John Lennon’s death dealt a significant blow to music. Not only did it mark the end of one of music’s most important pioneers, but it also closed the doors on any possibility of Lennon’s artistic development.
Throughout his career, Lennon continually re-invented himself. His journey from teen-bopper heartthrob to experimental provocateur was a testament to the songwriter’s immense ambition and the clarity of his creative vision. But when he was shot dead leaving his apartment on the evening of December 8th, 1980, the future of recorded music was forced to change its trajectory. It’s fascinating to think what might have happened if Mark Chapman hadn’t decided to walk out that evening with a revolver concealed in his jacket pocket.
What would Lennon have gone on to do? The 1980s saw an explosion of new genres, many of which had drawn from Lennon’s own work. Well, in an interview conducted a while after Lennon’s death, Yoko Ono gave some insight into what her husband might have gone on to create had he lived on. At one point, Ono remarked: “I’m often asked, ‘If John were here today, what do you think he would be doing?'” she began. “Well, he was an artist, and he had always been innovative. I remember John was a guy who was punk before Sid Vicious. A rapper before rap. What would John be doing now? Most likely, he would have joined the rappers while plunging into the internet at the same time.”
As Ono noted, Lennon was always searching for a fresh sound, looking for a new way of expressing his lived experience. That hunger is what drove him as an artist to incorporate everything from folk, pop, rock ‘n’ roll, blues rock, and doo-wop into his music. Lennon was as much a product of his surroundings as anyone else. During The Beatles’ residence in Hamburg, Lennon and his bandmates embraced the fast-paced, amphetamine-driven rock and roll, burning a trail across Germany in the early ’60s. So, having lived in New York for some time by 1980, it wouldn’t have been unsurprising for Lennon to have absorbed some of the DNA of the hip-hop scene that would, over the next decade, take hold of the city.
Lennon has certainly had an impact on rap despite never being a part of it. His work with The Beatles and his solo records have been referenced by a surprising number of rap musicians, including Beastie Boys, Rae Sremmurd, the Wu-Tang Clan, and many others. Kanye West famously sampled John’s song ‘We’re All Water’ for his track ‘Water’, allowing Lennon’s music to live on within the fabric of popular music.
Indeed, the very nature of sampling likely would have thrilled Lennon. After all, The Beatles were one of the first groups to popularise the technique, taking audio fragments from TV and radio broadcasts and weaving them into songs like ‘A Day In The Life’ and ‘I Am The Walrus’. Today’s sample culture is a perfect example of the communal nature of the internet age, in which music can be excavated, fragmented, and then realigned with relative ease. I like to imagine that Lennon would have embraced this post-structural approach to creativity. As Yoko Ono said of her husband, Lennon: “Probably would have loved the internet. He always spoke of the coming of the Global Village. He would have been thrilled now that we really have it.”