When the Cali-based “rock meets rap” outfit Linkin Park released their first album, Hybrid Theory, it beat out Britney Spears to become the best selling record of 2001. That level of success freaked them out. After releasing their second album, Meteora in 2003, they regrouped and re-emerged four years later with a completely new sound that caused an uproar amongst loyal stans.
The albums Minutes to Midnight and A Thousand Suns bore the sonic signature of legendary producer Rick Rubin. Rubin was also behind the boards for the band’s latest studio effort, Living Things, which is set to drop June 26th.
Last Friday Complex got a chance to hear a few tracks and chat with Linkin Park co-founder and resident MC, Mike Shinoda. He’s a smart dude with an interesting take on the band’s place in music history.
The new songs have a big, modern polished sound, but with that warm, fuzzy, hard-hitting Rick Rubin feel to them. Linkin Park has evolved from MTV frat-house faves into a class act and MC Mike Shinoda makes that clear in the rap-heavy joint “Until It Breaks” off Living Things. Over a bed of big healthy drums, he confidently spits, “I’m a Banksy / You’re a Brainwash / Get the picture like that?” Yes, we get the picture.
Interview by Jeff Sanico
Do you keep abreast of rap current affairs?
I think I do. These days everything moves really fast. There’s all kinds of sub-genres so it all depends on what you’re talking about. For instance, just this morning I heard about this track. It’s a Foster The People remix for “Blue Jeans” (by Lana Del Rey) that Azealia Banks raps on. She’s dope. The guy that mixed our record was doing her record right after ours and I was like, “Dude, can I sneak in?” I’m excited to hear Azealia Banks’s stuff.
What excites you about the new Linkin Park album?
It doesn’t lose any of the creativity of the newer stuff and it brings in the energy of the older stuff. It’s kind of a comprehensive sound. I feel like we’ve been able to take all the stuff we’ve learned on the way and put it all together in each song and still keep it fresh and forward-thinking.
Whenever we get in the studio we react really badly to anything feeling like it’s a throwback or a repeat of what we’ve done—as long as it feels like we’re taking a step forward it feels good. This record echoes a lot of different random things from what we’ve learned along the way. I think every artist’s “new album” is their favorite one.
We’ve been immersed in this one for a year. It’s like we are currently in the eye of the storm. All of my focus is on getting this record perfect and presenting it to the fans in the way that I think is the perfect way. It’ll never be perfect, but we just do our best to make it the best it can be. I’m thrilled about the record, I couldn’t be more excited about people hearing it.
How close is the new record to completion?
We’re mastering right now so it’s basically done. It’ll be out June 26th. The single “Burn It Down” just came out. We’re starting to get some feedback on how people are receiving it and it’s been awesome.
The first couple days we had the highest web traffic in the history of the band—broke all kinds of personal records. It did really well compared to things in the past few years. The industry at large is like… it’s hard to tell where the benchmarks are sometimes, because we live through the bubble of the music industry.
In comparison to that, everything could feel small. Depends on whether you’re an optimist or not. I don’t think we’re pessimists, so we just really try and be in the moment and be happy with what goals we can set and how we can achieve them.
What’s the process for creating a Linkin Park song?
Our process is really loose. Sometimes we’ll start songs with a piano, a beat, or lyrics. Sometimes the lyrics get written and mulled over and picked apart a million times. And sometimes it’s just like, walk up in front of the mic and freestyle it off the top of your head and that’s what ends up being on the record.
It depends on the idea and what’s good for the song. Part of the thing that’s always been there for the band is, before the album Hybrid Theory, the band was called Hybrid Theory, and that was our philosophy from day one. We like all these different types of music and they’re very specific.
It’s not like, oh, we’re just going to mix rap and rock. What kind of rap do you like? What kind of electronic music and rock do you like? Our tastes were different from what was going on out there.
If you think of the difference between like, just use Kid Rock as an easy example. His reference points were like, Run-DMC and like, country rock. Our references were more in the vein of Dépêche Mode, The Roots, Def Tones, Nine Inch Nails and things like that. While his was very aggressive, we called it “frat-rock,” ours was more somber and introverted at times.
Fast-forward to today, I know that our musical tastes have evolved and broadened a lot. We listen to so many more things now, and so to mix all that stuff becomes increasingly difficult but simultaneously, increasingly exciting, when you feel like you get it right.
Has your fan base been feeling the progression?
The first two records were a whirlwind. Hybrid Theory was the best selling album in the world that year. We beat Britney Spears, which didn’t even make any sense to us. A couple years later we decided we needed to go back and basically completely change what we were doing or else we’d be stuck doing that thing forever.
We ended up doing an album called Minutes to Midnight, which was like taking a few steps out of the box and learning how to do something different. The last album was called A Thousand Suns and it was a complete departure. We went totally out of left field to people that were following the band.
But to us, it was a necessary step. We knew going into it that it was really going to be polarizing. It was going to take a lot of effort for a fan to get into it, which is a lot to ask of people. Because it was a concept record, the first two songs on the album were instrumental and had absolutely no traditional structure—you didn’t get a song until the third track in.
We absolutely lost and gained fans. If you look on the iTunes reviews its either one star or five stars. Everybody loved or hated it. That’s kind of the point. So coming back after that… we love that record and had a great time doing it and touring it. It kind of worked out exactly the way we wanted it to.
So coming into this record we’re like, what do we feel is the next step for us creatively? Like, what are we excited about doing? And, this is it. It’s definitely feeling like there was a thirst for a certain thing that is very “Linkin Park,” and we wanted to give them that. We’ve been holding it back for a long time and we felt like now is a good time. We’re excited about doing it. We’re excited for people to hear it.
Since you’re the rapper guy, who are your top 5 rappers?
I don’t think there would be any surprises there. It’s your typical favorite MCs, like Nas, Biggie and Rakim, etc. Let’s fill it out for five… ‘Pac and Em. If you get past that, who are the five that people wouldn’t expect to be in somebody’s top five but should be?
For me, I think its like, Redman, I would actually say Sean P, who I just think is a fucking genius. I might go Mos Def, I might go Black Thought. Who’s a West Coast dude… who’s like the shit? It’s tough, man. The West has always been a little less lyrical. Actually, I didn’t say Scarface, it would be Scarface. Face is retarded, he’s amazing.
That’s the thing for me, it’s always been about, like, that kind of lyricism. The stuff that really excites me a lot of times is the stuff that’s not going to be on the radio. It’ll be too much for them.
What about newer artists like Danny Brown and people like that?
I love Danny Brown! I just downloaded the Danny Brown 3:33 remix of “Blunt After Blunt.” The thing about him is he’s so wild. He’s really honest in a weird way. Like, he doesn’t have a filter, which can be a really bad thing for a lot of people.
Like, you kind of wish Jose Canseco had a filter because you feel bad for him. But you don’t feel that way about Danny. Like, Danny doesn’t have a fucking front tooth, you know what I mean?
Be you and the mainstream is probably not going get it—but fuck them. He’s amazing. I’m probably the most excited about Azealia Banks. I’m really excited that Earl Sweatshirt is making tracks again. I feel like he hasn’t hit his stride yet but once he does he’s going to be really, for people like me, really special.
Oh, I love the Death Grips record too. Have you heard that? I don’t know a lot about what he’s saying, it’s really hard to understand because he’s screaming his brains out. That’s the thing about it—it’s so punk rock for a rap record that I’m still just getting into it. But, the first record that they put out is literally one of my favorite records in like the last ten years. It’s so dope, just because it’s like, so different.
For me it’s all that kind of stuff. Like, A$AP Mob is cool. Oh! Tito Lopez. Dude, his song’s called “Mama Proud” or something. He literally sounds like a cross between Ras Kass and Tupac and he’s real lyrical. He is definitely on my top ten people to watch right now. I think he is so fucking dope.
How about on the production tip? Any cats you’d want a remix from?
There’s a lot of electronic stuff. I’m way into like, Glitch Mob, DatsiK. We’re thinking of getting some remixes with folks in that world. The idea of getting like, a Lex Luger remix is really dope to me but it would have to be the right song.
Our first single is called “Burn it Down” and it’s like a four on the floor, 120 bpm-ish jam and, so immediately I start thinking like well, what is Nero doing what is Rusko doing? That groove is their specialty almost, so that’s why I start thinking in terms of like what’s going to fit. If I give that song to Scoop [Deville], it’s not going to set him up for success.
Who else are you feeling in that electronic realm?
I was actually surprised, like recently, I wasn’t that familiar with Nero and there was another dude named Excision, and DatsiK. I just in the past year started hearing about those guys. My best friend in college in the late ’90s was way into hardcore techno and jungle.
That’s all he spun at clubs and stuff. He was also a tagger and a stoner. This was like, my best friend. He would make me these 90-minute mixtapes and I would never know who I was listening to. It’s like 90 minutes of amazing music and I have no idea who the artists are.
What do you look for in a beat to get your juices flowing?
There’s more rapping on this record than anything we’ve put out in the last few years. At this point there’s got to be a groove for me. Rick Rubin and I were talking about trying to put rapping where you wouldn’t expect it. If the track really didn’t sound like a hip-hop track, then I’d try rapping on it. Once in a while, that really works.
We were super excited when it did. And then a lot of times I was realizing like, rapping and beats, they’re kind of inseparable. My iPod was on shuffle earlier and I heard “Double Trouble” with Black Thought and Mos Def on it, and clearly they’re just riding the beat. The verses and the beat are made for each other. It’s like one thing—not two things.
So for me, it’s about when I can get in that groove and I hear the track and it just inspires some words that just pop out. The newest stuff I’ve been doing has been a lot more intuitive and off-the-paper kind of a thing.
Basically what I’ll do is just spit over the track with nothing written down, and if some good stuff comes out, I’ll use some of those and write some stuff in between. I’ll take it chunk by chunk and write a couple things to remember where I’ve been. It’s a fluid, weird process. Some days it takes an hour and sometimes it takes days.
Who would be the forefathers of the Linkin Park genre?
If you want to go way back, really the whole idea of fusing the synergetic rock thing, and like soulful—what at the time would’ve been called “black music”—would’ve been like Led Zeppelin. They were really taking blues and things like that and fusing them with what ended up being heavy metal. They were the forefathers of that.
Then later you get into like your Run-DMC’s and Beastie Boys. You eventually get into Rage Against the Machine and stuff like that. My friend said to me one time, “I believe that every rock-band’s biggest song is really a rap song.” If you start thinking about, it’s actually really funny.
You start thinking about “When the Levee Breaks” you start thinking about “We Will Rock You,” you start thinking about Blondie, The Beatles and David Bowie even. These songs… they have a huge backbeat to them and there’s a rhythmic quality that’s very hip-hop.
He’s like “you guys made a living doing that. You didn’t accidentally stumble into it on one track.” To varying degrees and varying results… But that’s what we grew up on so that’s what we naturally do.
Do you think the Beastie Boys changed the world?
[Laughs.] Yeah! I never thought of it in those words. What was incredible about them is, I’ll say this—that was the first vinyl record that I bought that defined me. Before that, I had bought a couple other records that I was listening to, just because they were popular. And that one was more than that.
It was like a major moment in my life. It was a record about partying and being silly or whatever but what I realized later, was that the thing I was so excited about is they were breaking down barriers and stereotypes and I think they were doing so unintentionally, like they were almost unconscious of it. Because they came from punk rock, they come from a place in New York where everything was kind of, like, mixed.
I didn’t know it at the time but I know it now because having worked with Rick, I’ll occasionally ask about stories from back then or how this happened or how that happened. It’s incredible. The guy is a piece of history just walking around and to be able to just pull these stories out of him once in a while and hear him talk about how my favorite music of all time was made. There’s nothing else cooler.
Rick Rubin is pretty legendary in the game.
Rick and I produced the last three records together. It’s funny seeing Rick get into hip-hop mode. To put it in perspective, the reason Rick is such a good match for us is that our intention with our records, is to pull all our different ideas, genres, and eras that we like to listen to, and make it our own thing.
It’s not ripping off these things, it’s just an expression of who we are as six guys who’ve been listening to all that crazy shit we listen to. And Rick not only understands every little specific reference point that we give him because he likes the same shit, but he also has done a lot of those records.
He’s made records in those styles, from Run-DMC to Metallica to Johnny Cash. So he can tell us specific techniques in the studio of how to inspire that kind of performance, and how to get that sound from a part of a song. Jumping forward then, sometimes Rick will get into hip-hop mode. You can hear the gears turning in his head.
Like, “Okay, lets do some beat drops in this song” and we’ll do some stuff and he’ll say, “Change this snare like this and do the drop here. Oh, I like that drop because of that reason, and this one should sound like that one.” It’s like a computer, like, he pulls up that folder and just pops out the file. It’s amazing to watch and it’s fun because when you, as an artist, achieve it on your own and impress him, it’s even more satisfying than just impressing yourself.