As grunge and alternative music was fading in the late nineties, rock was looking for a new sound to rejuvenate the genre. Many of the people starting bands then had grown up with rap and began adding hip-hop influences to their music as a way of trying something different. The concept wasn’t entirely original (just ask Anthrax, Aerosmith, or Rage Against the Machine), but now it felt like everyone was doing it. And it was massive. And the biggest of these bands was Limp Bizkit.
“Nookie” from Significant Other was their breakthrough hit and solidified their frat-boy ethos. The title of their 2000 follow-up album, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, is practically bragging over how immature it is – I remember intense arguments between classes over whether “hot dog flavored water” was urine or semen. The cover art might be some of the grossest in recent memory. Lyrically, it’s more of the same, with constant swearing, dirty jokes, and faux-rebellion – what teen wouldn’t love to shout along wth lyrics like, “We won’t ever give a fuck until you/You give a fuck about me and my generation”? Or to threaten their parents, “I will straight up leave your shit, and you’ll be the one who’s left missing me”?
What’s sadly obscured about the band is that their musicianship is actually good. The eccentric Wes Borland has long been recognized for his unusual guitar style (alternating between riffing and a trippy, funky warble), but drummer John Otto studied jazz in art school before playing with avant-garde bands, and Sam Rivers has a solid bass, keeping a steady thump, weaving around Borland’s riffs. They’re responsible for the catchy beats Their groovier songs, like “Rearranged,” “Hot Dog,” and “Boiler,” show a band with unrealized potential. Instrumental versions of their songs are far more compelling than the album versions.
The first single from the album is “Take a Look Around,” the theme song to Mission: Impossible 2. It’s been described before as, “overproduced and underimagined, unignorable and at the same time utterly generic,” And that assessment isn’t wrong. But it also fits perfectly with the dumb bombast of its movie, and for the teens and 20-somethings who were Limp Bizkit’s core audience, there was something cool about nu-metal rock stars mingling with an international superspy, especially with quasi-profound lyrics like, “I know why you want to hate me/’Cause hate is all the world has ever seen lately”
The limiting factor artistically, and the band’s biggest reason for success, is Fred Durst himself. He wrote almost all the lyrics, with such inventive techniques as rhyming “right here” with “right here.” His rapping is substandard, even by rock standards, and his singing is sufficient at best. But he carries a terrific energy with him. Even as he approaches 50, he still can hype the crowd. Since the band’s hiatus, Durst has directed movies, and shockingly isn’t bad at it. More surprisingly, his movies don’t have the same crass spirit as his music, and he’s even made commercials for eHarmony.
Nu-metal is a punchline today in rock music. Most of the bands that survived the era either predated it (Korn, Deftones), changed their sound (Disturbed, Papa Roach), or became even heavier (Slipknot). Limp Bizkit is held up as the worst of the worst, frat-boy douchebag rock, with a frontman in his thirties rapping, “How do you do, fellow kids?” The music is dated, crashing as quickly as it rose.
But compare it to modern rock radio. Most of the bands are interchangeable mid-tempo butt-rock, with chugging guitars and mopey choruses. And that’s what I like about nu-metal. Nothing else sounds like it. It was an attempt at something different and new, and while it was a mixed success at best, you could tell the bands apart – Limp Bizkit didn’t sound like Linkin Park, which didn’t sound like Incubus, and so on (once the major labels realised the money potential here, they began churning out nondescript bandwagon acts that rarely even had a hit single).
Limp Bizkit’s last album, Gold Cobra, was released in 2011, and any follow-up has been in development hell. It isn’t very good, but even released so long after their height, it is unmistakably their sound. They’re musical vulgar auteurs, for all the faint praise that can imply.