Given the overwhelming achievement of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize winning White House musical bio-drama about Alexander Hamilton—the virtually forgotten U.S. Founding Father and progenitor of the nation’s financial system—, many may be so willing to forget the watershed moment the show is having on Broadway at the moment. The allure of hip-hop on the Great White Way seemed mystifying as countless shows before Hamilton—Runaways, Holler If Ya Hear Me and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk—all sort of fizzled out, even if they drew acclaim. Perhaps that’s because hip-hop has been viewed as a fad rather than a moment, or in the case of Hamilton, a revolution.
That’s because Hamilton is more posh than it let’s on. While music lovers are currently experiencing the third wave of hip-hop—where different variations of snap, crunk, drill, trap, noir&B currently dominate the charts—Hamilton stands out because it not only references 1980s Golden Age rap and 90s hip-hop, it even alludes to the contemporary alternative rap which has been paved by Kanye West, Drake, B.O.B, Future, Frank Ocean and Big Sean. Lyrically even, Miranda tips his hat to American musical theatre shows past and present from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific to Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years.
In honor of that show, here is a list of some of the best songs out there inspired by Broadway music theatre.
“Westside Story” by the Game
Album: The Documentary (2004)
When it was released, Pitchfolk hailed The Game’s studio debut album was “the best West Coast street-rap album since DJ Quik’s 2002 LP Under tha Influence,” which is still quite a bold statement. Nevertheless, it’s leading single, “Westside Story” confused many considering there’s a 1957 Broadway musical about two rival street gangs in the midst of a turf war on NYC’s Upper West Side called West Side Story written by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robins. This forgotten Gangsta rap gem strove to be the L.A. equivalent of 50 Cent’s “In da Club,” but perhaps it would have done better as a mambo.
“Heartless” by Kanye West
Album: 808s & Heartbreak (2008)
According to a rare interview with MTV News, Kanye West noted that “Heartless” was written to be “Broadway-esque,” even releasing a live a cappella version of the synthpop R&B ballad to boot. The song is one of West’s most covered songs, with artists like Jazmine Sullivan, Melanie Fiona, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Kris Allen and The Fray. The song was also parodied on “South Park.”
“Hard Knock Life” by Jay-Z
Album: Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life (1998)
Produced in collaboration with The 45 King (the man behind Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” and Eminem’s “Stan”), Jay-Z’s show tune satire “Hard Knock Life” should have been the single that lampooned his career. For starters, it’s inspired by one of the most beloved, revived and parodied productions in American musical theatre: Annie, based on the popular Harold Gray comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and book by Thomas Meehan. Secondly, the song was released barely two years after two of the biggest hip-hop wordsmiths of all time—The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur—were both killed in drive-by shootings. While “Hard Knock Life” remains one of Jay-Z’s most iconic songs, however, its lyrical content doesn’t have the nuance or the polysyllabic wordplay that many other songs in the rapper’s repertoire are chock-full of. Thirdly, with the teen-pop revival at the time, music listeners were craving something a little sexier, and sandwiched between massive hits “Can I Get A…” and “Money, Cash, Hoes,” “Hard Knock Life,” felt… orphaned on the sidelines (pun intended). Lastly, with a movement of neo-soul artists such as Maxwell, D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Angie Stone and Erykah Badu heating up—not to mention a giant mastodon on the charts called The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill—an upbeat hip-hop lullaby anthem about the ‘hood felt kind of out of place. Nevertheless, it triumphed and the song hit #15 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Rich Girl” By Gwen Stefani ft. Eve
Album: Love. Angel. Music. Baby. (2004)
Released off of 2004’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby., her critically-acclaimed 80’s dance-funk electro-pop debut, Gwen Stefani provided fan service for those who followed her during her tenure with No Doubt with the reggae song, “Rich Girl.” Produced by hip-hop legend Dr. Dre (the man behind Straight Outta Compton, The Chronic, Doggystyle, Eminem’s career), the iconic ska-punk goddess tapped hip-hop duchess Eve to feature. The ladies collaborated three years prior on the 2001 Song of the Year single “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” and took home a Grammy Award in 2002 for “Best Rap/Sung Collaboration,” which was a brand new category at the time. This time around, they collaborated on a remake of Louchie Lou & Michie One’s 1993 song “Rich Girl,” which itself interpolated “If I Were a Rich Man” from Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s classic 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof. Polarizing critics, music listeners loved it and the song eventually peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard charts.
“Wind It Up” By Gwen Stefani
Album: The Sweet Escape (2006)
Released two years after her mega-hit solo debut, on paper, “Wind It Up” had all of the key ingredients to generate another hit parade like her last album. It had a team of trendy and multifaceted producers with the Neptunes. It had loads of originality, thanks to the unorthodox addition of yodeling and a change in musical direction towards alternative hip-hop. But it also shared a gimmick with the inclusion of a popular musical theatre show tune and rendering it into an urban contemporary club banger. Needless to say, an interpolation of “The Lonely Goatherd” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1959 music The Sound of Music was not the way to go. Perhaps she should have selected “Do-Re-Mi” instead?
“Spend the Day” by Obie Trice ft. Drey Skonie
Album: Bottoms Up (2012)
Okay, this may be cheating as the song was released in Nigeria in 1977, but Fela Kuti’s “Sorrow Tears and Blood” was featured in the hit Afrobeat jukebox musical Fela! on Broadway, so that has got to count for something! Obie Trice sampled the tune to bring more depth into his unique brand of Midwest hip-hop.
“Zambony” by K-OS
Album: Yes! (2009)
Canadian alt hip-hop rapper k-os opened his critically acclaimed fourth album, Yes!, with a sample of “Morning Hymn and Alleluia” nun chorus from The Sound of Music.
“Roc-A-Fella Billionaires” by Freeway
Album: Free At Last (2007)
While not as huge as some of celebrity friends and fellow artists like Beanie Sigel or Lil’ Wayne, with Freeway’s sophomore album, Free at Last, he proved he could stand with some of the biggest names in hip-hop, including Scarface, Rick Ross, Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss and super producers Cool & Dre. On the vibrant rap track “Roc-A-Fella Billionaires,” Freeway and hip-hop mogul Jay-Z took the cabaret classic “Big Spender” from the 1966 Bob Fosse-directed musical Sweet Charity by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields. The song peaked at 64 on the US Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
“Love Hater” by OutKast
Album: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003)
Certified diamond and 11 times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, the Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is without a doubt one of the greatest double albums of all-time and by 2003, funk-rap duo OutKast had reached a zenith levels of superstardom unheard of for most hip-hop groups. While the phenomenal “Hey Ya!” and the clubland chart topper “The Way You Move” were making their rounds on the dance floor, fans got to tune into some sweet jams like the jazz-influenced “Love Hater” which sampled another Sound Of Music standout, “My Favorite Things.”
“My Favorite Things” by SWV
Album: A Special Christmas (1997)
Before the reality television shows and constant break-ups, Sisters with Voices were a force to be reckoned with and this smooth jazz affected hip-hop soul rendition of the Sound Of Music jam “My Favorite Things” is for grown folks only.
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Jazmine Sullivan: The Next Singer-Songwriter To Write A Broadway Musical?
We recently caught up with Jazmine Sullivan at The HeLa Project, a multimedia exhibition inspired by the HBO film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Like the rest of us, Jazmine is in awe of the under-told story of Henrietta Lacks and her instrumental role in modern medicine. We further asked about why she got involved with the project and she said: “Anyway I can give light to an extraordinary woman like that, I’m there.”
Some of the integral women in bringing this story to light have their roots in Broadway: Tony Award-winning producer Oprah Winfrey, who not only stars in the film, but also credited as executive producer, and Tony Award winner Renée Elise Goldsberry, who portrays the title character.
We wouldn’t be Broadway Black if we didn’t keep it real.
Let’s be honest, we can’t get enough of 11-year-old Jazmine singing “Home” like she wrote the piece, so we got to asking, and it turns out Jazmine wouldn’t mind putting her pen to paper to create a musical for the Broadway stage.
She said performing on Broadway isn’t in the plans for the near future but, “You never know! I love writing and creating characters!”
God!? Oprah!?!? Stephen Byrd & Alia Jones-Harvey?!?! Who’s going to snatch this up?
Until then, it sounds like we have some new music to expect. What kind of musical would you like to see from Ms. Sullivan? Sound off below in the comments!
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