Although Joy Division’s music was utterly spellbinding, pioneering and bone shimmering, their most important asset was always Ian Curtis, a lyricist like no other. The influence of Curtis truly knows no bounds, and to this day, he continues to inspire artists across multiple genres – and Tyler, The Creator is the latest disciple.
Curtis’ mental health battles stemmed from his struggles with epilepsy, a condition that prevented him from living the life he desired. In the end, the musician tragically came to the conclusion that suicide was the only way of seeking peace. Throughout Curtis’ time in the band, his struggles worsened, and his lyrics paint a bleak but accurate picture of a harrowing period.
There was a brutal honesty to his lyrics, a skill that allowed Curtis to connect with listeners in a way that nobody else had done before him. He didn’t hold anything back with his writing. Take a track like ‘Disorder’, for example, is an effort that deals with Curtis becoming detached from the world in front of him. “Who is right, who can tell and who gives a damn right now,” he sings with ferocious energy. Curtis gradually becomes even more disconnected from his life throughout the track as the pitfalls of fame eat him up.
Although sonically speaking there isn’t an obvious link between Tyler, The Creator and Ian Curtis, lyrically, they have much more in common. The former Odd Future rapper’s discography has charted his struggles in the same way Curtis did with Joy Division. Between the two, they’ve ushered in a new type of masculinity, one that shows that it is acceptable to be vulnerable.
Both artists have provided a refuge for those who felt alienated by the world around them. Tyler has been open about the fact that Joy Division are one of the few artists that truly connected with him on a visceral level, and the sincerity of the pain which Curtis showed always stuck with him.
“It’s the music I’ve always wanted to make,” he said in a 2015 interview with Billboard writer John Kennedy. “Joy Division, Ronnie McNeir, N.E.R.D. — that’s the shit that really got me. To finally be able to make that — to make a song with Roy Ayers, “Find Your Wings” — is really cool. I’m living every line on the album. That’s why you don’t hear depressing, sad shit, because I’m fucking happy.”
This interview isn’t the only time that the rapper has referred to Joy Division as a source of inspiration. On 2010’s ‘Leatherhead’, he raps: “Fucking modern day Ian Curtis I oughta been, The motherfuckin’ bulls was hotter than a Dennis Rod-a-Man.” Then later in the track, Tyler adds: “I’m the man now the boys missin’ from the decision, My television is eclectic, How can he move on Waka Flocka and back to Joy Division?“.
Meanwhile, he revealed to The Guardian in 2011 that his dream three interviewees would be Ian Curtis, Hitler and late the US comedian Bernie Mac — a bizarre triangle of historical figures that would make for an absolute car crash of a dinner party.
Joy Division and hip-hop are worlds that, on the surface, don’t align. However, it is not just Tyler who the band went on to influence. There’s a universal appeal to the introspective lyricism of Curtis, who also connected with Vince Staples, among others.
“This was my personal soundtrack at a very low point in my life,” Staples revealed about Unknown Pleasures. “In the same way Amy’s album affects your emotions, this album does the same but in a more sinister way. The low vocals somewhat creep over the instruments, creating a hazy experience all around. It is obvious that everything was put into their music, and it has a very strong identity because of it.”
What’s attractive about Ian Curtis and Joy Division to rappers such as Tyler, The Creator is that he wasn’t your average rock ‘n’ roll frontman performing songs about being tangled up in love. Instead, Ian Curtis was singing from the heart. While Curtis’ struggle throughout his life in Macclesfield is different to that of Tyler’s, it’s a raw account of hardship nonetheless, and the commonality between the two is there for all to see.