They come in threes: Limp Bizkit have signed with Cash Money records. Korn just released remixes by Skrillex of their song “Narcissistic Cannibal.” Insane Clown Posse are performing at South by Southwest. These facts don’t quite herald a return of rap rock. And even if they did, you could dismiss that as a faint, final pulse of ’90s nostalgia. But here’s the real question: Why dismiss it?
Tweeting confirmation of his band’s signing, Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst made the following observation: “Rock shit doesn’t rock anymore! They say the whole game done went pop so I’m back in this ho!” He’s not wrong: We’re living in a Foo Fighters world now, and few will argue that it rocks. But while his statement may be vapid, its language carries a certain power. The Durstian mode — that instantly recognizable style of what we’ll call hysterical appropriation — conjures up a debate that the ’90s, for all their awesomeness, never settled: At what point does a white man’s reverence for some imagined idea of black culture become ridiculous — even racist?
That’s a thorny question — far thornier than any raised by a rock band in recent memory. (Music from the ’90s is good that way: The last big debate over mainstream rock that we recall derived from Jonah Weiner’s completely reasonable defense of the Christian-gesturing Creed, who formed in 1995.) The antipathy toward Durst and rap rock in general has something to do with genuine questions about appropriation. But what makes this borrowing improper? A white person might fear that there isn’t sufficient respect shown for a tradition. Then again, a white person might simply fear black culture itself. We never understood the ease with which people used the word “wigger” in the ’90s. It’s not only a rebuke to people who don’t seem satisfactorily white, but also an excuse to complete the “N-word.”
That Limp Bizkit have been signed by Cash Money Records, home of Lil Wayne — regarded as one of the greatest working MCs, his own foray into rap-rock notwithstanding — won’t likely transform the band into a more “authentic”-seeming product. They’ll remain outsiders. And so will Korn and the Insane Clown Posse, despite collaborating with a new commercial powerhouse and performing at a tastemakers’ festival, respectively. And this has to do with more than the hysterical appropriation of hip hop culture — both bands represent other constituencies that many people would rather not have to think about. Insane Clown Posse have cultivated a rural, working class audience; Korn’s Jonathan Davis has written lyrics about being sexually molested.
Which doesn’t mean Korn’s rage, ICP’s cartoonish violence, and Limp Bizkit’s aggro-male posturing (and role in the disastrous Woodstock ’99) aren’t problematic or even repellent. But puzzling out why these bands capture certain people’s imaginations sure is a lot more interesting than listening to Dave Grohl sermonizing about the sanctity of music recorded in a garage. And if Limp Bizkit really do make a comeback, the issues they raise will be a lot harder to ignore.