Over the past few years, the stigma around our mental health needs has started falling away.
We can talk about our state of mind more openly now. Getting therapy is no longer seen as a weakness.
We even see ads for online services that connect you with a mental health professional.
That wasn’t the case even ten years ago.
I didn’t say so in the grunge article, but a lot of grunge songs are emotionally honest and many boil down to, “I hurt inside.”
Whether it was depression or grief or longing or rare periods of happiness, any emotion was worth putting to music.
And while a lot of rap is just bragging, some of it is ferociously honest. As I mentioned in my first rap article, one of the early rap hits was “The Message” and it truly brought a message. Like the traveling minstrels of old, rappers talked about what was happening in their neighborhoods.
When MTV finally started playing rap in the 90s, a lot of suburban white kids had their eyes opened to the disparities between life in black urban areas and their own.
Those kids, brought up on grunge and rap, put the two together. Perhaps not right away, perhaps they had to be nudged into it by older acts.
Run DMC had been rapping over the intro of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” for years but hadn’t bothered to listen to the whole song.
Producer Rick Rubin suggested they do a cover of it and brought in Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry.
Against the band’s opinion, it was released as a single in 1986 and was a big success. It opened a lot of rockers’ and rappers’ eyes and ears to the other genre.
In 1989, a band from San Francisco called Faith No More got some MTV and radio play with a song called “Epic.” Its verses were rapped, but the music was metal with an alt rock sensibility. People loved it because it was so different, but it was so different that it wasn’t imitated by many other bands.
Faith No More often mixed genres into single songs, so “Epic” was sort of seen as just another of their mash ups.
Two years later, the metal band Anthrax released a cover of Public Enemy’s 1988 song “Bring The Noise,” sampling the vocals from the original.
This was before sampling technology was available, so they cut the vocals in manually.
At first, Public Enemy wasn’t keen on the idea, but that was before they heard it.
Musicians often listen to genres outside their own for inspiration or for plain old relaxation, just like any other music fan.
Angus Young of AC/DC, for instance, listens to jazz. In the early 90s, Anthrax was listening to rap, and Public Enemy was listening to metal and even named checked Anthrax in “Bring The Noise.” From that standpoint, their collaboration makes perfect sense.
Even though radio and MTV didn’t know how to program this new version of “Bring The Noise,” it was a hit. Maybe not on the charts (it got to #14 in the UK and #10 in New Zealand), but a whole lot of kids heard it, and a whole lot of them started bands. In Los Angeles, Rage Against The Machine was already starting to mix rap and metal.
Not far away in Bakersfield, a band called L.A.P.D. had been influenced by Faith No More and the funk rock of Red Hot Chili Peppers.
They recorded an album but fell apart shortly after its release due to their singer’s drug issues.
The three remaining members found a new singer and second guitarist, and they named themselves Koᴙn.
The singer, Jonathan Davis, was the son of an aspiring actress and a keyboardist named Rick Davis who played for Buck Owens and Frank Zappa. Both parents were often absent while pursuing their careers.
When Jonathan was three, his parents divorced and he lived with his father and new stepmother, who was neglectful and allegedly abusive. He developed asthma and at age five suffered an attack bad enough to temporarily stop his heart.
In high school, he was bullied for listening to new wave and for wearing goth clothes and eyeliner.
He found escape in music and started learning instruments. He now plays keyboards, clarinet, violin, bagpipes, guitar, drums, and the double bass.
He also took a job in a mortuary as an autopsy assistant. When he was 16.
Though he took two semesters of college level mortician training, as well as taking a position with the Kern County Coroner’s Department, the work got to him. Seeing the insides of dead bodies, including children, over and over again, left him with PTSD long after he quit the business.
While most of the big Los Angeles bands at that time were still singing about girls, girls, girls, Davis wrote lyrics as therapy.
He wrote about his depression and angst and insecurity.
It fit Koᴙn’s dark, downtuned music perfectly.
The lowest note on a guitar in standard tuning is an E an octave and a half below middle C. “Downtuning” means to tune the guitar even lower.
Some guitarists will drop just the E string down to a D or C or B. Others will tune all the strings down a whole step or more.
These low notes, when properly distorted, sound more aggressive and heavy than standard tuning.
Koᴙn’s two guitarists began playing 7-string guitars and their bassist used a 5-string bass.
The extra strings made even lower notes available. Some bands are now using 8-string guitars to go lower still.
Nü-metal’s distinct characteristics are that it’s heavy, hence the downtuning, its vocals and beats are similar to rap’s, and the lyrics are often about emotional pain. While most nü-metal bands are more metal than rap, they sometimes employ samplers and turntables, another influence from hip hop.
Koᴙn had all of these. They were the first nü-metal band.
Nü-metal was divisive. Some metal fans thought it wasn’t really metal.
Some rap fans thought it wasn’t really rap.
Others were all in.
From the release of Koᴙn’s first album in 1994 until the genre died out around 2003, hundreds of bands mixed metal and rap. Some threw in other genres as well.
And then came the bands in masks and make-up.
That’s not to say they weren’t good musicians, but the masks and face paint struck some fans as artificial.
Slipknot, Mudvayne, and Mushroomhead had big fanbases, but their stage wear turned off a lot of music fans. There were unfavorable comparisons to KISS and professional wrestling.
Let’s be honest: some of these bands were just jumping on the nü-metal bandwagon, faking their inner turmoil and playacting as tortured souls for fame and fortune.
We all have our scars but few of us had Jonathan Davis’s upbringing.tnocs.com contributing author bill “Virgindog” bois
This inauthenticity was dissed by both metal and rap fans. Critics called nü-metal juvenile and shallow. Much of it is, but nü-metal’s best stuff is deep and dark and real.
Limp Bizkit’s singer, Fred Durst, became the critics’ punching bag.
In part because he had a way of getting his name in the press through rude comments or insulting other performers. He has said that he made a conscious effort to create an ugly persona, in order to attract publicity. While he may or may not have had a difficult childhood, depending on who you ask, any pain he expressed in his songs was quite possibly exaggerated.
Nü-metal’s popularity started fading after Woodstock 99.
The festival wasn’t planned well. It was set at the former site of Griffiss Air Force Base, which meant the audience stood on concrete, not grass.
There was no shade and a heat wave sent the temperature over 100°F. Food and water was overpriced, and sanitation facilities were insufficient leading to many people getting sick.
One person died due to heatstroke.
These poor conditions probably contributed to the spate of arson and violence. There were many assaults and at least five rapes.
And while crowd surfing on a sheet of plywood looks like fun, that plywood had to come from somewhere.
Some came from a sound tower, and some came from a fence meant to keep out people without tickets.
But the fence wasn’t ripped down by people trying to get in. It was ripped down by people trying to get out.
A couple performers, like Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dexter Holland from The Offspring, tried to calm things down. But Fred Durst didn’t, despite being asked to do so by producers between songs. He told the audience to keep the energy high.
It’s easy to blame Durst and Limp Bizkit’s song “Break Stuff” for throwing the match into the powder keg, as some have done.
Things may have erupted anyway but choosing to do a song about wanting to break stuff doesn’t help turn away the pointing fingers.
Especially when Durst introduced it by saying, “How many of you people here ever woke up one morning and just decided it wasn’t one of those days, and you’re gonna break some shit?”
Woodstock 99 was nü-metal’s Disco Demolition Night.
The genre peaked in 2000 and 2001 with music that was already in the can, but it was dead by 2003.
Musicians and listeners moved on to metal and/or rap, but this particular combination of the two didn’t survive.
Nü-metal is looked down on now, like an embarrassing incident from one’s teenage years.
However, its positive legacy is the 7-string guitar, which has been used in metal ever since. And its genuine expression of pain may have helped open society’s attitude towards mental health and its treatment. We need to be grateful for that part.
Whether you think you need it or not, take a day off from work as a mental health day.
Listen to some music, nü-metal or otherwise, and feel better about yourself.
But not by breaking stuff.
Suggested Listening – Full YouTube Playlist
Faith No More
Bring The Noise
Anthrax and Public Enemy
Killing In The Name
Rage Against The Machine
Got The Life
Down With The Sickness
Youth Of The Nation
In The End
System Of A Down
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