It’s not an unusual sight to see hundreds of fans packing the sidewalk outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre, home to “Hamilton.” But it was especially busy on Thursday, and these fans weren’t crowded around the stage door.
Lining 46th Street past Eighth Avenue, they were among the lucky fans who heard the announcement late Wednesday night: The new “Hamilton Mixtape” album — which brings together some of the biggest names in the music business spanning genres from rap to indie rock to cover the musical’s best-selling soundtrack — was having a preview concert with 1,300 free seats to fill.
Though no one knew what to expect from the half-hour presentation when the lucky few filed inside, many of whom had probably never made it into the room where it happens before given high ticket prices and the fact that the show’s been sold out for years. DJs !llmind and J.Period, who also produced the album, played a set (audience members danced in their seats) before the show began.
“The goal was to take the emotion of the original tracks and bump them up in terms of intensity,” !llmind tells us about producing four tracks for the album. “That’s kind of what I specialize in, and for each one of these, it was about studying the originals, really understanding the message of the original songs, and then the mood in the music, and then kind of doing my best to kick those up a notch without overpowering the vocalists.
“What ended up on the tape was probably about half of what we ended up actually making,” he says with a laugh. “There’s some really cool shit that we did, and what ended up on the tape is something I’m proud of.”
J.Period saw the challenge of producing the album as taking the music out of the context of Broadway. Though different in many ways, the two albums still have something in common. “On Broadway, it’s all about the narrative; on the mixtape, you’re combining narrative with flow. You’re making it so that you pop it in, you press play, and it goes from start to finish — which is a foreign concept to the shuffle culture generation. People are asking why did you put the songs in this order: This is what it’s supposed to be. You pop it in, you press play, and you experience the whole thing as one entity.”
When the lights finally went down, the familiar chords for a remixed “My Shot” filled the room, performed by rapper Joell Ortiz and Black Thought of The Roots. “I wanted to make sure I expressed how important it is to be American, to express how you feel and take the credit,” Ortiz tells us of the rap he wrote for the song, Alexander Hamilton’s anthem. “‘Debt: Who do you owe most? You.' In this verse, [I] let people know they can take anything into their own hands.
“I come from the projects in Brooklyn where people don’t believe that. And it’s wrong, cause some of the smartest people I know, some of the most creative people I know, are in those poverty-stricken projects.”
The concert also included performances by Regina Spektor, whose soulful “Dear Theodosia” was the first song recorded for the “Mixtape,” and Andra Day’s crackling and stylistically branded “Burn” that brought the house to its feet for a standing ovation. Finally, Ja Rule and Ashanti were reunited for an almost cheeky rendition of “Helpless.”
“It’s the first time I’ve ever gone into a studio and didn’t write my own lyrics to the songs,” says Ja Rule about how he approached covering the show’s love song, “Helpless.” “This thing has a life of its own, and it has those hardcore ‘Hamilton’ enthusiasts that would probably fucking kill Ja Rule if he fucked up ‘Helpless,’ you know?”
Understandable, though like most of the “Mixtape” contributors, Ja Rule didn’t stick completely to the script. Just as Miranda added references from his favorite musicals and rappers to the soundtrack, Ja Rule made the song his own in some small ways. “I felt that it had to have little changes to make it me, and to make it about me and Ashanti, and to give it a fun feel,” he says. “Like, ‘We’ll get a little place in Queens and we’ll figure it out.’ Because I’m from Queens.”
The “Hamilton Mixtape” is available now digitally and as a CD or cassette (at Miranda’s insistence). A vinyl edition is coming soon.