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Don't Get Bitter on Us, Beck : Thanks to his rap-folk song 'Loser,' the 23-year-old musician is one of the hottest figures to emerge from the L.A. rock scene in years. But now that he's going national, how will he hold up under all the attention?

February 20, 1994|STEVE HOCHMAN | Steve Hochman writes about pop music for Calendar. and

"It totally blew me away. I'd never heard music like that before, but it was exactly the kind of music I wanted to hear. I wasn't into that much music before. I was into some punk bands, I liked Pussy Galore when I was like 14 or 15. But this was so great."

Inspired by the venerable singer-guitarist, Hansen explored blues and folk music further, learning how to finger-pick guitar and discovering such icons as Woody Guthrie and Blind Willie Johnson.

"All these old people, they were the original punk rock," he says.

Then he moved with his girlfriend to New York and found himself part of a music community.

"She disappeared and I was kinda left to my own devices again," he says. "So I kinda started hanging out on the street in the Lower East Side. I had my guitar and there was this whole kinda punk-rock-folk scene and noise- music- chaos- poetry- underground- basement- 40-ounce- malt-liquor- being- crazy scene going on."

He fell in with the likes of folk singer Roger Manning and members of the bands King Missile and Galaxie 500 and played on shows at small clubs and coffeehouses. In 1990, daunted by the prospect of another New York winter, Hansen returned to L.A. and gradually tested the waters.

"I was working in a video store and living in this rooming house over in Los Feliz and I would hang out at the Onyx (coffeehouse) and sometimes just bring my guitar and play a few songs," he says. "They gave me a show there and I met some guy who had a tape recorder in his living room and we went and made a tape, and I started making these tapes and passing them around."

*

Slowly he started to attract a handful of music industry supporters. One, Rob Schnapf, had just started Bongload Records with his partners Tom Rothrock and Brad Lambert. After seeing Hansen play at Jabberjaw, Schnapf felt he would suit their small venture.

A loose comment by Hansen about a developing interest in rap led Schnapf to hook him up with Karl Stephenson, a young hip-hop producer. Hansen went to Stephenson's house, played a slide guitar lick that the producer sampled and surrounded with a solid beat, and started spewing out stream-of-consciousness lyrics that, intentionally or otherwise, summed up the experience of the young and the aimless.

*

With the rerun shows and the cocaine nose job

the daytime crap of the folk singer slob

He hung himself with a guitar string

A slab of turkey neck and it's hanging from a pigeon wing . . .

Soy un perdirdor

I'm a loser baby

So why don't you kill me

*

"Loser" was really just a one-off experiment, and Hansen put the track aside and went back to his folk songs, making his home tapes and releasing several independent singles. "Loser" sat for a full year, until the Bongload guys asked if they could release it as a single.

Then the explosion happened. Geffen A&R man Tony Berg was struck by the song and played it for KCRW music director Chris Douridas, who played the song on his "Morning Becomes Eclectic" show.

"It was one of those unbelievable finds," says Douridas. "I called the record label that day and asked to have Beck play live on the air. He came in that Friday, rapped to a tape of 'Loser' and did his song 'MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack.' "

The impact was immediate. Hansen played that night at the downtown club Cafe Troy and the place was packed, and soon the scouts were sniffing around.

Hansen was flabbergasted.

"I never really wanted to draw attention to myself," he says. "I was just going to do my thing and play for friends of mine and make up songs about people that we knew and making up jokes that only my friends could understand."

He even seriously considered not signing a deal with any record company.

"I decided (not to sign) a few times," he says, insisting that money was never an issue with him. "I didn't want to fall into some situation where I had to be something I wasn't."

Ultimately, though, the Geffen team convinced him that he would be able to do things his way with them.

"They were willing to take the music on its own terms and take a chance," he says.

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Now that Geffen's got Beck, what do they do with him?

"With something that has developed a life of its own, the only thing a major label can do is get in the way and mess it up," says Geffen's Kates.

So the strategy is pretty much to stay out of the way. First of all, the deal Hansen got is notable for the creative freedom it allows him.

"I come up with songs, I give 'em to 'em, they say, 'Great,' press 'em up and put 'em out," Hansen summarizes.

But beyond that, Geffen has given him a non-exclusive contract, meaning Hansen remains free to release material through such small, independent labels as Bongload and Flipside.

Of more concern to Geffen's marketing and promotion staff, "Mellow Gold" is not an album full of "Losers." Fans of the hit may well be taken aback by its rough folk songs and blasts of experimental noise.

Kates sees the diversity as more a blessing than a curse, but it's still a big challenge to the company.

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