Hamilton’s hip-hop references: All the rap and R&B allusions in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical.

All the Hip-Hop References in Hamilton: A Track-by-Track Guide

All the Hip-Hop References in Hamilton: A Track-by-Track Guide

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 24 2015 9:02 AM

All the Hip-Hop References in Hamilton: A Track-by-Track Guide

Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton on Broadway.
Writer, composer, and star performer Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton on Broadway.

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

There are many ways in which Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking new musical Hamilton is quintessentially hip-hop, and many of them don’t have a thing to do with rapping or beats. There’s the way the musical, about the immigrant and founding father Alexander Hamilton, tells the Jay Z-, Biggie-, or Nas–like story of how one man used his way with words to rise up from the bottom. There’s the show’s casting, which has America’s founding fathers played by people of color. And there’s also its referentiality: The show borrows liberally but always makes sure to pay tribute to hip-hop’s own forefathers.

Of course, not all the references are to rap and R&B. There are also Miranda’s winking allusions to Broadway. When George Washington introduces himself, he says he is “The model of a modern major general/ the venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all/ Lining up, to put me on a pedestal.” Miranda has called this, with typical hip-hop braggadocio, an improvement on Gilbert and Sullivan’s own patter song from The Pirates of Penzance, saying, “I always felt like ‘mineral’ wasn’t the best possible rhyme.” Similarly, when Aaron Burr cautions his contemporaries against joining the revolution, he says, “I’m with you but the situation is fraught/ You’ve got to be carefully taught,” quoting from South Pacific. To name one last example, during the final line of “Say No to This,” the musical’s number about Hamilton’s infamous extramarital affair, Miranda sings a brief snippet of what he has called “the ultimate infidelity jam”: “Nobody Needs to Know” from The Last Five Years.

But the soul of the show is hip-hop, and there are carefully placed shout-outs to everyone from Mobb Deep and Eminem to DMX and (especially) Biggie. (Brief side note: A few references, including nods to Brand Nubian and “Blame It on the Alcohol,” didn’t make the transition from the Public Theater to Broadway, due to clearance issues, and so aren’t mentioned in the breakdown below.) Some are explicit—a few songs are referenced in the musical’s playbill—and some are a little harder to confirm, but that’s part of the fun. As Miranda put it in one interview, “I don’t want to give them away, because I feel like Rap Genius is going to have a field day finding them.”

But why should Rap Genius have all the fun? Below, I’ve made my best attempt at highlighting all the show’s references to contemporary music. If you caught any we missed, let us know in the comments.

Act 1

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“Alexander Hamilton”

Hamilton’s opening number finds its hero introducing himself with call-and-response repetitions of “What’s your name?”—a mode familiar from hits from everyone from Snoop Dogg to DMX to Rihanna and Drake. Meanwhile, the rising harmonies as the chorus sings “New York” are reminiscent of Jay Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind,” another song of self-reinvention in the Big Apple that Miranda has performed on more than one occasion.

Another side note: Though you might think that the description of Hamilton as “coming up from the bottom” is a reference to Drake’s own rags-to-riches anthem, the number was written and first performed a few years before “Started From the Bottom” was released.

“Aaron Burr, Sir”

When Burr and Hamilton are joined by their young contemporaries Hercules Mulligan, John Laurens, and the Marquis de Lafayette, the three men introduce themselves by swaggering in and saying, “What time is it? Showtime!” As anyone who’s ever rode the B train into Manhattan will know, this is the exact same way that litefeet dancers (the modern day descendants of hip-hop’s b-boys) introduce themselves on the New York City subway.

Though it’s similarly not a reference to one particular song, Hercules Mulligan begins his verse by repeating “Brrrap, brrrap,” which is every rapper’s favorite way of imitating machine gun fire. (Here are examples from Jay Z, Bun B, Lil Wayne, and A$AP Rocky.)

“My Shot”

“My Shot” is the song where Hamilton tries to prove his verbal dexterity, so it’s appropriate that he does so with reference to a couple of the great MCs. Early in the first verse, he lifts a line more-or-less verbatim from Prodigy of Mobb Deep, telling his peers, “I’m only 19, but my mind is old.”

A few seconds later, when he spells out his name (around :40 on the original cast recording), he does it using the same cadence that the Notorious BIG uses in “Going Back to Cali.” (Miranda himself has acknowledged the shoutout.)

“Right Hand Man”

There’s a Ruff Ryders feel to many of the songs about Hamilton’s military career, and here, in the background, one of the soldiers keeps exclaiming “What!” in what sounds like a very precise imitation of one of DMX’s signature ad libs in songs like “Party Up in Here.” (“Party Up in Here” is listed in the musical’s program as one of the show’s sources.)

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Update, Sept. 26, 2015: In an interview with Miranda on the New York Times Popcast, critic Jon Caramanica suggests that the repetitions of “Boom goes the cannon” are a tribute to Busta Rhymes’ part (“Boom from the cannon”) at around 3:12 in “Scenario.”

“The Winter’s Ball”

This song, in which the revolutionaries brag about their way with women, finds them repeatedly calling out for the “laaaadies” in what sounds like a take on the Beastie Boys’ own hit come-on “Hey Ladies.” The chorus of the Beastie Boys song was itself sampled from Kurtis Blow’s 1983 “Party Time.”

“Helpless”

This is the musical’s big R&B love song, and it draws inspiration from a few different R&B classics. Foremost is Beyoncé’s “Countdown,” which seems to have inspired many of the song’s half-rapped, half-sung cadences. (For example, listen to the way Eliza Schuyler ends two lines by emphasizing the words “stressin’” and “blessin’,” which sounds almost exactly like the way Beyoncé stresses the words “lip lockin’” and “keep flockin’.” Similarly, the way Eliza says “grind to the rhythm/ as we wine and dine,” emphasizing the internal rhyme, is reminiscent of the same way Beyoncé sings “grind up on it, girl, show ’em how you ride it.”) Eliza also uses counting (“one week later /… two weeks later …”) and repeatedly emphasizes how she is “down for the count.” Sure enough, Miranda included “Countdown” on his playlist of songs that inspired Hamilton.

But “Helpless” draws on more than just “Countdown.” Eliza also twice says “The boy is mine” in an apparent shout-out to Brandy and Monica’s No. 1 hit of the same name. Hamilton also interjects to exclaim “No stress!” in between lines, in an apparent tribute to the Fugees single “Ready or Not,” in which Lauryn Hill shouts the same. And, as NPR Music’s Frannie Kelley points out, the song seems to make a more obscure allusion to another duet about love on the dancefloor, Trina and Mannie Fresh’s “Da Club.” Both songs come to a halt with the sound of a descending bass note: “Da Club” on “the record went boom” and “Helpless” on the more timeless “my heart went boom” (around 1:15 below).

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Update, Sept. 24, 2015: Asked whether Hamilton’s boast that he has a “Top-notch brain/ Insane” was a reference to Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain,” Miranda has said the inspiration was “subconscious.”

Update, Sept. 26, 2015: The way Hamilton drops into a growl on the line “as long as I’m alive Eliza, swear to God you’ll never feel so ...” is a tribute to Ja Rule’s own romantic duets:

“Satisfied”

This song, in which Angelica “rewinds” to show the events of “Helpless” from her perspective, finds her remembering “those soulja boys.” Is this a winking reference to the Soulja Boy??? I, for one, am not prepared to rule this out.

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“10 Duel Commandments”

Well, duh.

“Meet Me Inside”

This song’s chanted repetition of “meet ’em inside, meet ’em inside, meet ’em inside,” when Hamilton needs to explain himself to George Washington, seems to be modeled on the chanted repetition of “meet me outside, meet me outside, meet me outside” (using the same rhythm) in DMX’s “Party Up in Here.” (It comes at about 3:30 below. As noted above, the song is also credited in the musical’s program.)

“Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)”

Hamilton’s rallying cry, in which he says, “we have one shot to live another day” seems to riff on Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” in which he famously raps, “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow.” (Miranda seemingly confirmed this when he included the song on his playlist of songs that inspired the musical.)

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While the singing of the words “The world turned upside down” at the end of the Revolutionary War has some historical basis—as Ron Chernow tells it in the biography of Hamilton on which the musical is based, the old English ballad of the same name was in the air as the battered British troops marched out of Yorktown—the melody Miranda uses doesn’t resemble that of the English ballad. Instead, Miranda seems to have drawn inspiration from the chorus of Mary J. Blige’s version of “I’m Going Down,” on which Blige sings, “My whole world’s turned upside down.” (The Blige track is another on Miranda’s playlist of songs that inspired the musical.)

Act 2

“Cabinet Battle No. 1”

During these cabinet debates, which Miranda structured after 8 Mile’s rap battles, Thomas Jefferson begins his second verse with an homage to Grandmaster Flash’s landmark single “The Message.” After he tells Hamilton he doesn’t have the votes, he inserts a little “ah ha ha ha,” and then gloats, “Such a blunder/ Sometimes it makes me wonder/ why I even bring the thunder.” On “The Message,” the refrain is “It’s like a jungle/ Sometimes it makes me wonder/ How I keep from going under/ Ah ha ha ha.”

“Say No to This”

This song, about how Hamilton fell into his affair with Maria Reynolds, originally began with a quote from LL Cool J’s “I Need Love.” However, as Atlantic Records confirmed to me, the line was removed before the show’s transition to Broadway, due to clearance issues.

“Cabinet Battle No. 2”

Yet another Biggie reference. Jefferson ends his case before the president with the same line with which Biggie ends every verse in “Juicy,” saying, “And if you don’t know, now you know, Mr. President.” Of course, the line in its original form doesn’t end with “Mr. President.”

Update, Sept. 24: LL Cool J has responded to this article on Twitter, suggesting that he hopes to get “I Need Love” back into the musical:

Forrest Wickman is a Slate senior editor. He writes and edits for Slate’s culture blog, Brow Beat.