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Music October, 18 2012

The Unexpected Influences of Musical Giants – Tupac, Nirvana, Kanye and More

Collaboration across genres is nothing new in the world of popular music although the  results often run the gamut. One of the earliest examples of blending seemingly radically different genres together is Run-D.M.C.’s collaboration with Aerosmith in 1986. Public Enemy followed suit in 1991 recording a new version of “Bring the Noise” full of pounding double bass and abrasive distortion with thrash metal outfit Anthrax. The newfound genre known as rap rock continued to flourish through the early 90s with acts like Rage Against the Machine and Faith No More becoming both commercially and critically successful.

Most artists, however, chose to remain closer to their own genre and style and keep their influences to themselves or as inspiration. It’s no surprise then the amount of influence or inspiration artists that are associated with their own genre can exude upon the next generation. Some influences though seem so juxtaposed with a newer artist’s style that it warrants a closer look.

Below are 5 artists whose influences are as unexpected as their talent is wide.

Lil’ Wayne – Smells like Teen Spirit

Before Weezy was blowing up radios across the world with hits like “Lollipop” and “Got Money,” he was putting on performances as part of the drama club at Eleanor McMain Secondary School and listening to Generation X’s most beloved band, Nirvana. The grunge band’s rebellious nature and videos full of kids throwing themselves around out of apathy led Tunechi to say the following about “Smells Like Teen Spirit’s” influence on him:

Because I was young and I actually listened to the lyrics, and I probably felt at that time that I was rebelling and I could associate myself with that and relate to the things [Cobain] was talking about and speaking about in the song. I probably couldn’t, but I thought I could.

While it’s hard to directly detect Nirvana’s influence in the New Orleans rapper’s music, Weezy can always be found swinging his dreads around much like the young Seattle natives before him.

Tupac Shakur – To be or not to be?

Long before causing suburban kids to scrawl the words “Thug Life” across their knuckles, Shakur was performing in Shakespeare’s plays at the Baltimore School of the Arts. Although existing nearly 400 years apart, the East coast rapper acknowledged the Shakespearian psychology of inter-gang wars and inter-cultural conflict during a 1995 interview where he said:

… I love Shakespeare. He wrote some of the rawest stories, man. I mean look at Romeo and Juliet. That’s some serious ghetto shit. You got this guy Romeo from the Bloods who falls for Juliet, a female from the Crips, and everybody in both gangs are against them. So they have to sneak out and they end up dead for nothing. Real tragic stuff.

And look how Shakespeare busts it up with Macbeth. He creates a tale about this king’s wife who convinces a happy man to chase after her and kill her husband so he can take over the country. After he commits the murder, the dude starts having delusions just like in a Scarface song. I mean the king’s wife just screws this guy’s whole life up for nothing…

The list doesn’t stop there though. Laying deeper in the vaults of historical figures who have influenced Makavelli is, of course, Niccolo Machiavelli, along with numerous others like Sun Tzu and Mikhail Bakunin.

Tyler, The Creator – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Odd Future’s charismatic frontman has been steadily creating since the ripe young age of 7 when he would take out the cover from an album’s case and imagine his own with a track list that included song times far before having written anything. By the age of 14 Tyler had taught himself how to play piano and was working on what is now his unique mix of outrageous, depraved, and rebellious music. His tastes and influences run wide as heard on the song “Fin” from The Odd Future Tape where he mentions Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP and Radiohead’s Kid A as being 2 of of many favorite albums.

What may come as a surprise to many though is his love for the English post-punk band Joy Division. In the song “Leather Head” for instance, Tyler begins, “Fucking modern day Ian Curtis I oughta been” and continues, “How can he move on Waka Flocka and back to Joy Division?” In retrospect, the influence can be heard through the Los Angeles native’s dark, intensely personal, and oftentimes, suicidal lyrics.

Nirvana – Bring the Noise

Nirvana’s influence on the world of music at large is undeniable and can still be heard today. The artists that influenced the Northwesterners include easily identifiable ones like Led Zeppelin, the Pixies, and The Stooges whose album, Raw Power, Kurt Cobain labeled his favorite album of all time.

Another one of Cobain’s favorites, scribbled in the notes of his journal, is Public Enemy’s seminal album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. In 1991, 3 years after the album’s release Cobain stated,

Rap music is the only vital form of music introduced since punk rock.

The 2 groups co-headlined Reading Festival the next year and Chuck D continued to reciprocate the gesture as late as 1999 in the song “Do You Wanna Go Our Way???” where he raps, “Figure I smashed the pumpkin / So I parallel the brains of Cobain.”

Kanye West – Lost in the Woods

Easily the most recognizable and reciprocal set of influences on this list is between clean-cut, fashionable Kanye West and bearded indie musician Bon Iver.

Those following the path of auto-tune throughout the last decade will recall T-Pain’s unrivaled used of the effect. The pitch-perfecting effect remained as a pop staple for some time when Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon began to experiment with it in what culminated as the track “Woods” from 2009’s Blood Bank. Mr. West caught wind of it and invited Vernon to his studio in Hawaii to work on 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. While only 2 of the 10 songs they worked on made the cut, those 2 include some of the most innovative and original in the likes of “Monster” and “Lost in the World.”

The collaboration paid off during a memorable concert at the Bowery Ballroom where the Wisconsin native joined the Louis Vuitton Don along with Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, and John Legend for what was an intimate and star-studded event. The self-described, “introspective, emotional country kid” went on to defend Yeezy’s onstage rant at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards by agreeing that Beyonce really did have the best video of the decade.

Photography: Terry Richardson

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