Over the years, theater has resisted so many new musical forms. While working on ways to pitch Hip-Hop musicals to the theater community, Award-winning Playwright/Producer and Rhymes Over Beats Founding Artistic Director, Patrick Blake, came up a brilliant idea to create a Hip-Hop Theater Company. Rhymes Over Beats welcomes hip-hop artists, producers, writers, DJ’s and all Hip-Hop enthusiasts who share the company’s mission to help ensure that the dominant music genre becomes a mainstay in theater through the production of Hip-Hop musicals. Naturally with all the commotion over Broadway’s sold-out revival of “Hamilton”, we were very curious. So Style Cartel sat down with Patrick himself to find out the back story and what fans (like us!) can expect:
What is the idea behind Rhymes Over Beats?
In 1943 six of the songs in the billboard top ten songs of the year were either from a broadway show or was written by some one who routinely wrote for Broadway. By 1983 there were none. Our idea is to reunite theater music and popular music by writing theater pieces that use Hip Hop
What made you think to create an organization like Rhymes Over Beats?
Originally I wrote the book of a musical about unjust conviction. An MC from Chicago, Chi-Ill wrote the Hip Hop songs for it. When I told people about it, the response was overwhelming positive. I had more offers to participate than I had parts to play. I started wondering how I could use all the talented people around me. Rhymes Over Beats is the result.
Where do you see Rhymes Over Beats in 5 years or 10 years?
I see a growing thriving theater company. In 5 years a theater company that creates and produces one new show a year. In 10 years one that creates two shows a year in our own space.
Tell me more about you, Mr. Blake. You’ve been writing and producing plays for years. When did the crossover begin to take shape for the idea of Rhymes Over Beats, and bringing Hip-hop to the Broadway stage?
I was one of the original producers of “the exonerated”. A documentary play that told the story of six actual people who had been arrested, tried, convicted of a capital offense and sentenced to death. All for something they didn’t do. Even though they were all eventually exonerated, it made their lives more much more difficult. As a writer the experience inspired me to create a fictional account of an innocent man caught in the criminal justice system. My experience up to this point was as a commercial producer. Which made me think of a musical. It’s easier to sell tickets to a musical. Since the story was fictional, I wanted as much authenticity as I could get. That meant using hip hop music.
We hear that Rhymes Over Beats will make history. How does your company differ from those who are currently on stage – Hamilton for example? As this is a piece of history unwrapped, per se, how do you plan to make history?
When we succeed in our mission of making popular music ant theater music the same music we will have made history. Rock which created the split over a half century ago couldn’t. We will. “Hamilton” is a great, groundbreaking musical. Even better I think than “in the heights”. But they came out seven years apart. Lin-Manuel Miranda is just one person. So years go by with no hip hop musical. But imagine if there were seven LMMs all writing away. You would have no gaps. That’s what Rhymes Over Beats is, a collective of playwrights, MCs, DJs, all creating theater, with actors to act in them, directors to direct them, and theater producers to put them on their feet in front of an audience.
If you could have any 5 artists and 5 producers cast in your upcoming plays, who would they be and how would you cast them?
Rock is used in musicals. Dylan, Elton John, Carole King, Paul Simon have all provided the music for theater. Most recently Sting. There is a problem with this. The musicals are all ‘greatest hits’ shoved into a story, or have music written for an audience by an artist who has a distinguished career and marketed to an audience which expects ‘greatest hits’.
We want to do something different. It would be an honor to work on a show with someone like Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, 50, or Eminem, or Jay-Z, but what we really want to do is connect with artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Common, Bobby Schmurda, Meek Mill, Joey Bada$$, and people who are beginning their careers and convince them to stretch their artistic wings. J-Dilla’s estate and the music he produced that’s part of his legacy which Rhymes Over Beats can revive. You know, really bring Hip-Hop to Broadway.
How do you feel about the current state of Hip-hop music?
If you were in your 20s when DJ Cool Herc started you would be in your 60s now. Two generations have grown up and are in middle age listening to Hip Hop. And a third generation is on its way. Having three generations of a family in one house has and will have its share of squabbles. But we grow past that. And the rapid technological changes in the music industry presents is own share of challenges. But again we will cope. One of the ways to cope is to grow into a new market – like theater.
You seem to be very philanthropic. We understand that you support many not-for-profit foundations, such as Ted Smooth Old School Jam and Guns Down Life Up. Why is giving back a priority at Rhymes Over Beats?
Rhymes Over Beats was created as an artistic response to a serious social issue – unjust convictions. But there are others. Gun violence. The #blacklivesmatter movement. The response to these cannot only be artistic. Change will only come if everyone acts on all fronts. We do what we can by creating art that causes people to be aware of issues. We need also support organizations that tackle issues of social importance on a more concrete level.
What can we expect from Rhymes Over Beats in 2015?
One possibly two productions. One a revival of Lemon Anderson’s “county of kings” we hope to have up by September, pending a theater. And the other, also a revival, is in contract negotiations, so I can’t talk about it. We also hope to have some readings of new plays the beginning of the journey to full productions. Individually as a producer, I am doing The 39 Steps now at the Union Square Theater, in NYC. It has a Hip Hop sensibility because it takes an old 1930s Hitchcock spy movie and remixes it into a very funny play
How do you feel Hip-hop culture and music has affected the art and fashion scene? Do you plan on expanding into these subjects within your shows as well?
Hip Hop culture is the world culture. A major part of Hip Hop is making art by remaking art. Samples. Remixes. A subway car becomes an art gallery. A cardboard box becomes a ballroom dance floor. The clothes people were to the clubs today becomes next seasons fashions. We are a theater company so none of this is explicit. We don’t have plans to do a play called “how hip hop has influenced the art and fashion world” but the spirit of Hip Hop infuses everything we do.
We understand Rhymes over Beats is a collaborative of artists, producers, musicians and creatives. How can one become involved with Rhymes Over Beats?
Because I wanted a mix of all different artists, actors, MCs, directors, DJs, playwrights, and theater producers, so the company could hit the ground creating, I and some friends, Donna Hart, Michael Viera (aka Power), Pone, and Brent Buell asked friends, and those friends asked others. Now we have an artistic council who passes on people who want to be members.
Can you give us any secrets that no one might know just yet about Rhymes Over Beatsand it’s upcoming shows?
I wish we had secrets we’d be a much cooler group. But we don’t. Maybe the secret is there are no secrets.