Red Hot Chili Peppers have cycled through guitarists, released ten studio albums, developed a unique sound, and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; but none of it would have came to be if it wasn’t for one curly haired musical virtuoso who planted the seed.
Today marks the day the creative genius behind the fusion of rock, punk and funk was born. Hillel Slovak, born in Israel on April 13th 1962, was a harmonious energy who eventually, according to bassist Flea, “took the wrong drugs at the wrong time”, a mistake that cost him his life. Despite his untimely death in 1988, the mark he left on music and the undisrupted bond between three best friends continues to thrive.
Slovak grew up loving rock and roll, stating his guitar influences were “all the good ones” — specifically Hendrix and Andy Gill (who went on to produce the first Red Hot Chili Peppers self-titled album). A guitar was gifted to Slovak at his Bar Mitzvah, opening doors to a whole new world. The young guitarist came from an upbringing where money was tight and he would have to share a bedroom with his brother James. While constantly disrupting his brother’s sleep, Slovak would spend hours into the night playing along to the likes of KISS and Jimi Hendrix.
“Spontaneity. It stands for the way we feel at the time.” This sense of spontaneity was a theme prevalent in all aspects of Slovak’s life; from music, to friendships, to drugs. He wanted to create something that was rock and punk with a Parliament-Funkadelic core; a complete mixed bag of music spontaneity was demonstrated in both the Red Hot Chili Peppers sound and live performances. During high school he recruited close friend Michael Balzary (Flea) for his band Anthym. Flea was a jazz trumpet player who thought rock was for losers. Slovak changed this perception for Flea and began teaching him bass. If it wasn’t for Slovak, we would probably be without of one of the most iconic and influential bass players to date.
In an interview with VH1’s Behind The Music, Hillel’s brother James explains that ‘right from the start there was a special chemistry between high school friends Hillel Slovak, Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary and Anthony Kiedis’. After Kiedis spontaneously joined Anthym on stage, Slovak, Flea, Kiedis and Jack Irons (Anthym drummer) formed a ‘joke’ band; Red Hot Chili Peppers. By 1983 the Red Hot Chili Peppers began to play sold out high energy shows in Los Angeles.
To receive a record deal is a musicians dream. In 1984 this dream came true for Slovak — twice. His unique guitar and writing style lead to both Red Hot Chili Peppers and Anthym receiving record deals that year. Due to Anthym being the more serious band Slovak pursued the deal and changed the band name to What Is This? Growing frustrations during the second recording with prompted Slovak to get in contact with Flea and Kiedis to rejoin Red Hot Chili Peppers.
From this point onwards they became a force to be reckoned with – to this day still possessing fans across the globe. Unfortunately for Slovak, he only experienced the prelude to this prime.
As they became explosive around Los Angeles, Slovak’s drug addiction began to worsen. “Within a few minutes of hanging out with Hillel I sensed that he was absolutely different from most of the people I’d spent time with.” Kiedis’ senses were not only right about Slovak, but summarised the atypical and powerful friendship between the two. Kiedis and Slovak both struggled together with drug addiction whilst being in an upcoming band. They developed a mutual dependence where they promised to give up drugs before the Uplift Mofo Party Plan tour (1987). “I could tell Hillel had no inner core of strength. He had been robbed by his addiction of the life force that allows you to at least defend yourself. It was a sad moment.”
Slovak began suffering severe withdrawal symptoms that impacted his playing, and resulted in a show cancellation. Tours can be a very gruelling process, as much as it’s a time for band members to enjoy themselves, it’s also work. It can become tiresome, and eventually people need their space. Post tour the band agreed to go their separate ways for a few weeks before regrouping.
During this hiatus Slovak did not have the mutual dependence he probably needed at the time, so he contacted his brother. Slovak came clean about the urge of wanting to get back on drugs in despite of knowing he shouldn’t. The two brothers planned to catch up in the future and spend more time together, but sadly this was the last time the two of them would ever speak. On June 25th 1988 Slovak died from a heroin and cocaine overdose; his body was found in his apartment two days later. His brother later found an entry in Slovak’s diary stating; “Fuck drugs, music is my destiny. Even though I don’t necessarily feel it now, I know soon that this experience will make me stronger.”
Kiedis, Flea, and Lindsy Goetz (Red Hot Chili Peppers former manager) all said, and continue to say, kind words about the talented guitarist; “Hillel was very magical, he was an amazing musician. He had this style that was very much his own, very unique.”
In 2012 Red Hot Chili Peppers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Words of honour were dedicated to Slovak by his brother and former band mates, reminding us all that although Hillel Slovak is no longer an earthly presence, his influence and energy will always live in Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Happy Birthday Hillel.
Watch Red Hot Chili Peppers talk about their influences.
I am a bass-thundering and word-writing lover of music; especially of tunes with an old school rock and metal feel (I'll even throw in a bit of 70's disco while we are at it, can't forget about a good groove!). I spend most of my time either playing music, or writing about music. Find me on Instagram @jacintajacintajacintaView all posts by Jacinta Jaye