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Limp Bizkit are the new kings of rock. Why?

The phone call couldn't have come at a more appropriate time. It's a publicist at Interscope-Geffen-A&M Records -- a vice-president at A&M for 14 years before Seagram's eviscerated the label -- ringing on behalf of one his clients, Sinead Lohan. But quickly the conversation turns to a mutual pet peeve: the rise of bands such as Limp Bizkit and Korn, groups that trade in hip-hop-inflected metal or metallic hip-hop; sometimes it's hard to tell which, and it's even harder to care. Without prompting, he offers up his own opinion on Limp Bizkit. And surprisingly, it's not what you'd expect a publicist at the label that recently released the band's sophomore album to say. Meaning, it's the truth. "I just don't get it," he says. "I don't know. I need a melody."

Not too many people got it until recently. When Limp Bizkit released its 1997 debut Three Dollar Bill, Y'all$, the band saw fewer stars from critics than a Planet Hollywood opening in Iowa. The album was panned across the board, and rightly so: It took the worst parts of metal and hip-hop and somehow made them worse, scratch-and-riff songs clouded by so much Lollapollution. The only press the group received was when its label, Interscope Records, was caught paying $5,000 to a radio station in Seattle so it would play "Counterfeit," the first single off Three Dollar Bill, Y'all$. Even then, it seemed that journalists wanted the scandal to go away almost as much as the band and its label did, just so they wouldn't have to devote anymore time or energy to Limp Bizkit.

The band's brand-new follow-up to Three Dollar Bill, Y'all$, Significant Other, isn't that different from its predecessor, recycling the same grooves and grunts. Like Three Dollar Bill, Y'all$, the most challenging aspect of Significant Other is deciding whether it's a terrible hard rock album or a horrible hip-hop record. The answer is both, although the band does score a few points for enlisting Method Man and Gang Starr's DJ Premier (on "N2gether") to shore up the hip-hop side of things. Singer Fred Durst's lyrics remain as simple as second-grade math -- "It's just one of those days when you don't wanna wake up / Everything is fucked / Everybody sucks," and brutha, we've been there -- and he delivers them in the same way, whispering through the verses, barking the choruses, rinse and repeat. The only thing that has changed between the first album and the second is that Limp Bizkit is even less interesting this go-around.

For the past few weeks, however, music critics across the country have been backtracking like they're searching for lost car keys, stumbling over themselves to lavish praise on Limp Bizkit's sophomore album. Deftly avoiding any negative reviews they may have written two years ago, they are now positioning Significant Other as a Nevermind or Never Mind the Bollocks... for the "Adidas rock" generation, the kind of album that transcends a cult following. Suddenly, the group's bandwagon is filled with the same people who tried to shoot out its tires when Three Dollar Bill, Y'all$ was released. The sniping of the past has been casually forgotten, relegated to a mention of Three Dollar Bill, Y'all$ as "largely overlooked" (Rolling Stone) if it is even referenced at all. No one, it seems, is willing or able to recall exactly what they thought of Limp Bizkit's debut. How convenient.

Of course, back then, no one had any idea that Three Dollar Bill, Y'all$ would go on to sell 1.5 million copies, spurred on by an annoying cover of George Michael's "Faith." Or that the band would help turn last fall's Family Values Tour -- which also featured Korn, Rammstein, Ice Cube, and Orgy -- into one of the most successful concert bills of 1998. The saddest thing about all the critics calling Significant Other a breakthrough record is that they may be right; "Nookie," the album's first single, is already a fixture on MTV and alternarock radio -- without Interscope even having to dip into petty cash.

The thing is, Significant Other isn't the discovery critics would like it to be. The revolution has already happened, beginning when Korn released its self-titled debut in 1994. The California quintet quietly sold more than a million copies of that album, as well as the two it has released since then, 1996's Life Is Peachy and last year's Follow the Leader. And any band that sells more than a million copies of its first record, as Limp Bizkit did, isn't waiting to break through; it already has. In the time between Korn and Significant Other, Limp Bizkit and Korn and all the other bands mining the same territory between rock and rap have taken over.

It's unfortunate, but true; you need look no further than Vanilla Ice's 1998 comeback album, Hard to Swallow, to see that. Robbie Van Winkle never met a trend he couldn't exploit, from the dapper rapper image he created for himself on his debut to the blunt-smoking roughneck he borrowed from Cypress Hill on Mind Blowin'. He just happens to be more suited for this one, what with his limited skills and tattooed torso. Van Winkle fits right in with the endless parade of bands that don't seem to know how to tune their guitars.

The big difference between Van Winkle and the bands he tries to associate himself with now is that he's only using the music to relive past glories. He saw what was selling, so he redid "Ice Ice Baby" (renamed "Too Cold" on Hard to Swallow) in a way that would get people to actually listen to it again without laughing...much. Van Winkle missed the point by latching onto a sound that combines metal's expression of white suburban alienation and hardcore hip-hop's outlet for the frustration of young black men in the ghetto. And Van Winkle can't relate either way: His is the sort of alienation that only celebrities endure, the angst that comes from realizing no one cares about you anymore.

The rest of the bands claim to be using the music as a way to vent their anger, scream therapy set to a breakbeat. Without a doubt, some of the hostility is genuine, or at least it may have been at some point. But Van Winkle's adoption of the sound only serves to underscore the problem with many of the groups that have surfaced in the wake of Korn and Limp Bizkit's success. Too many of them smack of cheap opportunism, cashing in on a passing fad until the next one comes along. Even Korn and Limp Bizkit sound as if they're trying to copy themselves, tapping an empty well. After selling millions of records, Korn's Jonathan Davis doesn't seem to have anything to be angry at anymore, unless it's the fact he isn't selling more records. The message is meaningless, despite everything both bands claim to be expressing with their songs. It all comes back to a cheap imitation of Run-DMC tag-teaming with Steven Tyler and Aerosmith. After all, that's where it all started.

It's probably unfair to blame Run-DMC and Aerosmith for Limp Bizkit's current success, but it's hard not to. Somewhere between then and now, the line between hip-hop and hard rock was lost forever in a mosh pit, trampled by some 15-year-old toothpick hitching up pants that would be baggy on Dom Deluise. It seemed like a good idea in 1986, when they decided to "Walk This Way" to the top of the charts. And to this day, it remains the only such collaboration worth listening to. Both bands obviously agree: Run-DMC's forthcoming album Crown Royal includes another merger of the two groups, this time a reworked version of the Raising Hell classic "It's Tricky."

Run-DMC and Aerosmith opened the door, and Public Enemy and Anthrax made people regret it five years later, when the two bands partnered up to record a forgettable take on PE's "Bring the Noize." And two years after that, the blueprint for the recent glut of hip-hop metalheads was created on the soundtrack to Judgment Night, an album that managed to obtain worse performances from its cast than the film did. Judgment Night is the most obvious touchstone, teaming such bands as Helmet and House of Pain, Slayer and Ice-T, Biohazard and Onyx, and Mudhoney and Sir Mix-A-Lot, and proving that it doesn't matter how weak your rhymes are as long you scream them loud enough. It's been a quick trip downhill ever since.

Thirteen years after Run-DMC revived Aerosmith's flagging career, "Walk This Way" sounds more like the beginning of the end, and not just because it revived Aerosmith's flagging career (cf. "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing"). Looking back, it might just be the most damaging three minutes in recent popular music history, the song that started hip-hop and rock down a road that ended in a head-on collision that sounds a lot like Limp Bizkit. Or Kid Rock, Insane Clown Posse, Korn, Staind, and any of the dozens of hybrid bands currently clogging radio playlists and Billboard sales charts. For better or worse -- or really, just worse -- Limp Bizkit's lineage begins where "Walk This Way" ends. It's a shame, because when Joseph "Run" Simmons and Darryl "DMC" McDaniels traded rhymes over Joe Perry's unforgettable riff, they broke the mold. Too bad it didn't stay broken.

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