On August 18, 1998, two albums were released that would migrate two misunderstood genres from minor curiosities to major cultural forces. But nü-metal and rap-rock weren’t always critically derided, and despite sharing some qualities, aren’t interchangeable.
That summer, two artists released albums that offered different examples of how rap and rock could coexist. The first was Follow The Leader, the third album from Bakersfield, California five-piece Korn. The band had spent the five years prior building a name for itself across the metal underground, opening tours for Ozzy Osbourne and even finding commonality with hardcore bands, as New York legends Sick Of It All took Korn out as a support act in 1995. By January of 1996, Korn’s self-titled debut would be certified gold, and that same year, second album Life Is Peachy hit No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200. The group was already outshining its peers, and Follow The Leader was its chance to show the world how forceful it’d become.
Similarly, in the Detroit suburb of Romeo, Michigan, Robert James Ritchie was prepared to release his fourth album. Having used the name Kid Rock for the better part of a decade, he’d released two albums of pure Beastie Boys worship, and on 1996’s Early Mornin’ Stoned Pimp, he began bringing in some of his classic- and Southern-rock fascinations. It set the stage for Devil Without A Cause, Kid Rock’s breakthrough album, and one that, while not nü-metal, extended the lineage of rap-rock that Run-DMC and Aerosmith had first established.
Since the ’80s, bands of all stripes had been working to incorporate rap into rock music. Though Run-DMC and Aerosmith collaborating on “Walk This Way” often gets credited as pioneering this musical fusion in 1986, that same year the Beastie Boys’ debut album, Licensed To Ill, pushed the idea even further. From there, Ice-T would launch Body Count, whose song “Cop Killer” became a lightning rod for outrage in 1992, and Anthrax and Public Enemy would release a reworked version of “Bring The Noise” together. But even bands without actual rappers would begin to incorporate these hallmarks, as everyone from Faith No More to Pantera brought a bit of groove to the table. As the ’90s wore on, it became clear this wasn’t a passing trend, but a precursor to a movement.
The Kid Rock and Korn albums were the culminations of two budding movements hitting the mainstream at the exact right moment. In less than a year, Devil Without A Cause would go platinum—just as Rock prophesied on the title track—topping out at No. 4 on the Billboard charts. Follow The Leader went to No. 1. Both albums would have their singles played to death on modern rock radio, and their accompanying music videos would be beamed into the eyes of impressionable youth by way of MTV’s Total Request Live. Korn’s videos were so popular that TRL had to retire both “Freak On A Leash” and “Got The Life,” hitting a level that rivaled that of pop sensations like the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync. As the records continued to sell, with Follow The Leader logging over 5 million in sales and Devil Without A Cause eventually hitting diamond certification with 14 million units sold, both Kid Rock and Korn had gone from relative obscurity to some of the biggest names in music.
But while it’s easy to look back and see both acts as pure commercial forces, their art secondary to the status they’d achieved, critics actually seemed to be on board. Though Rolling Stone has a history of treating major names with kid gloves, both albums were given four-star reviews, which, compared to the reviews for, say, Destiny’s Child, were outright glowing. Robert Christgau, the self-appointed “Dean Of American Rock Critics” gave Devil Without A Cause an A-, seeming to take great joy in all of Kid Rock’s debauchery. And most tellingly, in its nascent days, Pitchfork gave Follow The Leader a generous 6.9 in a review it’s since scrubbed from the site. There were detractors, sure, but even critics hadn’t started slipping in jabs just yet.
Both Korn and Kid Rock surely shared fans, but in 1998, they’d yet to be fully grouped together. Their sonic commonality was only ever, at best, slight. Korn took much more from metal than Kid Rock ever did, and though vocalist Jonathan Davis scatted and rapped—and Follow The Leader featured both Ice Cube and The Pharcyde’s Slimkid3—he never seemed to make that his focus. He didn’t try to write clever rhymes as much as run down laundry lists of his frustrations and complaints. And though he was not immune from nü-metal’s toxic relationship with women and homosexuality, Davis appeared more complex, if only because he was willing to engage with his own confusion about his gender and sexuality, as he famously did on “Faget” from the band’s debut album. Similarly, his songs often addressed the abuse he suffered as a child, as well as the dissolution of the family unit, and though his words were often inelegant, Korn’s music and message resonated with kids suffering from similar traumas that were in need of some kind of release.
On the flip side, Kid Rock carried with him the bravado of all the rock stars and rappers he looked up to. Devil Without A Cause took the riffs of his beloved Lynyrd Skynyrd and Steve Miller Band and turned the distortion up a hair, giving his backing band, Twisted Brown Trucker, the chance to cosplay as a slightly heavier version of their forebears. But Kid Rock was a rapper, and while it’s easy to debate whether or not he’d be better served doing literally anything else, he did, in fact, rap. In song—as well as in his videos—he did his best to affect his idealized version of a pimp. His wardrobe was all fur coats and pork pie hats, and he carried himself with a cocksure swagger that kept anyone from challenging him. He’d already been pivoting away from rap on Early Mornin’ Stoned Pimp, and on Devil Without A Cause, he fully crossed over, rapping just enough to retain the fan base he’d already built while composing rock music safe enough to bring in fans that had sworn off hip-hop altogether.
So, how did Korn and Kid Rock become indelibly linked while also evolving into critical detritus? The answer is twofold: Limp Bizkit and Woodstock ’99. While Korn and Kid Rock each made sense on their respective sides of the nü-metal/rap-rock divide, Limp Bizkit fell somewhere in the middle. Korn famously took Limp Bizkit under its wing, hooking the Florida band up with producer Ross Robinson before inviting Bizkit frontman Fred Durst to guest on Follow The Leader. “All In The Family” is a sort of battle rap filled with homophobic slurs and elementary disses, with Davis and Durst doing their best to insult each other’s masculinity for nearly five minutes. It helped Limp Bizkit get a leg up, and when the group released its sophomore album, Significant Other, in 1999, it exploded. When all of these three acts played together at the reincarnated Woodstock ’99 festival in upstate New York and Durst effectively incited a riot, their paths would be forever tied.
It took a few more years for the tide to fully turn. Limp Bizkit’s 2000 follow-up, Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavored Water, was the fastest-selling album by a rock band since Soundscan started tracking sales in 1991, but things eventually crashed hard. In a post-Enema Of The State world, soon all manner of generic pop-punk bands would take up radio space, leaving the door wide open for Green Day to once again dominate the landscape with American Idiot. Kid Rock quickly pivoted, excising almost anything resembling rap from his music in the years that followed and building the “American Bad Ass” persona that allowed him to gain favor with outlaw-country fans with a right-wing predilection. Korn stuck to its guns for a while, playing to the nü-metal fan base that was still there, though the band would attempt to break out of that box on 2011’s The Path Of Totality, trading one maligned genre for another as it shifted to dubstep.
Though the merits of nü-metal and rap rock have been seen as dubious over the past 20 years, in the modern era, it’s become less gauche for bands to mine them for all they’re worth. The framework of nü-metal can be seen in bands like Code Orange or Vein, who forgo the rapping and instead use it as a flavor in their metalcore stews. And though rap-rock as we once knew it as dead, plenty of acts have gotten tagged as thinks such as “rap-punk,” as Ho99o9 and Death Grips play with more caustic constructions and an unbridled anger befitting of heavier rock subgenres.
But on August 18 of 1998, none of this was anyone’s concern. Though Korn and Kid Rock would be lumped together for the sake of ease, they never had all that much in common. Nü-metal and rap-rock would eventually become pejoratives, thrown around in a way that intimated they were garbage music for garbage people, but there was a reason these records had such a large impact. They spoke to kids from low-income backgrounds and gave them the chance to both find commonality with others through their pain and revel in a gaudy, escapist fantasy. The bands and their styles couldn’t have been more different, but for the people who loved them, and those that hated them, maybe that never really mattered anyway.