via 311 on Instagram
I came of age during a strange time in the 90s when all at once, American youth decided they wanted to branch out and experience more of their world and history. This meant a lot of multicultural clubs, a jarring resurgence of ballroom dance, and shit tons of reggae. Bob Marley’s Legend spent a good chunk of the entire decade on the Billboard album charts, third wave ska went from the underground to the top of the charts, the Fugees had a radio hit with their version of “No Woman No Cry”… Adding reggae to shit became a quick way to show you were calm and grounded and aware of the world around you and maybe a stoner or at least soon to be one. One of modern music’s most unsung adders of reggae to shit is the band 311, and on this, the 11th of March, better known as 311 Day, I want to confess here before everyone that I fuck with 311.
311 is five dudes making strange sounds that stretch across many different genres. There’s pinches of metal, hip-hop, reggae, and much more melting together in the typical 311 song. The band has two singers, the suave Nick Hexum, usually on clean vox (although he sometimes raps) and the even suaver S.A. Martinez on raps. (S.A. also sings.) Nick and S.A. nailed Linkin Park’s “one guy sings but whoa wait there’s also a rapper!” vibe almost a decade before Linkin Park. They are quite possibly the best musical Nebraska export this side of the album Nebraska, the song “Omaha,” and… uh… Saddle Creek Records.
311 is a band so chill they called their first album Music and closed it out with a song called “Fuck the Bullshit.” Music collected songs from their early independent releases alongside some new ones, and “Fuck the Bullshit” (known to squares as “Fat Chance”) is basically “Click Click Boom” ten years before “Click Click Boom.” There’s a sick bass solo in the middle played by a vape enthusiast who goes by "P-Nut." (Yeah, that guy on Twitter who goes by “P-Nut” isn’t even the OG P-Nut. What the hell?) The next album was called Grassroots. The title track is all “311 has grass roots.” True. Was the grass ganja? Well, it hard to say.
311’s mid-90s self-titled album is where I and my Cool But Not That Cool 90s Kid friend set officially got onboard the bandwagon. The flawless one-two punch of “Down” and “All Mixed Up” blew our minds, not least of all because Nick sings while S.A. raps on the one, but then S.A. does the singing and Nick does the raps on the other. (If the false stop before the second verse in “Down” doesn’t make you want to karate kick a hater in the solar plexus, what are you even here for?) 311 is mad versatile.
311 was more laid back than the spastic 80s punk-funk tradition they came out of and not near as suffocatingly serious as the nu-metal scene they’d rub elbows with in the 90s. That slipperiness would keep them popular long after peers in either scene found their pop culture stock in sudden freefall. While the angsty bros were getting out their frustrations to songs that expressed and incited violence, 311 was like “Guns are for pussies.” Every video looks like a sick party, hella people pleasantly faded and some band perched in the corner playing music you’re not sure if you should headbang or pop and lock to.
My “Let the tape rock ‘til the tape pop” 311 album is 1997’s Transistor, which got slagged in reviews for being too long and stuffed with ideas. Critics got it wrong, though. The length allowed the band to branch out with weird, smooth shit like “Stealing Happy Hours” and “Use of Time” but still pitch the expected reggae-metal burners like “Transistor” and “Beautiful Disaster” at rock radio. The next album Soundsystem would do it all again in less space, and it has my respect forever for introducing my unprepared teenage ears to Bad Brains via a cover of “Leaving Babylon.”
The band slipped off my radar as I got to college and my tastes diversified, but they pulled me back in with the rock radio staple “Amber,” the throwback ska bop “I’ll Be Here Awhile,” and a moody cover of the Cure’s “Lovesong.” (You probably forgot about “I’ll Be Here Awhile,” but it’s better than “Amber.” Fight me.) Not long after that, I would begin picking through the dub, ska, and dancehall records that inspired 311 and bands like them and end up ditching them for The Real Thing. But throwing on the classics on a warm, sunny 311 Day, I’m struck by how much I still love all of them. There is literally a bonus track on their latest album Stereolithic called “Vape’n Away.” It is the exact sound you would want to hear as you casually huffed a Fruit Loop flavored e-cig and floated off as your cloudy breath dissipates. That feeling's kinda what 311 is in a nutshell.
As the eldest of three siblings, I didn’t have the mythological Older Brother/Cousin Who Teaches You About Music around to show me what the good shit was. My pathway through music has been a mess of happy accidents and burning curiosities. I’m thankful for gateway bands like 311 who dragged me out of my comfort zone and nudged me toward the timeless classics, and I can’t wait to spend the day catching up on all the records I missed thinking I was too cool for this band. It’s never too late to come back home.
Craig hopes he came original. Follow him on Twitter.