Born Beck Hansen on July 8, 1970, in Los Angeles, CA; father (David Campbell) was a string arranger and street musician; mother (Bibbe) was a member of underground Los Angeles punk-drag band Black Fag. Addresses: Record company--DGC Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069. Website--Beck Official Website: http://www.beck.com.

In 1994 Beck rode his fluke hit single "Loser" to stardom. Buoyed by heavy rotation on MTV and all-around raves for the song's odd rap-folk, stream-of-consciousness flavor, "Loser" assumed generational anthem status. This was due in large part to the emerging critical consensus surrounding the song, which held that its mordant lyrics--festooned as they were with pop culture references and downbeat non sequiturs--fit in nicely with popular "Generation X" mythology. "On the strength of 'Loser,'" wrote Entertainment Weekly's Mark Lewman, "[Beck] has, much to his own dazed bemusement, become a pop star without even trying." Over the next two years it became clear that Beck's new-found stardom would have little effect on his musical interests, which often took him into radio-unfriendly territory. Armed with a major-label recording contract that permitted him to continue to record for small independent labels, he released two records before coming out with his second major-label release, Odelay. The album was widely praised by critics who assured readers that Beck was no one-hit wonder. His following releases, including Midnite Vultures and Sea Change, proved, as a New Yorker reviewer commented, that "of the musicians active today, few deserve the title recording 'artist' more that Beck."

Beck Hansen was born on July 8, 1970, and raised in Los Angeles, though he did live with his maternal grandparents in Kansas City for a brief time (his grandfather was a Presbyterian minister). Beck's father was a bluegrass street musician, an occupation that piqued his son's interest in music at an early age. By ninth grade, Beck's disillusionment with school prompted him to drop out and take a succession of entry-level jobs, from stock boy to video store clerk. "I'm sure there's something good about high school, but not any of the ones I went to," he told Jancee Dunn in Rolling Stone. But he struggled in the work world as well; he recalled that he was even fired from his stock boy job. "They didn't like the way I dressed," he told Dunn. "Not that I was dressing outrageously or anything. They just didn't like my style. I was just wearing jeans and a shirt from Sears. I don't know. They had high expectations for stock positions."

By the time he was about 16, Beck had purchased a guitar and begun following in his father's street-playing footsteps. "I just carried my guitar everywhere," he reported to Dunn. "I was just kind of ready for any sudden jamboree that might befall me. I used to play down at Lafayette Park, near where I used to live as a kid, and all these Salvadoran guys would be playing soccer, and I'd be practicing a Leadbelly song. The Salvadoran guys would just be shaking their heads." Indeed, Beck was a dedicated student of the works of folk and blues legends such as Woody Guthrie, Fred McDowell, and Mississippi John Hurt. As he grew older, though, he became increasingly interested in grafting those musical genres onto rap and other modern musical styles. This interest intensified after he paid a visit to New York's East Village anti-folk scene in the late 1980s.

By age 18 Beck was playing at local Los Angeles clubs and passing out armloads of tapes. He eventually caught the attention of a small record label called Bong Load Custom Records, which released his odd song "Loser" as a single. To the amazement of all, the song became a tremendous hit in the metropolitan area, and recording industry talent scouts were soon courting the artist with abandon. Or as Dunn described it, "when 'Loser' became an instant hit on local radio, major labels set upon Beck like starving rats in a peach barrel." After receiving assurances from Geffen subsidiary DGC that he would be allowed to release songs on independent labels as well as DGC, Beck signed on.

In 1994 DGC released Beck's first album, Mellow Gold,, which the artist termed "my idea of the K-Mart Satan record." The nationwide popularity of "Loser" ensured the album good sales, but critics quickly noted that the record had many additional treasures. Rolling Stone critic Michael Azerrad commented that "Beck makes ultrasurreal hip-hop-folk that harkens back to 'Subterranean Homesick Blues,'" adding that "Beck's verbal collages get close to the truth of his milieu and our times. Think of it as generational code or stream of unconsciousness. But it's really called poetry." Knight-Ridder writer Tom Moon called the album "thought-provoking," commenting that "with little regard for linear thought, Beck shuffles advertising catch-phrases and other artifacts of contemporary life into a recombinant testimonial, an intentionally obscure commentary on things we'd just as soon overlook. It's triumphantly anti-professional, idiot-savant music in which a heartfelt solo can be provided by kazoo as easily as guitar." Even under-whelmed critics such as Musician's Dave DiMartino--who wrote that the album's underlying themes of victimization, anger, and "self-absorption are not only unattractive and innocuous, they're wimpy"--admitted that "Beck's lyric gifts are obvious and his musical influences ... more or less impeccable."

Beck returned to the world of independent labels or his next two efforts, Stereopathetic Soulmanure (on Flipside) and One Foot in the Grave (on the K label). The latter album was particularly interesting, as its songs--though warped as always by Beck's distinctive artistic prism--provided telling insight into the artist's traditional folk and blues roots. As David Browne wrote in Entertainment Weekly, "Grave is a genial throwaway--both a loving tribute to, and a gentle mocking of, various folk musics--that is clearly not meant to be Mellow Gold's big follow-up."

In 1996 Beck unveiled his major label follow-up, the well-received Odelay. The songs on Odelay, produced in collaboration with the renowned Dust Brothers (John King and Michael Simpson), continued where Mellow Gold left off. Brimming with oddball pop culture references and disconcerting imagery, the record further burnished Beck's reputation as one of the music world's more unique talents. Newsweek's David Gates called the album "American eclectic music, a '90s analogue to the genre-smooshing slumgullion of Bob Wills, Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan."

For his part, Beck seemed to remain bemused by his fame and his reputation as a "slacker" icon. "Smart, funny and strange, he floats along in his own time-space continuum," reflected Dunn. "He seems unattached to any particular group or generation despite the slacker albatross around his neck." Nor does he take too seriously an approach to his creative output. As he told Dunn in 1996: "I remember talking to some journalist in Hong Kong, and he read me out lyrics to one of my songs that weren't anything close to the ones I wrote. They were so much better. I've been kicking myself ever since that I didn't write down what he thought they were."

Beck's next album, Mutations, was released in 1998. The unofficial follow-up to the Grammy Award-winning Odelay (the same way Beck's two post-Mellow Gold releases weren't "official" follow-ups to his breakthrough album), Mutations was a collection of acoustic-based, neo-country tunes with a hint of lo-fi psychedelia behind them. A New Yorker reviewer praised the fact that even the most downbeat tunes on the album "celebrated the hope of the hopeless ... never at the expense of great tunes or wordplay." The album, produced by Nigel Godrich, the man behind Radiohead's Kid A, was well-received by both the press and the public, and earned Beck his third Grammy Award.

Midnite Vultures, Beck's next release, was stylistically as far removed from Mutations as an album could be. With its mixture of hip-hop, soul, and funk, the album was an homage to Prince, a love letter to R&B and soul, but also "a slippery satire on the glossy excesses of late-90s culture," as Blender writer Dorian Lynskey noted. From his seduction of a JC Penny salesclerk in "Debra" to the faux-gangsta rap of "Hollwood Freaks" and the electro-party jam "Get Real Paid," Beck critiqued pop culture with a wink and a smirk.

The fun didn't last for long, though. Soon after the release of Midnite Vultures, Beck's decade-long relationship with his girlfriend, stylist Leigh Limon, came to an end. He went through a prolific period of post-breakup recording, composing nearly an album's worth of tunes before shelving them for the next two years. The songs resurfaced in 2002 as Sea Change, which, true to its title, is a remarkable transformation from any of Beck's previous albums. Reviewers called the album "emotionally naked," "confessional," "his most personal work yet." With only a cursory listen to Sea Change, it might be easy to compare it to the stripped-down songs found on Mutations. But while those songs still maintained some of Beck's lyrical playfulness and trademark inventive style, the songs on Sea Change are soul-baring and extremely personal compared to anything Beck has ever released. "These are the best kind of loss songs," a New Yorker reviewer wrote, "wistful, not pitiful; confident, not decadent." He earned yet another Grammy nomination for the set.

"I respect musicians who put out the same record over and over again and develop something. I do," he told Blender. "I just decided to cast my net a bit wider."

by Kevin Hillstrom

Beck's Career

Started playing on streets at age 16; released first single, "Loser," on Bong Load Custom Records, 1993; signed with DGC label, which released his first album, Mellow Gold, 1994; member of 1995 Lollapalooza tour; after making two records on independent labels, released Odelay, 1996; released Midnite Vultures, 1999; released Sea Change, 2002.

Beck's Awards

Grammy Awards, Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for "Where It's At," Best Alternative Music Performance for Odelay,, 1997, Best Alternative Music Performance for Mutations, 1999.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

April 4, 2004: Beck married actress Marissa Ribisi. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, April 18, 2004.

March 29, 2005: Beck's album, Guero, was released, also in a deluxe edition. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_1/index.jsp, April 1, 2005.

Further Reading

Sources

PeriodicalsOnline

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about 9 years ago

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