Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Gary Numan (Photo: BB Gun Press) and El-P (Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images). Graphic: Allison Corr.

Beats, rhymes, and replicants: El-P, Gary Numan, and more on Blade Runner’s musical influence

Gary Numan (Photo: BB Gun Press) and El-P (Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images). Graphic: Allison Corr.

According to WhoSampled, that endlessly useful resource for determining which artists should probably be sued, bits of Blade Runner have been paid homage to—and straight-up pilfered—more than 80 times in the past 35 years, turning up in works from everyone from Ryuichi Sakamoto to Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Rutger Hauer’s climactic “Tears In Rain” monologue alone has been sampled a dozen times: GWAR nicked its dialogue, as Revolting Cocks did previously, for its 2013 thrasher “Madness At The Core Of Time.” British electronic producer Zomby liked the speech so much, he made it the centerpiece of his 2008 song, “Tears In The Rain.” Vangelis’ mesmerizing synth score, too—from the cinematic gleam of its “Main Titles” to the space-noir jazz of “Blade Runner Blues” to the haunting “Rachel’s Song”—has lent its neon shimmers to dozens of songs from the likes of The Future Sound Of London, Dillinja, and Aesop Rock. All told, there may be no more sampled movie in history than Blade Runner, a film whose story about synthetics seeking more borrowed life has been continued in the many musical replicants it’s spawned.

“I actually sampled it right off the VHS for one of my earlier records—which I will not say which one it is, because I don’t want to get arrested,” El-P tells The A.V. Club. (He’s probably talking about Company Flow’s “Info Kill II,” but don’t tell the cops.) “When I was coming up, most people in my genre were still going with the classic breaks and funk stuff,” the rapper/producer adds. “But I was collecting Vangelis. I was pulling from these really moody, synth-heavy film scores. Most synth use was relegated to a Zapp, funk kind of vibe. But film scores have always been huge for me, because of the emotional connection. And I thought it was nasty to play around with that.”

El-P, who even mounted a 2015 Run The Jewels tour modeled on the film’s design, may be hip-hop’s—if not modern music’s—most visible Blade Runner fan. He’s spent his entire career paying homage to the technocratic nightmares of Philip K. Dick, both directly (his verse on Mike Ladd’s “Bladerunners” is practically an IMDB summary) and in dystopian spirit, rapping his own paranoid visions of drones and death squads from deep inside a seething, laser-strobed machine.

“It had a tone to it that I’d never encountered before,” he says of first seeing Blade Runner as a kid. “It just had a vibe that was really fascinating, and it made me emotional. It made me feel something… This feeling of being fatalistic and romantic, this tension. It definitely influenced me.” Plus: “It had fucking flying cars, man. Good lord.”

Run The Jewels tour poster (via RunTheJewels.net)
Run The Jewels tour poster (via RunTheJewels.net)

Flying cars aside, the allure of Blade Runner—and Dick’s writing in general—is how it belies the promise of technological utopia that’s been floated by so much science fiction. It’s a world where Spinners glide through towering skyscrapers and the wealthy live, Metropolis-style, in golden monoliths, but the people below are squatting in burned-out buildings with leaky roofs and still calling each other on pay phones. “It’s based in something real, which is that the future is filled with old ideas gone wrong,” El-P says. “The future is filled with junk. I like the idea of sentience being this kind of stumbling, fucked-up thing. Do we really think that we have the ability to birth a purer sentience than we’re capable of achieving? It was always way more a comment on who we are than any interest in the future.”

That same sci-fi social commentary and postmodern pessimism has long informed El-P’s lyrics, while the score’s brooding, cybernetic sweep defines his sound—now quite literally. The guy who grew up ripping Vangelis’ sounds from a VHS tape (partly owing to the score’s frustrating, decade-plus-long journey to release) recently fulfilled a childhood dream by shelling out around $25,000 apiece for not one, but two Yamaha CS-80s, the extremely rare synth the composer used to create it. One keyboard belonged to Eddie Van Halen, while he stumbled upon the other—which Stevie Wonder had used on The Secret Life Of Plants—in a Brooklyn music store.

The CS-80’s sweeping tones, surging through pressure-sensitive keys that were ideal for Vangelis’ improvisatory way of composing, can be heard throughout Run The Jewels 3. And as El-P recently revealed, he even got to put them to use on the ultimate Blade Runner nerd fantasy project: scoring the trailer for Blade Runner 2049, even though his take was ultimately rejected.

“I tried to create something new that had certain throwbacks, sonically, to what Vangelis did, but it was a completely new take,” he says. “It was sort of last minute, like ‘ You have three days.’ I didn’t even get a chance to mix it before I sent it to them. And you know, it’s all good. It happens all the time. But I was bummed, I’m not gonna lie. Especially because, ever since they announced Blade Runner 2049, literally every single day I get asked on Twitter if I’m scoring it. And I have to hit them with the sad frowny face and just say no. So I was a little bitter that I didn’t get the trailer. But I was psyched that I was asked.”

El-P’s certainly not alone there. The second that news of a Blade Runner sequel hit, followed closely by the confirmation that Vangelis would be sitting this one out, people have been offering their wholly unsolicited suggestions for artists who should get the gig: Cliff Martinez, whose tense, ambient-noir scores have twice added depth to Ryan Gosling’s smirks on Drive and Only God Forgives. Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin, whose melancholy synth swirls contain their own, similarly decaying dreams of future past. Survive’s Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, whose score for Stranger Things has refreshed the retro-’80s visions of synthwave for the 21st century. Seemingly anyone who’s ever touched a Moog in the past 20 years was bandied about as a contender before the job eventually went to director Denis Villeneuve’s frequent collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson—and even Villeneuve had second thoughts, parting ways with Jóhansson and bringing in Hans Zimmer to compose something closer to Vangelis’ original. It’s a reflection of what a daunting job it is to tread on such iconic ground—yet nevertheless, it’s one everyone wants.

“I would have loved to,” says Seth Haley, aka Com Truise, whose name was floated thanks to his own wobbly space-funk, which similarly feel like a warped Memorex version of tomorrow. Haley was actually a Blade Runner late-bloomer, snubbing it for years before finally watching it as an adult, but he quickly caught up. “I’ve definitely watched it at least 300 times,” he tells The A.V. Club. “I literally watched it every night for three months. What I liked the most was the technological aesthetic—the graphics they chose to go on the screens, the computers, the signs, the neon. I tried to capture as much of the mood as possible in my music, that hi-fi/lo-fi feel.” That’s definitely borne out across Com Truise’s albums, where cyborg sighs and alternately jittery, melancholy synth workouts come packaged with geometric pastels and a wry Epcot Center optimism, like a blimp cheerfully touting the promise of Off-World Colonies to the broken streets below.

A much darker version of Blade Runner’s hypnagogic limbo can be found on British label Dream Catalogue, whose vaporous, heavily cyberpunk-influenced artists like HKE, Telepath, and 2814 weave ambient moodscapes that could well function as alternate soundtracks. (Even Dream Catalogue’s logo is rendered in a Blade Runner-esque slashed-horizontal font.) Theirs is similarly a bleary vision of a tomorrow colored by the somber regrets of yesterday.

“Vangelis’ score, along with a lot of that synth-y stuff from the late ’70s to the late ’80s, still sounds futuristic to me,” says Dream Catalogue associate Jude Frankum, who records under the name Remember. “If it came out today, I think it would still sound relevant. It is this past idea of looking toward the future.” Like the rest of his collective—and again, Blade Runner—Frankum’s music is suffused with an intangible sensation of bluish artificial light and East Asian romanticism, echoing with dreamy reverb and underscored by the sounds of unceasing rain. “I love rain, both creatively and in my everyday life. Rain creates a nice shimmer on the lights around you,” Frankum says.

Thematically, too, it lives in that same disparity between those glassy skyscrapers looking down over dank, crowded street markets teeming with anonymous life. And it similarly captures the way technology has blurred the line between organic and synthetic: “The messages the film’s trying to convey, the line between human and not human, is something that I think has influenced me subconsciously,” Frankum says.

“It was a fear of technology and what was coming with it and how it would change our lives—the disconnect, how it was going to disrupt and separate humans from each other,” Gary Numan tells The A.V. Club of those same themes, which began heavily informing his work around 1979’s Replicas. “The prostitutes wouldn’t be human anymore, they would be machines. Machines are running everything. It’s a very frightening thing; people don’t go out anymore. People are very isolated.”

A devotee of Philip K. Dick since his school days, and a new-wave pioneer whose music has long concerned itself with questions of the relationship between man and machine, Numan could definitely challenge El-P for the title of music’s most obsessive Blade Runner fan, calling it “my favorite film for years.” Though it was actually released three years prior to the movie’s release, Replicas is nearly a Blade Runner concept album, largely inspired as it is by the movie’s source material, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?. After Numan finally saw Blade Runner, he then spent much of the 1980s “liberating” samples of it across his records. (“Bit naughty, really,” he admits now.) He even copied Hauer’s bleached-blonde Roy Batty look for the cover of 1986’s Strange Charm, where he also recorded the B-side “Time To Die,” whose lyrics are practically a 1:1 transcription of Roy Batty’s last words.

Numan also one-upped El-P by drafting the actual Dick Morrissey—the saxophonist responsible for Blade Runner’s dreamy “Love Theme”—to play on most of his mid-’80s albums, beginning with 1983’s Warriors. “A friend of mine, we were talking about the fact that [Morrissey] was the one playing on the film, and he mentioned to me that he knew the man who’d done it,” Numan says. “I was a bit starstruck, to be honest.”

While the sax was eventually abandoned—along with the former kohl-eyed android’s adoption of more of a fedora-clad, 1940s detective vibe—and Numan remade himself in the mold of Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, those same old themes of post-apocalyptic, post-human angst remained in his work. Numan’s new Savage: Songs From A Broken World, his first wholly science-fiction record since Replicas, is a concept album about a future world ravaged by global warming that could have sprung from Philip K. Dick himself, if only he’d lived long enough to see An Inconvenient Truth.

“There is no technology, certainly no robots,” Numan says of Savage. “In that sense, it’s almost the opposite [of Blade Runner], in terms of specifics. But in terms of humans being in trouble and it being caused by technology—which to a large degree global warming is, I think—it has quite a few similarities.”

So what would Gary Numan’s career even look like without Blade Runner? What would any of these artists’ careers? “From the film’s point of view, I don’t know that it would have been greatly different,” Numan says. “There would have been different samples on the record, and I might not have had a blonde-haired image—though I had that to begin with, so I might not have gone back to it. But without the Androids book, it could have been significantly different. Philip K. Dick’s influence on me has been significant.”

“It would be less dystopian,” Haley concurs of Com Truise. “It maybe would be a little bit brighter. Just like the film, I have my bright moments. But it definitely dictated my mood at the time, so I do think it would be completely different had I not seen that film.”

“Nothing had really captured that vibe the way Blade Runner did,” El-P says. “Ever since then, I’ve been chasing art that gives me that feeling again, and trying to get back into that world. And to a degree, I’ve always sought out ways of recreating it, in my own medium.” Because he has—alongside countless other musicians, whether they’re simply replicating its dystopian themes or sampling Vangelis’ synthesizer tones, or even dropping Rutger Hauer’s voice into the breakdown—we’ve been surrounded by the sounds of Blade Runner’s world for 35 years now. It’s an incredible musical legacy, arguably as influential as any artist in the canon. And now that the sequel has given it more life, who knows what the next generation might borrow or steal from it?