So I decided to spin Korn’s debut album a few weeks ago on a road trip. Why? I’m not entirely sure. As a diehard fan back in the day, I had heard this album, and my friends and I recited the lyrics hundreds upon hundreds of times. I can play the entire album out through my head without even hitting play. It’s a CD I see every day, as I have a copy autographed by all five original band members on my shelf display.
After some thought, I realized why I pulled it out again. For my own curiosity, I wanted to revisit Korn, not to have something to write about, or for nostalgia. I wanted to hear how the music, and the 12 songs that make up the album—from “Blind” to “Daddy”— sound today, 20 years later. After two decades of trends, genres and sub-genres and the enormous wealth of music I have taken in over that time while growing up into an adult, I wanted to know what the original appeal was, what made me become obsessed with Korn and if I still could get enjoyment from spinning this record.
The results were mixed. Everything was still there as if it had been locked away in a safe for 20 years, yet I didn’t get the same feeling or excitement when I heard it. Why? That could be due to many reasons, but I think it probably goes back to that day when I heard the album for the first time—I didn’t know what I was hearing. Korn still sounds “nu” 20 years later.
This story starts where many of mine begin: Tower Records. Anyone born after 1990 probably has no idea. Back in the early ’90s, there was, of course, no Internet—and if there was, I didn’t have it. No smartphones, no nothing. Just your car and maybe a few extra dollars to take a weekend ride to afford maybe two or three CDs a week. CDs back then were on average about $15 to $18. But if you were lucky, Tower Records would have sales (as it often did) on new releases and “upcoming artists,” the same kind of thing digital outlets do today. I think I bought Korn for $9.99.
As was usually the case, my friend and I were out exploring for new music. And there was really no way to hear about new music—at least not heavy music—unless you put on those headphones and started flipping through whatever they had out for listening. And that wasn’t even the case with Korn—we hadn’t even heard it. I might have read a short review or read something about the album somewhere beforehand, but I don’t remember. So why did I buy Korn’s debut album? What it came down to was the old standby: My friend and I both really liked the album cover. (You would be surprised how many albums we actually bought based solely on the cover.) The now iconic cover features an innocent little girl on a playground swing shielding her eyes from the sun, as the shadow of a dark figure looms over her holding a hook in one hand, blades in the other. The cover can be interpreted in a number of ways, but I think it’s best described in the lyrics of “Shoots and Ladders”:
“Nursery rhymes are said, verses in my head
Into my childhood they’re spoonfed
Hidden violence revealed, darkness that seems real
Look at the pages that cause all this evil”
These types of things were always hit or miss—buying something on a whim. When you did this, you were taking a chance and praying for great music. Who wants to waste $9.99? Even if there were only a couple good songs, it wouldn’t be a complete wash. Plus, if you were the one who “finds” the next big band or new thing, your friends would look on you like you were some kind of musical freak, a genius, looking to you in the foreseeable future as to what bands to check out and what to listen to. The downside was if it turned out to be an unlistenable dud, it would be either an embarrassment or tossed out the window on the ride home.
Korn was the next big thing, but we didn’t know it. Hair metal was gone. Grunge already was fizzling out; Cobain was gone. (Even though Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York was a fantastic album, I often feel it was the unofficial end of grunge.) We had Bush, Smashing Pumpkins, and the never-ending alternative era was in full swing. Metal was around like it always was. In other parts of the world, it was evolving and breaking off into sub-genres that are still around today. But in the U.S., there wasn’t much going on in the way of metal. Sure, we had the “big four” releasing albums, death metal and other extreme sub-genres just starting, but nothing was really happening. Until 1994, that is—and it didn’t start with Korn; Korn was kind of an afterthought of the year’s hard rock and metal releases.
In a year that saw now-classic releases such as Machine Head’s Burn My Eyes, Marilyn Manson’s Portrait of an American Family, Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven, Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, Slayer’s Divine Intervention, Corrosion of Conformity’s Deliverance and Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Korn was unknown.
So I pick up the CD, and we left Tower Records for the hour-drive home. That was it—one CD on the trip. Again, times were tight back then. With great anxiety, I popped it in the disc player of the earth-shaking system the car had installed. (This was a big deal in the ’90s also—to turn heads and rattle windows with your sub-woofers as you rode through town.) The opening scratches and bass hits started to “Blind,” and we immediately thought, “Is this House of Pain?” Then when Jonathan Davis belted out the now famous lyric, “Are you ready?!,” and those downtuned chugging guitar riffs from Brian “Head” Welch and James “Munky” Shaffer broke in, we looked at each other, hair standing on the backs of our necks, jaws dropped.
As we listened through, calling out the coolest parts, I remember thinking Davis’ vocals reminds me of Gavin Rossdale of Bush (I know—lame, right?) The hip-hop drumming and “beats” of David Silveria brought Suicidal Tendencies or even Mike Muir’s off-shoot Infectious Grooves to mind and the aforementioned House of Pain. Those were my frames of reference at the time. But then when Davis started in with his scit-scat-gibberish vocal stylings on “Ball Tongue,” the repetitive build-up call outs of “Divine” and “Faget” and the bass funk from Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu (credited “Fieldy Snuts” on the album) on “Need To,” we knew we were on to something new, just not “nu.”
If you’re down for a candid look into the members of Korn in their early years, and a lot of what went into the band forming and making its debut album, check out the DVD,Who Then Now? Completely shot on home video and also featuring all the official music videos from Korn, it’s a must-have for fans of old Korn. We watched this thing and had it memorized religiously. The complete video is also featured on the band’s DVD, Deuce.
When the band was signed to its first record deal, Epic Records A&R employee Paul Pontius described Korn’s sound as “the new genre of rock.” Man, was he right. Still, it took some time for Korn to catch on. They received no airplay and little press, but through playing live relentlessly all around the U.S. and through word of mouth, there was a massive fan base building, ready to erupt in a whole new scene. By the time I arrived in Baltimore, Md. in 1995, for a meet and greet with the band, where I got my CD signed, fans were lined around the block, and lowrider cars thumped by, all bearing the recognizable Korn logo on their back windshield. Korn was about to arrive.
Korn peaked at No. 1 on the Heatseekers Albums chart and eventually reached No. 72 on the Billboard 200 in February 1996, two years later. It was certified two-times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. Four singles were released from the album. “Blind” was released on Aug. 1, 1994, and “Shoots and Ladders” was released on Oct. 31, 1995. The latter received a Grammy nomination in 1997 for Best Metal Performance. “Need To” was also released in 1995, on April 8. The fourth and final single, “Clown”, was released on Feb. 2, 1996. After this, the rest as they say, is history.
Metal purists didn’t like Korn the album or Korn the band, and still don’t. There are no guitar solos, and all the cliches of traditional metal were cast aside. Band members even said though they were always fans of metal, they didn’t like the fashion, lifestyle and perception that bands like Megadeth had (they went on to open for Megadeth on “Reckoning Day 1995”, resulting in one of their most miserable tours in their early years). Korn and the sub-genre they were creating weren’t about Flying Vs, leather vests and boots, spikes, tassels or blue jeans. The band was from Huntington Beach, Calif., and it brought a hip-hop, street, skate style with it—baggy clothes, hoodies, beanies, dreadlocks and, of course, Adidas. The young, impressionable fan base caught on, and others, like me, let out a sigh of relief. The same day I bought Korn, I may have listened to Obituary’s The End Complete earlier in the day, and my favorite album of all time up until that (and this) day was Megadeth’s Rust in Peace. But I was never one to dress the part—being giving consent to wear Adidas and comfortable, baggy clothes was a godsend for me, even if a lot of us did look like Run DMC.
Lyrically, Davis focused on personal issues the band often said producer Ross Robinson helped bring out from deep within. (Robinson went on to produce several popular nu-metal albums such as Slipknot, Cold and Soulfly’s debut albums and Limp Bizkit’s Three Dollar Bill, Y’all). Korn’s lyrics came from dark places of Davis’ youth, focusing on child abuse, bullying, sexual orientation and even faith. This aspect also greatly affected the rock scene, as bands started using this writing formula of “real life,” straying away from Dungeons & Dragons fantasy-inspired lyrics. New bands copied, as well.
All due to Korn’s debut album, nu metal erupted. As much as we as a metal community talk about and even hate on nu metal, the sub-genre wasn’t even around that long (1996-2000), yet its impact is still felt. Coal Chamber, Deftones, hed (pe), Incubus, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Slipknot and Soulfly emerged as major players, and bands like Fear Factory, Machine Head, Sepultura and even Slayer changed their sound to compliment the new style and its fans. (Robb Flynn of Machine Head even started rapping.)
Korn was a groundbreaker and gamechanger. The album brought in so many different influences and styles, including hip-hop, hardcore, rock, metal and funk, in a way that had never been done before. It’s probably unfair to say the nonsense bands that were created during that time were all Korn’s responsibility. I don’t think that was their intention at all. What Korn’s debut album did was turn the rock world upside down and make almost everyone reevaluate what they were doing. Korn made a bold statement that as an artist you need to be honest and real.
So even if the album sounds stripped down, simple, or “nu” when I play it today, it encompasses what Korn was, and is, all about. It’s a reminder that no one is safe and something bigger is always on the horizon. (The “hidden violence revealed.”) It was part of my youth, and it helped mold my musical taste to this day.