In the United States, a country where b-boy cool has become de rigueur in white suburbia and psychedelic punks the Butthole Surfers have seen their first taste of Top 10 success come from--of all things--a rap song, lines have blurred. Call it the lollapollution of America.
Since 1991, when Perry Farrell created Lollapalooza--the traveling festival that features diverse musical styles including punk and funk--rap and rock music have started to move closer to one another. Rap bands have left the standard two-turntables-and-a-mike approach and are beginning to utilize live musicians. Rock bands have incorporated rap techniques like sampling and drum machines into their repertoires.
Los Angeles-based 311 bridges the ever-shrinking gap between the two genres, shifting from rap to reggae to funk to hard rock on the same record, sometimes on the same song. Surprising from a band whose members grew up in Nebraska, a state more known for growing corn and tipping cows than musical diversity.
It's that versatility that has allowed the band to appeal to both the tattooed and pierced crowd of the skateboard-competition-with-a-soundtrack WARPED tour, on which the band just finished a week of headlining dates, and the roots rockers of the H.O.R.D.E. tour, on which the group will spend the last week of August on the main stage. Drummer Chad Sexton says that puts the band in a unique situation.
"I do think we are one of the only bands that could play both tours," he says. "I mean, most of our songs have a harder edge to them, but we could put together a 30-, 45-minute set of just our reggae stuff, and we would be just fine. Our crowds have always been made up of a lot of different kinds of people. I think our music kind of promotes that.
"Most of our fans are people like us who are into a lot of different types of music. I know I get bored playing the same style over and over."
The band is used to playing before diverse audiences. Several years ago, 311 played a festival in Birmingham, Alabama, on a bill with the Neville Brothers and several country bands. The scared organizers didn't know how to handle the band's young, moshing crowd, and--as often happens in situations of this type--they overreacted. Police moved into riot formation and started spraying the crowd with Mace. It wasn't the first time that the group had clashed with security personnel about fan behavior, but Sexton says things have changed for the better in the past few years.
"That [the Birmingham incident] happened a long time ago. That kind of stuff doesn't happen very much at all anymore," he says. "I mean, they weren't really expecting our kind of crowd. But we haven't had problems with security in a while. They have gotten more familiar with the kind of crowd we have."
311 has spent much of the past six years making sure that bouncers throughout the country are familiar with its music. The band--which also includes singer-guitarist Nick Hexum, bassist P-Nut, guitarist Timothy Mahoney, and singer Doug (SA) Martinez--formed in 1990 in Omaha. A positive buzz quickly spread after the group's first show opening for Fugazi, and soon, 311 had built a massive fan base throughout the Midwest. After releasing three highly successful independent albums (Dammit!, Unity, and Hydroponic) the band, tired of being the big fish in a small pond, decided to move to Los Angeles, where Midwestern big fish are regularly flushed down the toilet.
But the move paid off for 311. Six months after arriving in L.A., the band signed a deal with Capricorn Records.
"We have a really good relationship with them [Capricorn]," Sexton says. "They were kind of involved on our first record, but now they pretty much let us do what we want to do, musicwise, without much interference. They trust us now."
Nonstop touring followed the group's signing. Even before its latest single, "Down," became firmly entrenched in MTV's Buzz Bin, 311 was able to sell out clubs and theaters throughout the country on the strength of word-of-mouth alone. The members of the band were on the road so much that they moved out of their communal house in L.A. and began living permanently on the tour bus.
"Life on the road is pretty good. We all have our own bunks so we can sleep as much as we want," Sexton says. "I mean, I've seen places around the country that I never thought I'd get to see."
The road hasn't always been good to 311, however. In 1993, while en route to a gig in Kansas City, the recreational vehicle the group was traveling in caught fire. The musicians narrowly escaped before the RV exploded, but lost all of their musical equipment and personal belongings in the fire. The Kansas City show was canceled, but one night later, 311 was back on stage, playing with rented equipment and with what bassist P-Nut describes as "blind aggression."
An experience like that can cause a young band to either implode or get stronger. As its quick return to the stage shows, 311 is in the latter category, practicing the positive message it preaches on its records. The group has not only carried on, it has gotten better, becoming more adept musically, and maturing lyrically, as it leaves the confines of rap and adopts a harder guitar edge and more melody. Its latest release, 1995's 311, is the band's strongest work to date, carrying on the band's goal of making rap songs melodic. The album seamlessly blends influences as dissimilar as the reggae-tinged hard-core of Bad Brains ("DLMD") and the pop smoothness of Nat King Cole ("Purpose").
The success of 311 has inevitably led to controversy. 311 shirts were banned in some high schools after it was reported that the band's ambiguous moniker, which is police code for indecent exposure--referring to a long-ago incident involving a midnight swim at a local pool without regulation swim wear--and is a symbol for the Ku Klux Klan (K being the 11th letter of the alphabet and repeated three times). Proponents of the theory have obviously not heard 311's lyrics, which are all about respect and love for others and, above all, unity.
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The band will take some time off before heading to the studio to record another album. Sexton has already worked at home on the basic tracks for several songs, but he says it is still early in the process.
"I've laid down some beats electronically, but I won't really know what kind of songs they are going to be until Nick and Doug decide if they want to sing or rap," he says. "I usually write about 40 percent of the songs, but they usually write the lyrics, so we'll have to see what they want to do.
"But the beats we've laid down so far are kickass. This next album is going to be like something you've never heard before. It's going to be, like, futuristic space music. It's still going to be hard, but also really electronic sounding. It'll definitely still be us."
311 plays the Bomb Factory August 15.