Despite being born in Wales, John Cale is a bonafide New Yorker. After all, it’s hard to get more Big Apple than playing in The Velvet Underground and hanging out with Andy Warhol. And, like any New Yorker, he has a love of hip-hop.
Cale has been able to see the evolutions that the New York music scene had gone through. He was there when the Velvets became en-vogue again as the punk scene in the city began to explode. He was also there to see hip hop have its big bang across the five boroughs. It might not seem like the genre that would most appeal to the classically-trained Cale, but when he sat down with the Grammys earlier this year, Cale was effusive about his love for rap.
“Usually, I write songs from an improvisational point of view,” Cale explained. “I start with a rhythm, and I improvise the biggest part of the song and then simplify it. Because most of the stuff that I listen to is hip-hop, and I learned a lot from their style and their awkwardness. It was really instructive to me.”
“I only listened to certain kinds of hip-hop, and the further out they got, the better I liked it,” Cale added. “There’s a California style, and there’s the Bronx. I can’t say that I tried to imitate what they were doing because I couldn’t. I mean, I’ve got a Welsh accent, and that’ll stop you in your tracks.”
When asked what current rap artist had inspired him, Cale went for former Odd Future MC and current solo star Earl Sweatshirt. While professing his love for “a lot [of music] that didn’t fall into any particular category,” Cale complimented Sweatshirt’s roaming habits. “They drifted a bit; they drifted in their own thoughts. And I didn’t mind that at all.”
For Cale, hip-hop helped free up his improvisational side. “I mean, it really took a while, and it’s kind of insecure,” Cale said about his own improvisational style. “But when you start writing songs from the rhythm point of view first, you get to the end a lot faster — and it’s a very exciting kind of journey, the progress to the end of the song.”
“That’s what this album [2023’s Mercy] represents more than anything: what comes first? Do you put the melody down first? Do you put the rhythm down first? I put the rhythm down first,” Cale proudly proclaimed. “And as soon as you put the rhythm down first, you’re in hip hop.”
No one would ever confuse Cale’s dense post-punk odyssey Mercy for a hip-hop album, but you can certainly hear some of those elements in the industrial beats that Cale conjured up for the project. As he said himself, Cale wouldn’t pick up the genre in earnest: he’s an 80-year-old Welsh man. It’s just heartwarming to hear that such a legendary musician is still picking up tricks from the younger generations of artists, whether they align with his specific genre of music or not.