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How Kurt Cobain Became Hip Hop's Muse

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This excerpt is from Charles R. Cross' new book "Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain."

Nirvana remains an influence on all subsections of rock, from alternative to metal, but Kurt Cobain, bizarrely, also shows up frequently in modern hip-hop.

It is one of the oddest elements of his legacy, but one that also shows how wide his cultural swath has been in arenas outside the genre of music he worked in. In the summer of 2013, Jay-Z sampled some of "Teen Spirit" for his hit song "Holy Grail." The first verse ends with Jay-Z rapping, "I know nobody to blame, Kurt Cobain, I did it to myself." The chorus, sung by superstar Justin Timberlake, also includes lyrics adapted from "Teen Spirit": "We're stupid and contagious, and we all just entertainers."

It was interesting to see two of the biggest stars of music in the 2000s, Jay-Z and Timberlake, sing about Kurt, but the social-media response showed another aspect of Kurt's impact.

All over the Internet, the idea of Jay-Z summoning Kurt was called "sacrilegious" and "beyond triple corny," as one Twitter commentator wrote. Those types of remarks come up often whenever Kurt's name or likeness is used outside of Nirvana's music. It suggests that with many people Kurt has more sanctity, or punk authenticity, than other musicians.

"Holy Grail" also caused some observers to revisit the themes of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" all these years later, and whether Kurt should be co-opted. Jay-Z "got the sentiment entirely backwards," LA Weekly and Village Voice hip-hop critic Chaz Kangas wrote. "'Smells Like Teen Spirit' decried -- or at the very least mocked -- corporate intrusions into youth culture, and to make it part of an album released as a promotional tie-in for a phone company (strictly for the artist's profit) is dopey at best." Samsung had purchased a million copies of Jay-Z's Holy Grail album and gave them away with phones, meaning, in a roundabout way, that the lyric to "Teen Spirit," as sung by Justin Timberlake, became part of the premium for buying a new phone.

But Kangas pointed out to me that Jay-Z's song is just one of at least a dozen times "Teen Spirit" has shown up in hip-hop or dance music, used by well-known bands (the Prodigy; Tony! Toni! Toné; Timbaland), and obscure ones (Texas MC Trae tha Truth, DJ Balloon, Credit to the Nation). Kangas says it was a full decade after Kurt's death before he became "the archetype" that hip-hop acts turned to when they wanted to reference rock or a white rock star.

One example was when rapper David Banner had a meltdown during a New York showcase and ripped down his own posters around the stage as "Teen Spirit" was played. Banner made devil horns with his fingers and screamed "Rock." The hip-hop-loving crowd went crazy. "I think his message was that major labels make so much money off hip-hop, but you have to channel a rock artist to get their respect," Kangas says.

"But the fact that he chose to go with 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' as his way of making an 'anti-marketing'
effort says much about that song's stature."

Banner played the song frequently during his 2008 tour. When he performed it at a concert at Seattle's Showbox Theater, the crowd went bananas. I think it wasn't simply "Teen Spirit" -- which is played regularly at sports events to rile up the crowd -- that made the Seattle hip-hop audience go nuts, but instead its contextualization: the very idea that Seattle's most famous song had a place at a hip-hop show.

And if Kurt Cobain is cool within the confines of hip-hop, then the mostly white crowd knew they were cool, too. It isn't just "Teen Spirit" that hip-hop has embraced; many songs in Nirvana's catalog show up in hip-hop as musical riffs and samples, or as lyrical nods.

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Some of the best Nirvana samples include Kurt's guitar riff from "Heart-Shaped Box" (3MG), the chorus of "Lithium" (Slug), and even a sample of Kurt's guitar in a cover of the Meat Puppets' "Plateau" (Plan B). The obscure Nirvana track "Moist Vagina" was sampled by Yelawolf, one of Eminem's protégés. The website Whosampled.com lists 55 different songs by hip-hop acts that have sampled Nirvana.

Flavorwire recently ran a story titled "Why is Hip-Hop (and the Rest of Pop Culture) Still So Obsessed with Kurt Cobain?" The answer, writer Tom Hawking suggested, was in part that Kurt died young and
is seen as a martyr in the hip-hop community. In a culture where premature, violent death is a dominant theme, Kurt fits in thematically.

Kurt, as a historical figure, also often appears in hip-hop lyrics. His name is evoked to reference suicide or violence. The Game sang "take me away, like a bullet from Kurt Cobain." In 1994, 2Pac rapped about a choice to "blow my brains out like Kurt Cobain." Xzibit rapped, "I lent my shotgun to Kurt Cobain, and the motherfucker never brought it back." DJ Kay Slay rapped, "They want my name next to Kurt Cobain, but I don't sniff cocaine." There are dozens more examples of this motif, including the enduring image Vinnie Paz rapped in "When You Need Me": "My death wish is to die on the Soul Plane, next to Chuck D., Coltrane, and Cobain."

Hip-hop is a music form that makes use of real-life headlines, so Kurt's appearance isn't surprising, even if its frequency is. Some of Kurt's continuing appeal comes from demographics: hip-hop acts skew young, with most artists under 40. Kurt was a major historical figure in these musicians' childhoods, even if Nirvana's music has little externally to do with hip-hop.

(Kurt did own Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," his only hip-hop
record but a cornerstone of the genre.) Yet Kurt remains an influence on young hip-hop singers. Kangas points out that the pivotal year wasn't as much 1991 as it was 1999: "There were so many recap shows on music television counting down the best of the nineties,' and Nirvana topped all those lists, and hip-hop acts saw that, and Kurt became so ubiquitous you can't help but know him." Once everyone knew Kurt's name, his insertion into the music of the moment, which happened to be hip-hop, was inevitable.

There is at least one great truth here that many young hip-hop artists, children in 1991, will miss. But it is a fact not lost on 44-year-old Jay-Z.

Hip-hop's first foray into the mainstream sales charts began in the eighties, just prior to Nirvana's ascension, and Kurt, for a moment, overshadowed every other music form. "It was weird because hip-hop was becoming this force, then Grunge music stopped it for one second, ya know?" Jay-Z told Pharrell Williams in his 2012 book "Pharrell: Places and Spaces I've Been."

"Those 'hair bands' were too easy for us to take out; when Kurt Cobain came with that statement it was like, 'We gotta wait awhile.' "