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4 Takes on Hamilton Mixtape's Break From Broadway With Ja Rule, Joell Ortiz, and More

And a look inside the musical's most high-profile pre-show #Ham4Ham ever.

!llmind (background), Joell Ortiz, Ashanti, Black Thought, Ja Rule, Andra Day, and Regina Spektor on the Hamilton set at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
(© Judy Tint)

On December 1, 1300 lucky Hamilton fans were given the opportunity to be, "literally in the room where it happens." That's how The Roots' Black Thought described (to uproarious applause) the special #Ham4Ham event, celebrating the December 2 release of The Hamilton Mixtape.

The surprise concert, which was announced only a single day in advance, featured several Mixtape contributors performing their songs from the album of music inspired by the hit Broadway musical. Audience members who managed to snag a first-come-first-served seat at the Richard Rodgers were awarded for their initiative with a performance of Regina Spektor's rendition of "Dear Theodosia" ("the first song recorded for the mixtape," according to Black Thought), a Ja Rule and Ashanti ("back together for the first time ever") duet on "Helpless", and more.

The on-Broadway rap and pop music concert was arguably Hamilton's biggest step so far in bridging the gap between musical theater and hip hop, but, rapper Joell Ortiz told TheaterMania, it feels to him like a natural progression: "There's a direct correlation between hip hop and Broadway as an art," he said. "It's just poetry in its most complex form and people who only go to plays are just getting a dose of what I've always known."

TheaterMania sat down with Ortiz and several more of the day's guest stars just minutes prior to the performance to talk about how each artist made one of the musical's award-winning songs their own and why the ability to looking at the show from a multitude of different perspectives is exactly what Hamilton is all about.

"That's what the beauty of this play is," said Ja Rule. "Everyone goes into this building and they leave the Richard Rodgers with their own interpretation of what the f*ck they've just seen: art."

Ja Rule and Ashanti duet on Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Helpless."
(© Judy Tint)

1. Ja Rule: This was the first time I've ever gone into a studio and didn't write my own lyrics to a song. I hate when people take something that should be cherished and not f*cking touched and f*ck it up. Everyone hates that. So I didn't want to be the guy to f*ck it up. Those hardcore Hamilton enthusiasts would f*ckin probably kill Ja Rule if he f*cked up "Helpless," so I didn't want that. And it's such a special thing. But I felt that it had to have little changes to make it about me and Ashanti. Like, we changed little things, like "Ashanti" instead of "Eliza," or, "We'll get a little place in Queens and we'll figure it out." I'm from Queens, you know Lin's from Harlem, so he said Harlem on his version.

2. Joell Ortiz: I knew where I was going to go [with "My Shot"] the minute Lin asked me to be on that song. I knew I had to write about a moment and I was going to write about what you need to do in that moment — and that's be selfish like Alexander Hamilton. There's a time in your life where something comes your way and you're not supposed to ask advice, you're supposed to ask yourself and you're supposed to answer as honestly as possible. So I wanted to just write an inspiring verse to everyone who might listen to this song — not just people who go to see plays or people who listen to hip hop but just anyone who might hear this verse. I wanted to make sure that I express how important it is to "be American, express how you feel and take the credit." So I'm like, "Yo, in this verse let people know that they can take anything into their own hands."

But I will say that I might have scratched out a couple of words to make it fit that stage a little more, you know what I'm saying? Not because I didn't feel like it belonged but I just wanted to be like, "But we can sound like this too." So you're going to get that raw honest feeling from me all the time because I say what I feel, but I meshed the worlds well. There was a balance of that all the way throughout the verse. Maybe this time I talk to the third row instead of the third building in the projects.

Showtime!!! #hamiltonmixtape

A photo posted by JaRule (@ruleyorkcity) on

3. !llmind: For me as a music producer — I actually produced four tracks on this mixtape — I think the goal was to take the emotion of the original tracks and kind of bump them up a notch in terms of intensity and punch. The biggest challenge was not only maintaining the integrity of the original music but to give a new take to it and make it new and fresh. So for each one of these there's a lot of studying the originals, really understanding the message of the original songs and doing my best to take those up a notch without overpowering the vocalists, but it was a hell of a lot of fun doing it with this because it's Hamilton, you know what I mean.

4. J.Period: This thing grew into such a cultural phenomenon and people had become so attached to it in the [original] version, so the challenge was taking these things back out of the context of Broadway and reimaging it as a mixtape. In Broadway it's all about the narrative. In the mixtape you're combining narrative with flow and just making it so you pop it and you press play and it goes from start to finish. It's about flow as a mixtape, this is what it's supposed to be, you experience the whole thing as one entity.

As somebody myself who grew attached to the play in its current form, you have to be sort of careful to pay homage to what was there that people love while making it into something new. Like Lin does in the play I'm trying to layer all of these different meanings that refer to different things that were already there.