In April, prankishCanadian video interviewer Nardwuar the Human Serviette handed Lil Wayne a copy of the book Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind and asked about Nirvana’s influence on the rapper. “When I was young, they had a television station called the Box,” Wayne recalled. “And you used to call the station and order a video, and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ used to always be on, and you had no choice but to get into it from there.”
As Nevermind became an undeniable phenomenon and Cobain a reluctant grunge poster child, the rapper born Dwayne Carter was in elementary school, pondering Nirvana’s cryptic, mumbled songs and developing his own oblique, free-associative style. But this type of ’90s genre crossing wasn’t odd; it was the experience of an entire generation. White kids discovered rap by watching that same weird video-request channel.
“When Nirvana hit, you had black kids into hip-hop watching MTV for alternative videos, getting into Red Hot Chili Peppers,” says Talib Kweli of Nirvana’s hip-hop connection. “Then Ice-T came out with Body Count. I think all that set the stage for Nirvana. And Nevermind was a damn near perfect album, like Bob Marley’s Talkin’ Blues or John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.”Nevermind and ’90s rap brought new brands of rebellion into millions of homes, and kids responded to both. On Rick Ross’ “Maybach Music Pt. 2,” Lil Wayne’s guest verse wanders into the third person as he rattles off his artistic inspirations: “You see the B.I.G., you see the Jay, the Tupac in him / The Kurt Cobain, the [OutKast’s] Andre Three Stacks…”
One of rap’s earliest lyrical references to Cobain appeared on Tha Dogg Pound’s “Reality,” from their 1995 album Dogg Food, on which Daz Dillinger asserts, “As complex as the situation gets / I remain, I maintain / Ain’t that much strain / To make me twist myself like Kurt Cobain.” The verse may not appear to be much, but at the time, Daz declaring that he won’t end up like Kurt felt like a moment of hope plucked out of the tragedy.
Plenty of knuckleheads have dropped Cobain’s name simply because it rhymes with “cocaine” or because his death (by shotgun to the face) offers colorful shorthand for generic gun talk. But a number of rappers have truly wrestled with the meaning of Cobain’s passing. Several songs even equal R.E.M.’s “Let Me In,” which takes the form of a conversation with Cobain, and “Love Love Love” by the Mountain Goats, which features rap fan John Darnielle singing the couplet “And way out in Seattle, young Kurt Cobain / Snuck out to the greenhouse, put a bullet in his brain.” Cobain’s tormented life and death provides a way for rappers, who often feel obligated to mean-mug through their emotions, to get vulnerable. Of course, there are the oversharers, like Game (“Take me away like a bullet from Kurt Cobain,” on “My Life”) or Tyler, the Creator (“Dead parents everywhere, smellin’ like teen spirit,” on “Window”). But then there’s Pastor Troy’s “Acid Rain (In Loving Memory of Kurt Cobain),” off 2005’s Face Off, Part II: Over a strangled, guitar-based beat, he raps, “Maybe I’m crazy, addicted to pain…private conversations with Kurt Cobain,” locating his own anguish in the tragic narrative.
On “The Vent,” Big K.R.I.T. consoles the mother of a recently deceased child, ponders his brother’s death, and like Troy (and Stipe), imagines himself talking to Cobain. “[I’d] ask Kurt Cobain, ‘Why?’ ‘Cause I need to know,” K.R.I.T. raps slowly, and then, with a lump in his throat, adds, “He stopped when he had such a long way to go.” The song is essentially a laundry list of misfortunes, and as K.R.I.T. attempts to make sense of Cobain’s suicide, his everydude confusion becomes a universal emotion familiar to any music fan.
Hip-hop also uses Nirvana to ponder its other favorite subject: fame. Jay-Z’s “Most Kingz,” a mixtape song featuring Chris Martin, gets its title from an inscription on a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting: “Most Young Kings Get Their Head Cut Off.” Jay’s lyrics compare his experiences with Basquiat’s and other African-American personalities — Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Biggie, Tupac — but also invoke Cobain: “Most kings get driven so insane / That they try to hit the same vein that Kurt Cobain did.”
“Cobain was like Basquiat,” Jay explains in his book Decoded, quoting from the Nirvana frontman’s self-mocking suicide note (“Why don’t you just enjoy it?”) adding, “It’s amazing how much of a mindfuck success can be.” The pressure of fame is a rote rap topic, and despite Jay’s seen-it-all tone, “Most Kingz” is ambitious and empathetic. (Live, Jay has performed “U Don’t Know” in front of footage from Nirvana’s instrument-smashing “Lithium” video.)
Hip-hop’s occasional use of a Nirvana riff for its sheer aggressive power serves to brighten the group’s somber legacy; it’s refreshing to hear the music treated as raw sonic material. Mash-up king Girl Talk, for example, has paired Nirvana with hip-hop a cappellas, most notably matching “Lithium” with Salt -N-Pepa’s “Push It” on “In Step.” On “Real Rock Star,” Houston rapper Trae tha Truth rhymes over “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in deep-voiced double-time. And on “Marijuana,” from last year’s Trunk Muzik: 0-60, Yelawolf interpolates “Moist Vagina” (B-side of In Utero single “All Apologies”). It’s a brief nod, but it reveals how Cobain’s grimy poetic oddness undoubtedly influenced Yela’s surreal lyrics, and how Nirvana fits into the logic of an album that also pays tribute to Rick James, black-metal innovators Venom, and UGK (whose Pimp C wears a Nirvana shirt in the video for his group’s ’92 track “Use Me Up”).
Yelawolf lists Nevermind alongside albums by Digable Planets and Goodie Mob as personal favorites, then breaks down what he saw as the band’s broad appeal: “I was living in Nashville at the time [of Nevermind‘s release], and we’d be bussed to downtown Nashville to keep the schools integrated — and Nirvana was one of the bands that was accepted throughout the hood.”
The respect was apparently mutual. In a 1991 interview, Cobain summed up the relationship between the two genres with characteristic bluntness: “Rap music is the only vital form of music introduced since punk rock.”
PLAYLIST: Hip-hop songs influenced by Nirvana