“It was about smashing down walls”: How adidas invaded nu-metal

Arriving like a subculture from outer space, nu-metal shook up not just the sound, but also the style of heavy music. We sat down with Korn’s Jonathan Davis to look back on how sportswear infiltrated our traditionally denim-and-leather clad scene…

“It was about smashing down walls”: How adidas invaded nu-metal
Sam Law

Baggy-ass JNCO jeans. Fishnet shirts. New Era snapbacks. Three-foot wallet chains. Looking back, nu-metal fashion was fucking wild. Veering from the skate-obsessed frat couture of Fred Durst to the steroidal goth glam of Coal Chamber-era Dez Fafara, it was a wide church, too, full of artists out to forge an identity that was brighter, fresher and louder than anything that’d come before.

While it’s easy to see the alt. credibility in the outlandish hairstyles (Frosted spikes! Droopy dreadlocks! Animal print!), PVC bodysuits and frankly impractical facial piercings, there was something more subtly subversive about the proliferation of sportswear – adidas-branded apparel, in particular – across an outsider scene that’d for so long positioned itself as the alternative.

“It was about breaking the mould, man,” grins Korn frontman Jonathan Davis, whose adidas tracksuit kickstarted the trend. “It was about smashing down walls and embracing all kinds of different music styles and musical cultures. It was about going against everything that metal was supposed to be.”

Growing up in central California – like so many of nu-metal’s brightest stars – JD was immersed in the sunbeaten sounds of classic rock and new wave. Beginning to DJ in high school, he was exposed to the stars of old-school hip-hop and New York freestyle. The Beastie Boys’ Kangol bucket hats and KRS-One’s PRO-Keds were synonymous with those sounds. No look was more iconic, though, than the adidas Superstar sneakers (often worn without laces in a fashion inspired by prison regulation) and tracksuits as popularised by rap-rock pioneers Run-D.M.C. (“I just thought, ‘That’s a cool-ass look,’” Jonathan says. “‘I could get down with that’”). Ignorance of – and disconnection from – the traditional metal crowd allowed the young frontman to blaze a new trail.

“I had no fucking idea,” he laughs, remembering his sudden entry into the scene that would make him an icon. “I really didn't. I never listened to metal growing up. The heaviest shit I listened to was Led Zeppelin. I heard [Pantera’s 1992 album] Vulgar Display Of Power when it came out. Then, not even six months later, I was in Korn.”

Misfits even by metal’s renegade fringe standards, the Bakersfield five were bonded by their twistedly singular vision. Although fellow Californians Faith No More and Rage Against The Machine had aggressively fused funk and rap to heavier rock foundations, Korn used subtler inflection – hip-hop basslines, electronic 808 kicks, sample-mimicking scratch-guitars – while piling on outlandish bagpipes and scat vocals, then submerging it all in off-kilter, introverted darkness. Their aesthetic was every bit as layered.

“I wore an old army green jumpsuit when I first started,” Jonathan remembers. “I looked like a damn rag doll. Then that old tracksuit called out to me. I picked up a pen, drew the Korn logo on it with my left hand, then I wore it onstage. Just like with the bagpipes [and the other weird shit we did] it was about making people think, ‘This isn’t normal! Rock guys wouldn’t wear this!’ It added to [that aura of], ‘What the fuck is this band?!’”

At a time when metal was stagnating, fans lapped up the Technicolor reinvention of sound and image.

“Everyone dug it,” JD remembers. “It was just some new shit. If you think about the time this was going on, you had grunge music, there was still some hair metal around, and you had the pop-punk scene starting to come up. Then there were these fuckers. People would just sit there with their mouths open as if they weren’t able to take in what they were seeing.”

The visual bewilderment extended to the record execs who signed Korn in 1993, as they struggled to pigeonhole players who looked and sounded like they simultaneously belonged to several sub-genres and none at all. “It was like, ’What do we do with these fuckers?!’” Jonathan remembers. “‘This guy’s playing bagpipes wearing a fuckin’ tracksuit, Fieldy’s got some big-ass pimp hat on and Munky’s got his mouth duct-taped shut!’ Then they put us out on tour with No Doubt or Pennywise – the O.C. punk rock scene. From there, we’re out with God Lives Underwater and KMFDM as if we were industrial. Eventually, we went out with Megadeth and that metal middle-culture kind of took us in.”

As the nu-metal movement gathered pace, a host of other artists began to dabble with similar styles. Laid-back fellow Golden State natives Deftones and Incubus stopped short of going full tracksuit, but incorporated significant amounts of streetwear into their overarching skate-inspired look. Gaudier nu-metal exponents like Limp Bizkit, meanwhile, played closer to Korn’s hip-hop influence, incorporating sneakers and sports jerseys into ensembles that that revolved around basketball shorts, body paint and that infamous New York Yankees red cap. The three-bar adidas brand was a more commonly seen logo among fans than Black Flag’s four by the late 1990s metal mega-shows, and loose-fitting sportswear had become a sign of alt. cred rather than that of clueless chad interlopers.

Where other bands wore the clothes, though, Korn sublimated them into the edgy outsider culture. Twisting the popular schoolyard conceit that adidas is an acronym for All Day I Dream About Sex, 1997 single A.D.I.D.A.S. dared play with the sort of filth-under-the-fingernails sleaze and sexual self-deprecation that was unimaginable from nu-metal contemporaries who pushed a more toxic machismo. JD explains that it also reflected how ubiquitous the adidas brand had been as a kid in America, and that it was as ripe for nightmarish subversion as swing-sets and hopscotch courts. Even the title of parent album Life Is Peachy referenced American teens’ Pee-Chee All Season Portfolio which they’d commonly carve up to say ‘Life is Peachy, but sex is an All-Season sport’ (Pee-Chee declined to have their product depicted on the record’s artwork).

“It was some childish shit,” Jonathan shrugs, “but it worked, because we were kids at the time.”

adidas were more open to on-trend exposure, giving Korn some free merch to wear onstage in return for the massive levels of free advertising they were getting. Where Run-D.M.C. had parleyed their unofficial brand representation into a very real working relationship, which culminated with 1986 banger My adidas, however, the German giant refused the metallers the same deal.

“Get this shit,” JD shakes his head, clearly still sore from the slight. “Their reply was, ‘adidas is a sports company. We do sports, not music.’ I would look out into the crowd and see all these kids wearing adidas shit at our shows, but they couldn’t do anything for us. Then you’ve got Kanye West and all these other people with their own [custom] shoes [in the years since]. What the flying fuck?!”

Refusing to miss an opportunity, Puma (the rival sportswear company started by Rudolf Dassler, brother of adidas founder Adi Dassler) signed Korn to what was reportedly a $500,000 deal in 1998, actively featuring the band and their music in Kevin Kerslake-directed advertisements while directly targeting nu-metal fans. “We switched to Puma because they told us they’d put us in a commercial and give us a little money to wear their shit,” Jon says, simply. “We were just like, ’Fuck yeah! That’s more than adidas ever did for us!’ It wasn’t a sell-out thing. It was about respect.”

Indeed, adidas’ role in nu-metal – and that of sportswear generally – was less about fashionable brand recognition than the mass rejection of genre boundaries that had made it a no-go for metalheads in earlier years. As much as ‘real’ metal fans might look down on it now, heavy music was dying and it took these kinds of bold gestures to haul it back from the brink. Ultimately, Jonathan contends that ‘nu-metal’ itself was just another brand that we should learn to look past, as it’s far less important than the music and memories made under its banner.

“To this day, we’ll still say we’re not metal. They came up with the ‘nu-metal’ tag – which was fine – but our attitude has always been punk rock. We were 24-year-old punk kids going nuts, doing what we wanted, wearing what we wanted, making the music we wanted. And who could’ve thought it would’ve went this way? I’m fuckin’ 50 years old, still talkin' about this stuff today...”

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