He’s easily one of the most eclectic and ambitious singer-songwriters of the past two decades—and about as unlikely a hugely successful pop star as has materialized in America. His genre-hopping albums never sound the same as their predecessors; his musical influences range from Son House to R. Kelly and everything in between. He’s Beck Hansen—better known simply as “Beck”—and in his consistency and experimentation now casts a remarkable shadow upon popular music.
Though his eternally boyish looks belie it, B.’s somehow now in his 40s, and it’s hard now to imagine how strange and improbable a figure he cut in his formative years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Bek David Campbell, as he was christened, was born in Los Angeles in 1970 to a family deeply invested in creative expression. A glance at his roots can take you on a Wikipedia journey through some of the mid-20th century’s most groundbreaking artistic trends. His father, David Campbell, is an accomplished Canadian-born musician and arranger—among his huge list of credits are string arrangements for several of his son’s records—and his mother, Bibbe Hansen, is a performance artist once associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory scene. Bibbe’s father, Al Hansen, was a well-known collage artist associated with the Fluxus movement and a compatriot of luminaries such as Warhol, John Cage, and Yoko Ono.
To that potent bloodline add the impact of B.’s childhood geography, which included low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods of rich ethnic diversity. Enthused by punk, alternative rock, and hip-hop, B.—often the only white kid in class—was also daily exposed to Latin melodies and rhythms. He also became fascinated with old folk and country-blues idioms, so that by his late teens he was mastering the flat- and fingerpicking stylings of Mississippi John Hurt, Big Bill Broonzy, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott while blasting Sonic Youth, the Velvet Underground, and Grandmaster Flash.
He spent some of his late adolescence couch-surfing in New York City and playing idiosyncratic, free-wheeling shows wherever he could—subway cars, coffee-houses, street corners—as a waifish member of the “anti-folk” scene that upended the staid conventions of 1960s-style balladry and protest music.
It’s hard to imagine that just a couple of years after his hand-to-mouth busking in Manhattan B. Hansen would suddenly be a household name. His lucky break was a single, rather mystifying song, “Loser,” which he recorded basically for pleasure with Tom Rothrock of the Bong Load label and producer Karl Stephenson. Featuring surreal rapped lyrics, a droning chorus (“I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?”), and bottleneck guitar over relentless hip-hop drums, “Loser” didn’t sound much like anything that had come before—and its creators certainly didn’t imagine it would become a hit. Yet that’s just what happened when Bong Load released the track in 1993: First taking off on college radio, it became publicized in the news as a “slacker anthem” and led to a major-label deal for Beck with Geffen.
Uniquely, B. managed to negotiate a non-exclusive deal with Geffen that allowed him to release side projects on smaller labels. Even as Mellow Gold, his major-label debut containing that “slacker anthem” as well as such classics as “Pay No Mind” and “Whiskeyclone Hotel City 1997,” was climbing the charts, Beck capitalized on his artistic freedom by recording such obscure, lo-fi collections as Stereopathic Soulmanure and One Foot in the Grave.
Initial accusations that B. was a one-hit wonder—and a “slacker” who’d simply gotten lucky—quickly imploded. B.’s never looked back after his meteoric rise and he’s never repeated himself. His official follow-up to Mellow Gold was the smash alternative rock hit Odelay, which luxuriated on the charts and racked up heaps of awards and impressive reviews upon release in 1996. A collaboration with innovative producers the Dust Brothers, Odelay used wide-ranging samples and B.’s inimitable fusion of hip-hop, punk, rock, folk, country, and blues to create a distinctive and irresistible sound behind deceptively well-crafted songs. The variety of styles was astounding, from the tough-edged groove of “Devil’s Haircut” and the irresistible party anthem of “Where It’s At” to the country funk of “Sissyneck,” the meditative acoustic trance of “Ramshackle,” and the raucous, heavy riffing of “Novacane.”
As the information on his Wikipedia discography attests to, albums of startling diversity kept coming (to varying degrees of commercial success): Mutations with its ’60s-folk leanings, the delightfully chaotic Midnite Vultures homage to Prince and Top 40 radio, and then Sea Change, a lushly layered and melancholy ode to heartbreak that garnered some of B.’s best reviews and assured, coming as it did at the dawn of the 21st century, the restlessly creative musician’s staying power. Modern classics just keep spilling out of him, from Guero (which featured a track with Jack White on bass) and The Information to Modern Guilt and 2014’s Morning Phase.
Along the way, B.’s influenced a slew of musicians young and old and picked up an impressive coterie of fans. By the late 1990s he was being feted by legendary artists such as Tom Waits, Steve Earle, Allen Ginsberg, and Johnny Cash (for whom he wrote the excellent country tune “Rowboat,” which ended up on Cash’s Unchained album). He opened for Bob Dylan, who’s continued to mention B. as a musical peer. He’s recorded with everyone from Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris to the White Stripes, Jeff Tweedy, and Cat Power.
He’s also legendary for his live shows; when news of a B. tour hits, all you can be sure of is a boldly ambitious approach. In line with his chameleonic musicianship, B.’s one of our most versatile, free-spirited performers: Within the course of a single show he’s capable of doing the splits amid slashing power chords, unleashing a surprisingly powerful falsetto over a slow-jam bass, scratching out his own hip-hop beats, or bringing a packed theater to stunned silence with nothing but his acoustic guitar and a mournful voice.
In short, B. never fails to surprise. Unlike many rock musicians who’ve achieved his level of success, he appears to have never lost his hunger—he remains an inveterate tinkerer with sound and an artist unswervingly committed to creative song craft.
Whether he’s rapping or finger-picking, covering Daniel Johnston or singing one of his own unclassifiable compositions, B. remains one of the most unpredictable and reliably ambitious artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Inspired by a vast array of artists and musical styles, he himself has become an enormous influence on popular music.