James Murphy and Pat Mahoney of Special Disco Version perform during the 2012 Governor's Ball Music Festival at Randall's Island in New York City on June 23rd, 2012.
Beck took the lo-fi sound of DIY indie rock to the Top Ten in 1994 with his slacker anthem "Loser." But his avant-pop palette extends well beyond the folk-rap beats and samples of that hit, encompassing everything from funk, soul and psychedelia to wild experiments with feedback, electronics, toy instruments, and found sounds. All that, plus his disjointed, surreal lyrics (which were often compared to Highway 61 Revisited-era Bob Dylan) made for an alt-pop sound that helped define the Nineties and made Beck one of the most interesting musicians of his era.
Beck David Campbell was born in L.A. on July 8, 1970, to bohemian parents (his last name was later changed to his mother's maiden name, Hansen). His mother, Bibbe, was raised amid New York's Andy Warhol Factory art scene of the Sixties and in the Nineties was part of the underground L.A. punk-drag band Black Fag. His father, David Campbell, is a Canadian-born arranger, composer and conductor who worked on hundreds of albums — from Carole King's Tapestry to Evanescence's Fallen — and numerous films including Brokeback Mountain.
During his childhood, Beck was shuttled back and forth between his mother in L.A. and his paternal grandparents in Kansas. His grandfather, Al Hansen, was a pioneer in the avant-garde Fluxus movement, and in 1998, Beck helped put together a traveling art exhibition that paired his visual artwork with his late grandfather's. During his teens he discovered the music of Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore. After hearing a record by Mississippi John Hurt at a friend's house, however, he began playing his own postpunk brand of acoustic country blues.
Beck dropped out of school after the ninth grade and in 1989 took a bus to New York City, where he caught the tail end of the East Village antifolk scene's first wave. After running out of money, he moved back to L.A., where he started performing in arty Silve Lake coffeeshops along with other underground acts such as Ethyl Meatplow and That Dog. He was approached during this period by Bongload Records owner Tom Rothrock, whose casual recording sessions with Beck produced "Loser." The single came out on Bongload and became so popular on L.A.'s alternative radio station KROQ that it led to a bidding war among major labels. DGC signed Beck to an unusual deal whereby the songwriter could also continue recording for tiny indie labels. "Loser" reached Number Ten and its album, the critically acclaimed Mellow Gold (Number 13, 1994), sold 500,000 copies. A second single, "Beercan," reached only Number 27 on Billboard's Modern Rock Chart, and Beck seemed in danger of being lumped in with novelty acts.
Stereopathetic Soulmanure, another critical success, failed to sell, largely because it was released on the small L.A. indie label Flipside. One Foot in the Grave, released on the Olympia, Washington, label K Records later that year, showed Beck's songwriting was becoming stronger and more focused. But it was the Dust Brothers-produced Odelay (Number 16, 1996) that put Beck on the map. The platinum album pushed his earlier sound-pastiche experiments further, earned album-of-the-year nods from publications including Rolling Stone, Spin, and the Village Voice, and won Beck two Grammys: Best Alternative Music Performance for the album, and Best Rock Male Vocal Performance for "Where It's At." Beck toured for two full years with a full band, DJ, and horn section and earned a reputation as an impressive live performer.
Beck's next album, Mutations (Number 13, 1998), offered considerably quieter, stripped-down fare, reminiscent of the folky One Foot in the Grave. Intended for release on the indie label Bongload, which had put out the 12-inch of "Loser," it was released on DGC instead. With the pop-culture-meets-soul and funk of Midnite Vultures (Number 34, 1999), Beck returned to his sonic-collage making. The album, which he produced himself (except for two tracks he coproduced with the Dust Brothers), featured Stax-Volt horns on "Sexx Laws" and the falsetto soul workout "Debra," which was written during the Odelay sessions and had become a live staple. Both albums garnered critical praise (with Vultures earning two Grammy nominations) and went gold.
After breaking up with his long-term girlfriend, designer Leigh Limon, in 2000, Beck wrote and released the downcast Sea Changes (Number Eight, 2002). Produced by Mutations sound man Nigel Godrich, the album showed off a more serious, more world-wise Beck. Rolling Stone awarded it five stars as it soon peaked at Number Eight on the U.S. charts. In 2004 he married longtime family friend Marissa Ribisi, sister of actor Giovanni Ribisi; the couple's son, Cosimo Henri, also was born that year. Guero (Number Two, 2005) reunited Beck with the Dust Brothers in the studio for the groove-grinding, hook-laden mixes heard on singles "E-Pro" and "Girl." The Information (Number Seven, 2006), featured a blank cover for fans to decorate with a book of stickers that came with the album. After the birth of his daughter Tuesday, in 2007, Beck teamed with producer Danger Mouse for the psychedelic Modern Guilt (Number Four, 2008).
Beck focused on developing his Web site in 2009, posting videos, extended experimental DJ sets, and long conversations with fellow musicians and other artists. He also launched Beck's Record Club, in which he and other likeminded musicians — including Devendra Banhart and MGMT — will gather to record cover versions of entire albums, the first ones being The Velvet Underground and Nico, Songs of Leonard Cohen and Skip Spence's Oar.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.