“We wanted to make something different”: the impact of Linkin Park’s ‘Hybrid Theory’, 20 years on

The 2000 album exploded genre and stood apart from the macho nu-metal scene it was unfairly lumped in with. Ali Shutler reflects with the band and famous fans. (Main image credit: Getty)

A furious blend of hip-hop swagger, rock catharsis, pop ambition and electronic escapism, ‘Hybrid Theory’ is the most important rock album of the past two decades. It’s also one of the most influential albums of all time, in any genre. Everyone from Billie Eilish and Brockhampton to Twenty One Pilots, Bring Me The Horizon and Yungblud owes a debt to Linkin Park’s revolutionary debut album.

More than just the jewel in nu-metal’s checkered crown, the record, which turns 20 this month, kicked down walls between genres and opened up a realm of possibility for teenagers around the world. Released October 24 2000, it crashed into a mainstream that was just starting to shrug off the idea of genre boundaries and proved that music could be vulnerable, furious and play by its own rules.

With the rapidly-growing popularity of file-sharing sites Napster and Limewire gifting a generation of kids access to every type of music all at once – rather than just what was played on the radio or what their pocket-money could afford – ‘Hybrid Theory’ was the perfect, angst-riddled introduction to everything, all at once.

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Of course, there were music obsessives already devouring a little bit of everything – just like Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, Chester Bennington, Rob Bourdon, Brad Delson, Dave Farrell and Joe Hahn, who wanted their band to blend their love of hip-hop, rock and electronica. That’s to be expected in 2020, but at the time it was a sledgehammer to the norm.

“Music today represents that blending of genres a lot better than it did at the time,” Hahn, the band’s DJ, tells NME over Zoom, harking back to the days where playgrounds were full of kids defined by what was playing through their headphones. “We were all products of our environment so as a band, we weren’t worried about people not getting it. We knew there were people like us out there and we just wanted to get our music to them. It wasn’t our goal to hit the masses, though.”

With a handful of demos, the group played 45 label showcases and were turned down after every single one. People just didn’t understand who would buy into this weird blitz of styles. It was only after early supporter Jeff Blue took the Vice President job at Warner Records that the band got picked up. Even then, they had to fight to create the record they wanted.

“We had a lot of people telling us to do something different,” bassist Dave Farrell explains. At one point, the label floated the idea of replacing Shinoda and making Bennington the sole frontman of a straight-up rock band. Chester refused, as he and the rest of Linkin Park knew exactly what they wanted to do. “If we couldn’t do it our own way,” Farrell says, “it wasn’t worth doing.”

That fierce determination paid off with ‘Hybrid Theory’. The likes of the elegiac ‘In The End’, the serrated ‘Crawlin’ and the ferocious ‘One Step Closer’ dominated music television and gave confused, emotional teenagers a voice. Meanwhile, the record earned the band a Grammy (‘Crawlin’’ took Best Hard Rock Performance) and became the best-selling album of the year. To this day, it remains one of the biggest-selling rock albums of all time, having shifted more than 27 million copies, making it, commercially, the biggest rock record of the 21st Century.

“They only seem like big songs in retrospect,” Shinoda says. “In the studio, there was a lot of anxiety to get it right.” Those worries didn’t stop when they finally released the album they’d been dreaming about for years. “The expectations of us as a band were growing so quickly. We were just kids being expected to headline big festivals with 40 minutes of music. The pressure was immense.”

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They played over 300 shows to promote the album (says Hahn: “It felt like we had to prove ourselves every time we went onstage”) and pushed against the nu-metal label that was ascribed to them by the media. With the release of their hip-hop heavy remix album ‘Reanimation’ in 2002, the band continued to do things their own way. Everything from the record’s Banksy-inspired street art artwork to what the band stood for felt like a protest.

“All the music we liked was rebellious,” Hahn says. “Hip-hop felt like a neo punk rock in some way and as far as subject matter, we were definitely all about fighting against the system and lifting up a big middle finger.“

The introspective nature of the album’s lyrics, which dealt with mental health (’Crawlin’), familial trauma (‘Runaway’) and adolescent angst (‘Points of Authority’), helped the band form a lifelong connection between band and audience. Bridging generations, it’s a record that was inspiring then and continues to inspire to this day.

“It was a very early education in genre-bending and rule-breaking that set me on the path to where I am today, creatively,” says Jordan Benjamin, who male emotional, politicised alternative rock as grandson. He discovered the band by accident while illegally downloading Dragon Ball Z videos and become hooked when he heard ‘In The End’.

“There was no one else doing what they did,” he says. “You had some bands that sounded like Chester and then you had conscious hip-hop that was similar to what Mike was doing – but no one was doing both at the same time. It gave kids like me who grew up adoring hip-hop permission to get mad and scream out those cathartic choruses.”

Of his own music, Jordan says: “I wanted to combine my love of hip-hop, rock and electronic music. You can’t do that without drawing influence from [‘Hybrid Theory’] because they are what sits in the middle of those three genres.”

Similarly, Dom McLennon of hip-hop-inspired boy band Brockhampton once told Mike Shinoda that ‘Hybrid Theory’ is one of his favourite ever albums. “He said something that reminded me of what so many other artists have told me,” Shinoda remembers. “Before ‘Hybrid Theory’, they were only listening to one style of music. It’s the album that exposed them to the other side. Now when I listen to new music and hear that seamless integration of so many different styles, I’m really proud to have played a part in bridging those gaps and blending those things.”

Japanese heavy metallers Crossfaith started out as a Linkin Park covers band, before exploring their own sound. Like many of us, vocalist Ken Koie discovered the band on MTV, the video for ‘One Step Closer’ introducing him to rap. “I don’t want to use the word ‘perfect’,” he says, “but ‘Hybrid Theory’ is infinitely close to being the perfect record.”

Linkin Park at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards. Credit: Getty

Jordan Fish, keyboard player with genre-blurring Sheffield rockers Bring Me The Horizon, calls ‘Hybrid Theory “the ultimate combination of rock music with electronics, hip-hop and pop-influences” and adds: “Alongside Deftones‘White Pony’, it’s up there with the most influential albums for me.”

Bring Me The Horizon would not be the band they are today if it wasn’t for ‘Hybrid Theory’, he says: “Even with the record we’re doing right now, we still reference them. They’re one of those bands that I always have in the back of my mind when we’re thinking about where a song should go next. It’s the Bible for heavy, catchy music that combines electronic and pop music, which is our brief. They just covered so much ground and did it with such class on that album.”

Hannah Mee of Manchester alt-punk band Hot Milk agrees: “What that album did for me was push my boundaries of what music was, at a very young age…. That record shows you can mix so many different things and get away with it.”

She continues: “It’s really hard [to be a band] right now [due to Covid-19 and a lack of support from the UK Government] and there are times when you ask yourself, ‘Why the fuck are we doing this?’, but then you go back, listen to ‘Hybrid Theory’ and find inspiration to carry on. It’s still got magic surrounding it.“

‘hybrid Theory’ was released in the midst of nu-metal’s assault on the mainstream. Korn were riding high after two back-to-back Number One albums (1998’s ‘Issues’ and 1999’s ‘Follow The Leader’) and it was impossible to avoid Limp Bizkit’s 2000 album ‘Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavoured Water’. Musically, ‘Hybrid Theory’ fit into a scene that combined heavy metal with hip-hop, but there was much more to them then wallet-chains and red caps.

“We can laugh at it now but we were put on a pedestal as the trophy boys of nu-metal,” says Linkin Park’s Joe Hahn. “We didn’t love it all and because our album combined so many styles, it felt like a much bigger approach. We didn’t call it ‘Nu-Metal Theory’; it was ‘Hybrid Theory’ because we wanted to make something different.“

Nu-metal was a macho scene, but, says Jordan Fish, “Linkin Park weren’t really a macho band, were they? It was rebellious, but they still had universal songs like ‘In The End’ that your mum could enjoy on the radio. A lot of songs from that era were straight-up ‘Fuck everyone!’ bro anger, but Linkin Park were a lot more emo and introspective. They didn’t have that silly aggression that a lot of nu metal bands had; they were talking about depression.”

“In the studio, there was a lot of anxiety to get it right” – Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda

“I wasn’t cool at school,” says Crossfaith’s Ken Koie. “I had so much depression and frustration about not fitting in. Their music was how I was able to express my pain. They wrote music for kids like me, who were always struggling with the surrounding environment.”

The tail-end of the ‘90s was filled with musicians challenging the status quo, from Eminem to Marilyn Manson, but, as Jordan Benjamin points out, there was a “sarcastic” edge to these artists. “You were either laughing with them or they were laughing at you,” he says. “With Linkin Park, though, it was much more sombre and existential.

“The Columbine High School massacre has just happened and it felt, like culturally, the perception of America was changing…. [Linkin Park] had political lyrics that provided commentary on the world around them, but most people gravitated to Chester and Mike talking about their own feelings. I think that resonated with a generation.”

Chester Bennington tragically took his own life in 2017. Globally, male suicide rates are more than double female suicide rates. “You can definitely hear that Chester is hurting throughout this whole record,” says Hot Milk’s Hannah Mee says. “Nowadays we have men talking about their feelings and it’s more accepted. But back then, it was a new thing. Most nu-metal bands were talking about girls or wanting to smash stuff up, but here’s Chester singing about how he’s feeling. That was boundary smashing. If you’re a 15-year-old guy and you hear this man talking about something you’re going through, it’s going to connect.”

In 2018, Jordan Benjamin collaborated on Mike Shinoda’s electro-pop song ‘Running From Shadow’, an experience that introduced him to the still-fervent Linkin Park fanbase: “It was such a deep and personal moment. At one point, I almost wasn’t able to take it because people were sharing such personal stories in my DMs. It was clearly so deeply therapeutic for them to still be engaging with Mike’s music.”

Linkin Park’s ‘Hybrid Theory’ accelerated genre-less listening habits, exposed a generation of kids to what else was out there and turned six music nerds into the biggest thing in rock. Their message of believing in yourself – even when no one else will –  continues to resonate with a global audience, as does their insistence that it’s healthy to embrace your flaws.

As the band’s Joe Hahn puts it: “Seeing the impact that album had on people as individuals, and how that echoed through different places in the world, holds a very special place to us. It let us know that what we do has an impact on people, and that’s not something to take lightly.”

– The ‘Hybrid Theory 20th Anniversary Edition Super Deluxe Box Set’ is out now

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