The secret history of Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory: In their own words
In the year 2000, it felt like anything was possible. The 20th century was literally so last year, the future was now, and with it came the PlayStation 2, the Nokia 3310, The Sims and DeviantART. Change was in the air, permeating every aspect of culture, not least of all alternative music.
The ’90s was a weird time for rock. The hairspray-soaked glam era had taken its final lap down the Sunset Strip, grunge exploded out of Seattle then quietly hung up its flannel as the decade wore on, and Metallica cut their hair in a bid to solidify themselves as the biggest band on the planet. Yet while the established order sought reinvention, fresh blood was bubbling below the surface. A new breed of artist unafraid to embrace outside musical influences were gaining traction, bands like Korn, Deftones and System Of A Down were pushing the boundaries of what it meant to be a rock and metal band. As the decade came to a close, six guys in California fully synthesised the contrasting worlds of metal, hip-hop and EDM into a sound that would change the landscape of heavy music forever.
On October 24, 2000, Linkin Park released their debut album Hybrid Theory onto an unsuspecting world. Formed just four years prior under the moniker Xero, it was the irrepressible duo of Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington (himself a replacement for original vocalist Mark Wakefiled) that made their sound such a formidable weapon. Expertly flanked by guitarist Brad Delson, drummer Rob Bourdon and turntablist Joe Hahn, the iconic unit we know today was completed by bassist Dave Farrell just prior to the record’s release, with Brad on four-string duty in the studio.
Comprised of 12 perfectly-crafted tracks, clocking in at just under 38 minutes, Hybrid Theory dealt in real human connection, wrought with angst and heartache, but it had hooks for days. It was a distillation of adolescent emotion, realised through lung-busting choruses, throat-wrenching screams, bombastic metallic riffage, pristine electro wizardry and exhilarating rap. Your parents’ music this was not, and its effects are still being felt today in everyone from Bring Me The Horizon to Architects to Enter Shikari.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the biggest-selling rock album of the millennium, we sat down with Mike, Brad and Joe to get the full story behind Hybrid Theory, their memories of creating what would become a modern masterpiece, and why it still resonates two decades later.
“[It was] a spectacular moment in time where everything was a first,” says Mike today, with a Cheshire Cat smile. “The first time recording a song in a proper studio, the first time working with a producer and a lead engineer who knew what they were doing. When we went to mix the record it was the first time I’d been to New York – three-quarters of my favourite rappers are from New York and I’d never even been there! I met Busta Rhymes in the studio while we were mixing. It was fucking crazy, [being] in the studio with this guy that I’d been listening to for years.”
“We were a young band so we didn’t have any clout to say, ‘We’re doing it our way,’” remembers Brad. “There’s a lot of pressure by outside forces to conform to whatever’s working at the time, but our vision was distinctly different from everything else. There were other bands combining these styles of music, but not in the way we wanted to, and we weren’t going to bend our vision or water it down in any way.”
This, then, is how that vision became a reality, track by track…
Mike: “As soon as it was a song, I knew that I wanted Papercut at the front of the record. To this day it feels like it contains so much of the DNA of the band at that time. The beat was influenced a lot by Timbaland, then the guitars kick in with a very cutting edge – what you call ‘nu-metal’ now – type of sound. Underneath that, there was a drum’n’bass beat happening at the same time, so within the first 20 seconds you’re getting three major genre touch-points jammed together.”
Brad: “The whole ethos of the album was to smash genres. Now we’re living in a post-genre world, everything is smashed together, and it’s almost expected at this point. ‘Which genres are you combining to make this thing interesting?’ Whereas things were very siloed when we were making music. Great art is open and fertile and unbound – that was the ethos of our band and still is.”
Joe: “Today we listen to music and most people don’t think of the genre. People making music aren’t thinking they have to stick to a style some guy made 30 – 50 years ago – it’s not like that anymore. It’s like, ‘Okay, let’s pull everything together and make it happen.’ That Hybrid Theory idea that we were pursuing is ever-present in every genre now. I’m not saying that it’s solely because of us, but we made it okay at that particular moment in time to do that and not be worried about the criticism.”
One Step Closer
Mike: “I always told people, ‘Don’t try to put the nu-metal flag in my hands, because I won’t hold it.’ Our intention going into the record wasn’t to be part of a scene. We didn’t know any of those other bands; we liked some of it, and we hated some of it. We were just trying to mash up a lot of really disparate elements that we personally loved as a group. So when people asked, ‘What bands do you listen to?’, the stock answer would be The Roots, Portishead, Aphex Twin and Deftones. But if you search deeper you get Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Public Enemy, Rage Against The Machine, DJ Shadow…”
Brad: “I always think about the song being heavy because it has so much power live, but what I love about the actual song is that it’s not just heavy – it’s electronic, it’s super-melodic-sounding, there’s an alternate quality to the vocal performance. It’s just a beautiful song and that riff is probably the riff that I love the most. While it’s the intro, it serves as the backbone to the whole song.
“One Step Closer was actually the first time we heard ourselves on the radio. We were on our first tour bus driving through Arizona and we heard it on the station that Chester grew up listening to. We got home a week later and we heard it on a local station, KROQ, and that was super-wild. When I was little I would listen to the radio in my room and call in to request songs, but to actually have my song on radio was surreal.”
Joe: “My least-favourite song for some time was One Step Closer because I kept hearing it over and over and over again. Very early on it defined everything about the band. A lot of people heard that song on the radio and that was their idea of what the band was, whereas the album itself has so much colour to it. But to a lot of people it was all about that opening guitar riff and someone shouting, ‘Shut up when I’m talking to you!’ over and over again. It was such a big song that we had to play it every day (laughs), so for a while I wouldn’t say I hated the song, but I’d roll my eyes at the baggage. We grew out of that and I don’t feel that way today.”
Joe: “We worked with these guys by the name of The Dust Brothers; we wanted them to produce a song, and they ended up just giving us parts of a song. I guess they had a remix that they never put out and it ended up just being samples. We took those samples and started building a track on it. It started off as a hip-hop approach; it was obvious to put scratching on there and use those moments of scratching as ‘breaks’ in the song. It was something that we were super-excited about doing. It was one of the first collaborations that we did.”
Mike: “I’d put Papercut, Points Of Authority and With You in a similar box. There’s a lot of rhythmic stuff going on there, they’re like hip-hop tracks gone rock.”
Joe: “The chorus was written, the music, and then the lyrics and melodies came pretty naturally, which established the climactic moment in the song to strive for. We did a remix on [2002 remix album] Reanimation, where I had Aceyalone rap, who is one of my favourite rappers – he’s very influential in hip-hop and one of its unsung heroes due to the lack of commercial singles on the radio. It was pretty awesome to work with him – along with everyone else on that Reanimation record – because they were all people that we really looked up to and wanted to collaborate with. They weren’t flavour-of-the-month-type people, but really important artists that meant a lot to music at that time.”
Points Of Authority
Brad: “The thing about Points Of Authority that stands out to me is that you can obviously play the riff, and it does highlight the band, but at the same time the ethos of that song is deconstructing live music. The guitar is chopped up, so you’ve basically taken live instruments, something organic, and really made use of digital technology at the time, which is stutters and chopping things up. It’s taking organic ingredients, putting them in a digital blender, and Points Of Authority is what comes out.
“Mike is the most adept in the group at actually using recording technology. I remember when we were young, he would read manuals for old gear, like 80-page manuals, which is the most painful literature ever written. That’s one of his super-powers: even when he has basic technology, he really learns how to use it. He almost plays some of the recording technology like an instrument, and I think you can hear that on this song.”
Mike: “I learned to make music by mash-ups of stuff that I liked that nobody else liked together. I would mash up Wu-Tang Clan and Smashing Pumpkins, Jackson Five with Mobb Deep and a sample of Ministry… I sampled some really weird shit.”
Mike: “I always wrote my own raps, but when it came to the singing parts, some songs I would write, some songs Chester would write, but it was usually together. Even if I wrote a thing, when I gave it to him, we’d go over it, because I always wanted him to tweak words and make it his own, so that when he sang it, his personality was in there. Crawling was the opposite, where he wrote a lot of those lyrics.
“He’d written the line ‘Fear is powerful’ in the chorus, and when we asked our producer Don [Gilmore] how he liked the new song, he said, ‘It’s good, I really like that line ‘Fear is how I fall’,’ and we were both like, ‘Oh yeah, that line!’ He heard it wrong but he heard a really great line by accident.”
Brad: “The intro is so iconic – the instrumental, electronics, and then Chester’s guttural scream chorus. Is he singing? Is he screaming? Or all of the above? Probably all of the above, which expressed his instrument so uniquely.”
Mike: “We won a GRAMMY for Best Rock Performance for that song. I didn’t know what Best Rock Performance meant when we won it – I thought it was ‘best rock song’ – but the performance part is the studio performance, and it’s 100 per cent because of the vocal. His vocal in that song was even hard for him to do some nights on the tour, and it’s impossible for anyone else to sing it that well. Every cover is a mere shadow of the Chester performance of the song.”
Brad: “Runaway has a punk intro at the beginning. That evolved from a song called Stick N’ Move. When we started the band we were called Xero, and then there were some other Xeros so we called ourselves Xero 818, like when you can’t get the Gmail account you want, [so] you just put a number… That’s what bands were doing at the time. Then Chester joined the band and we changed the name to Hybrid Theory, then someone told us we had to change it – which was ridiculous – so we became Linkin Park and the album became Hybrid Theory. Runaway really tells the tale of that journey; the original song was written by Mike and Mark.”
Joe: “Everyone had to make sacrifices, whether it be pursuing their career, finishing school, deciding not to pursue a different career with a graduate degree… Everyone had to stop what they were doing and say, ‘Okay, we want to give this a chance and take it as far as we can take it.’ I think the most extreme case was Chester, because once he knew we were looking for a singer and were interested, he said, ‘Okay, when do I move out?’ He just assumed he was the singer because he wanted it so bad, and we said, ‘Okay.’ He packed up all his bags and moved to LA, which was a big deal. He had a house, wife, and a full life going on, but basically was like, ‘I’m not going to get paid to do this, but I have to commit so we can move the ball forward.’”
Joe: “There were three songs that Mike had written with our previous singer Mark, and they were incredible, but there was a problem because when Brad got the tape and played it for an executive at a label, they liked what they heard, but wanted to see the band play live. [Brad was] like, ‘Okay…’ and had to figure it out because there was no band (laughs). That’s where the origin of the band started.
“Those songs didn’t make it to Hybrid Theory, but the band came together and started writing more music; A Place For My Head and By Myself were two of the songs that were written in that period. There was a goal in the type of song we were writing at the time, and a big part of that was to have songs to play live. Those songs have a very suspenseful energy going on, especially in the verses, with an outpouring of emotion in the choruses. Part of our goal was to get this personal idea that has conflict, and that was easy to do because of our age at that time and that universal emotion of not fitting in and teen angst (laughs). The other intent was to have those songs explode at a certain point, and how that translates live into people getting really charged up, eventually leading to a mosh pit-type moment.”
Mike: “We were just having fun. It was stressful and a lot of the time we didn’t know what we were doing at all… but the thing that got us through it all was being ourselves, knowing that we made a record we were really proud of, and meeting fans who we connected with through that music.”
In The End
Mike: “The two songs we have that have over one billion views on YouTube are In The End and Numb, so by the numbers, In The End is our biggest song. The funny thing is, the moment I played that demo for the other guys, they knew that song was special. Chester always said that he didn’t get it, he didn’t love that song, but I think he forgot there were moments where he really did understand it. He always said, ‘I never got it, the guys should never let me pick singles,’ because he never thought it would be as big as it was.”
Brad: “I think it’s a perfectly beautiful song. It’s honest, the emotional sentiment is just so visceral and compelling. The interplay between Chester and Mike is just so elegant and understated. To think that you’d sing one word and then turn it into a vowel and hold it over whatever Mike continues to say. It’s beautiful.”
Mike: “Our drummer Rob tells this story where I locked myself in our really shady rehearsal space [in Hollywood], which at that time was drug dealers and prostitutes. Now it’s all fancy restaurants, but back then you wouldn’t wanna walk around at night. I wanted to stay overnight and write there because it was where we rehearsed, and all of our gear was there. There’s no windows, so I’m in this weird daze, and eventually the guys showed up and said, ‘How did it go?’ I played them In The End and Rob said, ‘Knowing you were in here writing last night, I was thinking we needed a melodic song that was more timeless and universal that would be bigger – in a songwriting style – than anything we’ve done so far, and you did it.’ I don’t think we knew it would be this big, but we knew at the time that it was the most accessible thing that we had done.”
Brad: “When we’d play In The End live, when we got to the bridge, it was always so loud that you couldn’t hear the band play. Naturally, at some point, we just stopped playing at that moment. Chester and Mike would just hold out the microphones and turn the lights on. The incredible outpouring of personal emotion; it’s a crowd singing together, but each individual person is in love with the song because they’re investing their own life story into it.”
A Place For My Head
Brad: “This is one of my favourite songs to play on guitar. The song was originally called Esaul, after the roommate of our original vocalist Mark, we just named the song after him nonsensically (laughs). It’s a really intense song and it evolved over time, there are definitely moments on the demo that just speak for themselves, and there are moments on the Hybrid Theory version that are undeniable.
“What’s super-cool about that song live is when you get to the super-intense part of the bridge, we would just stop the music and Chester would be all the way out in the crowd – probably held on top of someone’s shoulders – and he’d really have the crowd in his hand and take it wherever he wanted. And when that intense scream happens all hell breaks loose.”
Mike: “At the time I was really into what we would have called a ‘bounce beat’ on Papercut and A Place For My Head. I was really into those at the time because for me, rapping, you’re looking for the right balance of what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. How are you riding the beat, what are your patterns, what is your rhythm? Knowing who I am and where I fit into things, I would’ve loved to just be a rapper, but I knew I would never be accepted, because on paper I wouldn’t be a good rapper (laughs). I couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about the things that were the most exciting in a rap song at the time. I didn’t have an interesting hood story. I would never use race stuff, at the time I wouldn’t curse, I tried to find ways to communicate even how I formed words. I stayed away from certain words or certain popular rapper phrasings and colloquialisms because they sounded inauthentic coming out of my mouth.”
Joe: “After the three-song demo, the band came together to write songs. This was part of the new batch, and it was really an exploration into how we can use a four-track tape machine. We could only record four tracks at the same time and if you had more than that, you had to bounce onto other tracks, all on a cassette. There was also a limitation of recording time on a sampler, so you had to record really important sounds to that. If you compare that to visual arts, it’s a limited palette, a limited amount of colours to deal with, which I think was great because we took every piece that we added to the music and maximised it.
“With this song in particular, we were in the pursuit of matching the hip-hop side of what we were doing with this heavy build-up. I feel like the music that we write these days is smoother, but a lot of the music from the early albums are segments that perfectly fit together like a puzzle. This is the beat, this is where it comes in, this is where it drops… It worked perfectly with two vocalists, Chester and Mike, because it created a template for them to really play off each other. The concept of that vocal collaboration – whether it’s rap from one guy going to rap from another guy or melody to melody, rap to melody – works so well that we could take those ideas even further with the rest of Hybrid Theory.”
Brad: “I think the idea was that, if you just listen to rap, maybe you’ll fall in love with one of these songs and you’ll discover heavy rock. Or if you just love heavy rock, this’ll be a gateway into hip-hop. We like to open doors in all kinds of directions. What’s amazing to think about now is kids who are 12 or 13, who are discovering albums that are really meaningful to them, are discovering this album like it’s new – kind of in the way that when I was learning guitar, I was learning all the Led Zeppelin songs. They couldn’t have been more relevant to me, but I wasn’t around when those songs were made, so how did that happen? Obviously Led Zeppelin are incredible, but some of that music transcended the time in which it was made, and there are classic albums that’ve come out since then – Appetite For Destruction, Bob Marley’s greatest hits album – people play them forever. We were inspired by these classic albums and so, to have one, is a dream come true. This is the album that started our career and still resonates today in a magical way.”
Cure For The Itch
Joe: “Writing the record we had a certain intention in mind: incorporating our influences and the music that we love into what we do, to help define what ultimately became our sound. I feel like there was an imbalance because as we were making the Hybrid Theory record there was way more emphasis on the hard-rock side, it wasn’t 50/50, but whenever the hip-hop or electronic side came in, it had to be impactful. I remember Mike made that string section as part of a general beat that he made along with a ton of others. Really liking the orchestral nature of it, we put a beat to it, then were like, ‘How do we integrate scratching, glitching and messing with the beats in a cool way?’
“The way it played out on the record it was the perfect breakaway from everything that you were hearing. I think track to track there’s a lot of diversity, it gives you a good journey, then you get a nice break before the record finishes. It also shines a light onto the beat production side of what we do.”
Brad: “I love Cure For The Itch. It’s an instrumental, it’s Joe showing off, but in a super-funky way, and that song is just timelessly cool.”
Pushing Me Away
Mike: “When we were working on it, my intention or direction from other people – probably Don and Brad – was that, ‘Crawling is really great and we don’t have anything else like that; maybe it would be good to have another song in that vein. Melodic, no rapping, power chords, but still a lot of energy.’ Brad and I had this love and appreciation for Depeche Mode, so I wanted to start the song with some of those keyboard-hook kind of elements, which we translated to guitar harmonics. The only hip-hop element in there is when Chester threw in the line, ‘Why I played myself this way’, and when he wrote that, I knew he was trying to use vernacular that was a tiny bit hip-hop in the words, but the truth was that he would never say those words in real life. I was a bit uncomfortable with that line, like, ‘That’s not you talking, but I know what you’re doing.’ It’s smart that he’s trying to glue the hip-hop component of the band into the lyrics, I just felt like it was a little disingenuous. But it’s a very minor criticism of a song that otherwise I think is great, and everybody’s participation in the band was really strong.”
Brad: “The magic of Linkin Park, and the magic of Hybrid Theory certainly, has always been the people. I think that unique brotherhood has always been essential to pouring our love into our art and the music that we’ve made, and continue to make.”
Joe: “Ultimately we want to connect with people. Through the music we connect ourselves, and the pieces of music connect with each other to become an experience that other people can connect with. And relationships grow from there. For us, it’s the relationship with the fan, even though we’re not like, ‘Let’s go for a coffee and hang out,’ the music speaks for what we do and fans take that in whatever way – whether it’s coming to a show or giving back in some way. We feel it and it encourages us to keep making music.”
Mike: “That whole [Hybrid Theory] ride was insane. It’s shocking and a miracle that we managed to keep our heads on straight and still be good friends and decent human beings at the end of it all.”
Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory boxset is out October 9 and available to pre-order now.
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