July 24 2013 04:08 PM

The unintentional hilarity-and surprising charm-of a dated rap-rock band

311 vocalist Nick Hexum, having a 311 moment
Photo by Eli Watson / Flickr
Ever have a 311 moment?

Let's say you're at a party, sipping on a tall can of PBR and joking around with friends. All of a sudden, you remember the words to "Down," the 1995 anthem by Omaha rap-rock quintet 311.

"Hey, everybody, remember ‘Down'?!" you ask. People smile, chuckle and nod their heads. Yes, they remember. Of course they remember. So, you pick up your air guitar, strum out some beefy riffs and, in an act of drunken irony, belt at the top of your lungs: "Du-nu-nu-nu-nuuuuuuuh / down, down!"

That's a 311 moment.

I've been having lots of 311 moments lately. Some of my friends have, too. If you're a guy between the ages of 25 and 35—that is, if you were a middle-school or high-school kid in the mid-to-late '90s, when the band was at its commercial peak—chances are you've had a 311 moment.

For some music listeners (me included), 311's legacy boils down to the 311 moment. We don't put on 311 to ponder the artistic merits of "All Mixed Up" or "Beautiful Disaster." We listen because we want to laugh, and, really, what's funnier than 311's awkward, unabashedly '90s blend of hard-rock riffage, hip-hop flow, white-boy reggae riddim and pseudo-mystical lyricism about positivity and good vibes?

"Whoa, oh! Amber is the color of your energy." Totally, bro.

Indeed, 311 might just be the world's most unintentionally hilarious band. But maybe the joke's on us—we 20- and 30- something music snobs, who laugh at 311 today—because, after all, many of us used to actually like this band. We might be a little embarrassed to admit it, but back in middle school, we totally rocked out to "Down."

Well, I know I did, at least.

Back in 1997, I was in seventh grade, grow ing up in the suburbs near the UTC mall. Trying my hardest to be cool, I rocked a wallet chain, skate shoes, baggy pants and extra-long canvas belt—usually all at the same time. Among my prized possessions (alongside a skateboard, several Tech Decks and an impressive collection of yo-yos) was a copy of 311's 1995 breakthrough self-titled album.

At the time, rap-rock and nü-metal were mandatory listening for any 12-year-old boy eager to be seen as a badass. I considered Limp Bizkit too aggro and Korn utterly baffling, but 311 hit my sweet spot. They had rocking riffs and a subversive allure—they took their name from Omaha's police code for indecent exposure—but they came with a laid-back, enlightened-stoner attitude.

"Down," 311's opening track, was my No. 1 jam. Everything about it kicked ass: The beefy riffs of Nick Hexum and Tim Mahoney, the popping piccolo snare of drummer Chad Sexton, the wicked turntable scratches of S.A. Martinez. But it was Martinez's rapping that really put the track over the edge. Spitting words with a tough, loose, rapid-fire flow, he was one of the coolest dudes I'd ever heard.

It's funny how perceptions can change so radically with time. Eventually, I grew out of my rap-rock phase and found much better music to listen to. Realizing that 311 wasn't that good after all, I came to see "Down" in a cringe-worthy new light. Those beefy guitars? Cheap and digitized. Those wicked turntables? A tawdry rap-rock cliché. And Martinez's rhymes? They don't even make sense!

"Chill! Light on my sight as my ego becomes / A funky child with some words on my tongue—." Um, what?

"Down" still strikes a chord with me, though. Like so many middle-school boys back in the '90s—and I was certainly one of them—the guys in 311 seemed to be trying desperately to fit in. They often failed miserably, stumbling along with clumsy riffs and trite rhymes. But "Down" was one of the few moments when they actually kind of pulled it off. "Down" is dated and totally hokey. But there's no denying that it rocks.

So, here I am now, among all these 20- somethings and 30-somethings who've grown up and gotten wiser, hipper and more critical when it comes to music. Out of a mixture of mean-spiritedness and nostalgia, we've turned 311 into the unwitting court jesters of rap-rock, with "Down" their biggest punch-line.

When I have another 311 moment, however, there will be traces of love in my laughter. It's funny because it's 311. But it's extra-funny because I used to be down, too.

The thing about the 311 moment is that it isn't just about 311. On a deeper level, it's about the inextricable link between bad music and bad taste. Before the 311 moment, there was the Poison moment. And after, there will definitely be the Skrillex moment. Many people have a favorite bad band—and, eventually, a bad-band moment to go with it. It's all a part of growing up.

These days, rap-rock might be out of style, but 311 are still going strong. They continue to put out records and fill up amphitheaters with thousands of devoted fans—they'll play with Sublime With Rome, Cypress Hill, Pennywise and G. Love & Special Sauce on Saturday, Aug. 3, at Sleep Train Amphitheatre.

And they've accomplished something they might never have intended, but that's still special in its own peculiar, perhaps frustrating way: They've made people laugh, one 311 moment at a time.

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