Theoretically Speaking: S4:E3

What Makes Nü-Metal, Nü-Metal?

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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

Epic
Faith No More
1989

Bring The Noise
Anthrax and Public Enemy

1991

Killing In The Name
Rage Against The Machine
1992

Loco
Coal Chamber
1997

Got The Life
Koᴙn
1998

Push It
Static X

1999

Break Stuff
Limp Bizkit
2000

Duality
Slipknot
2000

Down With The Sickness
Disturbed

2000

Bartender
(hed) p.e.
2000

Solitaire Unraveling
Mushroomhead
2001

In The End
Linkin Park
2001

Chop Suey!
System Of A Down
2001


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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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LinkCrawford
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April 28, 2023 8:25 am

I’ll break whatever stuff I want to.

LinkCrawford
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April 28, 2023 9:01 am
Reply to  Virgindog

That’s exactly what I meant. Break unhealthy traditions, break toxic relationships. And break-fast. Even better.

Eric-J
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April 28, 2023 9:38 am
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mt58
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April 28, 2023 10:34 am
Reply to  LinkCrawford

I have a new person on my team at work. I asked him to test some code that I had slogged up. He said, “OK. I’ll try to break it.”

I’d say that he gets it.

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 28, 2023 11:39 am
Reply to  mt58

Red Team Against the Machine

cappiethedog
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April 28, 2023 8:51 pm

This is a quality pun.

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 28, 2023 9:49 am

Yes Bill, you were correct last week when you predicted that this entry would not be what I was expecting. If it ain’t Baroque….break stuff?

That’s a great point about the possible larger effect of diminishing taboos around mental health. If that’s the case, maybe that’s a net positive for the genre. At the time, it did not seem healthy at all. It seemed decadent, opportunistic, exhibitionist, and–especially people like Durst–irresponsible exploitation of pain for commercial success. That’s probably an unfair assessment, and perhaps instead reflects the crass machinations of the music industry than any individual band, but that’s at least how I felt, even as a 17-year old. Collectively, it felt rather oppressive, like the amped-up industry sequel to Grunge’s angsty sleeper hit.

Korn was always a bit different, though. I never really liked them, but always respected them, and I think that was generally true among punk and metal fans. I didn’t really like the mix of metal, rap, and singing in a whiny voice, but they always seemed like people earnestly working out their demons. I guess the same was true for Linkin Park, and probably plenty of other bands.

Weirdly enough, I’ve always loved Drowning Pool’s “Bodies,” no questions asked. And System of a Down always seemed apart from the rest. They were the Oingo Boingo of nu metal, and for that I always loved them.

And Rage. Man, when I first heard them, I was completely blown away. Even after nu metal had emerged, I figured that Rage’s rap-heavy brand of rap-rock would eventually inspire its own movement of angry organic rap bands. It never really happened, though. But it still could some day!

cappiethedog
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April 28, 2023 8:56 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

So System of a Down has a horn section?

I used to think of Oingo Boingo as Devo with horns.

While I’m here, I just want to publicly state that I love “Not My Slave”, “Stay”, “Cinderella Undercover”, and “Only a Lad”. And that the live version of Boingo Alive are all superior to the studio versions.

Phylum of Alexandria
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April 29, 2023 9:52 am
Reply to  cappiethedog

No, they don’t really resemble each other in terms of specific musical references. More about their personality, and also how they sat relative to their respective zeitgeists.

Boingo is tied to New Wave, but always seemed a bit apart from that scene, in part because they mashed up so many different clashing styles and moods. They were party music, punk adjacent, cabaret revivalists, cynical dorks. At once edgy and deeply uncool.

SoaD were Nu Metal, but they had a clear connection to punk, and also mixed in prog and glam, and Armenian influences for good measure.

Both of them were openly political, but also felt comfortable enough to stick it to their own side as well (“Capitalism” and “Only a Lad” for Boingo; “Science” for SoAD).

And whatever their influences or song topics, both bands bounced around effortlessly between zany fun, vicious sarcasm, raging anger, and heartfelt angst.

Just a very similar spirit, despite their many differences.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xD2ItImFEU

mt58
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April 28, 2023 10:31 am

I met a younger musician earlier in the week. He surprised me when he cited RATM as an influence, and a vibe that he aspired to. So, looks like you’re on to something- maybe the “some day” is coming soon!

Pauly Steyreen
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April 28, 2023 10:28 am

I’m surprised you didn’t mention the unforgettable 1993 soundtrack to the very forgettable movie Judgement Night.

Every song was a rock – rap or rock – hip-hop collaboration:

Mudhoney and Sir Mix-a-Lot (Seattle special)
Del tha Funky Homosapien and Dinosaur, Jr
Therapy? and Fatal
De La Soul and Teenage Fanclub
Run DMC and Living Colour
Faith No More and Boo-Yaa TRIBE
Slayer and Ice-T (whoa!)
Helmet and House of Pain
Pearl Jam and Cypress Hill
Biohazard and Onyx
Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill

The soundtrack got a good critical reception, far better than the movie. It may have been a stunt to some extent, but it was laying the groundwork for people to hear those sounds together. The foundation Nü Metal was built on.

Great article as always, Bill! Never much of a fan of this genre, but Linkin Park’s “In the End” is an all-timer and Rage always gets my respect.

Eric-J
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May 1, 2023 2:37 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

And that reminds me – Ice-T’s Body Count side project/band probably deserves a shout out as one of the first clear rap-rock hybrids, going a little harder with both than “Walk This Way.” Plus they were at the center of one of the key ’90s musical controversies with the song “Cop Killer.”

JJ Live At Leeds
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April 28, 2023 10:59 am

I liked the stuff that led upto nü-metal; Faith No More and RAtM especially but once the genre really too hold I couldn’t get with it. I was early 20s by that point, maybe if I’d been a few years younger teenage angst would have seen me identify with it. With RAtM I remember playing it to some friends from my village, I’d known them since before we started school but by that point all we had in common was proximity and playing football ⚽️ most nights. They were into classic rock, I was off on my own journey. I really thought that they might like some Rage and that the defiant refrain of “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” would strike a chord in every teenager. They were not impressed, though I shppose that they were only doing what the song said, there was no telling them that this was what they should be listening to. Further evidence that the place I came from wasn’t the place I belonged.

Then along came Limp Bizkit a few years later and wrapping up the anger with puerile humour and more straight up aggression and invocations to just break stuff went down a storm with them.

LB were briefly unfeasibly huge here around 2000. From nowhere Take A Look Around became their first charting single entering at #3 to my bemusement and following up with Rollin’ actually topping the charts for 2 weeks with the accompanying Chocolate Starfish album also hitting the top and going 5 times platinum. From there though, just like Bill says it was a swift fall. Next album only went Gold.

Linkin Park were the more serious counterpoint and the other big nü-metal act here. There were a few British acts like Lostprophets who ended in ignominy as lead singer was jailed for 29 years for sexual offences against minors but in the main we liked our nü-metal American.

Thanks as ever Bill for fleshing things out.

mt58
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April 28, 2023 12:08 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

There’s a topic:
Albums, (or even singles) by artists that don’t exactly fit in with the rest of their catalog – but are possibly their best work.

cappiethedog
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April 28, 2023 9:01 pm
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Mercury Rev’s Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweetie Revisited.

blu_cheez
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April 28, 2023 8:27 pm

Most of this music is so, so bad. I’m down with a lot of the bands that inspired this genre, but the bulk of it was just basic, juvenile, kind of hateful music that I was counting the hours until it went away. Having 20+ years without Fred Durst anywhere in my life has been wonderful.

dutchg8r
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April 29, 2023 11:56 am

Once again, V-Dog totally sticks the landing in perfectly defining a genre in a way that makes total sense to me but I could never have articulated it so well. Awesome job.

I didn’t get into nu metal like a lot of other early 20 somethings of my era did, and I think alot of it had to do with the fact I wasn’t super angsty at that time. I didn’t need the cathartic release Korn and RATM provided others. But I did understand it for what it was, and appreciated how well it resonated for others at that time. Totally dug the musical direction those songs went in too, I loved the blend of rock, rap, and metal sounds.

Especially appreciated the tidbit about all the extra strings on guitars and bass those bands introduced to the ongoing music evolution.

Obviously I have a greater appreciation for Jonathan Davis considering he’s a mega-Duranie, and has remained so for all these years. Reading or hearing him totally fanboy about Simon LeBon is always a treat. 😁

Zeusaphone
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April 29, 2023 1:04 pm

Comparing rappers to minstrels is just asking for trouble

cstolliver
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April 29, 2023 1:57 pm
Reply to  Zeusaphone

I’m sure he’s talking about the medieval, original version of the term, not the racist American interpretation.

Zeusaphone
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April 29, 2023 6:52 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

American racist code language is a minefield.

You may (or may not) want to read up on minstrel shows or minstrelsy as the terms pertain to 19th and 20th century American theater.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minstrel_show

Zeusaphone
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April 29, 2023 6:47 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

I’m sure he was, but it would be easy an easy step to conflate it with minstrel shows out of ignorance or bad faith.

Aaron3000
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April 30, 2023 9:37 pm

I just want to give mad props to the adbot that stuck this in a most appropriate spot in the article. Bravo!

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Aaron3000
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April 30, 2023 10:21 pm
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