311’s second album established the foundation for their music going forward
It’s a high-energy work that has a heavier sound and certainly more polish than the purposefully murky Grassroots, but at its core retains the band’s hold on the rap rock and reggae rock genres, styles that have been driving the band members since their lineup was finalized in 1991. A lot has changed for the band during those 25 years: They’ve released several albums to moderate success, toured extensively and become synonymous with the sound they helped define alongside bands like Sublime and Slightly Stoopid during the 1990s.
But at the time of Grassroots’ release, the Omaha-based 311 still had a long way to go.
A quarter-century is likely an anniversary for the five guys who humorously named their band after the Omaha police code for indecent exposure. Certainly they didn’t think they’d be celebrating when they were holed up in a house in Van Nuys, California back in 1993. With little money to their names, guitarist and vocalist Nick Hexum, guitarist Tim Mahoney, turntable master Doug “S.A.” Martinez, bassist Aaron “P-Nut” Wills and drummer Chad Sexton set about shaping the 14 tracks that ended up on Grassroots. At the time of its release, Grassroots was relatively underrated, despite later being certified Gold. The album featured a handful of songs that were important to the band’s professional and musical development: while “Applied Science” quickly became a fixture on the band’s set list, songs like “Omaha Stylee” and “1, 2, 3” showed them exploring structure and texture in a way that would prove important for their many albums to come.
The year after Grassroots’ release saw 311 leap to success on alternative rock stations as their third studio album 311 significantly expanded their fan base and enabled them to become serious players on the national stage. They were used to aggressive touring schedules by that time, but 311 brought an element of success they hadn’t yet experienced. They’d toured before, yes; they’d recorded with the support of a record label before, yes—but they hadn’t been seen to the extent they were with 311. Suddenly, 311 was one of the handful of bands involved in defining one of the strongest tone-setting musical styles of the 1990s. Even so, 311 wasn’t getting the same validation from critics as they were from fans—and that remains true to this day.
Despite 311’s flash of success in the mid-1990s, the band has always held a “cult band” status. Their music is adored by their fans and recognized by many others who have some glimmer of recognition when they hear the band’s name announced on the radio or see it appear on a playlist. There’s a certain period of time tied to 311’s music, a time that harkens back to the ’90s and has managed to stay relevant on the alternative rock circuit these many years later.
Of course, it’s easy to make sense of a band’s trajectory in retrospect. When 311 was recording Grassroots in 1993, the path forward was much less clear. With just one prior album on the books, 311 approached Grassroots curious about what they could pull together on one album, and that experimental nature showed. While songs like “8:16 A.M.” and “Lose” celebrate meandering song structures, “Lucky” and “Salsa” follow more traditional pop song rules, complete with catchy instrumental patterns and memorable riffs. Meanwhile, critics later pointed to the album’s “muddy” sound as its worst quality—and in some ways, it is. The first song “Homebrew” sounds compressed rather than layered, a result of 311’s use of their home studio and eagerness to do as much of the work themselves—and without questioning their impulses—as they could. For the same reason, the funky bass in “Nutsymtom” gets lost beneath the song’s guitar and vocals, and the drum-driven start of “Grassroots” quickly surrenders to a game of tag between the other band members’ instruments. As a result, the collection is never boring—but it doesn’t figure out where or how to focus, either.
For the most part, 311’s self-starter impulses worked in the album’s favor. It’s hard to classify Grassroots as anything other than a fusion of rap, reggae and rock—which actually worked perfectly for 311 in the long run, since they remain largely undefinable. 311 laid the groundwork for future success on Grassroots, giving themselves the space they needed to try new things and see what worked. The album went Gold in spite of the distractions that appear throughout, which says a lot about how the band was able to connect with their listeners. Grassroots might not have been 311’s best release, but it showed progress and potential for a band that was just a couple of years away from reaching the pinnacle of its success.
AUDIO: 311 – Grassroots (full album)