda delivering his acceptance speech as a freestyle rap.

Miranda further infused hip-hop and rap into Broadway during his collaboration with Tom Kitt and Amanda Green in writing the music and lyrics for Bring It On: The Musical in 2011. Adapted from the film trilogy, the musical explored the world of competitive cheerleading, with Andy Blankenbuehler’s Tony-nominated choreography including breakdancing elements and Andrea Lauer’s Jackson High School uniform costume design incorporating graffiti writing. The song “It’s All Happening” featured Miranda’s signature hip-hop aesthetic and rap rhythms, calling back to In the Heights songs like “Blackout.”

It was during the rehearsal breaks for In the Heights that Miranda and his friends would gather for impromptu freestyle rap battles, which led to the founding of Freestyle Love Supreme. The “improvisational, hip-hop comedy” group, created by Miranda and Anthony Veneziale, was unique in that the ensemble of performers would improv raps based off audience suggestions. After performing at venues such as Ars Nova and Edinburgh Fringe Festival for 15 years, the group made its Broadway debut in 2019, picking up a 2020 Special Tony Award in the process. By that time, Broadway audiences had been familiarized with hip-hop thanks to another Miranda musical that needs no introduction — Hamilton.

Since Miranda’s first public performance of Hamilton’s opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word in 2009, he fully believed that hip-hop was the specific musical genre to tell this story.

“Hip-hop’s the language of revolution and it’s our greatest American art form,” said Miranda to Billboard in July 2020, ahead of Hamilton’s release on Disney+. “It was the fact that Hamilton got everywhere on the strength of his writing … the whole idea, was, ‘Well, that’s what my favorite MCs do.’”

Could hip-hop and rap really tell the stories of Alexander Hamilton and several other of America’s Founding Fathers effectively? Hamilton’s box office answered with a resounding yes. The musical gained popularity when it premiered Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2015, and its Broadway transfer later that year solidified it as a bona fide juggernaut. Scoring hard-to-come-by tickets to Hamilton became a status symbol and its impact on pop culture was clear and immediate. Beyond winning Tony, Pulitzer Prize, and Grammy awards, it received its own Special Edition Newsweek issue; inspired countless references in television shows like Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, The Good Place, and Ted Lasso; and became the first musical-theater cast album to hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Rap Charts.

Throughout Hamilton, Miranda honored significant hip-hop figures, including Busta Rhymes, DMX, Grandmaster Flash, and The Notorious B.I.G., with clear and subtle references to their work. In some instances, Miranda modeled his lyric structure after specific songs, like DMX’s “Party Up (Up in Here)” influencing “Meet Me Inside,” and The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments” inspiring “Ten Duel Commandments.” Other references came as blink-and-you-miss-it allusions, like Beyoncé’s “Countdown” and Trina and Mannie Fresh’s “Da Club.”

Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, and Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Broadway production of Hamilton. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, and Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Broadway production of Hamilton. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Besides references, Miranda used rap as the main musical storytelling form. He captured the historical Cabinet meetings that developed America’s two-party political system as rap battles and recounted key moments of the American Revolutionary War, like the Battle of Yorktown, over hip-hop beats. Miranda also made references to musical-theater songs, like The Last Five Years’ “Nobody Needs to Know” in “Say No to This,” and paid tribute to the British pop sound of The Beatles for King George’s songs, which perhaps made the musical palatable to Broadway’s traditionally white audiences who may not have been as familiar with — or interested in — hip-hop.

Still, new and old Broadway fans alike flocked to see historical figures such as George Washington, originated by Tony Award nominee Christopher Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson, originated by Tony Award nominee Daveed Diggs, rapping. Even hip-hop luminaries, including Black Thought, Common, Queen Latifah, Quest Love, Swizz Beats, and Wu Tang Clan’s RZA, stopped by Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre to check out the Hamilton hype.

Hamilton’s triumph may have seemed unprecedented because, just a year before, the jukebox musical Holler If Ya Hear Me played only 38 performances after premiering on Broadway on June 19, 2014. Set to the music of Tupac Shakur, the musical directed by Kenny Leon wasn’t biographical about the late rapper’s life but featured an original plot that, according to press notes, was about “friendship, family, revenge, change and hope. Inner city lives struggle for peace against the daily challenges they face.”

Saul Williams, Dyllon Burnside, and Joshua Boone in Holler If Ya Hear Me. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Saul Williams, Dyllon Burnside, and Joshua Boone in Holler If Ya Hear Me. Photo by Joan Marcus.

When producer Eric L. Gold announced its closing after just a month due to “the financial burdens of Broadway,” discussion began of what led to the low ticket sales. According to The New York Times, the musical never brought in more than $175,000 at the box office, in contrast to The Lion King and Wicked, the hit Broadway musicals garnering more than $2 million a week at the time.

Many in the industry had their own speculations of why the show closed so quickly, from the lukewarm reviews to ineffective marketing to the lack of an out-of-town tryout to the timing of its opening.

Charles Isherwood wrote for The New York Times, “The musical attempts to draw a vision of [B]lack life in urban America that acknowledges the danger, the violence and the self-destruction but also the hope, the courage and the potential for transcendence. … But the lyrical density of rap — in words per minute, many of the songs are off the charts — makes an uneasy fit for theatrical presentation, since the sizzling phrases fly by almost before you can grasp their meaning.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Saul Williams, the musical’s lead actor, believed that the low attendance was due to a “deeper sociological reasoning.”

“We knew that we were entering a zone where entertainment had been fully aligned with escapism. Broadway or America prefers their stories packaged like Rocky at this point. … Harry Belafonte said to me after he saw the play … ‘You took an Afrocentric-themed play and placed it on a Eurocentric stage. The problems you’ll face are larger than you think.’”

The effort to bring Black voices and voices of color — via hip-hop or otherwise — to Broadway has been a long and challenging journey. The Broadway industry’s attempt to balance commerce with art by prioritizing its traditionally white audiences can lead to limiting ideas of which stories should be told and which musical genres they should be told in. Art is subjective: Holler If Ya Hear Me still saw standing ovations despite its short run, and Hamilton still had its detractors despite its success, yet both musicals offered powerful stories of humanity, broadened the idea of what musical theater can sound like, and contributed to the legacy of hip-hop on Broadway.

While hip-hop culture has evolved since its inception, two components that have stayed consistent are its refusal to be boxed in and its penchant for disruption. As seen in the clear moments of synergy between Broadway and hip-hop in its first 50 years, it’s in hip-hop’s nature to continue its momentum in helping Broadway expand in the future.