Why So Much Love For Elliott Smith From The Hip Hop Community ?
Music is organized in little specific niches and you rarely see artists truly transgress genres. Some do of course, but media like catalogs and labels, since it’s something the human brain is comfortable with. When it comes to Elliott Smith, the terms ‘Troubadour, ‘indie music,’ ‘pop’ and even ‘folk’ (a term that Elliott has always rejected by the way) are often used by music critics to describe the late singer-songwriter and his music, and if his work is forever associated with pop classics like the Beatles, the Kinks or even Cat Steven, there is an undeniable interest coming from a very unexpected music community: rappers.
The last in date is British rapper slowthai, who said that ‘Needle in the Hay’ ‘got me through a lot of down days.’ His version is only available on Apple Music, as it was recorded for an Apple Music Home Session, and if the snippet tells me this is probably not the best Elliott Smith cover you will ever listen to, I don’t really care. It was just so unexpected and sincere that this is the only thing that matters here.
Another Smith song, ‘A Fond Farewell’ was sampled by Frank Ocean in ‘Siegfried’ the 15th track of his album ‘Blond,’ released in 2016. Ocean directly borrows a lyric from the song: ‘This is not my life, it’s just a fond farewell to a friend.’ It’s not too difficult to see the kinship between Ocean and Smith, as their works seem to be connected by an exacerbated sensibility and a persistent feeling to not fit in. Ocean even listed Elliott Smith in his artwork (among other names) as an influence on the album, and some of his lyrics even follow the same inspiration using metaphors about depression: ‘I’d rather live outside/I’d rather go to jail/I’ve tried hell (It’s a loop)/What would you recommend I do?/(And the other side of the loop is a loop).’
Hip hop artist Mac Miller did a quite loyal cover of Smith’s classic, ‘Angeles’ in 2012, and you would never think this straightforward version comes from a rapper while listening to it. Of course, the fact that Miller died from an accidental drug overdose several years later, makes the bond with Elliott’s mythology even eerier. And I said mythology on purpose. There is also another obvious connection, as producer Jon Brion finished Miller’s posthumous album. Brion, who also worked with Kanye West (‘Late Registration’) was very close to Elliott as he was (and still is) a regular of Mark Flanagan’s Largo club when Elliott used to play there. Several songs from Elliott’s posthumous album, ‘From a Basement on the Hill,’ were recorded with Brion first, but the session was aborted when Elliott’s drug use worsened.
Rapper Lil B, ‘the rawest rapper alive’ also incorporated ‘Angeles’ in his song ‘The Worlds Ending.’ He doesn’t cover the song but plays it before his own song while playing with a gun. The juxtaposition of Elliott’s enigmatic and allusive poetry about the record industry and Lil B’s flow talking about brutality, street violence, drugs, injustice, and isolation is once again spooky: ‘The cops are a gang and they really beat your ass/And the courts is the mob and it’s run by the cash.’ If Elliott’s lyrics were never that direct and rather used metaphors and poetic imagery, several of his songs transpire real inner anger and violence: ‘No bad dream fucker’s gonna boss me around/Christian brothers gonna take him down’ … ‘I want to hurt him/I want to give him pain/I’m a roman candle/My head is full of flames’ … there are plenty of examples. There are also plenty of authority figures, such as cops, sergeants, bosses, military personnel, referenced all over his songs, and his lyrics also evoke broken homes and domestic violence. Everyone familiar with Elliott Smith’s work knows that alcohol and drug references abound as references regarding his stepfather’s abusive behavior (hence the authority figures in his songs). Plus, it’s well documented that Elliott had a hatred for authorities and cops in real life and that he was even involved in a brawl with the police at a concert. Musician and friend David McConnell even commented: ’I never met anybody who hated cops more than Elliott. To hear him talk, you would have thought he was a gangster-rapper.’
It’s unlikely rappers knew about this, but you cannot ignore the love for Elliott Smith from the Hip hop community. I am going to make a leap, but, to me, it’s not too difficult to see the appeal, Elliott had so many ‘fuck-you songs, and it’s not hard to understand how lines like the following ones could have found some strong resonance among Hip hop artists: ‘The method acting that pays my bills / Keeps a fat man feeding in Beverly Hills/I’ve got a heavy metal mouth, it hurls obscenity / And I get my check from the trash treasury / Because I took my own insides out’ … ‘You disappoint me / You people raking in on the world / The devil’s script sells you the heart of a blackbird / Shine on me baby / Cause it’s raining in my heart.’ I could go on.
Elliott’s violent and still unsolved death is also a ghostly connection since so many rappers have died after violent altercations, while some of them are still mysteries. In 2010, local rapper Mestizo apparently name-checked Elliott’s death in his ‘Truth Be Told,’ and the LA Weekly called it ‘a fitting display of Mestizo’s ability to intertwine classic rap braggadocio with harrowing reality and emotive introspection.’
Even though I have never been a fan of mashups, there is also this fascinating YouTube page by Rowan Dawes, offering 12 Elliott Smith-Notorious B.I.G. mashups! Some of them work better than others, but the results can be curiously astonishing and even moving. Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in Los Angeles in 1997, and his murder is still unsolved, surrounded by mysteries and theories, not unlike Elliott’s own death. And if I tell you that his autopsy was done by Dr. Lisa Scheinin, the same deputy medical examiner who performed Elliott’s autopsy, all this becomes even more uncanny.