Biography of Beck

Grammy Winner Beck Hansen
Beck circa 2013. Peter Hapak

Bek David Campbell, also known as Beck Hansen — and the singularly named Beck — is the multi-genre artist often credited with giving Generation X an anthem with 1994’s “Loser.” With this track, the Los Angeles native mashed together slack alternative rock with skateboard hip-hop and defined a decade.

Beyond this shrugging single, Beck became one of the most influential songwriters of the 1990s and early 2000s, dabbling in funk, lovelorn acoustic and even Tin Pan Alley sheet music. Even as recently as 2014, Beck has been releasing music that transcends time and often even genre.

"Que Onda, Guero?"

Beck was born in 1970 to musician David Campbell and Andy Warhol protégé Bibbe Hansen in Los Angeles. The family, also consisting of brother Channing, dwelled in a low-income area of the city that flourished with Korean and Salvadoran influences. Much of the latter would serve as inspiration for Beck’s Latin-tinged 2005 release, "Guero," in which he recalls his youth as one of the few Caucasians in the barrio.

Not one for traditional education, Beck dropped out of high school in ninth grade. Bred on a smorgasbord of Scientology, Presbyterianism, hip-hop and folk, the teen bounced around between his immediate family in L.A. and his grandparents in Kansas. He took odd jobs as a leaf-blower operator — which would later get incorporated into his folk concerts — and a video-store clerk, finally picking up the guitar for the first time at 16.

He then ping-ponged from New York City, absorbing the influences of Sonic Youth and the “anti-folk” movement, back to Los Angeles, where he immersed himself in the power-pop music scene. In a classic interview with "Entertainment Weekly," Beck recalled jumping on stage at Jabberjaw and other notable venues, trying to play Son House classics, but no one would pay attention. So he improvised lyrics about working at McDonald’s, threw on a Stormtrooper mask and forged his own wacky path.

"Loser" Rules

Beck’s off-the-cuff style gained the attention of BMG Music Publishing and Bong Load Custom Records around 1992. Tom Rothrock of Bong Load urged the artist to collaborate with Carl Stephenson of Rap-A-Lot Records, and “Loser” was born.

The slide-guitar-meets-free-write-grime-poem was considered a joke by Beck. He buried it and instead released a folksy debut cassette, "Golden Feelings (Sonic Enemy)," followed by the ragged vinyl EP, "A Western Harvest Field by Moonlight (Fingerpaint)."

Rothrock persistently championed the goofy ditty, though, and “Loser” crept onto the airwaves in March 1993. Los Angeles alternative rock stations caught on, and when tastemaker KROQ got ahold of the song, it blew up. Geffen soon came calling, and Beck signed with its subsidiary DGC label, home to Nirvana, Hole and Weezer. Yet, as popular as it was in its initial release, it wasn’t until the 1994 reissue that “Loser” ascended to legendary status.

The mythology and debate only grew from there — "Grantland" had a great analysis of the song on its  20th anniversary. How could a guy who worked vigorously at a job for $4 per hour really be a slacker? Conversely, was it fair for the progeny of a composer and a Warhol acolyte to call himself a loser, even in jest?

Eventually, “Loser” topped the Modern Rock Charts and cracked the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10. In doing so, his next two albums, 1994’s "Mellow Gold (DGC)" and "Stereopathic Soulmanure (Flipside)," solidified Beck as an alternative rock star. And his next major release, 1996’s "Odelay," would make him an outright luminary.

The New Pollution

What was once a novelty now became en vogue. Beck’s ingenious combo of plucked guitars and scratchy hip-hop techniques morphed into a genre in itself. "Odelay" became a double-platinum blockbuster on the strength of “Where It’s At,” “Devil’s Haircut” and “The New Pollution.” The Dust Brothers’ everything-and-the-kitchen-sink production really brought Beck to the masses, and this was honored with the 1997 Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album.

One can see "Odelay" takes hip-pop influence from contemporaries the Bloodhound Gang and Len, and even today the signature Beck rewiring of electronic glitches to make something cohesive and even beautiful can be heard in Death Cab For Cutie, Capital Cities and any other genre-jumping bands like them.

For the next couple of albums, 1998’s "Mutations (Geffen)" and 1999’s "Midnite Vultures," Beck vacillated between the roles of a chill crooner — the understated former — and the Spandex-wearing party guy of the latter. These consecutive but vastly different offerings were a mere peek into the auteur’s future creations.

Not Such a Lost Cause

On the cusp of turning 30, Beck went through a terrific breakup with his then-fiancée. His downtrodden nature led to his most vulnerable and serene collection of work with 2002’s "Sea Change." Heralded by many as his best album, "Sea Change" saw a maturing Beck taking on adulthood willingly yet somberly — the single “Lost Cause” was the embodiment of near-middle-age sorrow but was just as relatable as his freestyles about disparate youth.

Things got better for Beck in his personal life, though. In April 2004, he married Marissa Ribisi, and the couple had two children. With a renewed whimsy, the songwriter shook off the depression of "Sea Change" and sought out the Dust Brothers to help produce his next album, 2005’s "Guero."

The back-to-back punch of Guero and 2006’s "The Information" — produced by Atoms for Peace’s Nigel Godrich — saw the artist returning to giddier piecemeal works. The catchy bombast of “E-Pro” and the gangly grumble of “Cellphone’s Dead” were celebrated throwbacks. In concert, Beck and his longtime backing musicians would employ picnic settings as percussion and would whoop it up like they did in the "Odelay" days.

At His Busiest

For the better part of a decade now, Beck Hansen has propelled himself as a true innovator and collaborator. He paired with Danger Mouse in 2008 to create the haunting, woozy ​"Modern Guilt," and in turn produced for artists including Charlotte Gainsbourg and Thurston Moore.

He became a conductor of sorts for a swath of projects: the Record Club, in which modern bands would cover entire albums by veterans such as the Velvet Underground; moonlighting as the fictitious Sex Bob-Omb for ​"Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and penning a collection of sheet music called "Song Reader" in 2012.

In the midst of these experiments, Beck hadn’t fully abandoned the traditional album. His 12th LP, "Morning Phase," was released February 2014 on Capitol and won Album of the Year at the 2015 Grammys. The remainder of the year was red-letter for the artist. He dropped the dance rock hit "Dreams" to celebrate his Grammy triumph and performed alongside everyone from Taylor Swift to Paul McCartney at various concerts and is still touring today.