Hamilton and the Hip Hop (R)evolution

Phillipa Soo and Lin-Manuel Miranda star in Hamilton, running now through forever. Image courtesy WSJ.

Last night, my mother and I were driving together when “Crazy Train” came on the oldies station we were listening to. She said something that sparked my interest: bands like Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Def Leppard and the like were only ever played on the hard rock stations when she was growing up, and now it sounded like pop music.

It has some truth to it; “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and “TNT” are now karaoke staples. I remember when I was about ten or eleven years old, I bought Hedley’s first album and my mother was concerned that it would be too mature for my virgin ears. A few years later I would be listening to bands like My Chemical Romance, who used theatrics and shocking subject matter (anyone else remember screaming the lyrics “teenagers scare the living shit out of me” at thirteen?) instead of big guitars and drums, and soon my tastes would progress to the screamo and metalcore scene with bands like Bring Me The Horizon and Silverstein filling my iPod (both of those bands have matured and both of them are still on my iPod, by the way). The rock music that was considered rebellious when I was in my formative was far different and a lot scarier than my parents’ generation was (although, I’m pretty sure nobody ate bats anymore). Neither them nor I had ever been into the deep metal scene, but it was true that rock bands got progressively harder and rebelled against their own influences as the years went by.

So here we are, ten years after the release of Fall Out Boy’s breakthrough album From Under The Cork Tree (the first album I ever bought with my own money; “Sugar, We’re Going Down” is still my jam), and thirty-five years since Blizzard of Ozz came out. Can music progress to be even more aggressive when bands are literally screaming into the microphone? What do the kids turn to when they want to stick it to the man today? Not rock at all — hip hop.

Look no further than the massive success of Ohio duo Twenty One Pilots: combining rap, hip hop, and techno with the brutally honest lyrics about living with mental illness has skyrocketed their newest album, Blurryface, to a #1 debut on the Billboard Top 200. Part relatable songs, part no musical combination I’ve ever heard before, part crazy stage antics (singer Tyler Joseph regularly climbs the rafters of the stage) has made them a success. Rapper Kendrick Lamar had huge success with his album To Pimp A Butterfly while using his position of power to speak out against police brutality on the black community. Nicki Minaj regularly uses her concerts as a platform to tell her mostly-female attendees to stay in school and make their own money to be independent from men. There’s a scene in one of my favourite novels, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, in which the frustrated heroine has an “emergency Kanye party” to dance away her worries. Rap is not sending the message that its reputation does. Hip hop and rap are even coming up in places that one would not expect — like on Broadway.

Surely anyone with a Twitter account has heard of the sold-out smash musical Hamilton after its four-month run Off-Broadway at The Public Theatre and after its recent opening at the Richard Rogers theatre on Broadway. Composer, writer, and star Lin-Manuel Miranda spent six years crafting this urban opus of the story of treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton. Race blind casting and the best history lesson you’ve ever received is what makes this show impossible to get into (at least, until October, when some tickets free up). The cast album, due late September, is being produced by two of The Roots. It has won 27 of the 40 awards it has been nominated for so far — it will be eligible for the Tony awards this coming season. The last rock musical to win the coveted Best Musical Tony was Spring Awakening in 2007 (before that? RENT in 1996). Hip hop has become the new rock.

So when September 25 comes along, all my friends (and strangers on the bus, probably) will get to hear the Hamilton v. Burr rap battles they never knew they needed in their life and I’ll continue to stock my shelves with Kanye and Kendrick when I need to get my frustrations out. It’s not that I think rock is dead — it’s not and never will be — but there’s been a change of scene. Rap and hip hop are the ones breaking new ground. Hamilton has got people excited about Broadway again — thirty years of Phantom of the Opera just wasn’t cutting it.