The Impact of Jimi Hendrix: From Rock to Rap, by Justin Bearden
In less than four years, Jimi Hendrix became one of the most famous artists of all time and had arguably the biggest influence on not only the rock music of the time, but on all of the music that would follow. From the shredding gods of the 70’s and 80’s to Cobain, Grohl and even Future, it’s hard to find a musician who wasn’t inspired in some way by Jimi Hendrix.
We like to think that rock and roll had a linear development. Supposedly, it began with Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, who gave way to The Beatles, then The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and so forth. But these early rock pioneers didn’t create these licks and melodies out of thin air. Most of this music can be attributed to the blues artists from 20 years earlier: Muddy Waters, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, B.B. King, among many others. The ingenuity of these soulful artists paved the way for the on stage acrobatics of Elvis and the prom-crowd-stunning guitar lines of Chuck Berry.
But how did the rock genre get from the uppity sing-songs from the early 60’s Beatles to the most iconic guitar riffs and solos of all time à la Pink Floyd, Eagles, and Zeppelin? The answer: James Marshall Hendrix.
Rock music was changed forever when Jimi Hendrix released his debut album, Are You Experienced, in May 1967. After spending years toiling as a backup guitarist with the likes of Little Richard and other R&B legends, Hendrix and those around him knew he was destined for greatness. He would launch his own career drawing from the soul and groove of R&B, but expanding into other genres within rock, ranging from distorted blues to sweet and floating melodies. Hendrix captivated listeners with never before heard sounds of fuzz, wah pedals, and his honeyed-yet-hardened vocals. The album was an instant success with classics like Purple Haze, Foxey Lady, and The Wind Cries Mary. He delivered powerful and memorable lyrics, combining them with the buttery guitar tones of the stratocaster to create a masterful debut album. Hendrix was a rare three-way virtuoso: singer, songwriter, and guitarist. While The Beatles and Pink Floyd were still only beginning to develop their psychedelic rock sounds, Hendrix seemed to have both mastered it and propelled the sound into the mainstream music scene.
Hendrix became a household name in the rock scene from his debut album, but it was his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967 that propelled him to international stardom. From 12-minute feedback-filled guitar solos to the ceremonial guitar burning, the audience of 90,000 was amazed by the electric performance, and Hendrix instantly became the new face of the counterculture movement. This festival was more than just a gathering of the best names in rock, however. As Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner put it: “Monterey was the nexus — it sprang from what the Beatles began, and from it sprang what followed.” With Hendrix as the star of the show, ‘what followed’ was everything from the-bad-to-the-bone, classic rock and roll you hear at every professional sports game and backyard barbeque across America to the heavy and distorted grunge and alternative sounds of the 90s — all of which can be attributed, in part, to him.
With 1968’s Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland, Hendrix continued to innovate. He spent a full year in the studio crafting these albums to perfection, something that doesn’t go unnoticed when listening. Hits from these albums included Little Wing, Spanish Castle Magic, and Bold As Love from the former and All Along the Watchtower and Voodoo Chile from the latter. New technologies and collaboration with highly talented and ambitious musicians allowed him to reach his full potential with these albums, which showcased his complete mastery of both the guitar and the pen through never-before heard licks and lyricism.
First thing in the morning, on Woodstock’s final day, Hendrix took the stage. While only a fraction of the original audience stayed for the final day, Hendrix still delivered another iconic performance that solidified him as a legend of rock and roll. He performed his greatest hits and ended with a powerful — and cynical — rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner that conveyed the crowd’s frustration with constant war during the height of Vietnam. Woodstock served as an important milestone in the cultural revolution of the late 60’s and early 70’s, with Hendrix being one of the biggest names in the movement. Hendrix’ last work was a live album titled “Band of Gypsys”, released March 1970. AP describes it as a “revolutionary fusion of blues, funk and rock that stands as a unique chapter in Hendrix’s seminal body of work.” He continued to experiment, working with new sounds and technology to create more boundary-pushing music. This album is a glimpse into what could have been a long and illustrious career for Hendrix. However, fans around the world were devastated by the death of Jimi Hendrix on September 18th, 1970.
His music would live on through the decades by way of covers, renditions, and direct inspiration for hundreds of artists throughout history. Freddie Mercury relates, “Jimi Hendrix was just a beautiful man, a master showman and a dedicated musician. I would scour the country to see him, whenever he played, because he really had everything any rock'n'roll star should have; all the style and presence."
Stevie Ray Vaughan, who covered multiple Hendrix songs, told Guitar World, “I loved his music and I feel like it's important to hear what he was doing, just like anybody else, like Albert or B.B. or any of that stuff”, "I wanted to do the song, but I didn’t want to mistreat it. I feel like, I try to take care of his music and it takes care of me. Treat it with respect, not as a burden- like you have to put a guy down 'cause he plays from it. That's crazy. I respect him for his life and his music."
Even the rapper Future — who sometimes goes by ‘Future Hendrix’ — says in an interview, “[I respect him] for just being a black artist in rock n' roll and being able to step outside and create, and make great music. And just be different.” In another interview he says, “I took to his character, specifically being someone who’s different, not afraid to try new things in music. I go outside my comfort zone many times for the sake of just being creative musically. I’m not just a hip-hop artist; I feel like I’m a rockstar.” The rapper MC Ride of Death Grips also names Hendrix as the biggest influence in his music. Other notable artists who have drawn from and sampled the work of Hendrix include Frank Ocean, Joey Bada$$, and A Tribe Called Quest. After laying the foundation for the next 50 years of rock and roll, Hendrix continued to inspire contemporary black artists to express their authenticity and strive for excellence in the music industry.
Countless other artists have attributed their influence and pursuit of music to Hendrix, and he continues to make an imprint on modern music 50+ years after his tragically short-lived career. He paved the way for black artists in mainstream music and dared to experiment with sounds the world had never heard until then. Who knows how different music would be today if he would have survived to continue creating artwork. Even listeners today who claim to have never heard a Jimi Hendrix song have been indirectly impacted by his ingenuity as he continues to inspire music lovers, artists, and pop culture at large through his legacy.