How Black Drummers Influenced Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl shared earlier this year that drummers from disco and funk groups inspired his drum part for "Smells Like Teen Spirit." But this isn't the first time Grohl has shared how Black drummers influenced his contribution.

Back in June, a clip  from Dave Grohl's TV series From Cradle to Stage went viral. In the clip, he revealed to fellow artist (and drummer) Pharrell, that his drum part for Nirvana's iconic song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was influenced by drummers from disco and funk groups like Cameo, Chic, and The Gap Band.

"If you listen to Nevermind, the Nirvana record, I pulled so much stuff from The Gap Band, and Cameo, and Tony Thompson, on every one of those songs," Grohl shared, with the clip highlighting Grohl’s opening drum part on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before cutting to the opening of The Gap Band’s “Early in the Morning,” where it becomes very clear how similar the grunge classic’s opening drums are similar to the funk classic’s opening drums.

The revelation was one that countless music nerds talked about enthusiastically when the clip went viral on Twitter, the initial surprise of the connection giving way to disbelief: How did none of us ever realize this obvious connection before?

To hear Grohl share how these groups, as well as drummers like Chic's Tony Thompson, influenced "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and other drum parts recorded for the now 30-year-old Nevermind, serves as a reminder of how Black music's influence is present in so many genres in subtle and overt ways. But this isn't the first time Grohl has alluded to Black groups' influence on his drumming for the classic Nirvana album, especially those he highlighted in his interview with Pharrell.

While reflecting on the album in a 2001 interview with Rolling Stone, Grohl described "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as "a dance beat — the verses are like Cameo-disco drumming and the choruses are heavy-metal Sixties go-go." In a 2013 Spin interview, Grohl once again described his drumming in Nirvana as "disco drums," while adding, "A lot of the drum fills I did I took from Cameo and the Gap Band." Grohl has also name-dropped the late Tony Thompson in both interviews and on his own Medium account, Dave's True Stories, where he shares stories from his life. One of those stories was the viral 2020 anecdote where David Bowie jokingly told Grohl to "Fuck off" after he asked the late artist to collaborate. In that entry, Grohl also shared an aside where he recalled first meeting Thomspon and confessing that he had bit some of his drum riffs, to which Thompson replied, "Oh, I know." This was the same anecdote Grohl shared with Pharrell.

Thompson isn't the only Black drummer Grohl has acknowledged on multiple occasions as an influence. The Foo Fighters frontman has also sung the praises of Bad Brains drummer Earl Hudson. In the 2012 documentary Bad Brains: A Band in D.C., Grohl discusses Hudson's drum playing and how distinct it was against other drummers in the Washington, D.C. hardcore punk scene, as well as how Hudson's playing influenced him.

"I still use a lot of the tricks that I learned from Earl still to this day," Grohl shared in the documentary. "I listen to Nevermind and there's little fills here and there that I took from Earl."

Grohl's testimony about Hudson is made all the more better when he reveals that Hudson's opening drum part for the Bad Brains song "How Low Can A Punk Get?" basically served as the basis for his "Smells Like Teen Spirit" opening drum fill. Similar to the "Early in the Morning" moment on From Cradle to Stage, there's no denying how similar Hudson's "How Low Can A Punk Get?" intro fill is to Grohl's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" intro fill.

Grohl's revelation of how pivotal Black groups and drummers were to his drumming on one of the most revolutionary rock songs of all time is incredible to hear, and hopefully someday he'll go into more detail about how they influenced him throughout Nevermind, as well as the rest of his music career.