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Meet Beck: The Unlikely Success Story of a Hip-Hop Folk Rocker

Thanks to "Loser", Beck Hansen has landed himself a major-label deal and become the face of the slacker generation

Beck performs onstage on April 19th, 1994.
Lindsay Brice/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
April 21, 1994

When I do 'Loser' now," says Beck Hansen of his big hit record, "I should go, 'I'm a schmoozer, baby, so why don't you rock me?'"

If he's a schmoozer, Beck, 23, is definitely an alternative schmoozer. The baby-faced singer – who goes by his first name professionally and whose "Loser," a quirky, winning anthem of downward mobility, has become an unexpected pop smash – is sitting in a dimly lit Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, attempting, in his own charming and eccentric way, to shed a little light on who he is. That is, by striking a mock rock-star pose and gleefully parodying his own surreal, hip-hop-inflected breakthrough hit so that it better reflects his current chart-topping status. "If all this ridiculous stuff keeps on happening to me," he says, shaking his head, "I'm really going to have to change those lyrics."

The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: Beck, "Loser"

"All this ridiculous stuff" is by far early '94's most unlikely overnight-success story, one bound to destroy any claims this likably offbeat guy may have ever had to lower status. Not long ago, Beck was an underground – way underground – Los Angeles act whose indie recordings included a 1993 single entitled "MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack." But in today's brave new alterna-rock world, Beck has a Top 40 hit and has become a major-label priority for DGC Records. And now that his ingenious video clip for "Loser" is safely ensconced in MTV's Buzz Bin, Beck better break out his crack pipe.

As he drums with a tortilla chip in time to a Muzak version of Al Stewart's "Year of the Cat" blasting on the restaurant sound system, Beck remembers seeing the "Loser" video on MTV for the first time and being pegged as a new spokesman for the grunge generation.

"I was up in Olympia, Wash., and someone called up and said they were going to premiere the video," Beck says. "The guy on the air was talking about all this slacker stuff, saying that 'Loser' was like some slacker anthem or something. I was like 'What?' I said, 'Turn off the TV.' I was like 'Slacker my ass.'

"I mean, I never had any slack," Beck continues. "I was working a $4-an-hour job trying to stay alive. I mean, that slacker kind of stuff is for people who have the time to be depressed about everything."

To hear him tell it, Beck's sudden rise has come with little effort or even inclination on his part. And before the small Los Angeles-based, guerrilla-style label Bong Load Custom Records put out a 12-inch of "Loser" last year, things were looking mighty bleak for him.

"A year ago I was living in a shed behind a house with a bunch of rats, next to an alley downtown," Beck recalls. "I had zero money and zero possibilities. I was working in a video store doing things like alphabetizing the pornography section for minimum wage.

"Believe me, all of this has fallen in my lap," Beck says. "I was never good at getting jobs or girls or anything. I never even made flyers for my shows. And until, like, six months ago, I didn't know that you could get paid for playing."

Beck hopes Mellow Gold – his first album under an unusual deal with DGC that allows him plenty of creative freedom and the right to continue releasing various indie releases – will prove that there's more to him than just "Loser." A low-budget effort recorded at home on an eight-track recorder, the record freely blends folk, blues, rap, country and just about everything else Beck found around the house. Funny, folky, funky and freaky (often at the same time), Mellow Gold is a trip to a strange place where Woody Guthrie meets Woody Allen. Tracks like "Nitemare Hippy Girl," "F---in With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock)" and "Soul Suckin Jerk" make it clear this LP is not a calculated pop cash-in.

"The whole concept of Mellow Gold is that it's like a satanic K-Tel record that's been found in a trash dumpster," Beck explains, quite matter-of-factly. "A few people have molested it and slept with it and half-swallowed it before spitting it out. Someone played poker with it, someone tried to smoke it. Then the record was taken to Morocco and covered with hummus and tabouli. Then it was flown back to a convention of water-skiers, who skied on it and played Frisbee with it. Then the record was put on the turntable, and the original K-Tel album had reached a whole new level. I was just taking that whole Freedom Rock feeling, you understand."

Sure we do.

So where exactly, you might ask, did this guy come from? From Los Angeles, of course. Though he has traveled quite a bit, Beck spent a lot of his wonder years living with his office-worker mother and half brother in some seedy but lively sections of town, riding his bike around Hollywood Boulevard to check out all the punks, who intrigued him, listening to early hip-hop and even doing a little break-dancing along the way. Beck apparently comes by his taste for street music honestly: As a baby, he says, he hung around with his father, a bluegrass street musician.

As a young boy, Beck was sent for a time to live with his maternal grandparents in Kansas. "I had kind of a weird home," he says convincingly. "I think they were kind of concerned."

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