Happy 20th Anniversary to Korn’s third studio album Follow the Leader, originally released August 18, 1998.
In 1998 I was a sixteen-year-old hip-hop head, anxiously awaiting Def Jam Records’ “Month of the Man” campaign when albums from Method Man and Redman were released respectively. I didn’t have much experience with heavy metal or hard rock, aside from crossover bands and artists like Rage Against the Machine and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
This was, of course, until Korn released their third LP Follow the Leader in August of 1998, which managed to tap into everything I thought was cool at the time. Singles from the LP had musical videos that helped change the visual approach of lyrical interpretation and were even directed by Image Comics’ founder Todd McFarlane. McFarlane and one of his most trusted artists Greg Capullo even inked the Follow the Leader album cover, which to me made the band seem as if they were going to accompany the popular comic book anti-hero Spawn on one of his apocalyptic fighting missions.
Although “Freak on a Leash” was the third single released from the LP and I first heard it several months after it had arrived on record store shelves, I was under full auditory hypnosis upon discovering it. Even as a hard rock and heavy metal novice, the well-placed guitar distortion immediately reminded me of one of my favorite songs, the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” from their 1994 album Ill Communication. The bass by Reginald "Fieldy" Arvizu and drums by David Silveria were perfectly synchronized to offer the musical foundation for the band’s signature record. Brian “Head” Welch and James “Munky” Shaffer working together as the rhythm section were not at all outdone, as their incongruous guitar riffs helped define the budding subgenre of Nu-Metal. Once Jonathan Davis’ vocals took center stage on the groundbreaking song, the veteran band had been officially launched to the forefront of the music industry.
Now having to back track a band that had captured my complete attention, and one that was introducing me to a new musical genre, I didn’t have to search far because Follow the Leader had manufactured another colossal hit that was still dominating radio and music television. “Got the Life,” which served as the album’s official inaugural single, was another showcase of Davis’ skill of bringing the band’s murky lyrics to light and highlighted the precision of “Fieldy” on percussion.
The song “B.B.K.,” which didn’t receive the acclaim of “Got the Life” and “Freak on a Leash,” also stands as a trademark record that proves “Head” and “Munky” to be an elite rhythm section, with the ability to methodically pull inspiration from distant corners of the musical world, such as Anthrax, Nine Inch Nails, and Wu-Tang Clan.
“All in the Family” is the LP’s awkward attempt to provide levity to the band’s often melancholy vein of songwriting. Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, who were partners in the movement that was redefining the metal genre, traded bars with Davis in the rap-rock version of a stoned emcee battle, an exchange that saw the two frontmen spar with playful insults.
By the time 1998 closed, I had albums from my two favorite rappers at the time (Redman’s Doc’s da Name 2000 and Method Man’s Tical 2000: Judgement Day) in heavy rotation within my discman. But I was also now a bona fide Korn fan as well. The band wasn’t as well received in West Baltimore 20 years ago, and I’m not sure how well they would go over today, but Follow the Leader was a musical anomaly that I couldn’t resist. It was totally different from anything I had heard at the time, and brilliantly blurred the lines of genres I was used to and others I was excited to be introduced to.
Having been a fan of The Pharcyde since earlier in the decade, Tre Hardson’s appearance on “Cameltosis” provided one of the LP’s more familiar moments for this self-proclaimed hip-hop backpacker. His signature, smooth vocals offset the grim composition of the track that in a way reminded me of RZA and Prince Paul’s work on the Wu-Tang affiliate project by the Gravediggaz, 6 Feet Deep (1994). His rhymes “She's the epitome of sweet misery / the sweeter the stroke, the deeper the pain / your brittle bones as an angel, angle sex driven / dangerous sex kitten, warm as a mitten / fitting like a glove with abstract relations / testing all my patience” for me gave lyrical credibility to an album that seemed intent on being identified just as much with rap as it was with rock. Legendary rapper Ice Cube also added his star power to the LP for seemingly the same intentions with his raucous rhymes on the song “Children of the Korn.”
Twenty years later, Follow the Leader arguably proved to be the most aptly titled LP pre-millennium, because it blazed a trail for the work of genre-blending bands like P.O.D., Linkin Park, and System of a Down, while raising the bar for its contemporaries. It was well received by the band’s core fans and hardcore metal-heads, while forcing hip-hop kids like me to consider the possibilities hidden within unfamiliar musical genres.
Korn’s widespread appeal and chaotic formula of cohesiveness as a quintet ensures Follow the Leader status as a classic by any definition of the term, and at the highest level of this category considering it is one of the albums that defined the sound of its decade. I personally could not imagine having gone through high school and the following years without it, as it served as a soundtrack to friendships and youthful moments as kids of the ‘90s, marking time with vivid memories of how our lives were changed with the release of Follow the Leader.