“All you Hamilton fans gotta do your homework!”
Daveed Diggs is a good sport with an even better sense of humor. It’s well after midnight on a weeknight at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, and the curl of Diggs’s smile is barely visible thanks to the dimly lit room and the shadow cast by the flat brim of his hat. The only direct light in the vicinity comes from behind the bar and over by the merch table, just enough so that the bartender can make out the bottle labels and exact change can be counted over the stack of vinyl records by Diggs’s experimental rap group, Clipping. The back wall, crawling with undulating geometric shapes, illuminates Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes, on the downbeat. The outstretched arms of the crowd stay raised for the majority of the performance, awkwardly bumping elbows midair. Taut fingers bounce to the beat of Diggs’s syllables, and many members of the audience dance — or try to, as syncing a body’s movements to Diggs’s vocal velocity is like to trying to do jumping jacks on a hummingbird’s wing.
In fact, the crowd of mostly college-aged kids know every word Diggs spits, including the ones from this summer’s Splendor & Misery, Clipping.’s sophomore LP. But he has a point: Many of them look like they’re secretly hoping for him to break into one of his verses as Thomas Jefferson or the Marquis de Lafayette. He rolls through Clipping.’s “Body & Blood” and “Air ’Em Out” at the same bazillion-words-per-minute rate that they got to know on the Hamilton soundtrack, but otherwise the sticky-with-beer floor of The Knitting Factory is a million miles away from the theater where he transformed from indie MC to Broadway star.
The Knitting Factory concert marked Diggs’s return to a New York stage for the first time since he left Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash musical in July, and his first time in the city with Clipping. since long before that. When Diggs joined Hamilton’s cast in 2015 — a performance that would net him a Best Featured Actor trophy at the 2016 Tony Awards, parts on Law & Order: SVU and Black-ish, and a role in an upcoming feature film alongside Julia Roberts — he was beginning to work with Hutson and Snipes on new music for the follow-up to the group’s 2014 label debut on Sub Pop Records. Diggs moved across the country for the Broadway role, leaving Hutson and Snipes behind in L.A., in what was supposed to be a temporary plan. Musicals open, musicals close, and there was no way of knowing whether Hamilton would make it past its initial limited engagement.
But the show turned out to be less of a detour and more of a comet, gaining speed on its ascent over Manhattan and then the world. Soon, with performances sold out through the following year, Clipping. business was more or less put on hold — Diggs couldn’t exactly take time off to revisit the festival circuit that the trio had played in the summer of 2014. But Hamilton boosted Diggs’s profile in a major way, which is how The Knitting Factory ended up packed with people who weren’t quite sure how to keep up with Clipping.’s discordant beats and erratic time signatures.
Just because it’s a new thing doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. There’s a purity to the way those fans can now experience Clipping.’s live show: At times The Knitting Factory felt like a room full of devout musical theater heads, shouting back a new batch of lyrics they’d reverently memorized without ever seeing them performed. Everyone lost their mind for the rolling bottle effects of “Work Work” and the industrial crashes of “Body & Blood,” Diggs included, and he thoughtfully pointed out dance-break opportunities in the more complicated productions. A killer track is a killer track, and you don’t necessarily need to know in advance when the beat is going to drop in order to appreciate it when it happens. You can skip the homework and still learn, anyway.