The spirit of Kurt Cobain lives on through hip-hop music.
Kurt Donald Cobain never had it easy. A child of divorce, Cobain’s lifelong battles with chronic bronchitis, depression and an undiagnosed stomach illness were the gateways to a soul-sapping heroin addiction. Often portrayed as the quintessential “tortured genius,” his decision to take his own life at 27 and “join that stupid club” that his mother had been wary of all but cemented him as an icon for the ages. Anarchic, raw and introspective, his time at the helm of Seattle’s most beloved grunge trio Nirvana brought him worldwide success - success he was insufficiently equipped to handle. His anti-establishmentarian outlook, led by twisted poetry and fuzzy guitar tones, has ensured his status as a symbol of subversion ever since.
Supplemented by a mythical status that only premature death can bring, Cobain’s crossover appeal makes him all the more fascinating. In recent years, his influence on the hip-hop world has become increasingly pronounced. Today’s melody-driven rappers are going beyond the sacred texts of hip-hop to find inspiration, and Nirvana’s DNA can be traced in the work of some of the biggest rising stars. Prone to delicately melding the worlds of rock and hip-hop together, the work of Juice WRLD, Trippie Redd, Lil Uzi Vert, and the late XXXtentacion echoes the tunefully confessional style of Nivrana’s storied hits. On the other side, Rico Nasty, Scarlxrd and $uicideboyz take cues from more abrasive fare such as “Territorial Pissings”, “Scentless Apprentice” and “Negative Creep.”
Kurt’s legacy has also bled into the aesthetical side of the modern hip-hop paradigm. Alongside his signature white oval sunglasses getting a new lease of life as “clout goggles,” or Young Thug emulating his androgynous outfit choices, Cobain’s frantic cries of “Stay Away” have been etched across Post Malone’s face before his likeness was later immortalized on one of Posty’s knuckles. In stark contrast to Post’s intentional homages to Cobain-- he’s also been known to cover a slew of their tracks at live shows-- one artist that recently made headlines by culling from the Nirvana discography is Lil Nas X. But where many artists have vocalized their fandom for the Grunge icons, the Atlantan’s use of the melodic backbone of “In Bloom” came about far more unconsciously. “A lot of songs will even come to me [when] I’m sleeping or something,” he explained to Zane Lowe. “Like a melody. And I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s fly.’ But the craziest thing about “Panini” is it introduced me to Nirvana’s album Nevermind. I always seen the cover, but I never actually listened to it.”A testament to how indivisible Kurt’s music is from popular culture, Lil Nas X’s accidental interpolation of one of their classic tracks is one case in a broader tradition of MCs extracting influence from or directly incorporating Nirvana’s high-intensity output.
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For Kurt, hip-hop was a force for positive change in the music industry, despite being hampered by some short-sighted ideologies. That said, it should come as no surprise that the frontman of a fiercely liberal and progressive band would find plenty to admire about Public Enemy. Co-headliners at the famous Reading festival in 1992, an unearthed list of his top 50 albums of all time featured the incendiary It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back at number 43. But while he’d fostered a love of Chuck D’s polemic lyricism and the iconic production of The Bomb Squad, his relationship with hip-hop was not without inner conflict. For Cobain, hip-hop represented “the only vital form of music that has been introduced since punk rock” but his enjoyment was ultimately stifled as most of it was deemed “so misogynist that I can't even deal with it.” Informed by his “respect” for the material, Cobain also harbored strong feelings on who should and shouldn’t participate in the production of rap music. “The white man ripped off the black man long enough”, he remarked during a 1991 radio interview. “They should leave rap music to the African-Americans because they do it so well and it is so vital to them.”
25 years on from his untimely death at his Seattle, Washington home, Kurt’s indelible mark on the world remains as clearly discernible as ever, with hip-hop playing a massive role in promulgating his legacy to the next generation. Aside from morbid comparisons drawn between the late Lil Peep-- who collaborated with Lil Tracy on 2016’s “Cobain”-- and Nirvana’s driving force, there’s no shortage of artists that feel an affinity for him well beyond lurid sensationalism. Well-versed in misanthropic poetry in his own right, Meechy Darko counts “Durt Cobain” among his many aliases, while the tragic circumstances that surrounded his death provided compelling symbolism for Denzel Curry’s “Clout Cobain.”
Seen as creative kindred spirits, Kid Cudi has also paid his respects to Cobain in a variety of touching and heartfelt ways. Upon visiting Seattle in 2011, Cudder made a point of venturing to Viretta Park—colloquially known as “Kurt’s Park”—in order to etch his name on the bench where fans have left tributes since his death. Considering that the record hinged on Cudi’s re-emergence from a pit of mental despair and addiction issues, it was only fitting that he would use one of Cobain’s previously unreleased demos for “Cudi Montage” on Kids See Ghosts. Derived from the tentatively titled “Burn The Rain,” he got permission from Kurt’s widow Courtney Love directly and expressed his gratefulness after she claimed that “I don’t clear shit for just anybody.”
On the subject of artists bringing fragments of Nirvana’s music into the hip-hop canon, their vast and varied catlog provides ample ground for creatives to explore. A track that Kurt came to revile over time as his fame continued to increase, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has been utilized by Jay-Z, Ghostemane, Lords Of The Underground, Timbaland, Lupe Fiasco and Vic Mensa’s former group Kids These Days to name a few. In what is one of the first examples, one group that was particularly quick on the ball was House Of Pain, who delivered their own spin on “Come As You Are” with 1994’s DJ Muggs-helmed “Runnin’ Up On Ya.” Decades on from the release of Same As It Ever Was, Clipping and Yelawolf both saw fit to make use of the vividly titled B-side “Moist Vagina” whilst Waka Flocka Flame and Chief Keef added a sample of “School” to their abrasive arsenals with “Uh Huh” and “Dipset” respectively.
Familiar with advancing hip-hop in his own right, Talib Kweli believes that the prevalence of Nirvana’s riotous videos on TV had a tangible effect on the culture, informally setting the stage for today’s intersection between rock and rap. As Lil Wayne discussed how “Smells Like Teen Spirit’ used to always be on” with Nardwuar, the Blackstar legend believes that the Seattle trio played an instrumental role in broadening horizons. “When Nirvana hit, you had black kids into hip-hop watching MTV for alternative videos, getting into Red Hot Chili Peppers,” he reflects. “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.”
Cherished by new talents and those who bore witness to the band’s meteoric rise first-hand, leave it to Jay-Z to perfectly encapsulate why Kurt Cobain’s presence remains felt to this day. Outlined in Pharrell’sPlaces And Spaces I’ve Been In, Jay-Z reflected on the feverish excitement that surrounded Nirvana’s arrival and believed it to be an inadvertent impediment on hip-hop’s road to commercial dominance. “It was weird because hip-hop was becoming this force, then grunge music stopped it for one second, ya know? Those ‘hair bands’ were too easy for us to take out”, Jay pondered. “When Kurt Cobain came with that statement [“Smells Like Teen Spirit”], it was like, ‘We got to wait a while.”
It’s only fair to head over to California and look at how he impacted one of its key figures. During one of the highlights of HBO’s The Defiant Ones docu-series, the tranquillity of Dr Dre’s beachside home is disrupted by the chaotic strains of Nirvana’s “Stay Away.” “I’m startin’ to sweat right now just listenin’ to this shit, it’s bananas, Dre proclaimed. “Nirvana, Kurt Cobain. That’s uh, my favorite rock group of all time.” Whether it’s his rebellious spirit, his near-unparalleled knack for melody, or the dissonant barrages of sound that cast a spell over 90s airwaves, Kurt Cobain’s name is etched into the fabric of our favorite hip-hop artists, an influence unlikely to wane any time soon.