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From Jay-Z to Denzel Curry: How Nirvana influenced hip hop

The influence of Nirvana is felt everywhere. They provided a shot in the arm to the musical ecosystem as the excesses of the ’80s ran dry. Something new needed to come along, and that something was Nirvana.

It wasn’t just rock music that realised it needed to change the error of its ways after the emergence of Nirvana, but hip hop too. The band were a breath of fresh air and discussed real-life problems that affected them rather than aiming for the abstract or portraying themselves as unreachable rock stars. Cobain’s ferocity, packed into everything he did, was infectious, and the bruise he left on music is still visible today.

His defiant attitude is comparable to figures in hip hop, who are unashamedly themselves, just like Cobain dared to be. Although the Nirvana frontman had some issues with the genre during his lifetime — misaligned because of its misogynistic tropes just as he had with rock bands such as Guns’ N’ Roses — Cobain did have respect for the genre outside of its questionable lyrics.

In a long-lost interview with Robert Lurosso, the singer shared his thoughts on the genre: “I’m a fan of rap music, but most of it is so misogynistic that I can’t even deal with it. I’m really not that much of a fan, I totally respect and love it because it’s one of the only original forms of music that’s been introduced,” he noted.

Here we look at five tracks from the genre that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Nirvana and show his wide-spanning influence that has infected every area of music.

Hip hop tracks influenced by Nirvana

Jay-Z – ‘Holy Grail’

Jay-Z’s 2013 track, ‘Holy Grail’, sees the legendary rapper rap the line “And we all just, entertainers, and we’re stupid, and contagious,” which he repeats twice. It’s an obvious connection to Nirvana’s most famous song, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. That’s not the only nod to Cobain in the track; Jay-Z also raps about his own misdemeanours and says: “I know nobody to blame, Kurt Cobain, I did it to myself.”

The rapper asked Courtney Love for permission, and she happily obliged. She said at the time: “I’m letting Jay-Z use lyrics – Frances [Bean Cobain] would freak [if she knew about it]. Jay-Z’s huge and we’re friends. I mean we’re not besties or anything….”.

Lil Nas X – ‘Panini’

Lil Nas X wasn’t a Nirvana fan until he sampled ‘In Bloom’ on his 2019 track, ‘Panini’ after his production team integrated the grunge hit into his work. But he soon fell in love with the band. His production duo, Daytrip, said: “Nirvana was also one of our biggest inspirations and something that brought us close together when we were first getting to know each other.”

Nas X then reached out to Frances Bean Cobain regarding the sample, and she gave it her blessing. He told Sirius XM: “I actually heard from Kurt’s daughter. She’s the one who pretty much approved the song, and she told me how much she loved the video for ‘Old Town Road’ and stuff … It actually got me into the album for the first time. I had never heard Nevermind.”

Onyx – ‘Slam’

Onyx’s 1993 hit ‘Slam’ was hugely influenced by Nirvana and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ specifically. The track made the group feel compelled to bring rock into their work. The track would give the band their biggest hit and landed at number four in the Hot 100.

Speaking to VladTV, they said: “Watching a Nirvana video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, that shit was popping in the hood. We were watching that shit, and like, ‘Yo, what if we brought this energy to hip hop?’”

Kids See Ghosts – ‘Cudi Montage’

Kid Cudi has looked up to Kurt Cobain his whole career and even wore a dress on SNL earlier this year in tribute to the late Nirvana frontman.

2018’s ‘Cudi Montage’ features a sample from Cobain’s home recording ‘Burn The Rain. The posthumously released track arrived in 2015 on the album, Montage of Heck, which Cudi referenced on the sampled track’s title, ‘Cudi Montage’.

“I definitely think Nirvana has a big influence on my music,” Cudi once said to Genius. “Trying new things, pushing the envelope, pushing boundaries. Kurt has always been an inspiration for all that. It’s like the world gets to hear what he’d sound like if he were around today. I try to use him as my muse whenever I can.”

Denzel Curry – ‘Clout Cobain’

Denzel Curry’s 2018 track, ‘Clout Cobain’, sees him discuss his struggles with fame and references the late Nirvana leader throughout. Curry even imitated the video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and wore a striped-white long sleeve t-shirt in the visuals in homage to Cobain. However, he’s a huge fan of Nirvana, the way that people celebrated Cobain without talking about the seriousness of the singer’s mental health battles.

Speaking about the song to Billboard, Curry said: “My main thing was, ‘Y’all are killing yourselves over materialistic stuff. But y’all don’t really see what’s really going on.’”

He continued: “That’s why they glorify Kurt Cobain — they glorify him for the wrong reasons. People will be like, ‘I want to take mad drugs, I want to be like Kurt Cobain, I want to die at 27.’ Glorified rock shit.”

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