This Week In History: Beck Transforms Alternative Music with His Debut, ‘Mellow Gold’

The world's most famous loser went from a rat-infested shed to #1 on the charts with his unique, genre-defying debut album Mellow Gold.

Beck’s first single “Loser” was a massive hit, launching his career and allowing him to move out of the rat-infested shed he was living in when he recorded it. Beck actually recorded the song and sat on it for months, thinking it wasn’t very good. The lyrics “I’m a loser baby so why don’t you kill me?” are actually a reflection of how he felt when he first heard back his attempt at rapping. Luckily, his label eventually decided to release “Loser”, and it was a surprise hit on college radio stations in the Los Angeles and Seattle areas.

Growing up in a rough neighbourhood in Los Angeles, Beck found himself exposed to the city’s diverse music scene. He was especially into early folk music from seminal artists like Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, and Woody Guthrie, but he also began to be influenced by emerging early hip-hop artists like Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy. This blend of influences would later come together on Beck’s debut album Mellow Gold.

After dropping out of high school, Beck eked out a living by performing at local cafes and arthouse clubs. He earned a reputation for bizarre performances, often freestyling absurd lyrics to try to get the audience’s attention. He impressed producer Karl Stephenson, who worked for the label Rap-A-Lot Records. Together Beck, Stephenson, and producer Tom Rothrock recorded a spontaneous, one-off experimental hip-hop track. They sampled a guitar riff from one of Beck’s old recordings, looped it, and added a beat. Beck wrote and improvised lyrics in an attempt to rap like Chuck D of Public Enemy.

Beck thought he sounded terrible as a rapper, and put the song aside to go back to focusing on folk music. Luckily his label gifted “Loser” to the world, and the song exploded. The song Beck thought was so terrible topped charts worldwide, and Mellow Gold went on to sell over 2 million copies in the US.