Following the decline of the grunge/alt-rock monopoly of the early-‘90s, multiple sounds and styles vied for dominance. In one corner, we had the Spice Girls, who owned the airwaves. In another, we had country mainstays LeAnn Rimes, George Strait and Garth Brooks, whose LPs topped the Billboard 200 chart that year, too. While legacy rock acts Metallica, U2 and Aerosmith brought the only real guitar cred to the charts that year, Diddy’s Bad Boy Empire began to take over hip-hop. In yet another, albeit slightly-less-commercial corner, we had the West Coast indie/grunge 2.0 scene, including landmarks releases from the Foo Fighters, Pavement, Built to Spill, Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith and Modest Mouse. Across the pond, the Brits were turning out sophisticated epics, including Radiohead’s OK Computer, Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space and The Verve’s Urban Hymns.
But, in a deep, dark corner of America, another sound lurked. Then, like Donald Trump on a Twitter massacre, it got louder, and angrier, until everyone was forced to pay attention. It was called “nu metal” or “rap rock,” and for a period between the mid-to-late-‘90s to the early 2000s, it reigned supreme in the pop consciousness, right there alongside the Britneys and Christinas and Baby Spices on MTV’s Total Request Live.
How did this happen? What are we to learn here?
1997 was a banner year for angry white dudes. (Eminem emerged that year.) It’s also when the combined, warped influence of Aerosmith/Run DMC’s “Walk This Way,” Vanilla Ice, House of Pain, Faith No More, broken families, and various cheap suburban intoxicants united to birth a new hybrid sound. And Jacksonville, Florida’s Limp Bizkit, whose debut album Three Dollar Bill, Y’all$ turns 20 years old today (July 1), were there to cash in on young Americans’ pent up rage — and bestow us the gift of pop culture clown/angry white frontman Fred Durst. Oh, what a time to be alive.
There were signs. Korn, whose debut dropped in ’94, provided one of the first hints. Next, in ’95, the Deftones released their debut, followed by their ’97 breakout sophomore album, Around the Fur, which arrived alongside Incubus’ S.C.I.E.N.C.E. But those are darker, artier or funkier takes on this new sound. Others were (often unfairly) lassoed into the genre, too, but did various sonic twists of their own: passionate-political (Rage Against the Machine), progressive (System of a Down), whiny/catchy (Papa Roach), folky (Everlast), and electronic (Linkin Park, whose LP Hybrid Theory, would set a sales record). But the Bizkit was all about brute force. Of the lot, Limp Bizkit and Three Doller Bill, Y’all$ are angriest of the genre, a blitzkrieg of rap, metal and distilled white male rage.
Their first single, “Counterfeit,” was a pissed off, finger-pointing response to local Florida bands that Durst claimed were copping their image and style. It sparked controversy, but for other reasons. Their label, Interscope Records, had paid Portland, Oregon radio station 101.1 KUFO $5,000 to play the song 50 times as a paid advertisement. (It apparently worked—the LP proved to be the band’s breakthrough, reaching No. 22). Then there was the super-charged cover of George Michael’s “Faith,” of all songs. With guitarist Wes Borland’s signature harmonic style and plenty of vinyl scratching from DJ Lethal, it’s certainly a unique interpretation, and it became omnipresent among disaffected, MTV-addled high school kids.
With their in-your-face sound and image, the Bizkit became the lighthouse for a genre and its attitude. Borland wore outlandish body paint and outfits onstage, and Durst became a tragic fashion icon of sorts, with his backwards baseball cap, natty goatee, and baggy JNCO shorts. And everyone in American knew a Durst. He was the national avatar and representative of that kid in neighborhoods from coast to coast. You know, that punk kid, who was often shirtless, ears pierced, riding a BMX bike, bumping Tupac and smoking Marb Reds. Hell, the Three Dollar Bill Y’all$ cover art is essentially a graffiti-style, doodled self-portrait of that kid, drawn in Friday School detention, of course.
When reexamining Three Dollar Bill, Y’all$, it’s not hard to draw a connection between its sound and fans and the Trump administration. Like Trump and his followers, Durst and his minions looked at popular music and didn’t see themselves represented. So they told the PC police to stick it up their yeah, and—like Trump’s surprise victory—it turns out there was a lot of them to join that chorus. First we take the charts, then we take the White House.
“The best way to get our message across is through shock value,” Durst told music journalist Colin Devenish in the biography Limp Bizkit. “That’s what grabs people… getting people to react by showing something negative, hoping something positive will come out of it.” Sound familiar?
For Limp Bizkit, many positives came from it. The quintet’s next album, Significant Other, hit No. 1 and sold over 16 million copies thanks to its lead single, “Nookie,” which made the misogynistic lyric “I did it all for the nookie” a national catchphrase. Then, during the band’s appearance at Woodstock 1999, fans exploded in violence during the performance of the album track “Break Stuff.” You can’t make this up.
Their third LP, the ridiculously-titled Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, held No. 1 for two weeks. Then Borland, the band’s co-writer, left the band and Durst was all alone for Results May Vary. Durst went quiet musically for a while, trying his hand at directing, helming the Ice-Cube-starring family comedy The Longshots and even an eHarmony commercial. Borland returned for 2011’s Gold Cobra, and a year later the band inked a deal with Lil Wayne’s Cash Money label, releasing a pair of singles, including “Ready to Go” featuring Weezy. Now they’re working on a new LP, tentatively titled Stampede of the Disco Elephants, which some have called the “Chinese Democracy of nu metal.” Durst and Limp Bizkit have reached Axl Rose-levels of ridiculousness.
Durst has arguably held the title of Music’s Most Hated Singer for two decades. On Bizkit’s 2000 track “Take a Look Around,” he invited the hate in: “Now all the critics wanna hit it… just because they don’t get it,” he sing-raps. “But I’ll stay fitted, new era committed.” The reaction to his band’s recent work is scathing, and his contemporaries have trashed him. “I do apologize for Limp Bizkit,” Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford told Rolling Stone. “I really do. I feel really bad that we inspired such bullshit.” And Jacoby Shaddix, singer for Papa Roach, blamed Durst for nu metal’s negative image: “A lot of people didn’t like Fred Durst,” he told El Paso, TX radio station KLAQ. “Really and truly. That was real bad, and everybody was hating on him. And he was kind of, like, ‘Why you wanna hate me?’ And so, he was kind of the poster boy for the genre, and so if people wanted to take pot shots at it, it was easy, you know?” It sure was/is.
But as we look back on 20 controversial years of Limp Bizkit, let’s explore a thought: Did Limp Bizkit actually indirectly save rock n’ roll? Without the nu metal and rap rock sound, played loudest and angriest by Limp Bizkit, perhaps we’d never have had the course correction that was the throwback rock revolution of the early aughts. Perhaps the “The” bands — The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Killers, and many, many others — were a direct response to the music of the late-‘90s and its image and message? Perhaps those artists looked to the charts and didn’t like what they heard, and took it upon themselves to create a better future. Let’s hope so.