It only takes a few banjo strums to unite Vince Staples, Billy Ray Cyrus, and a gym full of elementary school kids going berserk.
Months after peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Lil Nas X continues to rake in accolades for 2019’s monolith hit “Old Town Road,” including a Country Music Association award, two MTV Video Music Awards, and six GRAMMY nominations. Producer YoungKio famously based the song’s beat around a banjo sampled from an unlikely source: A desolate 2008 instrumental by alt-rock legends Nine Inch Nails. NIN’s mix of harsh noise, sharp hooks, and psychosexual angst has propelled multiple albums to the top of the Billboard 200. Despite his musical chops, however, few could have ever predicted that frontman Trent Reznor would have a writing credit on the longest-reigning Hot 100 No. 1 song in history.
“Having been listed on the credits of the all-time, Number One whatever-the-fuck-it-is… I didn’t see that one coming,” Reznor said in an interview with Rolling Stone this fall. In the same interview, he showed a healthy attitude towards being sampled for a pop-rap song, telling one of his managers, “Just work it out, don’t be a roadblock to this.” Unlike rock stars from previous generations, Reznor appreciates the impact a strong sample can have on a song, even if the result strays far from the style of the original.
“Old Town Road” is just the latest intersection between Reznor and hip-hop, one of many in his three-decade career. His liberal attitude toward sampling has been the same for years. “I think sound is sound. If somebody sampled a bit of something in an album of mine, that’s cool. I don’t give a shit about that,” Reznor told Plazm during the press tour for 1994’s The Downward Spiral. “I think it’s interesting how rap groups piece together things into new sounds. I’m into that.” (Though he did bristle at the idea of MC Hammer looping “Head Like A Hole” later in the interview).
In the same year that De La Soul debuted with a psychedelic quilt of sampled beats, Reznor himself used samples on his first Nine Inch Nails album. Some were obscure, like the use of distorted vocals on “Sin” from rapper Beside’s 1982 track “Change The Beat.” But he also nicked from superstars. “Ringfinger” samples a Prince single from the year prior, and the iconic drum intro to 1994’s “Closer” is sourced from a 1977 Iggy Pop track. In each case, Reznor’s samples help create an idiosyncratic mood while paying tribute to the musicians that had taken up space in his record crates.
By the late ‘90s, Reznor had become a star for the Lollapalooza generation thanks to “Closer” and The Downward Spiral. He was contracted to remix tracks for rapper/producers similarly exalted by hip-hop heads. In 1998, Reznor remixed “Victory,” one of the singles from Puff Daddy’s hit album No Way Out. The drum programming adds menace to verses by Sean Combs and The Notorious B.I.G., and Reznor saves a roaring guitar riff to match Busta Rhymes’ energy on the chorus. The ornate grime of Nine Inch Nails matches the widescreen decadence of Combs’ shiny suit era.
In 2001, Reznor remixed “Lapdance,” the debut single from The Neptunes’ rock band N.E.R.D. The remix isn’t very distinct, but these rap production geniuses were relying on NIN as inspiration for the original’s distorted guitar groove. There wasn’t much left for Reznor to improve upon.
With that, another rapper/producer/mogul worked on the third Nine Inch Nails album: Dr. Dre. Years before Reznor and Dre worked together on streaming service Beats Music, NIN collaborator Charlie Clouser recalled in 1998, “We brought a bunch of half-finished tracks from ‘The Fragile’ and experimented for a week or so to see what he could add, and we fiddled with a few of Dre’s tracks.”
Not much came of the sessions, perhaps because the collaboration was spurred by Interscope, Reznor and Dre’s mutual record label. “Jimmy Iovine wanted to put two of his big acts in the room together and see what happened,” Clouser wrote. Dre was ultimately credited on one song, “Even Deeper,” for additional production and mixing assistance. It’s not precisely NIN goes G-funk, but the immaculate sound of the kick drum was likely courtesy of Dre. Clouser did note that “After a few years of bad New Orleans dirt weed it was definitely nice to get blazed on the quality with Dre, Mel-Man, and Snoop!”
In 2005, Reznor tapped El-P to remix the NIN single “Only,” and the indie rapper/producer replaced the original’s dance beat with a heavier hip-hop feeling. Two years later, Reznor returned the favor for a fellow dystopian sci-fi enthusiast and Prince fan. Reznor contributed vocals to the chorus of “Flyentology,” singing “Keep me in the sky, that’s all I cry / I’ll become your servant if it’s worth your time” over a backbeat he co-produced. The song describes someone abandoning atheism and turning to faith out of desperation in wartime, themes very much in line with Reznor’s lyrics.
Reznor’s most substantial hip-hop work came in 2007, when he produced the entirety of rapper/poet Saul Williams’ album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust. Reznor’s harsh beats, not far removed from his Nine Inch Nails work, were a perfect fit for Williams’ blend of personal and political turmoil, exemplified in the “Tr(n)igger” lyric, “Would Jesus Christ come back American? What if he’s Iraqi and here again?”
In a 2006 interview with MTV News, Williams noted their shared love of Public Enemy and said, “[Reznor]’s a hip-hop producer in the way he uses drum machines and synths the way hip-hop producers do.”
This decade, Reznor has been less involved in hip-hop, too busy winning awards for his film and television scores when he’s not working with Nine Inch Nails or his How To Destroy Angels side project. But, Reznor’s Goth-industrial themes and fashion have come back into vogue via upstart rappers emerging from SoundCloud, spreading into pop music at large. As Annie Zaleski wrote for Billboard this past summer, Nine Inch Nails’ “stormy aesthetic embodies the bubbling anger of social rebellion,” a feeling that transcends genre. Trent Reznor’s work in hip-hop is proof of his lifelong dedication to musical exploration, banjos included.