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A History of Hip-Hop’s Obsession With Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

904 min read

1990s grunge band Nirvana had a handful of hits before the suicide of its frontman Kurt Cobain in 1994, which ultimately ended the group’s reign. Yet the single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will go down as their magnum opus and arguably one of the best alternative songs of the decade.

Released on Sept. 10, 1991, as the lead single on the group’s sophomore album, Nevermind, the dark, pace-changing track went on to define the grunge genre, with the unforgettable video subsequently winning the group the Best New Artist and Best Alternative Group awards at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.

Though Cobain’s death following the release of their third album, In Utero, ultimately marked the end of the group’s run, Nirvana and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” have passed the test of time and have even been influential to the hip-hop genre.

More than 25 years after the group’s demise, black and yellow Nirvana T-shirts are still the norm, Kurt Cobain is considered a rock deity and “Smells Like…” is still referenced in song and sampled by rappers like Lil Wayne, Drake, and Tyler, The Creator. Though Nirvana never collaborated with rappers like some of their more famous contemporaries, hip-hop clearly has a love for the group, and more specifically their aforementioned hit, as evident in the amount of times the rock hit has been name-dropped on tracks and interpolated on tracks.

Possibly the most famous use of the song in hip-hop came when Jay-Z interpolated lyrics from the classic song for his Magna Carta Holy Grail record “Holy Grail,” which was revealed by Kurt Cobain’s widow, singer Courtney Love, prior to the track being released.

“I’m letting Jay-Z use lyrics—[daughter] Francis would freak [if she knew],” Love said in an interview with the Huffington Post back in 2013. “Jay-Z’s huge and we’re friends. I mean we’re not besties or anything… They [used it] without asking, which is kind of nervy but the business side has been taken care of so it’s fine.”

With the seminal track reaching its 28th birthday today, XXL chronicles hip-hop’s obsession with the classic jam.

  • “We Getz Buzy,” Illegal Featuring Eric Sermon

    1993

    “It smells like teen spirit, but not Nirvana’s/It’s real hip-hop music, like Afrika Bambaataa’s” —Eric Sermon

  • “Root of all Evil,” Paris

    1998

    Paris’ track samples part of the chorus of the Nirvana classic.

  • “Bigger Than Da Game,” Rappin 4-Tay

    1998

    Cali OG Rappin 4-Tay samples the Nirvana cut on his late 1990s single.

  • “Hater,” Lords of the Underground

    1999

    The LOTU switch around Nirvana’s “hello” chant and change it to “haters” in a nod to “Teen Spirit.”

  • “The PJ’s,” Wyclef Featuring Prolific

    2002

    “Its such a shame, cocaine in ya veins, screamin/Teen spirit grippin the shottie like Kurt Cobain”

  • “Lights Out,” Timbaland Featuring Magoo, Bubba Sparxxx and Attitude

    2004

    Timbaland uses the melody of the Nirvana track to forge a new chorus on his label posse cut.

  • “Our Block,” The Outlawz

    2005

    Tupac’s protégés flip the chorus of the Nirvana hit into something more fitting for their brand on the 2005 cut.

  • “Real Rock Star,” Trae Tha Truth

    2007

    Trae samples “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his head-banging remix.

  • “Dipset 2,” Lil Wayne

    2007

    “Yeah, you know young Wayne in here/Smellin’ teen spirit, like Kurt Cobain was here”

  • “Rock Star,” Chamillionaire

    2007

    “Teen spirit ain’t what they smelling, they yelling ‘Where that Nirvana?’/The crowd is rocking and rolling, them Swishers full of marijuana”

  • “The Finale,” Crooked I

    2008

    Crooked I goes jacking for beats and strong arms the Nirvana instrumental on this lengthy freestyle session.

  • “Window,” Tyler The Creator Featuring Mike G, Hodgy, Frank Ocean and Domo Genesis

    2011

    “Cheer it, dead parents everywhere, it’s smelling like teen spirit/Okay, fuck it, Elvis has left the building” —Tyler, The Creator

  • “9AM in Dallas,” Drake

    2010

    “Yeah, I know these niggas miss the mean lyrics/Kush got the room smelling like teen spirit”

  • 2011 Bet Cypher, Machine Gun Kelly

    2011

    “I smell like teen spirit man, Cobain’s back/And I got these teens screaming like Cobain’s back” —Machine Gun Kelly

  • “Test Drive,” Skyzoo

    2011

    “Made me never mind like I’m Francis pops/Said it smell like teen spirit when you stand on my block”

  • “So Fly,” Pro Era Featuring Joey Bada$$, CJ Fly and Capital Steez

    2012

    “Then I knock out by the time that it kicks in/Where the loud pack? Gotta have teen spirit” —Capital Steez

  • “Holy Grail,” Jay-Z

    2013

    Hov uses lines from the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the bridge on “Holy Grail.”

  • “Tour Bus,” B.o.B

    2015

    “Smells like teen spirit she sorority squad/On the spot roll some pot and her boots like doors we gon’ knock (Uh)”

  • “Lost and Found,” Domo Genesis

    2016

    “Can you see it? Can you feel it?/Lost innocence the smell of teen spirit”

  • “Teen Spirit,” Mayhem Lauren

    2016

    Meyhem samples the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” instrumental on his updated track.

  • “Believe in Me,” Kevin Gates

    2016

    “Pussy rapper made me play the waiting game/Smell like teen spirit, I am Kurt Cobain”

  • Teen Spirit Mixtape, Rory Fresco

    2017

    Rory Fresco
  • “Grand Prix,” Method Man

    2018

    “Couldn’t even get Bin Laden ’til we voted for Obama (Facts)/I ain’t a minor, teen spirit ain’t Nirvana”

  • “Blur,” Lou The Human

    2019

    “Pardon the smell, that’s teen spirit/If you want a high, you should probably just breathe near it”

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