"I even saw some fans doing heroin outside one of those shows" - the real story behind Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory

Linkin Park in the Crawling video
(Image credit: YouTube)

On October 24, 2000, a little-known band from California called Linkin Park released their debut full-length, Hybrid Theory. And while the unsuspecting sextet didn’t realise it at the time, that album would go on to become not only the biggest-selling record in the world the following year, but also, more importantly, a generation-defining, modern rock classic.

Its fusion of razor-edged metal riffing, slick electronic beats, twisting raps, eye-gouging screams and effortless pop sensibility saw it catapult the six nobodies from nowheresville to rock superstardom in a fashion that will probably never be equalled. An absolute dreadnought of a record, to call Hybrid Theory a phenomenon would be to almost undersell it.

Yet, as a wise man once said, even the greatest of journeys starts with the smallest of steps, and the story of Linkin Park’s world-beating debut begins in the same way that most bands’ tales do – in a kid’s bedroom.

“The very earliest incarnations of the songs from Hybrid Theory were written at my parents’ house when I had just finished high school,” recalled rapper, keyboardist and creative mastermind Mike Shinoda to us in 2014. “A Place For My Head was one of those first songs, but I wasn’t thinking of writing an album – I was barely considering starting a band!”

The young Shinoda’s ‘studio’ was, at best, rudimentary. “I had a four-track recorder, a guitar that we plugged directly into a tiny little amp, and a vocal mic,” he laughed. “The whole set-up was maybe worth $300. We actually sent out a bunch of tapes of those recordings, including to a guy who we knew had signed Incubus and Korn. Amazingly, he called us back! When I told him about my set-up, he was like, ‘That doesn’t make any sense – these songs sound really good!’ And even though he was never in the position to sign us, that was really the start of it.”

With his ambitious creativity and Spartan work practises already earning praise, Shinoda began to form the nucleus of what would become Linkin Park. A merry-go-round of endless demoing ensued, but something was missing from the fledgling line-up. The answer, it turned out, would be found in the form of a flame-haired vocalist from Arizona.

“I had basically decided to retire from music,” said Chester Bennington, reflecting on his frustrating early years trying to make it in a band. “I’d got a job in real estate and thought that while I would probably still make tunes for fun, I would need to find something else to do full-time.”

That’s a fairly remarkable statement for someone who had only just turned 21 at the time, but Bennington, it turned out, was not a man to do things by halves.

“A dude who had been working with my old band gave me a call, going, ‘I’ve got these guys and they’re writing this great music but they really need a singer.’ I immediately was asking all sorts of questions, like, ‘How old are they? How long have they been doing this?’ because I didn’t want to waste my fucking time. He said, ‘Well, I’ll just send you this demo,’ which turned out to have two tracks on one side and instrumentals on the other. I listened to the instrumental side first and immediately I was like, ‘This is it, these are the ones.’ The next thing I know, I’d flown to California and was sat outside Zomba Music Publishing, opposite Whisky A Go Go on Sunset Strip.”

Such quick movement, though, meant that at this stage, Chester hadn’t even set eyes upon the men who would become his new bandmates. “When I finally met the guys, I remember that they seemed very nice, very smart, very serious and, most importantly, they had a plan, which was pretty refreshing.”

If meeting your singer through A&R teams and label suits seems a little – or maybe even a lot – businesslike to you, then you’re not alone in your thinking. When Hybrid Theory did eventually blow up in spectacular fashion, the band had to fend off the accusations of being corporate puppets from all quarters.

“We did get a reputation for being a business rather than a band,” admitted Shinoda. “But that was because we were so focused on getting our stuff done. It wasn’t in the name of business – it was in the name of building up this thing we had worked so hard to create. We were prepared to do everything in our power to be successful on all levels.”

The proof of Shinoda, Bennington and co.’s unwavering, singular dedication? Consider the unshakeable faith they had to display as they tried to score the record deal that would turn Hybrid Theory into a reality. “We showcased for every fucking label there was,” sighed Shinoda, “and they all turned us down.”

“No one wanted us, but we knew we had something fucking special,” offered a defiant Bennington. “We just kept pushing. Most bands probably try out in front of three labels, get rejected and give up. We played in front of 45 but our attitude was, ‘These guys are fucking stupid if they can’t see what we’ve got.’ We knew what we had and never doubted it.”

Fortunately, the band’s faith in themselves would be repaid, as the A&R manager who took them through that seemingly infinite run of soulless pony shows in a bid to score a label deal bagged himself a job at Warner Bros. As part of his contract with the multinational, it was agreed that he would get to sign up Linkin Park as his first band. “We got lucky,” reflected Bennington.

Or so they thought. In fact, the battle to get Hybrid Theory out in the way they intended was just beginning. For Shinoda in particular, it was a tough time. “We had to fight tooth and nail to maintain the vision of the record all the way through. The attitude of the label was: ‘Impress us, and you might get to make a full album.’”

The young band refused to be cowed even in the face of such ham-fisted boardroom fuckwittery, continuing to wage a quiet war to ensure that their music was heard in the way they knew it should be.

The final straw would come when the label, in a move that now seems unimaginably brazen, tried to oust Shinoda from the band. “These guys sat me down and were like, ‘Oh, you’ve got such an amazing voice, you could be such a shining star,’” said Bennington, audibly still angry at the encounter over a decade on. “They wanted to see if I would pull a coup to get Mike out. These dudes were so fucking stupid, man. They told me I’d be the face of the band and that Mike had no story ’cos he was just some kid from Agoura – all these dumb, superficial things.

“They wanted some fucking rapper from New York who no one knew to come and do vocals on the record. I just wanted to punch those idiots in the face because they couldn’t see that golden fucking teat of awesomeness that was right in front of them. Mike’s one of the most productive songwriters of our era, I think. God knows how many Number Ones we’ve had, but if he wasn’t in the band, we wouldn’t have had any of those!”

It’s the sort of display of loyalty that plenty of brothers-in-arms hardcore bands could learn a lot from, and one that pours cold water on the notion that Linkin Park are just a band of mercenaries assembled to achieve global success. Yet when Hybrid Theory did blast forth, infiltrating the airwaves with its infectious bounce, certain sections of the press were quick to brand them as nothing more than a nu metal boy band. Having worked so ceaselessly to get to where they were, it was a tag that stuck in the craw somewhat.

“Yeah, that was a real moment for a while, huh!” remarked Shinoda wryly. “We had to defend ourselves from that absurd shit forever but it was totally out of left-field. We never thought anyone would think something so ridiculous, but all of a sudden people were talking about it!”

Did it piss them off? You’d better believe it. “It gave us something to prove and drove us on, for sure,” noted Bennington. “There was a lot of false perception about us but what we did, instead of talking about it, was make it our mission that when we played, we wanted everyone who played after us to go, ‘Fuck!’ We wanted to be the band that no one wanted to tour with because we would turn up, crush the fucking crowd and then everyone would want to leave after us. We wanted to kick people in the face.”

The sextet would get the chance to prove their reputation as show-stoppers on an international scale throughout 2001, racking up hundreds of gigs across all corners of an increasingly Linkin Park-obsessed world in support of a record that was now storming the charts.

That determination to steal the limelight didn’t go down so well with everyone they hit the road with, though. An ill-fated UK run with the already established Deftones came as they were surfing a wave of success, but extended periods of touring were already taking their toll.

“That tour was one of the most stressful stints we’ve ever done,” confided Shinoda. “We basically followed winter around the world for six months and we were all always sick. And then to top it off, the guys in Deftones started to get a bit jealous and began treating us really poorly. Steph and Chino said some pretty nasty things in interviews. We tried not to say anything back because we didn’t want more tension on the tour but it was pretty miserable.”

The success the band had strived so hard to achieve wasn’t proving to be the bed of roses they had expected. “I even saw some fans doing heroin outside one of those shows. Totally fucking horrible shit, man. It was a dark period overall, even though things were, ostensibly, going so well.”

So what would drive both the press and Linkin Park’s peers to get so wound up by six guys who were, to all intents and purposes, just pursuing their dream? Maybe it was the consensus that they were nice, hard-working, middle-class boys who had nothing to be angry about. Or perhaps that by comparison to larger-than-life figures like Jonathan Davis and Fred Durst, they seemed, frankly, a little dull.

“People don’t fucking know us. Nobody knows me. You can’t look at a picture of our band and come to a conclusion about what our life is,” snarled Bennington. “We wanted to create art that spoke for itself: nothing more, nothing less. We know that a lot of people didn’t like it but that achieved another thing I love – when people hate you so much they can’t stop talking about you.”

Shinoda had his own view on the way his band were perceived. “I think that the difference between us and someone like Korn or Limp Bizkit is that, to me, a lot of that music was made for a frat party, a drunken brawl, slutty dudes taking their tops off and feeding off their own testosterone. What we didn’t connect with in that scene was that there wasn’t a lot of room for more introspective emotion. People would ask us, ‘Well, Jonathan Davis practically grew up in a morgue and was molested and all these horrible things. What gives you the right to be angry?’ But you don’t have to have gone through the worst things in the world to be sad. I think that’s something that ultimately really connected with our fans: that you don’t have to be an outcast and a fuck-up to take something from this music on an emotional level. If that makes us dull, then fine.”

It must be said, though, that while their debut album was breaking records for sales and at the same time converting a generation of kids to rock music, Linkin Park weren’t exactly indulging in the rock-star fantasies you might imagine. Even as they were handed the keys to the castle as the biggest band in the world, it was still a case of ‘work hard’ rather than ‘party hard’.

“I guess by most standards we were pretty reserved. We were doing so much that it didn’t leave too much time to get crazy,” joked Shinoda. “I mean, there was this one time in Minnesota that by the end of the night we had thrown a beer keg through a hotel window and had a snowball fight in the lobby, so we weren’t totally fucking boring, but we were so focused on achieving the next goal.”

Do they wish they had been a bit crazier at the time of their peak? “We did it our way and I wouldn’t change a single thing,” reasoned Bennington. “Not a thing.”

All the graft, indisputably, paid off. Hybrid Theory remains the biggest-selling debut album of the 21st century and Linkin Park’s influence can palpably be felt across a whole new wave of emerging acts. 

“I’m still enormously proud of that album,” beamed Bennington. “Every now and then I will listen back to everything that we’ve done and I still enjoy that record.”

For perfectionist Shinoda, there are still specific moments that get his pulse racing. “Papercut is one of those songs that pairs up some of my favourite kinds of rock music and some of my favourite kinds of dance music,” he enthused. “Chester and I are both rapping, both singing, and it really sums up what our band was all about. That’s why we put it at the start of the record because it was such a great introduction to who we were and who we are. I still love it to this day.”

Hybrid Theory is that rarest of things: a once-in-a-generation record as definitive of a place and time as a mosquito trapped in amber. “What happened with Hybrid Theory felt like someone had stuck me in a wormhole and fired me into a new dimension,” said Chester. “And you know what? Nothing was ever the same again.”

Originally published in Metal Hammer’s Nu Metal special. The Hybrid Theory: 20th Anniversary Edition is out now