During the Red Hot Chili Peppers' early years, guitarist Hillel Slovak was the band's heart and soul. In an age when most rock guitarists were transfixed by showing off with over-the-top solos, Slovak was one of the few six-stringers to embrace funk -- focusing more on feel than technique. Born April 13, 1962, in Haifa, Israel, his family relocated to the U.S. -- California, to be specific -- when Slovak was five years old. By the late '70s, Slovak had discovered the hard rock sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Kiss, and began playing guitar along to his favorite records. It wasn't long before he started jamming with chums from Fairfax high school (drummer Jack Irons, guitarist Alain Johannes) in a band named Anthym, as well as becoming best friends with trumpet player Michael Balzary and burgeoning poet/actor Anthony Kiedis. Punk rock had exploded on the Los Angeles scene by this time, and Slovak immersed himself in the new musical form, teaching Balzary how to play bass (Balzary would soon be known simply as Flea). While Slovak remained a member of Anthym (re-titled What Is This? by the '80s), he also began jamming with Flea on compositions that merged funk and punk together, enlisting Kiedis to be an MC/rapper and Irons to lend his drumming skills. The project was originally named Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem, but by the time of their first show in 1983, they were called the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers quickly gathered a following in L.A. with a high-energy stage act that caused quite a stir when the bandmembers would hit the stage in nothing but a sock strategically covering a certain part of their anatomy. But on a darker note, it was around this time that Slovak began to experiment with heroin. The Chili Peppers soon signed with EMI, but Slovak and Irons decided to leave the Chili Peppers to concentrate on their more serious project, What Is This?, which also inked a deal -- but with MCA. The Peppers soldiered on with replacement members (issuing their unfocused self-titled debut in 1984), while What Is This? released their self-titled debut one year later. Not long after both albums appeared, Slovak and Irons decided to return to the Peppers full-time, which resulted in the 1985 George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley. While it didn't exactly storm the charts, the album and its subsequent tour made the Peppers popular with the alternative/college rock crowd. 1987 saw the Peppers issue their best and most focused work yet, Uplift Mofo Party Plan, which inched the band even closer to mainstream success, as the album appeared on the lower reaches of the Billboard album chart. What should have been an exciting time for Slovak and the band turned to tragedy on June 25, 1988, when Slovak died from a heroin overdose. Devastated, the band contemplated disbanding, but Kiedis and Flea decided to carry on (Irons opted to bow out) -- with Slovak-disciple John Frusciante filling the late guitarist's shoes, and another newcomer, Chad Smith, taking over the drum spot. 1989's Mother's Milk was dedicated to Slovak and included one of his paintings as part of the album artwork (as well as one of the last tracks Slovak ever recorded with the Peppers -- an incendiary cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire"). The album was a surprise hit, which led to the band becoming one of rock's top dogs by the '90s. Slovak was also the subject of the Peppers songs "Knock Me Down" (from Mother's Milk) and "My Lovely Man" (off 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik), while the 1994 odds and ends release Out in L.A. collected early Peppers demos, many of which prominently featured the guitar wizardry of Slovak. Hillel Slovak's younger brother, James, published the book Behind the Sun: The Diary and Art of Hillel Slovak in 1999. ~ Greg Prato, Rovi