Rap Artist Q-Tip And His Beats & Rhythms Join Ringside Team For Broadway-Bound Musical ‘Ali’
EXCLUSIVE: Q-Tip, the legendary rapper, producer, singer and lyricist, will be adding his hip-hop know-how to the Broadway-bound Ali, a musical about Muhammad Ali’s life in and out of the boxing ring.
The acclaimed rhymer has been signed on by Ali lead producer Richard Willis as music producer, co-lyricist and cast album producer, and will work alongside director and book writer Clint Dyer (Get Up, Stand Up! The Bob Marley Musical, Othello), deputy artistic director of UK’s National Theatre, and Teddy Abrams, the show’s composer.
Abrams is music director of the Louisville Orchestra, based in the city where the heavyweight champion and a titan of the 20th century was born.
Back in 2017, Abrams wrote multimedia opera-rap-oratorio mashup The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, which premiered with the Louisville Orchestra at the Kentucky Center in Louisville.
That production got Abrams, and others, thinking that there should be a full-scale Broadway musical about the pivotal historical figure who transcended his sporting achievements.
Celebrated saxophonist Casey Benjamin has also been brought into the show’s music department as associate music producer. Benjamin, who once played saxes and vocoder for the Robert Glasper Experiment quartet, has deep jazz roots; he studied piano aged 6, and soon after got his fingers moving on the saxophone. His rhythmic punch can be heard on countless recordings including numbers with Mos Def and Mary J Blige.
Sean Mayes (MJ, Hadestown) has joined Ali as music supervisor. Mayes acted as music director, orchestrator and arranger for An Evening With Andre De Shields with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and has performed musical duties for shows and orchestras in his homeland Canada.
For Q-Tip and Benjamin, both Grammy winners, it’s a reunion of sorts having collaborated before; they’re also linked by the fact that they’re both born and bred in Queens.
In a statement penned exclusively for this column, Q-Tip wrote: “I am very excited to be collaborating with Teddy, Clint, Casey and Sean in telling The Greatest’s story on stage. Muhammad Ali has always been a hero to me!”
Willis, the producer, was just as elated when he broke the news to me that Q-Tip, Benjamin and Mayes would be ringside in Ali‘s creative corner. The wide smile on his face said it all when we grabbed a snack at the Union Club in Soho.
Willis told me that the show will combine spoken word, verse, classical music and poetry, rap and hip-hop. “We want to take the traditional musical theater structure that works and then tip it on its ear a little bit,” he said.
He added, “Q-Tip produces songs and albums for a massive audience so he knows how to do that thing that’s slightly different than what normal musical theater is. So we tip it, and make it original and fresh and new and hummable.
“All that energy in the right direction is the job, right?”
When I caught up with Dyer late Tuesday, he cried, “We’re doing it!”
Calming down a tad, he continued, “We’ve all been in the room together, we’re working, we’re not wasting any time.”
Praising the rap artist, he stated, “Q-Tip has proven himself as one of the greatest hip-hop artists of his generation and beyond. Having his talents onboard will give this musical every possibility to honor Ali’s greatness. … I could not be happier with this appointment.”
“We’ll use his hip-hop beats, and his talents will be used in other areas as well,” Dyer enthused. “This show’s covering a lot of areas of music and we’ll exhaust all of Q-Tip’s knowledge. You’ve got to remember that Q-Tip’s into all kinds of music, not just jazz and hip-hop. For instance, his next album is all rock ‘n’ roll, so hold on. Let’s see what he comes up with for Ali!”
“I tell you,” Dyer exclaimed, “it’s thrilling because what he and Teddy and Benjamin and Sean are doing is gonna lift this show up to where we want it to be.”
Dyer has just opened the final chapter in the Death of England plays written by him and Roy Williams. The latest installment, Death of England: Closing Time starring Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Dune) and Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake), runs at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre until November 11.
Q-Tip has been at the forefront of jazz-funk infused Afrocentric beats and rhythms since the late 1980s, playing a key role in the rise of jazz rap. The co-founder and former frontman for progressive rap group A Tribe Called Quest — five of their six albums certified gold and platinum — has produced and influenced the musical output of J Dilla, Pharrell Williams, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar and many others.
Ali’s moving fast now following extensive private workshops in Louisville over the summer. A further workshop has been penciled in for December, with more planned for next spring.
Ali will have its world premiere in Louisville in fall 2024.
No date has been set, but Ali is likely to open on Broadway in 2025.
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