If Korn’s self-titled 1994 debut represented nu metal at its rawest, purest roots, then surely no album better personified its rise to obnoxious, all-conquering glory than Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavored Water. Limp Bizkit’s loud, lairy and ludicrously titled third record ushered in the moment where alternative music’s relationship with the mainstream reached critical mass. It was the album that confirmed a once unthinkable dynamic: metal was, even if only for a moment, the biggest genre in the world. True, Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory may have arrived a mere week later to take things even further, but that album took a little while longer to become the unstoppable, history-making juggernaut we now recognise it as. Chocolate Starfish…, meanwhile, was an instant phenomenon; shifting more than a million copies in a week, it became the fastest-selling rock album of all time and completed Limp Bizkit’s evolution from metal’s outsider frat boys into legitimate pop culture icons.
“I never thought Limp Bizkit was gonna be as large as it was,” admits guitarist Wes Borland today down a phone line from his home in Detroit. “Then the record sold a million in the first week. It was just ridiculous. There was a point in which things got so big that I don’t remember getting them getting bigger.”
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Things were already getting pretty damn big for Limp Bizkit by the turn of the millennium. In an era where metal’s 90s generation had all but prised the baton from its elder statesmen, Bizkit looked set to be the scene’s most successful, but controversial, graduates. A stint supporting Korn followed by abrasive debut album Three Dollar Bill, Y’all in 1997 would see them become one of the most talked-about bands in rock. Their cocksure mix of brawling hip hop and kaiju-sized riffs was drawing in a wide array of fans, but it also made them an instant target for metal’s more sneery quarters – accusations that their music and image was opening our world up for invasion by jocks and posers ran riot.
It didn’t matter: when Significant Other landed in 1999, it peaked at No.1 in the States and made the Top 10 in the UK, the likes of Break Stuff and Nookie providing metal’s biggest breakout anthems for a generation. It was also a record that saw them continue to court controversy: Bizkit’s set at the disastrous Woodstock ’99 was scapegoated for the widespread violence that marred the festival. The sales, however, kept coming in, and the quintet – Wes, becapped frontman Fred Durst, bassist Sam Rivers, drummer John Otto and DJ Lethal – now had enough momentum to become rock’s most significant band in a decade. And so, wanting to bottle that lightning, and after only half a year of promotion for Significant Other, the band knuckled down for album number three.
“We had this huge record to follow up,” recalls Wes. “There was pressure, but we didn’t feel insecure or like we couldn’t follow it. We felt really confident going in, and I knew what I wanted to do. I knew it was gonna be different from Significant Other – and better.”
After a brief and unsuccessful stint working with Rick Rubin, Bizkit settled in at LA’s Larrabee Studios with Significant Other producer Terry Date, looking to build upon the band’s increasing knack for nailing big, fuck-off, modern metal bangers.
“It was really good,” Wes remembers. “We were all [recording] in the same room and we wrote songs and recorded them as we went. I don’t even remember how many weeks we recorded for, but I just remember there was one day that came where we were listening to everything we had, and Fred goes, ‘I think we’re done.’”
The band came out of the studio with an album that’d take them further than even they could have possibly imagined. Landing at No.1 on both sides of the Atlantic after its release in October 2000, Chocolate Starfish… hit a resounding bullseye, stacked with so many big songs that Bizkit were able to release five of them as singles and still hold back tracks that’d become future setlist staples. Rollin’, My Generation, Take A Look Around, My Way, Hot Dog, Livin’ It Up, Full Nelson… that that list reads like a greatest hits set by itself tells you all you need to know about the kind of firepower that Chocolate Starfish… was packing.
It was an album that saw Bizkit become a part of the very fabric of mainstream culture. Take A Look Around would become the standout anthem from Tom Cruise’s blockbuster sequel Mission: Impossible 2 (not bad given that Metallica also wrote a song for the soundtrack), while Rollin’, a UK No.1 single, would be adopted by legendary wrestler The Undertaker as an entrance theme and nab a cameo from Ben Stiller in its video. The video for Rollin’ would also feature Fred flanked by female dancers in matching red caps and even a segment filmed on top of New York’s World Trade Center – the ultimate send- up of the excesses of music culture, and a send-up of Bizkit themselves. Even if many didn’t get the joke.
“We started to poke fun at what people thought we were,” Fred told us in 2014. “That’s why we made the Rollin’ video. There were red caps everywhere, and look at Wes at the beginning of the video with his grills in! How the hell did people not realise we weren’t being serious? We thought it was hilarious.”
Indeed, while Bizkit were attracting fans in their millions, they were also continuing their hot streak of pissing people off all over the place. Hot Dog’s goading of Nine Inch Nails mainman Trent Reznor helped to add fresh fuel on an ongoing feud between the two bands, while a long-rumoured issue between Bizkit and Rage Against The Machine came to a bizarre head at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards. As Fred, Wes et al stepped up to receive their award for Best Rock Video, Rage bassist Tim Commerford (whose band had also been nominated), scaled part of the set and started shaking it around. He’d end up spending a night in jail for his troubles, later putting his actions down to his “own personal politics”.
“I’ve heard rumours from different people,” muses Wes now. “That Rage were like, ‘Limp Bizkit is like Rage Against The Machine but they bring the ‘party’ instead of making people think!’ That’s what I’ve heard annoyed Tim.”
Whatever the reasoning, it didn’t do much to dispel the belief that Bizkit weren’t much loved in the rock industry. In reaping their unprecedented success, they had become metal’s ultimate outsiders: a band the mainstream didn’t fully understand and one their own peers straight-up hated. To their fans, though, they were the most important band of their era: a gateway into metal, sure, but also a cross-culture anomaly. As much as they were dividing fans from within the metal scene itself, they were also uniting music lovers from across much deeper divides.
“People were either high on the emotion of things being fresh and exciting in terms of new sounds and urban music coming into heavy music, or they were rebelling against that,” suggested Fred. “People who liked different kinds of music got what they wanted for the first time. It was that one moment in time when the planets lined up and we all got to share that moment together. It meant something to a big group of people who had never been heard before. It was special.”
“We weren’t accepted by rock any more, we weren’t accepted by pop,” adds Wes now. “[But] we were accepted by the hip hop world because the hip hop world got the hip hop side of us, but had never really experienced rock like that before. Without tooting our own horn, we’re the band that does that best: that tries to represent both sides equally, rather than being a rock band that has some rap, or a hip hop band that has some heavy guitar. I think we’re pretty evenly split down the middle.”
Their choice of tourmates would echo such statements. Having spent time on the road with Cypress Hill earlier in the year, Bizkit saw out 2000 on the aptly titled Anger Management Tour with rap’s newest superstar, Eminem. Once they’d carried the momentum of Chocolate Starfish… into 2001, things were only getting bigger and crazier.
“Everything just seemed excessive,” remembers Wes. “I think the last tour we did on that record cycle, we had our own stage built, there was this giant robot… [the label] told us, ‘If you have this production, none of you are gonna make a penny on this tour.’ And we went, ‘That’s fine!’ We did all this touring that didn’t make any money because our production was so huge. It was like we just broke even. It was ridiculous.”
As the shows got more extravagant and Bizkit’s star burned brighter, so too did the pressure increase on its two leading lights. On the face of it, Fred seemed to revel in being music’s new antagoniser-in-chief, but the truth was slightly different.
“I felt like I was a target, public enemy number one,” he admitted. “I didn’t know how to deal with it. Wherever you went, it felt like eyes were on you and like your life isn’t your own anymore. You sort of think, ‘Fuck all these people’. If people had to find out every last detail of your life and what you jerk off to at night, people might hate you too.”
Wes, meanwhile, was also struggling. His colourful outfits and enigmatic presence may have made him a perfect nu metal poster boy, but they also represented an eclectic artist who was finding being the centre of attention deeply uncomfortable.
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“In the space of six years, I went from a nobody, no one knowing who I was and having complete anonymity, to having to move to Los Angeles because I had 20 kids on the doorstep of my house in Florida looking in my windows,” he sighs. “I couldn’t go to the grocery store. I didn’t like that. It was embarrassing to me. I also was letting press get to me, letting my peers get to me, people talking shit, saying ‘Limp Bizkit is the McDonald’s of rock bands’, stuff like that. I started to feel like a novelty.”
By the end of 2001, it had all become too much. Wes left the band that October, and while he’d eventually return, Bizkit would never scale the insane commercial heights of the Chocolate Starfish… era again. That album was a moment in time that no one saw coming, and one that left a huge impact on the metal scene and beyond. After nearly a decade of ups and downs, a richly received European tour with a rejuvenated Wes in the summer of ’09 would help reincarnate Bizkit as metal’s party band of choice. It’s a status they’ve retained to this day, no longer rock’s whipping boys, nor its anti-heroes – just a kickass band with a back catalogue of all-time anthems. Most of which still remain carved from a certain loud, lairy and ludicrously titled third album.
“I just think it took a lot of people time to get over how annoyingly in everyone’s face we were for that period,” suggests Wes. “When you’re that overexposed, where no one can get away from you and you’re like, ‘Uh, I’m so sick of seeing this person all the time.’ Now, people can enjoy the band for what it is. I love being in Limp Bizkit so much now. I love every show, I love going on tour, I love everybody in the band. But it took all these years for me to look back on that and go, ‘God, I love this, and I love playing those songs.’”