The story of Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory: “Something told me that this was the golden ticket to get inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory”

Before Linkin Park could change the course of rock history with one of the biggest debut albums of all time, they first needed to become a band. And to do that, they would need a frontman. Thankfully, in the desert some 400 miles away sat a man waiting for his final shot at stardom…

The story of Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory: “Something told me that this was the golden ticket to get inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory”
James Hickie
James Minchin

Brad Delson had grown up on a diet of Guns N’ Roses and Metallica, chemically straightening his curly hair to look more like his heroes, before realising he risked it falling out. The guitarist would soon develop his own trademark look, though, donning a large pair of headphones onstage.

“I’m not sure why I wear them,” Brad would ponder later. “I started wearing them a while ago and got used to it, so thought it would be a good idea to keep wearing them.”

Thankfully, it was around this time that a somewhat better decision was made by Brad, when he elected to take an internship at Zomba Music Publishing. Upon seeing the various items of Korn and Limp Bizkit paraphernalia adorning the walls of their offices, Brad felt compelled to tell the company’s vice president, Jeff Blue, about his fledgling band, Xero, and their plans to change the world.

Struck by the 19-year-old’s ambition and, well, balls, Jeff went along to the band’s first ever show – at the legendary Whisky A Go Go in West Hollywood, of all places. Sufficiently impressed by what he heard, he offered Xero a publishing development deal.

Brad had known Mike Shinoda since they were both 13. The rap-loving son of a Japanese-American father, and a mother who encouraged him to take up piano because it would look good on college applications, Mike was something of a technical genius. After starting Xero with Brad and drummer Rob Bourdon in 1996, Mike turned his bedroom into a makeshift studio, complete with four-track recorder and vocal mic to capture their early demos. Rob’s roommate was Dave ‘Phoenix’ Pharrell, who joined a Christian ska-punk band called Tasty Snax in high school, switching from guitar to bass to fill the gap in their ranks and sticking with that instrument. DJ Joe Hahn, who bonded with Mike at art school over their shared love of hip-hop, and co-vocalist Mark Wakefield completed the line-up.

You’d think receiving a development deal would be a quick win for Xero, but it was anything but. The lack of progress soon proved enough for Mark, who left to pursue other projects.

“I wanted somebody in the band who had the same drive and passion for melodic singing vocals as I had towards rapping vocals,” Mike would say of the gap left by the departure of Mark, who today is the VP of Velvet Hammer, an artist management company with a roster that includes Korn, Deftones and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Chester Bennington could relate to the idea of not being where you want to be, and certainly had the requisite passion. He’d enjoyed modest acclaim in his native Phoenix, Arizona, with local band Grey Daze, a post-grunge outfit that saw the late-teen make his first record, enjoy radio play and perform in 2,500-capacity venues. But while that might have suited some, Chester dared to dream even bigger, growing impatient with the absence of ambition in his Grey Daze bandmates, and lack of traction beyond the borders of his home state.

“Nobody outside Arizona was interested,” he recalled. “It was very difficult to be the guy who wrote and sang the songs and share the credit with people who didn’t really give a shit. Very few people will respect the opinion of a 16-year-old songwriter fronting a band. I was pretty frustrated.”

With Xero, however, Chester would find himself in the opposite position. He’d grown used to always being the youngest, both in bands and his own family, but he was about to be thrown together with five men at least two years his junior. More importantly, they were considerably further behind him in terms of experience, given that he’d been active in his local scene for nigh on a decade.

Chester had come to Jeff Blue’s attention through an attorney friend. Jeff sent the singer a copy of Xero’s demo by overnight delivery. Chester was fascinated enough by what he heard to ditch plans for his 23rd birthday party in order to pore over songs like A Place For My Head.

“I noticed that Mike’s rapping was really good, and I felt I could improve on the melodies as far as their choruses were concerned,” said Chester of his first impressions. “Something told me that this was the golden ticket to get inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.”

Keen to get himself inside those factory gates, Chester enlisted the help of a local band Size 5 to help record an audition video.

“What I heard floored me,” Jeff recalled of what Chester sent back, in an account penned almost 20 years later. “Every crack of his voice had a story to tell. It was genuine, vulnerable, urgent, beautiful and hit you in the gut.”

Chester’s musical preoccupations, from the dark pop of Depeche Mode to the gruff industrial stylings of Ministry, plus his innate talent, had resulted in a voice that sounded like a gift from the rock gods – and aroused jealous suspicion as a result. “It’s just me, man,” Chester laughed at those who would ask what technology he employed to give his pipes their effortless balance of emotion, precision and power. “If I make a mistake, you’ll hear it. There’s no fancy-schmancy things going on. I can pretty much switch my scream off and on like a light switch.”

A light certainly came on when the other members of Xero, who had been auditioning singers for four to five months, heard what Chester had brought to the table, so they invited him to join them in LA. The singer enthusiastically accepted, despite being newly married to wife Samantha and having recently secured a promising tech job back home.

Once Chester arrived, Xero signified their new beginning by changing their name to Hybrid Theory, though had to go back to the drawing board when they discovered another band had snapped up the moniker.

“I’m kind of glad we don’t call ourselves by that name anymore,” Mike would reflect in Linkin Park’s first Kerrang! cover feature. “Hybrid music is such a trend right now. It’s almost a joke to say that your band is about mixing styles, since everybody is doing it.”

A couple of (frankly terrible) alternative names were considered, including Plear and Platinum Lotus Foundation, before Chester suggested Linkin Park, after Lincoln Park in Santa Monica.

“I liked the fact it didn’t have a meaning,” said Brad of the alternative spelling. “There are Lincoln Parks everywhere, but this way we got to infuse those words with any meaning we want.”

While it’s an enigmatic explanation, an alternative one suggested the deviation was actually down to the website domain ‘linkinpark.com’ being available – and, crucially, costing less.

Having played some 42 showcases for record labels and been rejected by all of them, Linkin Park’s unbreakable spirit and dogged determination were finally rewarded when they signed with Warner Bros. Records in 1999. Work on Hybrid Theory began in earnest in March 2000, at NRG Recording Studios in North Hollywood. It drew inspiration from the six-track Hybrid Theory EP the newly cemented line-up had recorded, helmed by Mike and Andrew ‘Mudrock’ Murdock, who’d produced Godsmack’s self-titled debut album.

Many of these songs dated back to writing sessions at Mike’s parents’ house, and while several were reworked in the studio, none of them would make it to Hybrid Theory. Unfortunately, Mike almost didn’t either. His significant history with the band, not to mention his indelible creative mark on it, wasn’t enough to avoid an attempt by the label to oust him and his rapping midway through recording the album. (The band’s ranks had already been disturbed, with Dave’s touring commitments with Tasty Snax preventing him from recording, with bass parts being handled by Brad.)

It’s fair to say Chester didn’t react well to the label’s suggestion regarding Mike. The interplay between the two was informed by a fast friendship that began the first day they met; Chester had crashed at Mike’s place that evening. “What did you say to him?” Chester’s bandmates asked when he came back into the room after he’d spoken with the offending A&R. “I told him to go fuck himself,” said the singer.

Chester was responsible for far more than fierce loyalty. With his input, Hybrid Theory’s lyrics took on far deeper and darker dimensions. Crawling, which the singer would later describe as the most technically challenging song for him to perform live, was no less strenuous on his emotions, dealing directly with his addictions to alcohol and a variety of drugs, particularly with the line ‘These wounds, they will not heal’.

Meanwhile, in the hands of producer Don Gilmore, the man responsible for sizeable records by Eve 6 and Lit, and engineer Andy Wallace, no stranger to marrying rap and rock having worked on Run-DMC and Aerosmith’s smash Walk This Way, the songs on Hybrid Theory sounded suitably massive. There were additional textures, too; With You featured beats and soundscapes by the Dust Brothers, the LA-based duo famed for their work on Beastie Boys’ 1989 classic Paul’s Boutique, and the unnerving score for David Fincher’s Fight Club.

Two incidents before Hybrid Theory’s release gave early glimmers that the album was something very special. Firstly, at a radio convention, programmers were treated to a taste of debut single One Step Closer. Originally called Plaster, it was hastily written when producer Don had encouraged the band to work on new material and was the perfect distillation of the band’s aggressive but accessible sound. The song prompted a frenzied reaction akin to meat being thrown into a piranha tank, resulting in it being rushed on to the airwaves and the album’s release date being brought forward. Meanwhile, One Step Closer’s colourful promo, featuring the band performing amidst levitating ninja warriors, was an equally big talking point. So much so, in fact, that while Chester was on holiday in Mexico a couple of weeks after its release, two women clocked the singer’s characteristic flame tattoos on his wrist – “[representing] the Aries part of my fire sign” – prompting one woman to whisper to the other, “That’s the guy in the video I told you about!”

Linkin Park’s star was clearly on the ascent – thanks, in no small part, to the band’s inventive approach to introducing their music to fans.

“We started seeing a following develop when we started doing street team work on the internet,” explained Mike. “We’ve always been interested in putting our songs out there for people worldwide. Once we had them available, we’d go into chat rooms and have conversations with people. Eventually, they’d ask about the band and we’d let them know where the music was at. I would sit and talk to five people at a time and one by one they’d all go and check out the site, coming back and saying that they liked what they heard.”

“I think it’s an important key,” said Chester of these innovations. “But first and foremost writing good music is the thing. It doesn’t matter how good your team is, or how much money you have behind you or how cool your video looks – if the songs aren’t there and the band can’t pull it off live, then nothing will come from it.”

But the songs were there. As was the live prowess, earned from tireless rehearsals in a room with leaky pipes on Sunset Boulevard. So, too, was the kind of pioneering marketing that would become the norm in years to come. Something was going to come from this.

Even with the promising clues and excitable word of mouth, no-one could predict just what a juggernaut Hybrid Theory would become upon its release on October 24, 2000. Debuting at number 29 in the US Billboard 200, the album would peak at number two, selling 50,000 copies in its first week. Four weeks later it was certified gold, signifying sales of 500,000 copies. Even two years later, the album continued to sell 100,000 copies a week in the band’s native U.S..

Hybrid Theory is nothing less than the best-selling rock album of the 21st century. As of today it’s sold 32 million copies, making it the biggest-selling debut since Appetite For Destruction by Brad’s heroes in Guns N’ Roses 13 years earlier.

Quite where the enterprising guitarist would be had he not accepted that internship, we’ll never know. But what was to follow would go down in history…

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