The Great 90s Hip-Hop Jukebox Musical [Think Tank]

Overthinking It writes the great 90s Jukebox Musical, featuring East Coast vs. West Coast Hip-Hop.

As you may have read, I saw Rock of Ages recently on Broadway. There are plenty of OTI angles on it, especially with how the upcoming movie will differ from the stage version (change in villains from greedy German real estate developers to fundamentalist Christians), but I wanted to throw this one to the group…

Rock of Ages is pretty much the platonic ideal of an 80s period jukebox musical. It’s the story of a kid who wants to play hair metal on the Sunset Strip. There’s a band on stage, and they rock really hard. The costumes and music perfectly evoke the aesthetics and mood of the time period.

So my question is, what would the ideal 90s period jukebox musical be like? I’d argue that the 90s don’t have as clear of an identity as the 60s, 70s, or 80s. Would it be set in Seattle and feature grunge music? Or what about LA with early 90s hip hop? It could even use the LA riots as a current events backdrop (which Rock of Ages lacked) and would have the side benefit of allowing for Asian characters (I’ve always seen myself as playing a gun-toting Korean grocery store owner in my Broadway debut).

The latter also raises the question: could a hip-hop musical ever make it to the Great White (ahem) Way?

I would mortgage my future to finance a musical about the golden age of hip-hop, so long as it was set in Brooklyn.

Well, we can have the best of both worlds. Make it an East Coast vs. West Coast story with thinly fictionalized versions of Biggie and Tupac.

Forget mortgaging your future. I bet something like this could catch fire on Kickstarter.

It would obviously have to be bi-coastal. You might even have to split the stage in two visually, with Cali on the left and New York on the right. Atlanta could have a balcony, but honestly I don’t know how heavily the south or midwest would feature in a golden age hip hop musical.

Too late! Future mortgaged!

Also, which story are we telling—a rags-to-riches success story about a rapper rising to the top (which would have to be one coast) or a West Side Story tale of two studios, both alike in dignity (which could feature both coasts)?

You can represent the South with a James Brown figure who appears to one of the characters as he wrestles with his place in the historical legacy of music. You do a medley where a soul/funk song is first played straight, then sampled and incorporated into the corresponding hip-hop song.

Okay, so it’s about two friends that grow up in the Brooklyn projects together. They grow up performing “Rapper’s Delight” on a street corner, free-styling to impress the girls. When one of them is twelve, he gets moved out to Compton. Maybe an aunt adopts him after his mom gets shot. Then they meet again at a rap battle ten years later. They want to resume their friendship, but there is tremendous pressure from their entourages to start a rivalry, show some east/west coast pride. Maybe they each have a hotheaded sidekick/protege who is a little more aggressive and does the violent dis songs.

Oh, and there’s a girl who grew up with them who is now an exec at Atlantic Records. She’s the love interest, and also the “Hey, maybe hip hop could go mainstream!” person. And cast a famous white comedian as some shady promoter type.

Personally, I’d shy away from the “they both are shot” ending, and also the “let’s put aside our differences and record an album together” ending. Maybe we can stuff the girl in a fridge to get the boys to stop feuding.

You can have the East Coast and West Coast rappers at a standoff, guns drawn—and they fire at each other nine times. At the last second, a Midwestern rapper leaps between them, taking all nine bullets and falling in a crumpled heap on the ground, which convinces the two other rappers that violence isn’t the answer as they see its terrible toll.

The Midwestern rapper then gets up, dusts himself off, and sings “Candy Shop.”

Matt’s description of the female character reminds me a bit of the song “I used to love H.E.R.” by Common.

In the song he personifies hip hop as a woman and uses her story to tell the story of the evolution of the genre. In the musical, this could be played out literally in this character, tracking the changes in hip-hop and changing with the times, kind of like the Jenny character in Forrest Gump.

Instead of a promoter, the shady white dude could be a record company A&R, the position charged with identifying and signing new talent. I’d very much like if he happened to be a mountain climber who played the electric guitar.

All right, Belinkie has convinced me the bi-coastal thing can work. (Blessed are those who hadn’t yet seen Belinkie’s response and still believed) Now what’s the tracklist?

10 Comments on “The Great 90s Hip-Hop Jukebox Musical [Think Tank]”

  1. Hazbaz #

    “You are moving to LA with your Auntie and Uncle.”

    “What? My life is going to be flipped, turned upside down.”

    *Straight Outta Compton kicks in*


  2. Sylvia #

    I think you guys are trapping yourself in forcing a Rogers and Hammerstein formula onto this musical. R&H are the first recognized to have songs move the narrative forward instead of just being an obvious showcase for the star. Stokes mentioned Sondheim’s “Company” which is a musical without a straight narrative, and the songs are meant to be emotional reflections of states of mind. Sondheims’s “A Little Night Music” strings the entire narrative thread together with all of the songs interspered with the dialogue.

    Rap doesn’t fit the standard American Songbook formula. The structure and purpose are different, therefore a great musical that is a jukebox of Rap should be built on the princples that build a great rap song. So, maybe start there. What is Rap’s structure? What is the narrative in one song? Can that structure be the jumping off point for the structure of the greater story?


  3. An Inside Joke #

    Why limit each song to only occuring once? Musicals are full of repeats of the same song (darn – I know the word to this, but I’m blanking on it right now.)

    What if you picked one song with a clear narrative, and only sang it one verse at a time, depending on the context at the time? And the chorus would be the unifying theme for the musical, with two or three one-offs thrown in.


    • Erigion #

      Reprise is the word you’re looking for.

      And that would be 8 Mile the musical, which would probably work very well.


  4. Kelley #

    There’s In the Heights, though that’s very lightweight in comparison to what you’re looking at here. I think a straight jukebox style rap musical would be very difficult and messy for all the reasons Stokes pointed out, not to mention the fact that finding a large enough theatre going audience for this might be difficult (I don’t see your typical middle aged midwestern tourist loving this like they love Rock of Ages).

    But what I do think could potentially work is if you got a rapper to write new stuff specifically for the intended story. That would probably be the easiest way to blend the classic American songbook format with the rap song format. Not to mention the fact that it would be New!Material by an Established!Artist would be likely to draw in both the rap fans and the broadway fans (I could otherwise see rap fans rolling their eyes at their music being used in a Broadway show, and Broadway fans rolling their eyes at another jukebox musical). However, the general ridiculousness surrounding Spiderman (and U2) might kill that idea somewhat.

    In any case, though I find this concept interesting, I think that if Broadway producers were to suddenly go “90’s Jukebox musical, we need one!!” they would probably head for boy bands before rap.


  5. Josie #

    I personally think you’re putting the horse before the cart by figuring out the plot you want when working with prewritten songs, especially when those songs and the genre of musicals have some bits that still need to be reconciled. So here is my proposal: instead of being an East vs. West deal, have the musical take place a few days before a wedding, during the bachelor/bachelorette parties. Then, when the songs tell whole stories, they can be friends reminiscing about “that one time”.
    Potential songs:
    Baby got back: Sung by the groom about his bride to be when he overhears some people talking about her as they walk past
    You got what I need (I know, 1989, but close enough): Sung about one of the groom’s ex girlfriend’s


  6. atskooc #

    where exactly does will smith fit into all of this?


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