We hold this truth to be self-evident: Busta Rhymes, Guys and Dolls, Nirvana, and the Founding Fathers of the United States of America have one man in common, and that man is a rapper named Daveed Diggs.
Diggs stunned audiences earlier this year with his incendiary performance as both the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, the critically adored hip-hop historical smash that spent four months at the Public Theater before it came to a close on May 3. He’ll keep copping a French accent as Lafayette and cocking Jefferson’s conniving eyebrow once Hamilton moves to Broadway and begins previews on July 13 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, the same venue that premiered Guys and Dolls, Chicago, and countless musical-theater classics before it. Hamilton revolves around the life and career of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington’s chief staff aide, the first secretary of the Treasury and author of the majority of the Federalist Papers who was shot and killed in a duel by Aaron Burr in 1804. Instead of antiquated language that caters to the well-worn subject matter, Lin-Manuel Miranda — who penned and starred in the Tony-winning In the Heights — works rap battles and r&b breakdowns into Hamilton‘s book, lyrics, and music the way most musicals bank on the grandiose swell of an impeccably outfitted orchestra.
For Miranda, rap is the language of revolution, and the best people to tell the definitively revolutionary tale of Hamilton are those who can spit rhymes and beatbox for real instead of those who pick up the skills for the part. Enter Diggs, an Oakland-bred rapper known for deafening audiences with clipping., the Los Angeles–based electro-rap trio signed to Sub Pop, which once counted Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney, and the Postal Service on its label roster. Diggs and Miranda were both members of Freestyle Love Supreme, a hip-hop improv group, when Miranda and director Thomas Kail were prepping the first version of Hamilton to be workshopped. Diggs soon found himself moving to Brooklyn and turning his focus from clipping.’s touring schedule to trying to stay out of the way of the dancers eight shows a week.
“It’s a pretty weird combination, and the worlds don’t collide that much,” laughs Diggs, acknowledging the bizarre balance he’s been able to strike between clipping. and Hamilton. Alongside clipping.’s Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson, Diggs is the dude on the mic cutting through the din of ghostly chimes (“Work Work,” off 2014’s CLPPNG), synths worthy of a John Carpenter soundtrack (“Story 2”), and the familiar, unwelcome blare of an alarm clock (“Get Up”) with plated, malicious precision. His teeth and tongue handle consonants the way a surgeon fingers a scalpel. This sharp delivery allows him to approach the more ambitious lines of the Hamilton score with ease; he’s just name-checking Washington instead of Jay Z.
“Every once in a while, someone pops up on Twitter, like, ‘Wait — isn’t this the dude from clipping.?!’ It’s slowly seeping into people’s consciousness that there’s this thing happening. But, also, musical theater is not my thing. I’ve been an actor about as long as I’ve been a rapper, but I always [performed in] straight plays. This is the only musical I’ve ever done.”
Diggs points out that its fluency in both hip-hop and musicals is what drew him to Hamilton, because it succeeds where other Broadway productions haven’t as far as the treatment of hip-hop is concerned.
“I gave him insanely hard raps that I can’t even deliver, and he does them like they’re nothing!”
clipping.’s “Work Work,” above
“I am often approached with things, with theater pieces, that involve rapping,” he starts. “And something always suffers, right, because no one’s really particularly versed in both who’s really writing this stuff. Either the player is not very good and there’s some interesting rap stuff happening, or there’s an interesting story, but the rap feels totally forced and awkward. [Hamilton] works so well because no part of it is forced. Lin is as versed in musical theater as he is in rap. He’s also a total history buff, and his father has been in politics his whole life. Everything felt so natural because it was just good theater, and that’s why I want to be a part of it.”
Miranda was inspired by legendary MCs when he was giving voice to Hamilton‘s characters; the surly might of Hercules Mulligan is more or less that of the ever agile Busta Rhymes, and Hamilton himself lets loose with “dense, hyper-syllabic” lines in a manner that recalls the punctuated ferocity of Rakim and Eminem. (Of the numerous celebrities who’ve come to see Hamilton, Rhymes has rolled through a “couple of times,” Black Thought hung out backstage, and Q-Tip made an appearance. It’s safe to assume that Hamilton is industry-approved.) Miranda kept it real while he was writing, in that he worked with the voices he had in addition to his big-name muses — including Diggs.
“I gave him insanely hard raps that I can’t even deliver, and he does them like they’re nothing!” exclaims Miranda. “I keep giving him harder things to do and he keeps knocking them out of the park. I can tell you one of the last things I wrote for this incarnation of Hamilton was [the scene] when Jefferson realizes he has to resign — ‘I’m in the cabinet/I am complicit’ — he has this crazy rhyme, and I wrote that because I knew I had Daveed.”
Hamilton may be on break until it moves from the Public to Broadway, but Diggs isn’t taking one: clipping. are in the midst of cutting two records, an EP and their full-length follow-up to CLPPNG, and he’s always working on new material. (“I was writing songs before you got here; I write when I’m on the subway. I’m always listening to beats and writing things.”) The group had to cancel their planned summer tour dates when Hamilton confirmed its July start on Broadway, but Snipes and Hutson have been supportive, and ideas volley back and forth between New York and Los Angeles. If anything, Hamilton‘s success is a serendipitous move, rather than a hurdle, for clipping., as they’re self-described perfectionists who appreciate the chance to give a new idea a second glance.
“This gives us time to really make what we wanna make, and then whenever it makes sense to go on tour again, to do that,” Diggs says. “I’m still trying to find the right studio to work at out here. When we do that, we can record separately, but realistically, whenever we’re putting the finishing touches on any [new songs], the guys will come out here, we’ll be in the studio all day, and then I’ll go and do the show at night. That’ll be a crazy few weeks.”
Crazy — but really: If Hamilton takes off the way it’s expected to, Diggs will be juggling this indie-rap/Broadway balance far into the foreseeable future, and the
impact of the show could resonate well beyond what he and the cast have brought to Miranda’s verses.
“Musicals are vehicles for pop songs,” he says. “It’s crazy that rap hasn’t been more successfully incorporated into Broadway musicals yet, because it’s been the most popular music in the world for so long. It seems strange for that to be ignored and not used. It’s not surprising that Lin’s doing it; it’s surprising that it hasn’t already been done, that there isn’t tons of rapping on Broadway already. If this is successful, there is a place on Broadway for people like me, where this skill set is useful. That’s the crazy thing this opens up.”
Crazy? Nah. Revolutionary? Maybe.
Hamilton returns to the stage when it begins its Broadway run at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on July 13.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 5, 2015