How Today's Club Music is Influenced by Alt-Rock and Nu-Metal
A look at the electronic producers drawing inspiration from Evanescence, Korn, Linkin Park, and other oft-maligned groups.
Artwork by Ben Ruby This post ran originally on THUMP Canada.
Hunched over a laptop at a downtown Toronto club on a bitterly cold January night, Bambii threw the at-capacity crowd a curveball. The local DJ was opening for rising Nuyorican rapper Princess Nokia, and had dedicated most of her set to Sean Paul, soca, and the requisite Drake, but one particular selection stopped me dead in my tracks. Amidst the Caribana anthems and edits of chart-smashing hip-hop, I heard a familiar whisper echoing out of the speakers: "Let the bodies hit the floor. Let the bodies hit the floor..."
It was of course, the opening strains of Drowning Pool's nu-metal hit "Bodies," and I was immediately, and disorientingly transported back to the halcyon days of the early 2000s. Like many moments in great DJ sets, it provided the unexpected shock of hearing something familiar in a totally irregular context. But something about this time-flattening choice was different—I felt like I was an acne-covered, MAD Magazine-reading 16-year-old again. Bambii's deft use of the 2001 track—which was infamously played repeatedly by torturers at Guantanamo Bay a few years after its release—was the latest example of DJs reaching back to macho-emoting, early aughts alt-rock and nu-metal for a left-field twist in their sets. Now more than ever though, it feels like that impulse is hitting critical mass.
During a nostalgia-themed Boiler Room event at New York's Museum of Modern Art last year, rapper and producer Le1f effectively deployed Linkin Park's "In the End"—another staple of my angsty teenage years—in the middle of his DJ set. And at PC Music's showcase at SXSW 2015, London-based DJ and producer Spinee sped up and pitch-shifted goth poster children Evanescence's overwrought anthem "Bring Me to Life" into bubblegum rave-pop. Describing the crowd's positive reaction to the track, The Atlantic's Spencer Kornhaber wrote, "Here we were at this festival devoted to supposedly the hippest things in music, at this night devoted to one of the most blogged-about music collectives of the past year, where just about the least-cool song on earth had been turned into a touchstone."
These re-imaginings weren't just confined to the dancefloor either. In December 2015, Miami-based DJ and producer Total Freedom (aka Ashland Mines) uploaded "DOWN ACTIONS, LOW KEY CHILDISH AF" to his SoundCloud, a frenetic edit combining LA-via-DC R&B artist Kelela's "All The Way Down" a cappella with baile funk and the "In the End" piano instrumental. Though it wasn't the first time Mines had paired together unlikely bedfellows, the flip quickly racked up thousands of plays. His fellow Fade to Mind affiliate Asmara—best known as one half of LA electronic duo Nguzunguzu—also included "In the End" in her 2016 nu-metal-centric Dazed mix alongside selections by System of a Down, Korn, and P.O.D.
Another Linkin Park single, the slow-building, aggressive "Crawling," was featured in South London DJ and producer Endgame's FACT mix via Age Reform's Lotic edit. Elsewhere, Qween Beat producer Skyshaker's "Bring Me to Life" bootleg plunged Evanescence's Grammy Award-winning hit into murkier, dembow-driven depths. What all of these productions had in common was that on paper, they should be absolute messes, gimmicky mashups that are less than the sum of their parts. Instead, by tapping into these tracks' raw emotional vulnerability and giving them new backbones, they've been able to create music that simultaneously sounds like yesteryear and now. These edits are traded like Pokemon cards between their creators, and have found a nostalgic audience of tastemakers and fans worldwide.
A decade and a half before Amy Lee replaced Aaliyah as the a cappella of choice for SoundCloud auteurs, I was listening to questionable alt-rock and nu-metal while growing up as a teenager in rural Nova Scotia. While I eagerly absorbed my father's record collection, my shelves also included more sullen fare by the likes of Three Days Grace, Puddle of Mudd, and the Daredevil soundtrack featuring both "Bring Me to Life" and Drowning Pool's Rob Zombie-assisted "The Man Without Fear." At the top of the heap was a burnt copy of Linkin Park's 2000 debut album Hybrid Theory, tracklist scrawled in Sharpie, and the band's 2003 quadruple platinum-selling follow-up, Meteora.
I couldn't identify with Chester Bennington's lyrics about adolescent drug abuse and his parents' divorce, but as someone who often struggled with making friends, I connected to the themes of failed relationships and loneliness. Though tracks like "Faint" and "Somewhere I Belong" were staples of my cross-country running playlists, I never heard them on local radio, or being played at high school dances (more of a "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" crowd). The somber "In the End" felt better suited to solo bedroom listening, and I would have found it disorienting to hear the track in a group setting. Little did I know those groups that I idolized had their sights on crossing genres from the beginning.
"Hip-hop was the main thing I grew up on, but then we started listening to artists like the Prodigy, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, DJ Shadow, and the jungle/drum and bass stuff that was happening at the time," guitarist, keyboardist, and co-vocalist Mike Shinoda tells THUMP of Linkin Park's early beginnings. "I also loved Depeche Mode, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Deftones, and industrial music. Part of our goal from day one was blending all that stuff, hence the album title, Hybrid Theory."
While the California six-piece would go on to collaborate with artists from both these worlds—including Jay Z on the 2004 mashup EP Collision Course (which paired "In the End" with the rapper's "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)") and Dim Mak lynchpin Steve Aoki on 2013's "A Light That Never Comes"—they were far from a cool group. In a Rolling Stone review of their debut album, Matt Diehl wrote "Bennington and Shinoda often slip into corny, boilerplate-aggro lyrics," and AllMusic's William Ruhlmann described them as a "Johnny-come-lately to an already overdone musical style." Despite not being seen as groundbreaking or "trendy" by journalists, Linkin Park were loved by the thousands of kids worldwide in their official fan club, Linkin Park Underground.
So how did we get here? How did this once "uncool" music become in vogue with boundary-pushing electronic producers today? Some artists have engaged it with a tongue-in-cheek approach. Take for example, Brooklyn-based producer and Maxo's 2014 LOGO Magazine mix, which blended eight songs by nu-metal enfants terrible Limp Bizkit into a hyperactive 20 minutes. In his hands, frontman Fred Durst's macho, frequently misogynistic lyrics are softened with 16-bit sounds and lite piano jazz, with all the tracks getting food-related renames ("Bake Stuff," "Rollin' Pin," "I Did It All For The Cookie," etc.). A similarly light-hearted take on the source material is evident in Spinee, Lil Data, and DJ Warlord's amazingly-titled 23-minute mix "Hell On Planet Earth, We Are The Masters" Says Ministry Of Souls," which inflates Evanescence's 2006 chugging breakup ballad "Call Me When You're Sober" with several pumps of helium.
"This fascination seems a lot more like a collective in-joke than a conscientious rediscovery," argues Maxo. "Most producers in this generation were raised on this music and even if the subject matter wasn't relevant, I'm sure our appreciation of it would remain unchanged."
But whether the intent is ironic or not, the effect is still the same when you hear a song like this dropped at peak hours. Gabriel Szatan, a London-based Boiler Room senior programmer and Radar Radio host, says that he hasn't seen a ton more alt-rock and nu-metal played at the shows he puts together, but that certain scenes seem to have adopted it to lightning rod effect. "More generally, it's not too prominent," he says. "But the trend of curve balls and abrasive left hooks at the moment—especially at the cutting-edge with Staycore, NON, Total Freedom acolytes et al—means it does happen from time to time. I'd say it's easier to get away with in an audio mix series than it is a packed BR unless you've got absolutely the right crowd though."
Whether it's New York producer LSDXOXO's giddy baile funk meets "Bring Me to Life" one-off "Aquecimento Do Evanescence," Chicago footwork star DJ Nate's skittering "Call Me When You're Sober," or Philadelphia club veteran DJ Sega's high-BPM workout "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor," in the end (no pun intended), it's all about the dopamine rush of hearing familiar songs in a new context. "Your brain is going 'Ah, I remember this' and all the memories are flooding back," Szatan continues. "While your limbs are flailing wildly of their own accord."
According to Endgame, whose jagged, industrial track "NXN" (from his 2016 EP Savage) references the lead guitar intro from Korn's "Falling Away From Me," the genres share surprising a number of commonalities. "Their function is essentially the same, to lose yourself, a kind of transcendence," the Bala Club collective co-founder says. "Especially with nu-metal, I think it's the balance of lightness and darkness with piercing leads and punishing bass."
Szatan agrees and points to an audience hungry for theatrics again as one potential reason for the revival in popularity. "Maybe the big resurgence of straighter-down-the-line house and tech over the past however-many-years means people are pining for some more drama again?" he posits. "The scars of tear-out dubstep are still a little too raw so fuck it, why not nu-metal?"
Endgame adds that Jonathan Davis and co.'s "aesthetic and emotional/brutal energy"—including Spawn creator Todd McFarlane's artwork for their third album Follow the Leader—was a huge influence on his collective's members. They might not be wearing face-paint or spelling their names with backwards letters, but they're still drawing directly from oft-maligned bands. Bala Club's Kamixlo's Dazed mix kicks off with Uli K and Malibu's brief, mechanized cover of Memphis rockers Saliva's "Always," which builds on the original's sense of lovelorn dread, while Sweden's Toxe's pulverizing edit of Slipknot's "Psychosocial" is every bit as heavy as the original.
As I've grown older, I've more or less left the adolescent angst of my 100-disc CD wallet of alt-rock and nu-metal behind. But in the emotive brutality of acts like Toxe and Total Freedom, I've found something of an analog. Their dark theatricality and simple renderings of complex emotions come from the same place as Korn and friends, so it's no wonder that they've found a way to re-contextualize that music within their own sets and productions.
Those American bands—many of whom are still putting out albums today—were predominantly male and white, so it's exciting to hear them brought into new interpretations and fulfill the same role for a new generation as it once did for me. I could relate all too closely to the backstory that 19-year-old Toxe gave The FADER for her "Psychosocial" remix. "This is my graduation song," she said in a 2016 interview. "While finishing these last months of high school finals, I've been remixing Slipknot at night time to get my frustration out."
Max Mertens is on Twitter.