I’m a white male in my early thirties living in a gentrified yuppie wasteland where upper-middle class cultural values are the norm. Yet every now and then I’ll talk with someone whose style, mannerisms, and use of slang come directly from the gangster rap aesthetic. The baseball cap is worn backwards with the bill flattened and pointed slightly to one side. The word “Yo” kicks-off many a sentence. When truly excited about something, a one or two finger chop will emphasize the moment. Whenever this happens, I find myself thinking about Limp Bizkit, the rock-rap group that exploded in the late 90s and early 2000s and made it safe for white suburban kids to emulate styles originated by gangster rappers.
White musicians have a long history of appropriating black music with varying degrees of success. For most of my life, I never had much of an opinion about this phenomenon. It probably wasn’t fair that the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton garnered riches and fame by bringing a slightly modified version of the blues to mass audiences, but that was how the cookie crumbled. I finally gained an opinion on this topic, however, when Limp Bizkit burst onto the scene in 1999 with the hit single “Nookie.” I didn’t love the song but was thrilled that a group of white musicians had the chops to appropriate certain conventions of rap, and found myself pumping a fist in an enthusiastic but profoundly un-cool manner.
For years, my friends and I had listened to the great rappers of the 1990s: Snoop Dogg, Biggie Smalls, Tupac, Dr. Dre. We loved their music not because we could relate to the thug lifestyle described in their lyrics—we absolutely could not—but because after the alternative rock revolution died down, these guys were the last remaining badasses on the musical block. Teenagers feel companionship with any individual who resists authority and defines him or herself on individual terms. Race and socioeconomic background are immaterial to this connection. For the latter half of the nineties, the only musicians unafraid to directly challenge the status quo with swagger were rappers. And so we loved them.
But while listening to rap in your parents’ basement may have been a fairly uncomplicated undertaking, publicly replicating the styles of these rap musicians was a much more problematic venture. A white suburban kid who showed up to school wearing oversized flannel and torn jeans came across as normal; put that same kid in baggy pants and a wife beater and words like “poseur” and an unfortunate term that starts with “W” and rhymes with a racial epithet began flying around. There was a clear line of demarcation.
That line crumbled when “Nookie” hit the radio airwaves and television wavelengths. Not instantaneously, but change was clear from the get-go. If Fred Durst, with his backwards red hat, oversized jacket, and hip-hop hand language, could feel comfortable emulating expressions and styles that developed organically in a culture far removed from his own, we could do the same. Limp Bizkit made the hip hop aesthetic more accessible to suburban white kids by merging it with heavy metal and hardcore rock, two musical styles which our ownership of was already assumed. Throw some rhymes between deafening choruses and suddenly our love of the street lifestyle was no longer wiggity wiggity wack.
Limp Bizkit may not have been the first band to engage in rap-rock or nu-metal or whatever people were calling it at the time, but Durst’s pseudo charisma combined with the band’s facile lyrics made their songs more popular than those from similar groups. Limp Bizkit1 became the forefront of this musical genre overnight.
In retrospect, the most surprising thing about Limp Bizkit was how they got so big so fast. The success of “Nookie” helped push the band’s second album Significant Other into the stratosphere. They played Woodstock ’99, and their performance of “Break Stuff” was, rightly or wrongly, cited as one of the provocations of the violence and rioting that would come to define that failed music festival2.
Heading into the new millennium, Limp Bizkit sat atop the musical world. Significant anticipation preceded the release of the band’s third album, and seemingly out of nowhere the group recorded the title track for Mission Impossible 2 or M: I-2. That accomplishment was a big deal in and of itself. Pre-couch jumping Tom Cruise was a massive movie star without too much baggage, and director John Woo, who had a reputation as the auteur behind some “seriously badass” Asian action films, was supposed to remove the camp and corniness of the first installment and replace it with a real edge. The movie ended up failing for many reasons—lack of interesting plot, a surprisingly stoic performance by Cruise, the awful haircut—but few people saw that failure coming down the road, and Limp Bizkit’s association with the film only boosted their cred.
It should be noted that during the year 2000, a certain segment of the youth population—kids who loved music and pop culture but had too much calculus homework to spend endless hours reading industry zines—actively wondered if Limp Bizkit represented the new normal. The last decade had kicked off with Nirvana coming out of left-field to become the voice of a generation. For those of us only slightly in-the-know, Limp Bizkit repeating this script didn’t seem so far-fetched. Perhaps rock-rap bands would become all the rage, and the voice of our generation was an angry, diminutive front man who, when removed of his hat and baggy clothing, looked like a shy uncle trying to navigate the waters at an awkward Holiday party.
Luckily this didn’t happen. Limp Bizkit burned out almost as quickly as they ascended. By 2001 the band had lost its aura of cool; by 2002, associating oneself as a Bizkit fan was not a wise social move. Perhaps the group burned out because, let’s be honest, their music was pretty subpar3. Or maybe it was the band’s loving relationship with notoriety. When Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford protested Limp Bizkit’s Best Rock Video award by climbing atop a stage prop during Fred Durst’s acceptance speech, we all should have known their time in the limelight would be short. Even though that particular gesture had little to do with Limp Bizkit and Fred Durst, it indirectly illustrated a latent truth about the band: They were nowhere near as hard as the image they were selling.
It also didn’t help Limp Bizkit’s cause that during their own time atop the music world, another white musician who took certain cues from black rappers was making a name for himself. Eminem’s appropriations of black musical style were infinitely cleverer and simultaneously more authentic. The artist formerly known as Marshall Mathers was still cementing his place within pop culture in 2000, but as his star continued to rise and his rap music garnered more attention from fans and critics alike, he made the rap-rock genre seem poseur-ish in comparison.
Nowadays, it’s hard to find a music fan or critic with a good thing to say about Limp Bizkit. I’m sure in some far-off corner of the Internet, a repository of “In Defense of Limp Bizkit” stories resides, but such defenses don’t represent conventional wisdom.
But whenever I meet a responsible white young professional who pronounces his R’s with just a hint of Zzzzz, I think about the year 2000, when Durst was doing things his way and empowering some of us to follow his lead.
1. I’ve always felt that Third Eye Blind—yes Third Eye Blind—kind of paved the way for Limp Bizkit. That may sound strange, but 3EB’s best songs (Semi-charmed life, Graduate) consist of Stephen Jenkins not so much singing but rapping verses between sung choruses. This was the formula Limp Bizkit would employ. Unlike Bizkit, 3EB’s rhymes are markedly upbeat and don’t contain a hint of menace, but their poppy use of this technique prepared listeners for what was to come.
2. The other legacy of Woodstock ’99 was how the pay-per view broadcast of the concert devoted so much time to showcasing young women exposing themselves. If ever a television event can be labeled exploitive, this was it. May such voyeuristically perverted camera work never again see the light of day.
3. This is probably a little harsh. “Nookie” is actually a fairly catchy musical expression of pent-up anger, but it’s become impossible to listen to the song without Durst’s pedantic, Napoleonic image popping up in the listener’s mind, and this ultimately undermines the song.