Restraint is not the hallmark of most newly minted rock stars, but Bennington, 25, and his mates in the Los Angeles-based band Linkin Park are exceptional in more than mere fiscal prudence. Linkin Park shocked the record industry by selling 4.8 million copies of its debut rap-metal fusion album, Hybrid Theory (Warner Bros. Records), to eclipse 'N Sync, Shaggy and Britney Spears as the top-selling act of 2001. "We're stunned," says DJ Joe Hahn. "We expected to tour in an RV for three album cycles before anything even close to this happened."
Like Limp Bizkit and Korn, other bands that studiously and inexplicably avoid using the letter C, Linkin Park rocks and raps about its own sense of alienation, frustration and loneliness over a furious wall of musical fuzz. But what separates Linkin Park from the rest of the rapidly expanding nu-metal field is that the band's six members--Bennington, Hahn, 24, rapper Mike Shinoda, 24, guitarist Brad Delson, 24, bassist Phoenix (just Phoenix, thanks), 24, and drummer Rob Bourdon, 23--inject nearly everything they do (save their songs) with a sweetly humanistic approach. They may scream "Shut up when I'm talking to you" like misunderstood demons, but they don't wear goth makeup, cut themselves onstage, objectify women or encourage kids to "break stuff," as Limp Bizkit infamously did at Woodstock '99. They are earnest, middle-class guys who sign autographs until the arena lights go out, give their e-mail addresses to fans and refrain from uttering a single curse word on their album. "I think at one point I wrote, 'I can't take this f______ s___,'" says Bennington, who shares lyrics credit with Shinoda. "And Mike just went, 'What f______ s___?' Then I went, 'Hmmm.'" Says Shinoda: "Let's be realistic: there are a lot worse things to worry about [than obscenity]. But as writers, we both have such better ways of describing things, I just thought, 'Why don't we explore those?'"
It is hard to imagine a band with less industry buzz than Linkin Park, circa 1998. "From the very first song we ever wrote," says Delson, who co-founded the group with junior high school buddy Shinoda, "the vision was, 'Let's create a hybrid of hip-hop and heavier music and electronic music and try to make it into one sound.' It was pretty crude when we started." So crude that every major label took a pass. Things only got worse when Limp Bizkit, Korn and other fusion groups hit the charts with a similar musical formula. "We thought we had a new idea and, to our dismay, all these groups started breaking," recalls Delson. "We were almost, like, 'We've been beaten to the punch.'"
While the original members of Linkin Park (who named themselves after Santa Monica's Lincoln Park) were struggling to catch a break in L.A., Bennington had effectively retired from singing in his native Phoenix, Ariz. "I just got tired of being in bands that weren't dedicated," he says of the apathetic Phoenix metal scene. He had taken a job transferring property maps into computer files when a mutual friend told him Linkin Park was looking for a singer. With his wife's encouragement, Bennington drove to L.A., auditioned and never left. "Another guy was trying out the same day," says Shinoda, "and he just took off when he heard Chester try out. He was, like, 'Hey, I'm not gonna try to compete with that.'"
With the addition of Bennington's soaring vocals, the band's sound took on a richer, more dramatic tone. But rather than wait for record companies to notice, Linkin Park started building a fan base on its own. "I would assign everyone in the band to go on the Internet and recruit five or six people a day," says the business-minded drummer Bourdon. "We'd go into a Korn chat room and say, 'There's this new cool band called Linkin Park, go check out their MP3,' pretending like we weren't in the band." When interested kids e-mailed asking for more music, the group sent back mountains of tapes and instructions to pass them out to anyone with ears. By the time Linkin Park signed with Warner Bros. in November '99, the group had fans in Scotland, Japan and Australia and a worldwide thousand-person unpaid street team.
The accolades Linkin Park now receives are no longer just from kids in cyberspace. The band was recently nominated for three Grammys, including Best New Artist. But the critics have not yet been won over. Part of the problem is a broader perception that rap-metal fusion is still a bit of a gimmick, a crass way to cash in on two markets. While considering its own devotion to both genres beyond reproach, Linkin Park concedes that some of its fellow hybridists may not be so purely motivated. On a track called Step Up, Shinoda raps, "Rapping over rock doesn't make you a pioneer/ 'Cause rock and hip-hop collaborated for years/ But now they're getting readily mixed and matched up/ After a fast buck and all the tracks suck."