NME join Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda in Germany to talk the curse of nu-metal and check out his revived Fort Minor side-project…
“What colour are the ears?” asks Mike Shinoda, as he squiggles a panda for a fan who’s set to have it inked as a tattoo later. “I’ve never drawn one of these before,” he adds, nervously. “I’m worried that I’m going to screw it up and it’s going to be on your arm forever. Are you sure you trust me?”
She does. Implicitly. As do the 50 other members of the LPU – Linkin Park Underground – here in Berlin for a meet-and-greet with the band’s rapper and multi-instrumentalist. Some of the gift-bearing LPU have travelled over 5,000 miles to be here, from Tel Aviv, Trinidad and beyond. For one, it’s the 77th time she’s seen the nu metal titans live. A middle-aged woman hands Shinoda a child’s drawing. “It’s you and Chester [Bennington, Linkin Park vocalist]” she clarifies. “How old is your son?,” he asks, a geyser of LA charm and positivity. “Seven? You can tell because they don’t tend to draw bodies before then. Can I sign it and you give it back to them?”
In two hours’ time, Shinoda will take to the stage solo, under the guise of Fort Minor, his revived hip-hop side-project, for a 1,000 strong crowd in The Kesselhaus, a converted brewery. It’s a far more intimate audience than the 38-year-old is used to. The next evening, Linkin Park bring the latest leg of their ‘The Hunting Party’ tour to the city, in a football stadium packed with 25,000+ rabid rockers.
Half an hour before the Fort Minor gig, and the audience are chanting ‘Mike Shinoda!’ to the tune of The Knack’s ‘My Sharona’. Bounding onstage, he’s greeted by a flashmob of placards reading ‘WELCOME’ – a reference to the Dre-esque comeback track of the same name he dropped with the project in June. Alone, and armed only with a laptop and guitar, he hurtles through a setlist heavy on 2005’s Jay Z exec-produced ‘The Rising Tied’ – the sole album he released as Fort Minor – with obvious bug-eyed glee, spitting bars out like broken teeth, and multi-tasking as both emcee and DJ. During ‘Kenji’ – which movingly deals with his Japanese family’s experiences in WW2 internment camps – signs are raised which read: “WE ARE ALL KENJI”. He looks visibly moved.
“It was a special moment,” he tells NME afterwards. “The feeling of playing a song like ‘Kenji’, which is about my family’s experience during WW2, in Berlin where I can’t even imagine what their families’ experiences were like. It was emotional – partly because of differences but partly because of similarities.”
With everything “running through a headphone jack”, the Fort Minor shows are designed to be portable and able to be slotted around Linkin Park’s schedule. “I can set up and play in your living room through your stereo. Our band plays all over the world and sometimes we have multiple days off in-between shows where I’m personally not doing that much. Adding a Fort Minor show is fun for me – it wouldn’t necessarily be fun for everyone in our band…I’m not interested in a tour. I want to make it feel exclusive and limited.” Similarly, rather than a curtain-raiser for an imminent album, ‘Welcome’ is merely meant as a reintroduction. “All I wanted with the song was to reintroduce the idea of Fort Minor the right way, so I can keep that door open and have the option to release more stuff.”
“The idea that occurred to me when I was putting the track together was that’s it’s funny that I became a rapper by not being rapper,” he says of its genesis. “I grew up obsessed with rap, and then we started a rock band and all of a sudden, fast forward ten years and I’m doing a record with Jay-Z.
“I did always say I was the rapper in the band. But it’s different to be doing a show with 50 Cent onstage as Fort Minor and looking out at a crowd and it’s a hip-hop crowd…like strictly. It’s odd that I ended up here where I probably wanted to be by not going in that direction at all.”
He describes ‘Welcome’, which offers a lyrical Wikipedia page of his journey to being accepted as a rapper, as an anthem for outsiders, partly borne out of his experience of growing up mixed race in a predominantly white neighbourhood in LA. “I simultaneously couldn’t fit in with anybody and could fit in with anybody. It was a double-edged sword because I could hang out with people and it would be easy and effortless and then somebody would make a weird racial joke about Asians and forget that I’m Asian.”
As well as that he’s referencing the ‘Linkin Snark’ reception he felt he received for making the music they did. “At the same time, as big as the band got, we always felt we had something to prove. Even now, that whole nu-metal tag is still there,” he explains. “We never held the flag for nu-metal – it was associated with frat rock. Arrogant, misogynistic, and full of testosterone; we were reacting against that. It breeds an outsiders’ feeling once it’s come and gone and people make jokes about. I fucking make jokes about it! What people don’t realise is I feel the same way.”
It’s gone midnight and we’re at the ‘after-party’ in Shinoda’s room in Soho House, the exclusive members’ club. As a self-confessed “hip-hop nerd” – and one who’s worked with Common, Rakim, and has an “on-again, off-again” creative relationship with Jay Z dating back to Linkin Park’s 2004 mash-up LP ‘Collison Course’ – Shinoda namechecks Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Vince Staples, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Kid Cudi and Action Bronson as among those who are exciting him. “I feel like hip-hop right now is really vibrant and there’s a lot of great artists and they’re all making really different types of music from one another.” Asked if he’d like to collaborate with Lamar, he replies: “Yeah, sure. Chester and I were talking the other day about how great his most recent two records are. We were specifically talking about the artistry of his records that I feel is something that’s starting to emerge in hip-hop. Like, Dre is an artist but his communication style is very overt and kind of literal. And Kendrick’s is complex and colourful and deep and politically charged.”
The next day, Linkin Park play Stadion An der Alten Försterei, as the first ever band to grace the soccer stadium. Backstage, spirits are high: their tour manager wanders around in lederhosen hollering “Val-deri! Val-dera!”. The dressing room is decorated with Russian Dolls of each member – hand-crafted by a fan when the group played Red Square. It’s a souped-up monster truck of a gig – “just a little bit bigger, huh?”, Shinoda remarks – with the six-piece ferociously hurling hits like ‘Numb’ and ‘In The End’ at the eager crowd like Donkey Kong barrels, as well as material from the circle-squaring ‘The Hunting Party’, which was released last year. Later Shinoda reveals he’s already “starting to work out some ideas” for its follow-up. In fact, writing sessions are planned in London for a collaboration with an artist he’s remaining tight-lipped about. “I have no idea what it’ll sound like yet. It won’t sound like ‘The Hunting Party’,” he says firmly. “We like to surprise people.”