L-R: Cain McKnight & Jonathan Hay (background)
Photo courtesy of R.U.S.H. Music
"At Night, The Disco Goddess": Why Nirvana Songs Make For Killer House Music
Now that Kurt Cobain has been dead roughly as long as he was alive, what's left to absorb about him? Every utterance has been picked to the bone; his thrift-shop MTV Unplugged sweater commands real-estate prices; his doomed visage is now an NFT. But talk of drugs, guns and dying young obfuscates the most interesting things about Nirvana: Their melodic gifts, moral compass and chemistry as a band. And that's where producers Jonathan Hay and Cain McKnight come in.
"When you dive into it, you can tell the band was so tight. You can feel the core values that he had," Hay tells GRAMMY.com. "The more you dig deeper into Nirvana, you see their messages and beliefs and everything else. I think this will be cool to bring people into that awareness. There's more here than people know about."
To this end, Hay and McKnight spearheaded Come As You Are: Nirvana Reimagined As House &Techno, a compilation transmuting Nirvana songs from "Sliver" to "All Apologies" to "You Know You're Right" into electronic music. The 27-track collection—one track for each year of his life—arrives via R.U.S.H. Music on July 30.
If the genre pairing seems random at first, it's not. First, Kurt Cobain's Beatles-level gifts as a singer, songwriter and melodist mean the songs maintain their integrity in any idiom. Second, Cobain was a fierce supporter of queer culture, which is part and parcel of dance music.
Outside of the early Nirvana track "Hairspray Queen," which contains references to a "disco goddess," Cobain mentioned dance and electronic music very little. That said, he said plenty about homophobia and elevating what we now call LGBTQ+ voices.
He spraypainted the provocative phrase "God is gay;" he wore dresses in public; he journaled that while he wasn't gay, he wished he was, just to "piss off homophobes." "If you're a sexist, racist, homophobe, or basically an asshole, don't buy the CD," Cobain wrote in the liner notes to 1993's In Utero. "I don't care if you like me, I hate you."
"He was a supporter of LGBTQ+ when it wasn't politically correct to be so," Hay explains. "He's about love and positivity, which is what house music is all about. So, it just made sense for us."
The road to Nirvana Reimagined was paved by Hay's, producer Mike Smith's, and saxophonist Benny Reid's jazz-inspired remix of Eric B. and Rakim's "Follow the Leader" back in 2019. As with the Nirvana project, the point was never to shoehorn a prestige artist into a random genre, but to get at the less-understood essence of their spirit. "Jazz was the flow of my youth," Rakim told Billboard that year, and Eric B. concurred: "I'm from Queens, so I'm automatically a Louis Armstrong guy."
In order to successfully repurpose well-worn Nirvana songs for the dancefloor, the pair went with Cobain's MO as a songwriter: Melody is king. "Kurt's focus was the melody," Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl once told VH1. "He used to say that the music comes first and the lyrics come second."
To this end, Hay initially wanted Nirvana Reimagined to be instrumental—until Cain reminded him how important Cobain's vocal melodies were. By not messing with Cobain's majestic harmonic concepts—which he arrived at by his ears alone—they propel these house tracks authentically and believably.
Come As You Are features a gaggle of musician's musicians, like Fishbone bassist John Norwood Fisher, GRAMMY-winning trumpeter/producer Maurice "Mobetta" Brown, Pink Floyd saxophonist Scott Page, J Patt of The Knocks and the drummer/producer Andy Kravitz.
In line with the LGBTQ+ slant, the producers are putting their money where their mouth is, donating a share of the proceeds to GLAAD and the Recording Academy's non-profit for musicians in crisis, MusiCares. Overall, the pair hopes to financially support this cluster of marginalized communities while bringing house music listeners into Nirvana's fanbase—and vice versa.
And while a fair amount of tomb-raiding has occurred on Cobain's behalf—Nirvana Reimagined is one of a few tributes that align with his principles. Back in 2014, the surviving members of the band played at St. Vitus in Brooklyn with a succession of female lead singers, from Joan Jett to St. Vincent—which Cobain, an ardent feminist, arguably would have loved.
Now, we have this unconventional, electronic tribute, presenting Cobain in a context that few would think of, but which makes perfect sense in retrospect. The disco goddess is dead. Long live the disco goddess.