Using influences from blues, hip-hop, country, and funk, Beck coupled his music with clever and witty lyrics to create a unique alternative rock sound.
Born: July 8, 1970; Los Angeles, California
Beck Hansen was born to David Campbell and Bibbe Hansen, who were living in downtown Los Angeles, where Campbell worked as a bluegrass street musician. His mother, once associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York, worked in an office. The family moved to a declining neighborhood in Hollywood, and thereafter Beck spent his childhood and adolescence staying with different members of his extended family. He spent time with his paternal grandparents in Kansas; he visited his maternal grandfather Al Hansen, an artist who lived in Europe; and, after his parents separated, he lived in a Salvadoran neighborhood in the Los Angeles area. Beck dropped out of school, which was located in an unsavory area, in ninth grade to work as a busker, playing music for money on the streets.
At age eighteen he took a bus trip from Los Angeles to New York, where he participated in the anti folk movement on the Lower East Side. Ayear later, tired of being cold and having no place to live, he moved back to Los Angeles. There he worked in a video store and played regularly in local punk dives. In 1994 his song “Loser,” released by Bong Load Custom Records, became an immediate success, making the Top 40 and getting continuous play on MTV. Two years later he experienced even greater success with the album Odelay, earning three Grammy nominations and winning two Grammy Awards. In 2004 he married Marissa Ribisi, and they had a son, Cosimo Henri. He and his wife became members of the Church of Scientology. The Music The places Beck spent his childhood influenced his music: Kansas, where he heard down-home church hymns; Los Angeles, where he experienced the 1980’s punk culture; and Germany, where he was exposed to the artistic philosophy of his grandfather, Al Hansen, a member of the avant-garde Fluxus art movement.
Often mislabeled as a spokesperson for the so-called slacker generation of the 1990’s, Beck claimed he never had time to sit around and complain about being miserable. Instead, he produced music that was positive and life-affirming. Taking to heart the philosophy of his grandfather, who often created art out of disposable objects, Beck transformed musical ideas and styles of the past into something entirely new. Early Works. At an early age, Beck was impressed by the blues music of Mississippi John Hurt, and Beck taught himself how to play Hurt’s songs on an acoustic guitar he had found. Once he had mastered the music, he improvised lyrics and forced himself to perform on city buses in order to overcome the shyness he felt playing in public.
After returning to Los Angeles from New York, Beck’s talent was noticed by Tom Rothrock of Bong Load Custom Records. Rothrock saw potential in Beck as a recording artist and put him in touch with hip-hop producer Karl Stephenson. In Stephenson’s living room one afternoon, Beck improvised “Loser,” with a looped slide-guitar riff over a hip-hop beat and rap lyrics in the style of Public Enemy that made fun of Beck’s poor rapping skills. Bong Load Custom Records released only five hundred copies of “Loser,” but soon radio stations everywhere were playing it. Although Beck was unhappy with the way people misinterpreted the song as a “slacker anthem,” its success led to major record labels bidding for his services. He chose to work with David Geffen’s DGC label, which gave him an unusual contract that allowed him to produce other records on independent labels.
He made Mellow Gold for DGC Records in 1994, shortly followed by One Foot in the Grave and Stereopathic Soul Manure on independent labels. Odelay. Beck’s second release for DGC was produced in 1996 by the Dust Brothers. Making the Billboard Top 200, where it peaked at number sixteen, the album went platinum, selling a million units. Videos for its songs “Where It’s At,” “Devil’s Haircut,” and “The New Pollution” were staples on MTV’s playlist. Afusion of hip-hop, rock, country western, blues, reggae, punk, funk, and polka, the album had a remarkable continuity despite its many styles. Beck earned two Grammy Awards for this album: Best Alternative Music Performance and Best Male Vocal Performance for “Where It’s At.” Rolling Stone named Odelay its 1996 Album of the Year, and Beck was Spin magazine’s Artist of the Year.
Released in March of 2005 by DGC Records and produced by the Dust Brothers, this album incorporates Brazilian pop influences and a healthy dose of the multiple styles featured on Odelay. Beck used new keyboard and percussion instruments that he would add to his regular repertoire. Noteworthy on this album is a forehead-slap solo by actress Christina Ricci on the song “Hell Yes.” The album title refers to a Mexican slang term that Beck was called in his childhood, and it means a pale-skinned person, usually a white American. The album track “QuÃ© Onda Guero” translates as “What’s up, blond boy?” Musical Legacy Beck’s genius lies in taking traditional music styles and melding them into something fresh. Seeking to perform for the pleasure of his audience rather than for self-glorification, he won the appreciation of lovers of all musical styles. His albums reflected a constant search for new ways to be creative.