Beck: Lounge Lyricist
May 2000
pp. 118-120
Veronica Chambers

He makes music thatís inspired by hip hop and rap rhyme styles. Veronica Chambers discovers why the blue-eyed soul singer is kinda fly for a white guy.

You're sitting in an Austin, Tex., hotel room waiting for the call. You've come to meet a man who you're not quite sure you're down with. See, you're black and he's white and maybe that won't mean a thing. But this guy, Beck, raps and break-dances and has been known to sport some seriously pimpish gear. Like his melanin-challenged behind was Super Fly. As if.... So while you wait, you put on his latest album, Midnite Vultures. You're feeling it, but you're also feeling a bit manipulated.

How much of this music s om Beck's soul, and how much of it comes from his brain' Midnite is a doctoral thesis on rhythm and blues, layered with references and complete with footnotes.

Then you get to the last track on the album. "Debra," and the sex that Beck can generate starts to overpower his considerable intellect. It's this simple: Beck wants to get with youand your sister, Debra. He's going to cold step to you with a fresh pack of gum. Somehow, he knows you're looking for some. "Debra" is a seriously sexy song. For roughly five and a half minutes, Beck moans, groans, and slides through its funky melodies. If imitation is the sincerest form of flatten-, then somewhere The Artist Formerly Known as Prince is feeling very flattered indeed.

The artist known as Beck is 29 years old. He lives in Los Angeles with his longtime girlfriend, costume designer Leigh Limon. He grew up in East L.A., not far from where the members of Cypress Hill lived. A poor white kid who attended predominantly black and Latino schools. Beck dropped out of high school around the ninth grade. By the age of iS. he was playing guitar on the -'anti-folk circuit in Manhattan's Lower East Side and the West Village. Most hip hop tans know Beck from his catchy debut single. "Loser" ("I'm a loser. baby So why don't you kill me'"). A Top 4o hit. "Loser" was a folk-based hip hop song that defied definition. Beck never saw the contradiction. "When 1 started experimenting with hip hop records, I knew that the foundation of hip hop music is soul music. and the foundation ofsoul music is the blues." he says. "I'm always drawn to the roots of something."

Odelay', his most critically and commercially successful album, is a jukebox-blender smoothie of blues, soul, hip hop, and country. It also earned him two Grammvs, for Best Alternative Music Performance and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. Mutations, the follow-up to Odelay, has been described as Beck's solo departure from himself. With its country, folk, and rap influences, it's the ultimate sampling album. Midnite Vulturcc, he explains, is the true follow-up to Odelala return to the hip hop influences that made him stand out among white-boy pop singers. Midnite also digs deeper into the roots of hip hop-1970s soul, a genre Beck feels very
much at home with. "I'm definitely more ensconced in the alternative-rock world. But I found myself there by default," he explains. "I never felt any sense of membership in that world. I was always listening to hip hop and R&B radio."

The sexuality that black men express in R&B music is clearly something that Beck is trying to emulate on Midnite Vulture. "In R8 B, you can have a love song that has layers," he says. "It can be real and true and deep. but it can also be playful. It can be unabashedly sexual in a way that would come oft as trite in a rock song. The main attraction is the possibility for ambiguity. You can have unrequited love and full-blown lust. You can have a sense of humor, but that doesn't mean it's not deep. I don't think anywhere else in American culture you get that."

It's a Monday afternoon, and Beck has decided to take t break from rehearsing with his band for a national tour that will take up most of this year. What he wants to do on his one morning off is to go canoeing. So we drive to a nearby park and rent a canoe. Beck sits up front with a paddle, his publicist sits in the back with a paddle, and I sit in the middle. Even though we're in a scene straight out of National Geographic, Beck wants to talk about hip hop. "I have strong memories of hip hop being a force in my life from an early age," he says. "It was the thing that pulled everyone together on the bus to school. You had all combinations of people listening to it." Beck began rapping as a teenager. He learned how to play folk songs on the guitar then started rapping over them. "Rap is a distinct place between speech and song," lie says softly. "I used to feel constricted by song structures, melody structures. There are certain things you can say in a rap that would never sound good in a melody. I felt like by rapping I was free to say all kinds of things." Beck's raps veer from the mock materialism of "champagne and Ripple / Shamans go cripple / My sales go triple" in "Hollywood Freaks" to the twisted commentary of rapping about boys in bulletproof vests and girls with cellophane chests.

When Beck stops paddling. we're in the middle of the lake. The water is calm, and for a few moments all is silent. It occurs to me that the kind of multigenre music Beck makes is sort of like being in this canoe. He sits where he can see and hear everything: the tall buildings of downtown Austin. the trees, the swans, the turtles, the deep, muddy waters of the blues. Ultimately, Beck is neither a citizen of the alternative world nor the hip hop realm. He's a guy in a canoe, and he's moving to his own beat.