How Mike Shinoda Inspired a Generation of Hip-Hop Fans

A love of hip-hop from an early age fueled Shinoda's lifelong dedication to paying tribute to and respectfully taking part in its rich, storied culture.
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“Linkin Park means a lot of things to a lot of people… definitely means a lot to me.” –Lupe Fiasco

“Linkin Park got me into rap music." If you belong to a certain generation that came of age at the turn of the millennium, it's a common statement and one that rings incredibly true for me. Linkin Park was my bridge into hip-hop. Now, at the age of 21, it's the art form and culture that defines me as a human. But back when I was seven or eight, a biracial Asian kid from a quiet city, I would offer “rap is crap” platitudes, swearing my allegiance to rock while low-key enjoying 50 Cent songs “ironically.” 

The first time I heard “In the End,” my life changed. It was the first time I saw a rapper who looked kinda of like me; the first time I related to where a rapper was coming from; the first rapper I ever loved. My brother and I sat in front of a computer screen with AZLyrics loaded up and committed ourselves to sing along. Over a decade later, I’m writing about hip-hop, listening to every rap record that comes out, still committed.

Mike Shinoda, the multitalented Linkin Park co-founder responsible for the band's hip-hop inroads, could’ve easily done less. He was the first Asian American rapper to have a number-one album with Meteora. It's studio album predecessor, Hybrid Theory, is the best-selling debut album of the 21st century, certified Diamond and then some in the United States. As the most successful Asian American hip-hop artist, he wouldn’t have had to be such a hip-hop head to attract a following. But it was that attraction to detail, that sensitivity to people’s issues, that willingness to uplift that made his work special. 

Mike Shinoda didn’t just get me into rap music; he showed me what rap music could be, who could participate in it, and how they could do so. He used his platform to introduce me to underground legends, to show me where hip-hop came from and how to stand up against the injustices that plague its communities. To invest in Mike Shinoda’s artistry was to receive a rap music education, as well as a sensitivity to the people that helped build it.

Many of the people Shinoda's work inspired ended up becoming hip-hop stars of their own: names like OG Maco, Machine Gun Kelly, and notably Lupe Fiasco. Long before Lupe had become one of the greatest lyricists in hip-hop history, Wasalu Muhammad Jaco was a Linkin Park fan. Lupe rose to prominence as hip-hop’s most promising new artist in the mid-2000s in part because of his formidable lyrical ability and in part because of his eclectic influences. A young man from the rough and tumble West Side of Chicago rapped on Gorillaz instrumentals for an entire mixtape and made references to Linkin Park in his lyrics: “And He Gets the Girl” features Fiasco spitting game to a girl he likes in part by noting her fandom for the group: “Oh, you like Linkin Park? That’s the hat from the tour / I got an autographed shirt, they wrote, ‘Much Love 2 Ya!’

Mike Shinoda perhaps knew of this predilection; he also perhaps knew that Lupe was ready to become one of the most talked-about rappers out. Whatever the motivation sourced from, it prompted Mike to reach out. “Mike Shinoda was calling, Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park, ‘Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh, Yo, I want you to jump on my album,’” Lupe relayed to The FADER in a 2006 cover story. On the Atlantic Records message boards, Lupe spoke on how he could hardly contain his excitement for working with Shinoda: “I'm a huge Linkin Park fan,” he wrote, “so when we were in the studio I had to contain myself and not geek out...but the whole time Im thinkin like ‘damn I'm in the studio with Linkin Park!’ and ‘Mike Shinoda is doin a record for my album’...insane...almost to good to be real...”

Mike Shinoda was an inspiration for many reasons, not least of which are his talents as a lyricist. One of Shinoda’s most important verses, from the Minutes to Midnight standout “Hands Held High," showcases his skillset from both a technical standpoint (“Jump in my mind, I summon the rhyme I’m dumpin'”) and a substantive one (“Like this war's really just a different brand of war / Like it doesn't cater to rich and abandon poor”). Shinoda was unafraid to make salient political points on behalf of his love for the communities that birthed him: the Japanese people in his blood, and the black people that influenced his music. These were key gestures; Shinoda took the children of Linkin Park, the kids that might not have ever been deeply exposed to hip-hop, and he showed them the way: “Here is what you should be paying attention to now.”

Within Linkin Park’s discography are collaborations with hip-hop’s underground legends: The Alchemist, Chali 2na, Pharoahe Monch, Roc Raida, Evidence, Aceyalone. Other names belonged to some of the genre’s most formidable figures: JAY-Z, Rakim, Pusha T, Black Thought, Bun B, Rick Rubin. Reanimation, the follow-up to Hybrid Theory that would become the fourth best-selling remix album of all time, was produced by Shinoda and littered with underground hip-hop icons, helping niche rap talent reach a deserved national audience. A band that could have easily been exploitative and callously unaware of its roots instead became beloved through their seeking to give back, to put on for the culture, and to give a voice to the oppressed.

Shinoda’s eclecticism empowered him to synthesize groups of people who would otherwise never come together. Hip-hop fans could turn to Shinoda’s associations with certified underground acts. Artists like Lupe Fiasco could see how Shinoda was extending hip-hop into a place never foreseen; within the paradigms of rock music, giving a voice to the depression and angst of the youth. Rock fans could appreciate the seamlessly incorporated hip-hop rhythms and rhymes that Shinoda brought to the table; many who did not see the appeal of hip-hop due to media-incentivized misconceptions could finally figure out what they’d been missing. Young people from cushy homes in the burbs who consciously veered away from the vigor of "typical" hip-hop music now had a palatable entry to the genre; your mom wasn’t likely to yell at you for bumping Meteora. And of course, people of Asian descent finally had a face to identify with, in what was slowly becoming the nation’s most popular genre—the culture for cool kids and rebels.

Much of the trouble with being a rapper of Asian descent is authentically producing the rawness for which hip-hop music is known. Shinoda didn’t exactly bring street cred as an MC; the biracial Japanese artist was raised fairly comfortably in Agoura Hills, California, and became infatuated with the genre more through a peripheral suburban lens. But a love of rap from an early age—the first album Shinoda bought was Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell—fueled a lifelong dedication to paying tribute to and respectfully taking part in hip-hop's rich, storied culture.

“I got [Raising Hell] on vinyl when it first came out and my favorite track that I’d play over and over was 'It’s Tricky.' That made me want to rap, for sure. That and Yo! MTV Raps. Me and my friends used to swap cassettes and Run-D.M.C. changed my life." —Mike Shinoda, Louder

In 2005, Shinoda sought a new artistic direction, one in which he could most purely manifest those childhood joys of cassette trades and vinyl records. He traded in his spiked hair for a fitted hat and created Fort Minor. Finally, Mike Shinoda was a hip-hop artist. “There were song styles and song topics that I wanted to attack that I felt I couldn’t really do with Linkin Park,” he told The Situation (not Michael Sorrentino, but the magazine.) “This was a great way to see those ideas through."

Shinoda used his Linkin Park clout not simply to produce radio hits for Fort Minor, but to create a hip-hop record that reflected his own spirit. He brought in JAY-Z to executive produce the album fresh off the success of Collision Course, a record in which Linkin Park, at the height of the rock world, mashed up hit records with Hov, at the height of the hip-hop world. (This was also my introduction to JAY-Z. I was very young.) It was one of Jay’s signature chess moves, but it was also a sign that hip-hop respected Linkin Park just like Linkin Park respected hip-hop. 

The Rising Tied, Fort Minor's only album, was preceded by the DJ Green Lantern-hosted mixtape Fort Minor: We Major, and featured Black Thought, Common, John Legend, Styles of Beyond, and Celph Titled, among others. It also featured a song called “Kenji,” a track in which Shinoda speaks about Japanese internment camps, a topic close to home for him as a Japanese American. The track closes with a revelation: “The names have been changed, but the story is true / My family was locked up, back in '42.”

This was a rare example of Shinoda speaking closely to his Japanese heritage, as well as to a rebellious spirit necessary to hip-hop. When asked by Hyphen Magazine how internment was covered in history class, Shinoda plainly stated: “It pretty much wasn’t. They had half a page in the high school history book. At the top of the page was a picture of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. So it was like: ‘We put these people in prison camps, look at what they did to us.’ That was the attitude. I remember seeing that and being pissed off about it. You’re young and have all the different chemical imbalances going on. It makes you very angry. I did a paper about it.”

We’re a now full generation removed from Shinoda’s mainstream peak, and Asian Americans are struggling with authenticity more than ever. Awkwafina cannot breathe without Twitter users jumping on her for her accentuation. Rich Chigga, in dealing with heavy conversations of interchangeability and exploitation, changed his stage name to Rich Brian. 88rising has risen, but it’s hard to tell whether the creative company has truly found its footing within the culture or is still seen as an afterthought at best or a joke at worst. If ever any Asian American rappers needed inspiration on how to be themselves within the hip-hop landscape, they ought to look back to Shinoda. Here was a man of Asian descent checking all the boxes; using his platform to pay it backward and forwards to the culture and remaining authentic to his own life.

But for all the accolades and earnings, and despite his having been one of the most influential artists of his generation, Mike Shinoda has never been showered with the collectivistic appreciation he deserves. So, I’ll give it a try.

Mike Shinoda taught so many Asian Americans how to find a place in hip-hop without exploiting it. He reached the summit of commercial achievements and remained focused on putting millions of people on to artists like Pharoahe Monch and Black Thought. His heart brought millions of people together, people of so many different backgrounds. His artistic work alerted many to the darkness of people’s lives, while his charity work alerted them to causes around the world. He inspired a wave of hip-hop stars, and in turn, a generation of fans. His ability to create an album from the ground up—from playing the instruments and writing the lyrics to producing the beats and drawing the cover art—proved to me that someone like me, that biracial Asian kid from a quiet city, could do it all.

I wasn’t even 10 when I fell in love with Linkin Park. I didn’t know anything about hip-hop; nobody in my family did. Mike's verses on "In the End" were the first verses I ever memorized. His collaborations with Lupe Fiasco brought my attention to the rapper who would eventually become my favorite of all time. He showed me hip-hop, and then he showed me how to treat it and who to study within it. Over a decade later, I can’t imagine what my life would be like without it. 

Thank you, Mike.

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