The man behind the "Hamilton" sound: Hidden Beatles references, the "hip-hop horse" sample and why if "it's all computerized, there's no heart to it"

Salon talks to music director Alex Lacamoire about the shapes and sounds of Lin-Manuel Miranda's addictive musical

Published November 27, 2015 10:30PM (EST)

The cast of "Hamilton"  (Joan Marcus)
The cast of "Hamilton" (Joan Marcus)

Alex Lacamoire has probably seen "Hamilton" more times than anyone. The music director, who also orchestrated the score and co-arranged the songs with composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, serves as the show’s conductor. So seven times a week (his associate does one performance) he has the “best seat in the house.”

Along with 10 pit musicians—a pop rhythm section (drums, percussion, guitar, bass, two keyboards) and a string quartet (two violins, viola, cello)—Lacamoire creates the "Hamilton" sound. (Lacamoire also plays keyboards, giving him a total of five hats to wear.) And while Miranda was dropping references to everything from The Notorious B.I.G. to Jason Robert Brown in the lyrics and the melodies, Lacamoire was crafting orchestral odes to everyone from the Beatles to the Beastie Boys to D’Angelo.

However, Lacamoire was not a hip-hop head until he met Miranda. (The two first worked together on "In the Heights" and also collaborated on "Bring It On: The Musical.") “Once I met Lin, he opened my mind because here was a dude who was loving on ‘Defying Gravity’ just as much as he was loving on Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself,’” Lacamoire says, sitting in the living room of his Upper West Side apartment. “I had always heard the music and always listened to it, a little bit passively, but because of Lin, I started to actively listen to what hip-hop was doing.”

Lacamoire also spent about “a month and a half” working with Questlove and Black Thought of the Roots, recording and mixing the original cast recording, which holds the number one spot on the Billboard rap album charts for the week of Nov. 28. While most original cast recordings (pro tip: never call a musical theater album a “soundtrack” unless you want to unleash theater geek fury) are recorded in a day and a half due to time constraints and the cost to bring the actors into the studio, Lacamoire suggested recording "Hamilton" more like a pop album, where the time was spread out over about two weeks. Atlantic Records agreed and the rest is history, quite literally. (If you’ve been living under a rock, Hamilton is a hip-hop-infused retelling of the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton and is currently sold out on Broadway for the foreseeable future.)

But the original cast recording, which was released in September, has brought the show and the music to the world, so we decided to nerd out with Lacamoire about all of the inspirations and secrets behind the sound.

Let’s start with the basics. What does an orchestrator and an arranger do?

Arranging is big-picture stuff—as in deciding the feel of the song, what the tempo can be, maybe deciding things like where the drums come in, where the guitars come in, deciding what key a song is in. And orchestration is the detail work. That is actually saying and writing down, “Okay, I want the violin to play this particular figure, I want the drums to play this particular figure,” and really putting pencil to paper, or in my case, note to computer and just really giving color to things.

For example, as an orchestrator, I will decide when I want the strings to play something or what they'll do, and to me what they play can be super effective and be the thing that either makes someone cry or not. Like in "It's Quiet Uptown,” right after the forgiveness happens, there's this one high string line that creeps in slowly, and any time I hear that, I cry.

How did you choose the makeup of the "Hamilton" band?

I knew early on that I wanted the makeup of the band to be what it is now, which is basically a pop rhythm section and a string quartet. And it's very digital, it's a lot of synthesizers. And then I knew that I wanted the string quartet to be the acoustic instruments that you don't need to plug in to hear. So they are of the time period. I actually looked online for what the colonial instruments of time were and violins and strings were the thing to play! There were other instruments that I snuck into the orchestration. For example, a hammered dulcimer was very popular around the time.

What is a hammered dulcimer?

It basically looks like a harp. It's a big trapezoidal block of wood with strings all along it, and you basically hit it with these two little hammers—they look like forks almost and you just hit them in succession. It's a gorgeous instrument, and I use that in "It's Quiet Uptown." I use it in "Winter's Ball.” It’s actually sampled, so it's on the keyboard so we do fake it a little bit, just because it doesn't happen enough to warrant having a real hammered dulcimer player.

Is there another strange instrument in the pit?

I mean, there's a banjo! You would never expect to find a banjo in a hip-hop band, but “The Room Where it Happens” just cried for it. That to me is probably my single greatest idea in the whole show, only because it's so quirky and is so of the style of the music. It’s so Kander and Ebb-y, Dixieland, so I just sat down to orchestrate it, and I'm thinking to myself, “What can the guitar do?” And literally in a flash of light, I'm like, “Oh my god, it could be a banjo!” It invokes the feel of the song and I think it really fits in the world of it, but it's also so left of center and not what you would expect.

You can really hear the banjo on the album.

What's wonderful about the cast recording is we were able to get really detailed about things. You're always going to be able to hear something on a cast album in a different way because it's meant to be digested in your ears. I love listening to things on headphones because you really can pick out the details of things so we really have ear candy all over the record. We were really able to highlight certain things that you might not be able to notice in the theater.

What were some of the things you highlighted on the cast album?

If you listen to "My Shot," there's a ton of cool effects on people's voices. There's a moment where one of the guys goes "Wooo!" and you hear it echo, panning back and forth. In "Wait for It," the vocals really pan left and right. It really echoes in different parts of the chamber, if you will. Those are things that you can really only do on a record because if you do too much cool stuff onstage, you start losing focus on the story and it distracts you, so the record was a chance for us to do things that you might not be able to experience in the theater.

Are there other ways that the recording is different from the theatrical experience?

One cool color that we added for the record was we added live harp. I definitely call that an upgrade. We do have harp in the show, but it's all synthesized. If you listen to "Say No to This,” when they're kissing, the harp is just going nuts. And that's doubled with the harp in our show so we have basically two harps going on—the live one and a digital one just like going crazy. It happens in "Hurricane" and "Blow Us All Away;" there's harp all over that. But then it also plays gentler things like in "Dear Theodosia" and "It's Quiet Uptown.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda writes really specific musical themes for each character; do you identify certain instruments with certain characters?

Absolutely. So for me, there's some cool Burr moments that the cello echoes. To me, the cello is dark and sinister and can have some really slithery things. If you notice in "Wait for It," there's a line where he says "But there are things that the homilies and hymns won't teach ya" and the cello's [mimics cello line]. When Eliza sings, it's almost always very acoustic, guitar and strings. That’s why "That Would Be Enough" doesn't have any drums in it—there’s nothing electric in that song at all. Same thing with “Burn.” It starts with a piano, there's an acoustic guitar in it, the strings are very prominent in her songs. So for me, if Hamilton is the kinetic, electric, contemporary, digital element where there's always a percussive groove and always a percolating sound to him, Eliza is the soother. She's the opposite. She's the gentle warm embracing quality, the yin to his yang.

What was it like working with the Roots on the album?

It was so great. The Roots for me were super instrumental in pushing us to go further with the album. Their big things were one, turn up the drums because that's where the hip-hop lies, and number two was to really capitalize on the use of the effects. Whenever we had a record scratch, Questlove was like, “Turn that up.” If you listen to "My Shot," when you hear Lin with some distortion on his voice when he goes "Enter me (He says in parentheses)” that was Questlovle's idea. Those are things that you don't normally find on cast albums, meaning they're really like ornaments. And hip-hop records are full of cool ear candy moments.

"10 Duel Commandments" was another one that sounded very much the way it does because of Questlove's influence. Like, we did the mix of that song and it was cool and it sounded like a band playing it but he was like, "Man, you could make it sound way more hip-hop.” He suggested putting the hi-hat through distortion, which we did.

Who were some of the artists who influenced how you arranged and orchestrated the music?

I'm not a huge hip-hop connoisseur by any means. When I was growing up, I was super into the Beastie Boys; I was super into Black Sheep. There's a Beastie Boys reference in "The Schuyler Sisters”—at the very beginning, there's like this really cool, blasty horn thing, that's in "The New Style.” Because of Lin, I got into Jay Z and in "10 Duel Commandments,” the fact that the hi-hat is aggressive and steady, I definitely got that from Jay Z records. I'm super into D’Angelo, and there’s something about the groove for "Washington on Your Side;” the drum is very relaxed and very delayed—there’s a swing to it. It's almost like a stuttered beat. If you listen to D’Angelo’s "Voodoo" record, there's tons of the stutter beat happening all over the place, especially on that track "One Mo’ Gin.”

Lin-Manuel has a lot of Easter eggs, if you will, in the lyrics and the melodies. Do you have any in the orchestrations?

There's a moment in “My Shot” where Lin quotes a Mobb Deep song, so as you hear the lyric "I'm only 19 but my mind is older;” there's a rising line from "Shook Ones Part II" that we wound up putting on the strings as an homage. So the violins do this little smeary thing under that lyric. “You’ll Be Back” has a bunch of Beatles references in the orchestration, with nods to “Mr. Kite,” “Getting Better,” and “Penny Lane.” “Right Hand Man” has a "hip-hop horse": a horse whinny sample that was chopped and screwed to make it sound more like a DJ scratching. And “Burn” has a little harp moment that represents Icarus to highlight the lyric, “You’ve married an Icarus.” It’s an upward phrase, that then falls quickly downward to evoke his plummet.

You also live-orchestrated most of the numbers in the show. You’re not playing tracks on a computer in the theater—you’re playing it live.

I wanted it to be live on principle because the Roots play hip-hop live, Beyoncé's band does it live, Jay Z's band does it live. We can do it too. And I just wanted it to be fun for the guys to play. It's not as fun to just let the Ableton spit out a bunch of loops and let the computer do the work for you. And there's a lot of stuff that people don't realize is live. In “The Room Where it Happens,” that whole beginning segment sounds like it's a loop, but it's two drummers going at it with percussion. Same thing with the rap battles. All the rap battles are live except for the piano figure in “Cabinet Battle #1.” The only thing that's not live in “Cabinet Battle #2” is the synth. I just wanted it to be an organic experience. If it's super digital and it's all computerized, there's no heart to it.

By Suzy Evans

Suzy Evans is a writer and editor based in New York. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard, Backstage and American Theatre.

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