Newly unearthed Kurt Cobain interview reveals Nirvana legend's surprising, conflicted thoughts about hip-hop

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Kurt Cobain in the ’90s at Hilversum Studios. (Photo: Michel Linssen/Redferns)
Kurt Cobain in the ’90s at Hilversum Studios. (Photo: Michel Linssen/Redferns)

Newly unarchived audio of an interview with Kurt Cobain, conducted just four days before Nirvana’s breakthrough album Nevermind was released, reveals the alt-rock legend’s surprising thoughts about hip-hop, including his ruminations on sexist lyrics and white rappers.

Cobain was speaking with Western University college radio DJ Roberto LoRusso before a Nirvana concert at Toronto’s Opera House on Sept. 20, 1991, when LoRusso (who released the viral interview this month) said to him, “I read you’re a big fan of rap but dislike white rap groups, and this is a quote: ‘The white man has ripped off the black man for long enough.’” LoRusso then asked Cobain about Consolidated, an activist industrial/dance group, consisting of white musicians, that incorporated elements of hip-hop into their sound.

Cobain answered, “Oh, I don’t know. Was I drunk at that time? I’m a fan of rap music, but most of it is so misogynist that I can’t even deal with it. I’m really not that much of a fan; I totally respect and love it because it’s one of the only original forms of music that’s been introduced, but the white man doing rap is just like watching a white man dance. We can’t dance, we can’t rap.”

While Cobain had mixed feelings about hip-hop, he was a fan of the genre — particularly of Public Enemy (with whom Nirvana co-headlined Britain’s Reading Festival, along with white rappers the Beastie Boys, less than a year after LoRusso’s interview took place). He even once listed Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back as one of his favorite albums. And in another interview conducted in September 1991, for M.E.A.T. magazine, he repeated his assessment about hip-hop’s originality, saying, “Rap music is the only vital form of music introduced since punk rock.”

In Pharrell Williams’s coffee-table book Pharrell: Places and Spaces I’ve Been, Jay-Z (who compared Cobain to Jean-Michel Basquiat in his own book, Decoded, and has referenced Cobain in song) reflected on the supposed rivalry between alternative rock and hip-hop in the early ’90s. “It was weird because hip-hop was becoming this force, then grunge music stopped it for one second, ya know? Those ‘hair bands’ were too easy for us to take out; when Kurt Cobain came with that statement [“Smells Like Teen Spirit”], it was like, ‘We got to wait a while,’” Jay-Z mused.

Interestingly, many rappers have looked to Cobain as a role model or influence since his death in 1994. Jay-Z is hardly the only rapper to mention the late rock icon in lyrics. Cobain (and often, specifically, Cobain’s suicide) has been referenced in tracks by Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, A$AP Rocky, 50 Cent, Xzibit, the Game, Kurupt, Fabolous, Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka Flame, Lloyd, Juelz Santana, Pastor Troy, Insane Clown Posse, k-os, Lupe Fiasco, and Tyler, the Creator. Kid Cudi, who in 2011 posted a video of himself paying respects to Cobain in Washington, sampled Cobain’s home recording “Burn the Rain” on his collaboration with Kanye, Kids See Ghosts. And the stage name of rapper Kirko Bangz is even a play on Kurt Cobain’s name.

“When Nirvana hit, you had black kids into hip-hop watching MTV for alternative videos, getting into Red Hot Chili Peppers,” Talib Kweli once told Spin. “Then Ice-T came out with Body Count. I think all that set the stage for Nirvana. And Nevermind was a damn near perfect album, like Bob Marley’s Talkin’ Blues or John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.”

“I been into [Nirvana] since ‘Teen Spirit,’” Lil Wayne, who once Photoshopped himself onto the Nevermind album cover, told HipHopDX. “There used to be this video-request station called The Box, and some motherf***er must have loved Nirvana, ’cause that video was always on. I loved it.”

“I’m a big fan of Kurt Cobain,” Mobb Deep’s Prodigy told Complex. “I put a picture of him holding a gun on my Instagram for his birthday. He’s definitely one of my favorite rock artists. ‘Heart Shaped Box’ is my s***. It was something different about him, because he had a very challenged voice. They made a whole new movement — the indie rock, the grunge. He was like an amazing artist, man. The vocals, the lyrics, everything.”

Freddie Gibbs told the L.A. Times, “Kurt changed it up. … I love Nirvana. I still bump ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ I used to listen to it before all my football games.” U.K. rapper Dizzee Rascal, who has been known to mash up his song “Stand Up Tall” with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in concert, once told the Guardian, “There was something rugged and rebellious about [Nirvana]. Kurt Cobain, he was just heavy, man.”

If Cobain had lived and Nirvana had continued, perhaps Cobain may have been open to collaborating with the rappers he admired and the ones who admired his work. He did tell M.E.A.T. magazine — during the same 1991 interview with Karen Bliss in which he made his “the white man has ripped off the black man for long enough” and “rap music is the only vital form of music introduced since punk” comments — that he “would never do rap music” and white artists “should leave rap music to the African-Americans because they do it so well and it is so vital to them.” However, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic actually told NME this year that he would love to form a supergroup featuring Chuck D of Cobain’s favorite rap act, Public Enemy.

Toward the end of the 1991 interview with LoRusso, Cobain seemed undecided about his group’s direction. “Whatever, I don’t know,” he quipped when asked about major future plans. “Televisions out the window, red snapper, fire extinguishers, sparklers, fireworks.” In the caption accompanying the audio upload of his unearthed Cobain interview, LoRusso wrote, “As we spoke, I got a vague sense that [Kurt] wasn’t really enjoying their success. I couldn’t understand it. I was so enamored with and envious of his talent and success I just couldn’t understand how he could have been so indifferent to it. A few years later it became very clear why.”

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