It’s around 9 a.m. on a brisk New York Friday when Chance the Rapper and Lin-Manuel Miranda meet at a photo studio in Chelsea. Within the hour, they’re dressed in dingy overalls and covered in oil, faces smeared with dirt.
They’ve both taken a brief recess from their hectic schedules to scale steel I-beams on the makeshift construction site Complex has created for their cover shoot. In just a few hours, Chance will head back to Chicago, where he’s been diligently working on his Acid Rap follow up. Miranda will return to Midtown to prepare for another performance of his critically-acclaimed musical, Hamilton. Still, they’re cordial and at ease with each other, exchanging laughs in between flashes from the camera.
When they eventually break from shooting to chat, their conversation doesn’t miss a beat. After a few pleasantries and catch-ups are exchanged, talk drifts to the similarities between Alexander Hamilton and Eminem. Drawing parallels between a Founding Father and a Detroit rapper may seem like a stretch for most, but for these two, it’s easy to see the connection. Both, they point out, were driven by an urgency to create, innovate, and rewrite the rules in order to win.
Our cover stars share that same sense of obligation, along with the faith that success is within reach if you’re prepared to put in the elbow grease. Last year, Miranda gave Broadway a dose of adrenaline by weaving inspiration from his favorite rappers into Hamilton. What could’ve been a snoozer of a history lesson finds the perfect complement in rap music; Hamilton himself lived the archetypal hip-hop story, building from the ground up and dismissing failure as an option, obstacles be damned.
Things are coming full circle for Miranda, who’s honed his talents in musical theater for more than 15 years. The New York native won a Grammy for his acclaimed musical, In the Heights, in 2009. That same year, he took his big shot by debuting a portion of an experimental, hip-hop inspired composition then-named “The Hamilton Mixtape” at the White House Poetry Jam. He couldn’t have imagined how things would unfold from there.
In 2016, Miranda was invited back to both the Grammys and the White House for some well-earned recognition. He picked up his second award for Hamilton, which was recently nominated for a record-breaking 16 Tony Awards, and is now perpetually sold out on Broadway, with the price of resale tickets often running more than $1,000. And the cast accompanied him on this trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for an intimate performance of the show, which regularly boasts an audience packed with everyone from celebrities to suburban moms, all wildly cheering for battle rap scenes between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
Chance the Rapper is one of those passionate Hamilton fans. So passionate, in fact, that he’s collaborated with Miranda, and contributed music to the Hamilton mixtape. It’s no surprise that the Chicago native was drawn to the musical’s headstrong hero and its colorful cast of characters; he’s always pushed boundaries for the sake of creativity.
When Chance dropped his acclaimed Acid Rap mixtape in 2013, he refused to accept the standard record deals thrown his way. Instead, he committed to becoming a fearlessly independent artist, and has continued to subvert archaic music industry standards. He went on to partner with Apple Music in a rare deal to release Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s collaborative Surf album for free, and made history by becoming the first independent artist to ever perform on Saturday Night Live. Then he did it again, with Kanye West, to debut their collaboration, “Ultralight Beam.”
Now, Chance is settling into a conversation with the biggest star on Broadway. For the next half hour, he and Miranda volley back and forth about their legacies, the state of American politics, and how to answer the call when opportunity knocks.
A recurring line in Hamilton is, “I’m not throwing away my shot.” I’m sure there were points when you doubted yourself, so how do you know when it’s really time to take your shot?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: That’s what made me see Hamilton as a hip-hop artist. With every opportunity, he just took it. He didn’t hesitate and it didn’t matter if other people disagreed with him. He’s in such a rush and I relate to that. We only get so much time on this earth, so let’s go. A lot of my favorite songs have that urgency. You’ve got to treat everything like it’s your first project. That ethos is really in Hamilton’s character. He represents that strain of hip-hop, of urgency. For every rapper who gets a little success, there are a million rappers who don’t, and we know that some of them are really talented. So it’s about that mix of hard work and opportunity. When the opportunity lines up, you’ve got three joints to throw at it—I’m not missing it. It’s here, it’s now; here we go.
Chance the Rapper: I definitely feel like I’m racing to write everything I possibly can, like Alexander. It’s very much like Eminem in 8 Mile; you’ve only got one shot. We’ve been conditioned to understand music as a field where you get discovered, and you’re always trying to find that end. So “my shot” is speaking of a variety of shots. When you’re a rapper, you look at every shot as the one you’re supposed to take.
You’re going to miss some shots, but that doesn’t mean you should stop taking them, right?
LM: Yeah, I’ll give you an example. For a performance at the White House in 2009, they asked me to do something from In the Heights, but I had 16 bars on Alexander Hamilton. And I was like, “How can I not do this very American-themed thing at the first poetry event at the White House?” The opportunity was there, and I was going to try this new thing instead of doing something that I knew worked.
Legacy is also a huge theme in the play. Do you think about how people will remember you 50 years from now?
C: I’d say it’s very forward. Everything you write as an artist is about your legacy and your catalog, and how you would look in a museum.
LM: So many of my lyrical heroes died way too young, so legacy is prevalent on my mind, particularly in terms of hip-hop. Big Pun only had two albums—one real album and one posthumous—but he recorded guest verses every day. There’s 60-some-odd guest verses because he was just like, “That’s the thing I’ve got to do.” So in terms of my own writing, I only think of trying to get the work done. If I don’t write it down, it’s stuck in my brain. That’s how I think of legacy—I’ve got to get it out of my head or out of my heart, because no one else will do it for me.
What are you willing to sacrifice for your legacy?
C: My father always told me that my legacy would be my children. And I think the most important thing about creating is the way that your music interacts with people, and the period that it’s released in, and the periods that will have it after your death, and how it’ll work in the world. My favorite piece from Hamilton is “Dear Theodosia,” which is…. [Turns to Miranda] Can I talk about the play?
LM: [Laughs.] Yeah, do whatever you want.
C: The first verse is Aaron Burr talking to his daughter, and the song is so dope to me because it’s obviously a song about fatherhood, but they’re speaking about building this brand-new nation and building a new world for their children and their children’s children. Literally though—a brand-new America. There’s still not a lot of hospitals or banks; they’re figuring out forms of currency; they’re still fighting the Brits.
I like to think of my music the same way because a lot of my stuff is about my ideal world, and how I want things to function. I have a daughter who’s going to be raised in this world, and my music and my art are powerful tools in getting that to be formed the way I want it to. So I guess when we talk about legacy, I would do anything to make sure that my legacy lives on and is a healthy one, but I still look at it a little differently. I don’t think the legacy of the music is necessarily what I think about when I think of mine.
Did this change only when your daughter was born? Before that, were you thinking of it in terms of music?
C: I always thought about how it would affect my future family. But I’m definitely more awake and understanding of the world and its functions now that I am a father.
LM: One of the things Chance and I first talked about when we met was about being new fathers and making the time for that to be the most important part of your life because that goes on. Your family goes on, and I think there’s a real myth that you have to—I don’t know—live a fucked-up life to write fucked-up music. I’ve had enough artists as mentors who write the craziest shit you’ll ever hear in your life, but then go home to their families. They leave it in the work, and then go home and spend time with their family and make that a priority. You can go there in your work. I play Hamilton every night: I have an affair; I lose a son; I get into duels—I get to work out all that shit on stage, and then I go home, and I’ve got the early shift in the morning with baby boy. And that’s really nice. Your art is a place to work stuff out so that you can prioritize your family.
Do you think artists have a responsibility to address serious topics in their work?
LM: I think an artist’s only responsibility is to chase their inspiration and to fall in love. If it happens to make the world a better place, that’s great, but if you’re trying to do that consciously, it feels like homework. We can smell when an artist is doing something out of obligation versus “Something in me demands that I write this.”
Think of Marvin Gaye’s early work versus What’s Going On, when he really engaged in the civil rights struggle and started writing anthems we still sing today. It’s about falling in love and really writing what’s inside you. Sometimes that’s political and sometimes it’s, “I’m pissed off and I want to write about how I’m pissed off.” An artist’s only responsibility is to be true and authentically yourself. I’ve been thinking about that in the wake of Phife [Dawg]’s passing. He was someone who rapped about being five feet tall, about being diabetic, and made those superpowers because he was so honest. That’s our job. That’s what people relate to: authenticity.
The Hamilton characters joke that dying might be the best thing for your “legacy.” Are you supposed to boast about your work, or let people do it for you? There are artists like Kanye who say it themselves.
LM: We have great examples of both. There are artists who take over the world and remain humble, but then I think of Muhammad Ali, who was the greatest of all time and said, “I’m the greatest of all time,” and he was. He backed it up in the ring every time and really was the first method boxer. He treated every opponent differently, psychologically, for months before they got in the ring, and was a real inspiration.
C: There’s not really a responsibility to tell people of your accomplishments, but I think in Kanye’s situation…it’s Kanye West. If I was the greatest artist of this generation, and the few past generations, and a few generations going forward, I’d probably say it all the time, especially if I was black and people didn’t really like me. I’d be like, “Let me remind you all the fucking time.”
Do you think that people need reminding? Maybe there’s a certain set of people he thinks don’t recognize it.
C: I don’t even know if it’s about people recognizing it. I think it’s about being a polarizing figure, so that 200 years from now when nobody really remembers any of our names, people talk about him being an asshole and also being great.
LM: We were at the White House last week and I got to sit down with the president. I told him, “You’re graded on a much longer curve than us. We’ll come and we’ll go, but you’re going to be in history books 300 years from now.” And what he said to me was really surprising.
He said, “It’s actually really freeing. You don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m really unpopular right now.’ You think, ‘What I did day to day, that most people don’t see.’ I can make those unpopular opinions because I have my eye on the long haul. I’m not thinking about who hates me today; nothing about who likes me today. I’m thinking about my work and how it will be measured.” So it’s actually a liberating thing when you take the bird’s-eye view of your own life.
Interesting. And it’s funny that you can casually mention having conversations with President Obama.
LM: Couldn’t have done that a couple of years ago. [Laughs.]
You actually both know him. Chance, your dad worked for him. What do you think of his accomplishments so far, and what do you think Obama should do when he leaves the White House?
LM: Drop a mixtape.
He would probably have the best mixtape of the year.
C: Definitely, by far. He would kill it.
LM: He could get anyone he wanted on it.
People have thrown out things like the mayor of Chicago.
C: We need a new mayor, for sure. That would be awesome.
Why do you think he would be effective as mayor?
C: He makes a lot of great, nonpartisan decisions and he’s obviously spent a lot of time in Chicago on the South Side. This might sound weird, but Lin can probably attest to this—when you meet Barack, when you talk to him, you can tell he’s a very good man, you know? I met him when I was really young, and I still have that same impression when I see him nowadays. It would be awesome having a good man represent the city because I feel like we haven’t had that since Harold Washington. Mayor [Richard] Daley was sick too. But, yeah, it would be awesome. There are a lot of people that need him in Chicago and the city, overall, needs it.
LM: To go from the presidency, back to Chicago, would be huge.
Watching this current election cycle, how do you feel about this world that your kids are about to blossom in?
LM: It’s been really weird to watch Hamilton be part of the discussion because there are so many political quotes in it. So every time someone drops out, you see the meme, “Well, he’s never gonna be president now.” I get that tweeted at me all the time, and it’s been very funny to watch left [wingers] and right [wingers] describe Hillary [Clinton] as Burr or [Donald] Trump as Burr. [Laughs.] But it’s always scary in an election year. It feels uncertain after eight years of knowing what we had. At the end of a two-term, everyone’s just got his or her head around how things work, and now we’re going to shake it up. That’s part of being American. Washington was a flawed dude, but the greatest thing he ever did was step down. He ensured that that’s gonna be a thing we do.
Sometimes it feels like we’re watching one big reality show.
C: I agree. It’s scary. I think it’s very important for America that we’re represented as promoters of peace, love, and understanding.
What do you think Hamilton and the Founding Fathers would think of present-day America?
LM: You said this feels like a reality show and that’s true, but it’s always been shitty. One of the things that gives me hope: In the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson, in a newspaper, accused John Adams of being a hermaphrodite. He said he had both sex organs—this is dirty politics. Adams countered by saying, “Thomas Jefferson died. You have to vote for me,” just hoping word would spread slowly. So the mudslinging, that’s nothing new. “Small hands,” that’s nothing next to, “He died; you have to vote for me.” We pretend there was this golden age of politics, and it was never so. We devolved into the two-party system about six months after we started becoming one country, so that actually gives me hope. It’s always been like this.
You’ve both hit some pretty huge milestones, but you’re just getting started. What are you looking forward to this year?
C: You want me to go first?
LM: Yeah. I want to know what’s next.
C: Hamilton comes to Chicago in November.
LM: Yes sir.
C: I’m releasing a new mixtape.
LM: Well, by the time this [story] comes out, it might already be out.
C: No, I don’t know that for sure. I shouldn’t have even fucking said that.
LM: But you’re making new music. That’s exciting.
Surf was great, but fans have been looking forward to another project.
C: Yeah. This stuff is way better than Surf. I’ll say that on record. Donnie [Trumpet] is awesome, and the project was awesome, but this is all of us focusing our efforts into some very hip-hop and very dance-y shit, and it feels good. So I’m excited about that.
And Lin, you have the Hamilton mixtape coming out soon.
LM: Yeah, the Hamilton mixtape in fall. And I’m just trying to get as many people to see Hamilton as possible. I know how tough it is to get a ticket in New York, so our priority is getting Chicago up and running, then West End, running in London fall of next year. Everyone is like, “Film it and put it on TV,” but that’s not the thing. The thing is seeing it live, so it’s about being able to get as many people to see that. We have 20,000 school kids through a generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that are going to be seeing the show this year and we’re duplicating that program in Chicago.
Chance, what was it like working on the mixtape?
C: So cool. I love the play. I don’t know if I said that yet. I love it so much. The musical aspect of it, the staging is awesome. Lin set me up to go see it because you know you can’t really get a ticket. So I sat next to Quentin Tarantino.
LM: Oh, really?
C: Yeah. I don’t know if I told you that. I fucking sat next to Quentin Tarantino. So dope. And I met Molly Ringwald. But back to the play, the play is amazing.
LM: I haven’t met Quentin Tarantino. Damn.
C: It was sick. He was at your show. I don’t know him that well! [Laughs.] I just said “Excuse me” to him a lot. But it was awesome just getting that experience. Hamilton is revolutionary in terms of writing. There’s so many different pieces and each one hits perfectly as a musical theater piece, hits perfectly as a hip-hop song, and really tells the story. So just listening to the mixtape versions of them—my favorite artists rapping and singing songs from the theater piece—that, I love. It was awesome. And then being a part of it was even better.
Lin, would you consider casting Chance in the Chicago run? I don’t know if you’ve seen his “Sunday Candy” video. He’s good.
LM: Oh, I know. He’s theatrical when he wants to be. But getting him to eight shows a week would be tough.
Maybe just a one-off appearance?
C: We’ll do a surprise show one day.
LM: Just a surprise. Aaron Burr for a day.
C: I would kill it as Burr.
C: The one-man show, you know?