Throughout this series, it’s become evident that Sam Dunn is a traditionalist when it comes to metal, for lack of a better term. A purist, if you will. He hails from a very distinct camp of metal appreciation; one that values the pioneering sounds of the genre and not so much the various species it spawned over time.
Just like the grunge episode, this edition of Metal Evolution (which you can watch HERE) begins by questioning whether the nu metal genre even belongs in the story at all. Did nu metal really have any lasting impact on the genre or is it collectively agreed to be an embarrassing, ugly sore spot in the family’s history that everyone ignores until someone awkwardly brings it up?
As a hip-hop head, it’s hard for me not to take this episode personally. On the surface, the negativity portrayed towards nu metal seems to only convey the following: rap music came along and tainted metal forever. It assumes that these musicians were simply throwing one popular genre on top of another for no other reason than to capitalize on the commercial viability of both. But this attitude largely discounts the power and relevance of hip-hop and the social, political and cultural environment of the early-to-mid-90s, when rap music was reaching its own peak as a genre.
The roots of nu metal are anything but embarrassing. The crossover track that is most widely credited with sparking the nu metal movement is “Bring The Noise” by Anthrax and Public Enemy. But one can’t help but think the two genres were meteors on an inevitable crash course due to their rising popularity and the essence of rebellion they shared. Anthrax was formed in Queens, NY – an epicenter for hip-hop. As Scott Ian notes, they had a deep appreciation for the genre and so “Bring The Noise” was simply a dream come true: getting to collaborate with one of their favourite groups at the time, despite the vast differences in their music.
Around the same time, funk and R&B influenced grooves were also finding their way into heavier music thanks to bands like Faith No More. But the band who perfected the blend between groove and heaviness was undoubtedly Rage Against the Machine. The band’s incomparable guitarist Tom Morello took his love of 70s riffs and filtered it through his love of punk and hip-hop to push the idea of what a guitar could sound like past any point your ear was previously accustomed to. This blend of sonic styles, combined with Zack de la Rocha’s rap-infused vocals that were laced with highly political dissidence, made Rage one of the most unique bands the decade had seen yet. Pantera emerged as another pioneering band skirting along the edges of traditional metal, with a new rhythmic dynamic that was (and still is) virtually impossible to categorize. Bands began to add the word “DJ” to their lineup, introducing the turntable as a bona fide heavy metal instrument while continuing to push traditional instruments to innovative new heights. This emerging genre was combining rhythm with the rebellious nature of both hip-hop and metal, and turning it into a Molotov cocktail of extremity and accessibility.
The first band to be bestowed with the label of “nu metal” was Korn. Building off of an admiration for bands like Faith No More and Pantera, Korn created their own groove-based sound that was punctuated by the raw and revealing lyrics of front man Jonathan Davis. His personal struggles were revealed via haunting whispering vocals, contrasted by deep and guttural screams. Davis was seemingly using Korn’s music as a form of therapy, which captivated their audience. Further adding to the nu metal roster was the Sacramento band Deftones. A true product of their environment, Deftones blended heavy metal with the inescapable riffs of early rap music that had taken over the west coast of the United States. With a handful of bands that were quickly becoming household names, nu metal was ready to evolve into its very own sub-genre of the heavy metal family tree and the catalyst for that would be “Roots” – the sixth album from the influential Brazilian heavy metal group Sepultura.
What made Nu metal different was that it captivated the attention of a teenage generation who felt the same rebellious energy that comes with the territory of pubescence but who were also growing up alongside hip-hop: a radical new genre of music that was breaking barriers of race and class, not just sound. With multiple audiences engaged, it’s no surprise that the genre blew up as quickly as it did. Nu metal was an underground movement, a sub-genre that appealed to the metal, goth AND hip-hop communities. This is what made it both prolific and ripe for the mainstream. And mainstream it went…
In the late 90s, Limp Bizkit was everything that traditional metal fans hated (Sam Dunn thoroughly included). In contrast to the innovative, musical mash-up that Rage Against the Machine and Sepultura had developed, they were a more structured and compartmentalized combination of the two genres. Their music appealed to those who had never given metal a chance before, and told existing metal fans that the genre could be a party while still being aggressive. And if you try to tell me that you don’t know all of the words to at least the first verse of “Nookie” I will call you a liar. Limp Bizkit hit their commercial stride with this song and their second album “Significant Other” and at this point nu metal as a whole had been launched into a musical phenomenon. And then Woodstock ’99 happened.
Among other acts, Woodstock ’99 featured the biggest names in nu metal: Rage Against the Machine, Korn and Limp Bizkit. It also featured an unfortunate amount of violence, rape fire and destruction. During Limp Bizkit’s set (specifically during the performance of their hit song “Break Stuff”) the crowd turned ugly, tearing off pieces of plywood from the walls and setting fire to anything in sight.
In this episode of Metal Evolution (and in popular opinion, overall) the blame for this turn of events is placed on Limp Bizkit and more specifically – on Fred Durst. Many claim that he incited the violence and continually encouraged the crowd to, well, break stuff. And although the violence did indeed began during Limp Bizkit’s set, this episode doesn’t touch on any other factors that may have contributed to the situation, nor does it acknowledge the fact that the violence and destruction escalated the night after Limp Bizkit’s performance as well, during a set by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
It’s easy to vilify Fred Durst and it’s easy to point the finger at the nu metal. This genre was born out of two groups of outcasts and therefore set up to be hated from the beginning. And suddenly, the genre was directly linked to destruction and disrespect as if this was the first time a small group of idiots had tainted an event for hundreds of thousands of people. But despite the vilification of nu metal, whether justified or not, the genre continued to evolve and even influenced a few traditional thrash metal bands like Slayer into adapting their sound on their album Diabolus in Musica.
A second generation of nu metal bands appeared in the early 2000s after the initial wave of nu metal subdued, including bands like Papa Roach and Disturbed but spearheaded by the biggest band the genre has seen to date: Linkin Park.
Whether you like this diluted, gentle version of nu metal or whether you despise it, there is no debating its success. This is what I feel was largely ignored during this episode of Metal Evolution – really digging deep into what it was about this genre that spoke to the captivated audience, besides asking a few inarticulate people in line to see Linkin Park why they like the band. Nu metal was more than two genres cross-polluting each other, it was a collision of two cultural movements. Not everyone likes the end result, and that’s (more than) fair. But to dismiss the importance of this genre as it relates to music history as a whole is to do both the metal and the rap genres a disservice but as Sam Dunn states at the end of this episode, perhaps nu metal’s lasting legacy is the way it polarized the metal community – for better or worse.
Watch an all-new episode of Metal Evolution, Friday at 10ET/7PT.