Alternative rock band
Nick Hexum expressed his view of 311’s popularity to J.D. Considine in Guitar World magazine, “I guess I’m kind of surprised that we’re getting as much play as we are. “Hexum, singer and guitarist for the rock/reggae/hip-hop band 311, explained that his surprise stemmed from the fact that the group is a hybrid of different musical genres. Traditionally, if radio cannot specifically identify a group’s style of music, it is difficult for that band to receive airplay. But 311 refused to conform with tradition, and the group sought more original means to achieve success.
When the Omaha-based group formed in 1991, they had all the ambition necessary to put them at the top of the charts. “My life’s goal was to get songs on the radio and be a popular singer,” stated Hexum. But they soon realized that their approach to stardom would have to be as unique as the music they made. So, in 1991, they signed with Capricorn Records, a sub-label of Mercury. In a Rational Alternative Digital interview, 311 bassist P-Nut told writer Wade Chamberlain why they signed with a smaller label. “They told us they wouldn’t hassle us
Members include Nick Hexum, vocals, guitar; Tim Mahoney, guitar; S.A. (Douglas) Martinez, vocals, scratching; P-Nut (Aaron Wills), bass; Chad Sexton, drums.
Formed around 1991 in Omaha, Nebraska; signed with Capricorn/Mercury Records in 1991; released debut album, Music, 1993; released Grassroots, 1994; released 311, 1995; released Enlarged to Show Detail video, 1996; released Transistor, 1997.
about the music we make. They said they’d keep us out on the road and that’s exactly what we wanted to hear so we decided to go with them.”
This was the second part of their strategy: shunning the normal radio and video single route to build an audience their own way. Hexum told Considine that they cultivated their fan base “through touring. One fan at a time.” Though this was a time-consuming, often exhausting option, it was one that paid off and paid off well. In Billboard magazine, radio program director Jim McGuinn noted the wisdom of such a strategy. “They were able to build an organic fan base, and… when a band has a core like that and then gets radio, they explode.”
And explode they did. The band’s first three albums sold incredibly well, culminating in the third album selling three million copies. In 1996, they released a behind-the-scenes video of the band on the road which went platinum. That same year in July, they found themselves opening for legendary rock band KISS at their Madison Square Garden show. Furthermore, 311 has been featured in substantially popular rock festivals, including the Warped Tour and the H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) festival.
It would seem inevitable that all this success would have gone to their heads, and that these five Omaha-bred musicians, who’ve since moved to California, could easily forget their roots. Not so, insists Hexum in Billboard magazine, affectionately describing 311’s most devoted fans as “good-natured stoners that like to have fun.” They are people the band keeps in mind always. “We are really concerned about maintaining the level of credibility and adoration that we had when we were an underground band.…We’re just going to continue being all about the music.”
That the band’s biggest fans are part of a drug culture is no coincidence. Taking a controversial viewpoint, the band has always been open about their acceptance of certain drugs, in particular, marijuana. When Derek Matsuura of CDNow asked drummer Chad Sexton which drugs he condoned and which he didn’t, Sexton replied, “Basically the two drugs we agree that are illegal are marijuana and mushrooms.” In a Rolling Stone piece, Hexum named “weed” one of his favorite things, elaborating “I think the potency of marijuana has come a long way in the past ten years…” On the subject of harder drugs, though, the band’s stance is more passionate and negative. “We all agree that with cocaine and crystal meth and all that… you start lying and personality starts to change.”
Drug references aside, this is not a band unfamiliar with controversy. When the group first album gained national attention, rumors concerning the band’s name began spreading. Word had it that “311” stood for the KKK organization; K being the eleventh letter in the alphabet and 3 symbolizing a triple repetition of the letter. The band is quick to disagree with this analysis. As Sexton told Matsuura, “Definitely there are people out there who’ve asked if we’re with the KKK … just because of 311. It’s amazing that nobody would read the lyrics or even look to see that we have a half-Hispanic guy in the band, to know that we’re not associated with … that.”
In addition, they do not associate themselves with any organized religion. Of the band, Sexton says, “Nobody goes to church.… We’re not bad people. We’re fair people. We have the same morals as some of the organized religions, but on the whole we just like to do what’s best for us; apply those rules to us; offer those rules to other people, because we’re so … happy right now.” Likewise, this happiness comes through in their music and seems to infect the critics who write about them.
Considine described their sound as slamming “into the mainstream with its kinetic fusion of rap and rock.” Chamberlain, reporting on the band’s live show, writes of the group having “immersed the crowd in their fusion of funk, reggae, rap and metal” and called the self-titled album “very hard-hitting.” Matsuura praised their first album, Music, as a “stylistic free for all” and “an effective alloy of punk, ska, hip-hop and reggae.” He writes of their second album, Grassroots, as a “quality effort” with a “trademark, hard-crunching, in-your-face package.” Their self-titled album he deems a mark of “sonic maturity.” Singles from this album are described by Kevin Ransom in Guitar Player magazine as “hypnotic, subversively infectious” and rife with “slash-and-burn low-note riff-age.” Rolling Stone praises the same album for its “potent reggae undertow.”
Thus, it’s no surprise, given all these different descriptions, that the band’s influences are just as various. Sexton told Matsuura, “We listened to Public Enemy and Ice Cube, and we also listened to 24-7 Spyz and Bad Brains. We love singing, rap music, hard rock, and jazz.” Hexum named his influences in Rolling Stone, which include “The Clash… Goldfinger, NOFX, Porno for Pyros … Beck, Pennywise and the Chilis … The Smiths.”
Two bands that did not appear on this list, but to whom 311 is constantly compared to, are The Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine. When Chamberlain brought the Rage Against the Machine comparison to P-Nut’s attention, he received this simple response: “If you listen to [both bands’] albums side-by-side, you’re gonna feel good after listening to our album, and you’re gonna feel pissed after listening to their albums. And we’re very proud of that. I don’t really get into the screaming part, the whole’you’re gonna burn’ over and over again.” P-Nut then summed up the philosophy of the band: “It’s just so much better to feel good.”
Music, Capricorn, 1993.
Grassroots, Capricorn, 1994.
311, Capricorn, 1995.
Transistor, Capricorn, 1997.
Enlarged to Show Detail, Capricorn, 1996.
Billboard, September 14, 1996.
Guitar Player, December 1995.
Guitar World, December 1996.
Rolling Stone, September 19, 1996; December 26, 1996; February 20, 1997.
CDNow Inc., 1996.
Rational Alternative Digital, 1995.
Additional information was provided by Capricorn Records.
Members: Nick Hexum, vocals, guitar (born Madison, Wisconsin, 12 April 1970); Douglas Vincent "S. A." Martinez, vocals (born Omaha, Nebraska, 29 October 1970); Tim Mahoney, guitar (born Omaha, Nebraska, 17 November 1970); Chad Sexton, drums (born Lexington, Kentucky, 7 September 1970); Aaron Charles "P-Nut" Wills, bass (born Indianapolis, Indiana, 5 June 1974).
Best-selling album since 1990: 311 (1995)
Hit songs since 1990: "All Mixed Up," "Down," "Transistor"
311 followed in the footsteps of the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers in bringing rap/rock to mainstream airwaves. While incorporating hip-hop, reggae, and dance-hall music into its hard-rock attack, the group retained a Midwestern lyrical sensibility that appealed to college audiences.
The group's name comes from the Omaha police code for indecent exposure—the group's original guitarist, Jim Watson, was once arrested for skinny dipping. However, the cryptic name came back to haunt them later, when some gossips started the rumor that it was code for "KKK" (k is the eleventh letter of the alphabet). The band worked quickly to quash the rumor and disavow any connection to racism.
After becoming a local favorite, the group relocated to Los Angeles in 1991, signing with Capricorn Records. Though the group faced the financial hardships common to unknown rockers, the members fully expected to break big sooner or later. They spent their early years in the shadow of the angst-ridden grunge movement. With positive lyrics and danceable rhythms, 311 represented the antithesis of that genre.
Their major-label debut album, Music (1993), with its rap-rock fusions, set the tone for their subsequent work, but it features more of a funk vibe than later efforts. PNut, who had taken formal bass lessons for four years, shines with his finger-popping riffs. The album produced 311's first minor hit, "Do You Right," which made number twenty-seven on Billboard 's Modern Rock Tracks. A wistful song about holding on to important moments, it exemplifies the group's belief in positive lyrics. However, the album also demonstrates the group's capacity for polemic protest. In line with their middle-class background, they attack not inner-city problems but environmental degradation on "F*** That Bull****." Never interested in adopting a petulant pose, the group released "clean" versions of all its 1990s albums.
311 added reggae to their palette for their follow-up album, Grassroots (1994), but it is on 311 (1995) that they finally reach the culmination of their pastiche of chain-saw heavy-metal riffs, chilled-out tropical rhythms, and Hexum's laid-back, regular-guy vocals. The group also overcame any residual resistance to rap-rock from alternative radio. The ultimate frat-boy album of the period, 311 spent seventy-two weeks on the Billboard 200 thanks to the monster hit singles "Down" and "All Mixed Up."
Hubris caught up with 311 on the album Transistor (1997), which is overlong and meandering at seventy-four minutes and twenty-one tracks. Though it debuted at number four, giving 311 its highest album ranking ever, it only lasted thirty-three weeks on the Top 20. The album did, however, produce two alt-rock hits: the title track, a psychedelic dance-hall-metal fusion, and "Beautiful Disaster," an ominous antidrug salvo.
Soundsystem (1999), produced by the studio wizard Hugh Padgham, marks a return to form, featuring rhythmic shifts that are unpredictable but unforced. Despite the sunny, tropical vibe, "Eons" and "Large in the Margin" contain lyrics that betray Hexum's "lack of direction and self-doubt," as he put it.
More than a decade after moving to Los Angeles, 311 continued with the same five members and in 2002 released From Chaos. By then many groups like Incubus and No Doubt were nimbly fusing rock with hip-hop, and 311's trademark party vibe seemed to have lost its trend-setter status. Nevertheless, 311 created an influential blend of Caribbean, hip-hop, and rock fusions that other popular groups continue to refine.
Music (Capricorn, 1993); Grassroots (Capricorn, 1994); 311 (Capricorn, 1995); Transistor (Capricorn, 1997); From Chaos (Volcano, 2001).