At first, Mike Shinoda, co-founder of the immensely popular band, Linkin Park, didn’t want to go back to the past. He didn’t want to revisit the early demos, relive the old memories. Why look back? On October 24th, 2000, Linkin Park released its debut LP, Hybrid Theory, which, it turns out, was more like a debut greatest hits record, featuring songs like “One Step Closer,” “Papercut” and “In The End.” But, thanks to some lifelong friends and collaborators, Shinoda was convinced more recently to unearth the lost material. Now, twenty years later, on October 9th, 2020, the band, led by Shinoda, released a 20th anniversary retrospective package of their seminal album that features alternate song takes, forgotten lyrics and decades-old video footage of the group, which their leagues of fans will assuredly continue to enjoy and devour.
“To be honest,” Shinoda says, “I wasn’t a huge fan of putting out an anniversary package of any kind. But it wasn’t until people started basically submitting things and sending them in that I said, ‘That’s pretty cool.’”
Shinoda says he had the thought: If not now, then when? Isn’t this the right time? The front man, who grew up in Los Angeles playing classical piano but later found hip-hop and rock music to be his true passions, said there were two moments when the idea to re-release the content really invigorated him. The first was when he remembered how much music there was that people hadn’t heard. The second was when he realized how much video footage was available.
“I think doing this was really great,” says Shinoda, who co-founded the band (first called Xero) in 1996. “Naturally, I just fell into this nostalgic and very positive review of this period of time. It was a time warp. It was remarkable to see how young and immature and unready for all of this we were.”
Examining early Linkin Park material inevitably involves living through the sonic genius of Chester Bennington, the band’s other worldly vocalist, who sadly died by suicide in 2017 (he was 41-years-old). Doing so, Shinoda says he remembered the time before the band was signed. He and Bennington were sitting in Shinoda’s apartment, trying to figure out how Bennington was supposed to sound on the hard rocking style of the music, which was suffused with drum machines and DJ scratches. The result was often a relentless scream, the kind of stuff built on the prowess of grunge legends like Chris Cornell, Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain but made unique, especially atop the band’s instrumental compositions.
“It was literally an investigation of his signature vocal style,” Shinoda says. “We got versions of it but we knew it was going to blossom, become even more signature. It was just such an irreverent and joyful journey to get there. There were ups and downs but inside the band, we always had his back and he had ours. Everybody had each other’s back.”
Before the band was even a twinkle in his eye, Shinoda began playing music early – at three-years-old. He didn’t grow up in a musical household but he had an ear for song. Shinoda memorized pieces without the need for sight-reading. After winning a songwriting contest, his piano teacher encouraged him to follow his love of jazz and hip-hop. He bought the appropriate equipment and started a band. The first version of what would later become Linkin Park included Shinoda and his friend, Mark Wakefield, who would later go on to manage bands like System of a Down and Korn. Shinoda, who loved rap, and Wakefield, who loved rock, would share music and make their own. They’d often write parodies in the style of other groups.
“Those were the training wheels,” Shinoda says of his early recordings.
When Bennington auditioned to sing, Shinoda says he was one of about a dozen who tried out. But he was “clearly” the best fit. The members of Linkin Park enjoyed bridging genres, indulging in their emotions and diverse interests – from Portis Head to The Roots. But it took time for the band to find its label and the massive success it would enjoy after the release of Hybrid Theory (now certified Diamond status). Executives either didn’t understand the music or didn’t have the room on their rosters. But the band held true to its inspirations and art. Then, in October 2000, their lives changed forever. Shinoda says they hardly had any time to realize what was happening or enjoy it.
“We didn’t really have a moment to stop and think about it,” he says. “It moved so quickly and so non-stop for years.”
Shinoda says he (and the band’s team) knew they were making progress when radio DJs were asking them to make one of the songs off Hybrid Theory a new single. They were playing it anyway, hoping for the label and band to bless their spins. That hardly ever happens, so often bands need to ask radio to play their music. This was radio stations begging for more music. Linkin Park later got so big that they worked with Jay Z arguably at the height of his musical fame.
“That was a total dream come true,” Shinoda says. “It was very surreal but also it felt like one of those things that was so reassuring and great. He was excited about it, which was super-charging.”
Reliving the era of bottled lightening that was Linkin Park during the release of their stellar debut has brought happiness to Shinoda. There is a lot to dissect in those years, but it’s the joy and self-assuredness earned from the successes and failures that he remembers today. It takes a lot of skill mixed with some luck to have your work known around the globe. For Linkin Park and their debut album, Hybrid Theory, the success had as much to do with the time as it did with the chemistry between Bennington and Shinoda.
“It wasn’t instant,” Shinoda says. “But when we found Chester, that was the thing that clicked.”