Art by Stefani Akner
It happens on track 13 of The Rising Tied, “Kenji.” It's the definitive moment on that project, the 2005 release by Fort Minor, that Mike Shinoda takes center stage and appears with no one to back him up. A sample of Shinoda’s father plays, recounting when his grandfather immigrated to America from Japan at age 15, and sets up Shinoda relaying a lived experience. His rhymes are transformed. They tell of his own story and the one of generational inheritance: the horrors of what the American government did to Japanese immigrants out of paranoia and desperation. All preconceptions about “the rapper from Linkin Park” making a solo record dissipate under the song’s ghostly production, under the footsteps of lines like “Japs not welcome anymore.” What happens is you learn that Mike Shinoda is a real rapper. These are words that can only come out of Fort Minor.
If Facebook likes mean the world to you, then Mike Shinoda is the second biggest rapper in the world, behind only Eminem, thanks to Linkin Park’s 63 million likes. In the world of Linkin Park, lead singer Chester Bennington’s voice strikes in broad strokes of a sword, slashing violently with his voice at any that can hear. Shinoda’s bars are the shank in the equation. Each line punctures and prods, a flurry of groove in between all the chaos. It’s in his verses and ability that the band can swing between the heavy and light elements of the band. Guitarist Brad Delson gave him the nickname “The Glue,” and it’s not hard to see why. But Shinoda is a pretty chill guy. He popped by our office alone one afternoon holding an iPhone and a coffee cup, and I can imagine him being pretty unassuming if you happened to be in line with him at Starbucks. He’s eager to tell you, for instance, how awesome that clear vinyl Wu-Tang record with just the W that he just bought is. It all gets packed away quick, the stadium shows and millions of fans worldwide.
Shinoda grew up in Agoura Hills, California, about an hour away from Los Angeles on the 101. It was there he was chauffeured by his friend’s dad to watch hip-hop groups like Public Enemy swing through their setlists. In high school, he and his friends would shoot the shit at lunch time, chopping it up about who they were into, what was interesting. “First and foremost I grew up on NWA and Ice-T,” Shinoda told me over the phone recently. “I remember half of our school getting bused in from downtown and we were up the San Fernando Valley, so half of my friends were from downtown and they would bring in cassettes of stuff that they had taped in their boomboxes or off the radio. It was like KDAY at the time? And it was like Ice T and King T and NWA, stuff like that. So, they were, and stuff that wasn’t from LA too, like 2 Live Crew came out at the time, a few things from New York, but I think the LA sound was more of what everybody was into. And they introduced it to me back then, and we were all listening to that.”
Agoura Hills is the place that informed Shinoda’s racial identity and shaped the perspective he would later draw from in his art. He was born to Muto and Donna Shinoda in 1977, a half Japanese-American kid in a suburb made of 80 percent white people. At age three, Muto experienced firsthand the horrors of the Japanese internment camps.
Photos by Derek Scancarelli
“My dad’s family is Japanese-American, born and raised in California and interned during the Second World War after Pearl Harbor,” Shinoda explained. “They were put in camps in Arizona. Even Americans don’t really know the story, how they took the people out of their homes, gave them no time to pack anything up, and made them put stuff into two suitcases or two trash bags and they carted them off. They put the Japanese in horse stalls in some cases. The Santa Anita Racetrack was like a holding ground for Japanese Americans at the time. They stuck them in the horse stalls with the shit and the hay, until the camps were ready. And then when the camps were ready they stuck them in with barbed wire and towers. Guns pointed inside instead of outside. And kids were growing up there, my dad was three years old when that happened. He was literally growing up looking around going, 'This is what reality is.' They got out. They went back to their homes and their homes were trashed. Everything was broken and ransacked basically. If you were Japanese-American you also couldn’t buy a piece of property, then they’d get discriminated against in every time. In their schools, at their jobs, it was crazy. And you know, we all grew up understanding that reality.”
Against this history, Shinoda would also feel a disconnect with other kids around him at a young age. “When I was a kid, [other kids] just knew I was mixed. They didn’t know what I was,” Shinoda said. “A lot of people thought I was Hispanic. Some people knew I was Asian, but they didn’t know what… I remember having a friend over my house one time and he made some weird comment about my gardener, and I was like 'That’s not my fucking gardener, that’s my dad you asshole.' And it was like always a thing. I was like this undercover minority.” This type of prejudice followed him for a long time: When Shinoda submitted the original logo for Hybrid Theory to Linkin Park's record label, for instance, it was shot down by an A&R for appearing “too Asian.”
He attended the Art Center College of Design in Southern California, the gold standard for West Coast design schools, and majored in Design and Illustration. It was a rigorous program. Shinoda attended classes almost year-round, taking seven courses a semester and often sleeping just a few hours night. It also taught him to have a thick skin, something that would prove useful later on during his divisive music career.
“The best thing I ever learned at art school was being able to withstand and learn from a critique because we’d have to do—you might spend 40 hours on a project, let’s say it’s a painting, you spent 40 hours on a painting,” he reflected. “You bring in a painting, they put it up on the board, and the very first thing that happens is people start raising their hands and going, ‘well I don’t like it, the composition is off, and your subject matter is weak and the brush strokes, you could’ve done better here or there.’ And then the whole class just lays into your work.”
Most of his fellow students were in their 30s, but Shinoda was part of a small cohort who were admitted at 18. "All of us that were straight out of high school immediately bonded together," he remembers. "We were all pretty much in the same classes. We actually wanted to go out and hang out if we had time. It was different though. There were no dorms. There was no sororities or fraternities. There were no sports. It was just art.” He graduated, and around this time Shinoda formed a band called Xero with a classmate, Joe Hahn, and some friends from high school. One member, Mark Wakefield, left after the group failed to find immediate success, and they brought on the singer Chester Bennington, renaming the band Hybrid Theory and eventually Linkin Park.
Photos by Derek Scancarelli
With a sound that fused together elements of hard rock, electronic pop production, and hip-hop, Linkin Park captured the early 00s zeitgeist and quickly found enormous success. Their debut album, Hybrid Theory, Shinoda explained, "was selling like crazy, and the singles were doing as good as a single can do at radio." The group built a loyal fan base and soon was playing shows to enormous crowds. But their music also had its detractors, with journalists questioning whether Linkin Park had brought in pop songwriters and producers to craft their sound. The label of hard rock soon shifted into "nu metal," which began to take on a negative connotation.
"There were those who were just using it disparagingly, and they were meaning to draw a direct line—they wanted to be able to say your name and their least favorite band’s name in the same sentence," Shinoda explained. "And that was the whole point right? That snarky—people think that the indie-blogger snarkiness is a modern thing—it’s not. It’s been around forever, and they were doing it back then, too. So at the time that word, we hated that. And we’d say every time that we are not carrying the flag for any kind of movement or genre, we had no part in that. Maybe in retrospect we were a little too aggressive about our stance on it, but you know, at the time it felt appropriate.”
In 2004, the band released Meteora, a more sophisticated version of the sounds and textures found on Hybrid Theory, cementing themselves as the biggest band in the world. They were so big in fact, that they caught the attention of Jay-Z, and the two acts put together a joint EP titled Collision Course. The project showed that Linkin Park had the legs to last in the world of hip-hop.
Photos by Derek Scancarelli
“I always felt like I got into rap from the back door,” said Shinoda. “When I was a kid I always wanted to be a rapper, and then the band thing started happening and I was like, ‘oh cool, this is so fun to rap over these mashed up rock electronic hip-hop songs,’ and then in the mix and when everything got wrapped up, it leaned heavier on the rock side and people think of those albums as primarily rock. But if you listen, all the other elements are there too. They just don’t sit as forefront as some of our other albums.”
Fort Minor began to take shape during the Collision Course sessions, as Shinoda expanded upon the strictly hip-hop template he'd explored in high school. He connected with the LA rap trio Styles of Beyond, who he had known growing up, to round out the rest of the group and make it more than a Mike Shinoda solo project. “I thought of people who stepped out from a group and went on their own were starved for attention, and there was a great deal of ego that came in my mind came with stepping out on your own and trying to do an album under your own name,” he said. “So I called it Fort Minor because I liked that aesthetic better.”
The immediacy of The Rising Tied’s power is unshakable. In the first 45 seconds of “Remember The Name,” you hear all you need to in the short and simple line of “fuck ‘em.” The phrase was a necessary defense and thought process. Linkin Park may have been popular, but expectations for Fort Minor were low. Critics tended to dismiss Shinoda's rapping in Linkin Park as basic and lyrically unoriginal. Fuck ‘em; Shinoda will rap about missing the lazy summers of having a barbecue with a loved one. Fuck ‘em; he’ll tell a story set in a single moment, jumping from perspective to perspective. Fuck ‘em; he’ll rap about everyone in the office telling him to stick to playing the keys. Those were two simple words a listener could hold onto and fashion into a dagger to jab right back. It didn’t matter if you weren’t white enough for your peers to accept you, if you weren’t real enough, if you didn’t listen to the cool music, because fuck ‘em. As a further fuck 'em, "Where'd You Go," the follow-up to "Remember The Name," would end up reaching number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100.
At the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards, Ne-Yo opened a flip-phone-shaped envelope to announce Fort Minor the winner of the first annual Best Ringtone award for "Where'd You Go." In a video of the event, Shinoda smirks a little at the result, high fives everyone around and hops up on stage. A bored Rihanna looks on while Shinoda reads off a novel’s worth of thank yous. It was a bookend for Fort Minor. Linkin Park came back, wrote four more records and toured the earth numerous times. Fort Minor became something of a footnote in pop music history. If you watched Linkin Park live, you’d feel the resonance of Fort Minor bubble through the surface; Shinoda might drop the “Petrified” verse before the cyberpunk soundscape of “Points of Authority” launched or work in “Remember The Name” before the immaculacy of “Numb/Encore” cast a spell over the crowd, but that was about it.
Ten years later, Fort Minor is back with a new video and song, “Welcome.” It’s now all Shinoda. The video features him on the sunny shores of Venice Beach painting a large mural of different people and shapes. Many pieces of the Linkin Park puzzle fit right in with the power of technology and the changes it has created in pop culture: Hybrid Theory arrived after the dot-com boom, signaling the world’s complete acceptance of the computer in our lives, and its textures reflected that. “Welcome” is an exploration of the ways art intersects with virtuality, asking how we’ll see art and people in a 3D world. What becomes of design's power when you can move it in space? It’s also a call to the disenfranchised or people who feel alone. Lyrically it's a welcome for those who feel like they don't fit in or aren't accepted. Maybe it’s for the ones who haven't had a chance to say say “fuck ‘em” enough.
Fort Minor is a project about finding an identity, both as a person of mixed heritage escaping racial othering and as a musician interested in moving past boundaries of what genre allows one to do. Late in our conversation, Shinoda told me about the first time Linkin Park went on an overseas tour to Japan. “I had never been, and I got off the plane, and the airport smelled like my aunt’s house. It hit me immediately, and not in a subtle way. Like 'Oh my god, this whole country feels familiar!'" he said, laughing.
There's a deep power in arriving at a place you know you belong in, to see your personal history expanded beyond what you thought prior. Fort Minor is the story of one of the most prominent Japanese-American musicians giving a voice and representation for those without it. It’s the story of a kid listening to hip-hop his entire life, playing in a supernatural force of a band, and then navigating the musical landscape of being a rapper. Fort Minor is what he says it is.
“This is where I’m from," Shinoda told me. "And I’ve never been here before.”
John Hill is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.