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.

Making good progress here. So of our two main characters, the one whose mom was shot and moved out west has a harder, gangsta style. (He’s the one who would do “Gangster’s Paradise.”) Let’s call this guy Otis. To balance him out, his sidekick is a more mellow, fun-loving, Snoop Dogg stand in. He’ll do “Gin and Juice,” obviously, and some of the other goofier rap classics. Maybe he does “The Humpty Dance” trying to mock the comic relief rap promoter.

Meanwhile, his east coast friend is more of a “socially-conscious” Talib Kwali/Eric B/Mos Def type rapper. He’s got better rhymes and better flow, but he’s not as commercial. Maybe he feels pressure to sell out a little once hip hop starts to take off. That’s his character’s dilemma—do you rap what the public wants to hear, or what’s in your heart?

And I realize that “Gangster’s Paradise” is by no means a “hard, gangsta” song. But it would definitely be in the musical, right?

Whereas the West Coast protagonist’s dilemma is: do I keep rapping what’s true to me (violence on the streets, anger at the cops) even as it inspires younger generations to imitate a gangster lifestyle that puts them in danger?

I’d love to have the female character do Lauryn Hill’s “That Thing”, as I can see it working well as a ensemble number (the lead girl warning the others to “watch out”).

When the two characters are about to reunite, I’d love to have “Going Back to Cali” and/or “California Love”, possibly in medley?

When the character moves from Brooklyn to LA, could “Straight Outta Compton” be his introduction to his new environment? The only issue with that song is that many of the lyrics and references are very specific to the members of N.W.A.

There are at least three related ways that musical lyrics and rap lyrics are not alike.

First, musical theater songs usually have a really tight focus: they are ABOUT something. It can be something stupid and irrelevant to the plot, but the songs don’t usually run off on tangents. Rap songs are usually all about tangents. The Rick Ross song “Hustlin'” is, uh, unusually specific in its focus, but it’s still all over the place by Rogers and Hammerstein standards. Put a line like “I know Pablo/ Noriega/ The real Noriega/ He owe me a hundred favors” into a musical, and what can you do with it? Either you let it hang there feeling out of place, or you introduce Noriega as a character, and establish the relationship he has with the Rick Ross character, and see some of those favors called in.

And it wouldn’t stop there. Where’s Jose Canseco? Where’s the guy serving a hundred lives? Where’s the lil’ Mama who claims to be twenty-two? That’s all in one song, remember. Take any two songs, and the problem will escalate. And when guest rappers start dropping by contributing unrelated guest verses… (Granted, you could probably do an interesting jukebox rap musical set up along the lines of Company if you make Ludacris the main character and limit yourself to songs where he does a guest verse.)

Second: Within one show, you typically only get one or two songs about any given topic. One song about working through grief, or clambakes, or whaling, or June busting out all over is fine. Two is pushing it. The only exception is love songs — these go back and forth all night — but even then you only get one or two for each of the couples, and the songs end up being about their relationship, or even about a specific moment in their relationship, rather than about relationships in general.

But rap songs, especially gangster rap songs, focus on the same limited territory: you show off not by finding new things to talk about but by finding a new and better way to say the same things. West Side Story has exactly one song in it that is about how awesome the protagonist’s crew is (“When You’re a Jet”), and exactly one song about how tough life on the streets is (“Gee Officer Krupke,” kind of). It would not work at all if every song were about those issues. But a rap album that didn’t have that kind of thematic unity would feel kind of sloppy. We wouldn’t call Illmatic one of the great artistic statements of the medium if it had a random song where Nas’ girlfriend talks about how much fun it is to put on pretty dresses.

Third, some songs in musicals are just distractions from the narrative, and rap would work fine for that. But there are also a lot of very important songs that do relate to the narrative, and these function by stretching out and intensifying a particular moment. (Sticking with West Side Story for a minute, the “Tonight” montage is probably the best example of this.) Rap doesn’t work for this purpose at all. When rap songs have a narrative element, they accelerate time rather than slowing it down. In “Gimme the Loot,” it only takes a couple of minutes for Biggie to 1) get out of jail, 2) meet up with his old accomplice, 3) decide to go out robbing, 4) reminisce with his buddy about what incredible hardasses they are, 5) find two victims, 6) rob them, 7) get noticed by the cops, and 8) shoot up said cops. A musical would need two songs at absolute minimum to get through that territory (1-4 and 5-8), and could squeeze eight or even nine songs out of it without breaking a sweat.

So at the very end, the two rival crews are poised for a climactic shootout, on the very corner where Otis and Wrather (I’ll go ahead and call him Wrather for fun) learned to rap as children. They stare each other down, knowing the insanity of what they’re doing, but unable to see a way out. There’s no common ground. Then, all of a sudden, a beautiful woman crosses the stage, oblivious to the standoff. For ten seconds, everyone just watches her pass.

Finally, one of them speaks. “Oh. My. God,” says Otis. “Look at her butt.”

“It is so big,” says Wrather, nodding. Then, he smiles a sly smile. “She looks like one of those rap guys’ girlfriends.”

Otis glares at him and tightens his grip on the pistol, wondering whether to take it as an insult or not.

Suddenly, he cracks up. The tension is broken, and everybody laughs.

“But, you know,” Otis chuckles, “who understand those rap guys anyway…”

Cue the bassline.

OK, guys, I think we’re ready. What do we call this? “Dropping English?” “Smoking Aluminum?”

Think we’re onto the next Broadway hit? Want to improve the plot or track list? Is Stokes right after all? Sound off on the great hip-hop musical in the comments.

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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