This year marks a decade since Jay Z and Linkin Park recorded Collision Course, a hugely successful but divisive collaboration for MTV’s Ultimate Mash-Ups series. In light of the anniversary and the EP’s Record Store Day reissue, Pat Levy, Will Hagle, and Michael Madden have come together to reflect on what was a leap of faith by all parties involved. It was a cultural misstep for some, a lasting example of experimentation gone right for others.
Pat Levy (PL): Collision Course was my introduction to a few things: Linkin Park, mash-ups, and knowing that something that was hugely popular wasn’t necessarily that great. I loved Jay Z already and trusted him to deliver on almost any project. You know, since Kingdom Come hadn’t come out yet. But when this MTV-branded EP came out, middle school Pat was not having it. I felt like Jay’s in-studio quip “You’re wasting your talent, Randy!” should’ve been directed inward instead. The whole concept seemed cheap, slapped together, and it really bugged me that the people who made it seemed to enjoy putting it together as fast as they did. Maybe I was too pessimistic back then, but with its Record Store Day reissue, I can finally say I see the merits in the adventurous EP.
Michael Madden (MM): If you were too pessimistic, Pat, I was probably too easily impressed. I found about the mash-up craze through what I’m pretty sure was the first music magazine I ever bought, the technologically minded Future Music. Only then did I learn what started it all: Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, a mash-up of The Beatles’ “White Album” and Jay’s The Black Album.
Today, I do think this project is less than the sum of its parts. Jay’s “99 Problems”, originally equipped with Rick Rubin’s black-on-black Humvee of a guitar section, is here melded with the relative thrash metal of LP’s “Points of Authority” and “One Step Closer”. Never mind that Mike Shinoda raps the first verse, the “holes in ya zapatos” one. From the jump, the new incarnation’s whirlwind was destined to take some of the focus off Jay’s lyrics and delivery. I’ll take the Grey Album version instead, which chugged with “Helter Skelter” as the backdrop.
Will Hagle (WH): I would go as far as to say that all mash-ups are less than the sum of their parts. It’s important to remember that Collision Course was a calculated corporate response to one of the year’s most popular releases. Danger Mouse released The Grey Album in February 2004. Collision Course came out nine months later. The former was monumental, and it paved the way for future creators to skirt around copyright infringement. But it would be outrageous to argue that it even approaches the greatness of either “The White Album” or The Black Album.
PL: For me, the EP works best when both artists are out of their element. Shinoda and his angsty vocals find a perfect background with Timbaland’s “Dirt off Your Shoulder” beat, and Jay spitting over Linkin Park’s admittedly iconic “Numb” synth riff almost rivals the original “Encore” beat (please don’t smite me, Yeezus). But if I wanted to listen to Jay rapping over his own beats, I’d listen to the originals. If I wanted to hear Linkin Park playing their own songs, I’d listen to the originals.
WH: Plenty of rappers would’ve fused better with LP’s style, and this collaboration sounds as forced as Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons do in the present day. It mostly works, but does anyone really want it to? Of course, putting Jay on top of unexpected material was en vogue at the time. He commercially released an entire album of a capellas for that exact purpose (which reminds me, perhaps the “Bittersweet Symphony/99 Problems” mash-up is greater than the sum of its parts). At the time of release, I enjoyed Collision Course for what it is: an ambitious fusion of two styles that’s entertaining through one listen but probably not much more. Even though it was technically a real-life collaboration (meaning that Jay and LP were, however briefly, in the studio together), it felt like just another mash-up. There were plenty of kids with laptops making better mixes with the a capellas.
MM: More than anything, we’re talking about a rap release, and Jay and Shinoda couldn’t be more different as rappers. There’s not much new to say about Jay’s paper- and pen-free sovereignty, but frankly Shinoda’s verses are less notable. He put his hip-hop pedigree to good use with 2002’s Reanimation, a remix album with guest verses from guys like Black Thought and Pharoahe Monch, and his Fort Minor project would strike gold with “Remember the Name”, which accompanied just about every basketball highlight mix I watched on YouTube for two or three years. In the original Linkin Park material here, though – as might be said about Shinoda’s rap style with the band in general – his straightforward verses are alt-minded, not quite street credible like Jay’s.
Still, there are times when the theory that the masses don’t listen to rap for the lyrics works to the project’s advantage – when, in other words, the Carter-Shinoda dichotomy is less apparent. (My point about “Points of Authority/99 Problems/One Step Closer” was that there’s no substitute, really, for Rubin’s Midas touch.) During some of its louder stretches, when Chester Bennington’s throat-shredding adds a layer of intensity to the festivities, I consider Collision Course to be only a couple notches below the mark set by rap-rock pioneers like Rage Against the Machine.
PL: Mike, the point you made about people not always listening to rap for the lyrics struck a chord with me. I think this is especially true with rap-rock, which tends to be more notable for the sound of it. And that made me think about how, as far as I know, Linkin Park haven’t done anything of note since Collision Course besides make music for Transformers and The Raid (which was just Shinoda). Linkin Park have never been terribly obscure despite not making very good music. They’re like the Mountain Dew or Call of Duty of alt rock.
So, I wonder if this was merely a cash grab for MTV, giving the band a chance to legitimize themselves by working with a more established artist. It’s like they realized their rap-rock wasn’t working because their rap sucked, so when The Grey Album came out and they saw Jay’s lyrics were malleable with music that wasn’t traditional hip-hop, they had to jump on the chance to work with him. Great, now I’m back to my middle school opinion. Do you agree, Will? Or do you still think it was a cash grab all around?
WH: Comparing Linkin Park to Mountain Dew and Call of Duty is a great, accurate observation, but I don’t think the band was desperate to achieve rap legitimacy before getting involved with Collision Course. It’s tough to believe now, but rap-rock was once a genre that, despite having its vocal share of critics, had some major success. Eminem toured with Papa Roach and Limp Bizkit. Mike mentioned Rage, and there were a ton of other rap-rock bands that came years later and found regular play on MTV’s days as, ya know, a music channel.
MM: As we’re shown on the DVD, Jay and LP had a moderately fun time working on the project and eventually performing it. They also acknowledge that it was a painless experience. After all, these songs were already written, so there was relatively little creativity involved. That’s not to say everyone here is a sellout for picking up a quick check, but nobody was sure this would work, which seemed to sap their motivation rather than fueling these guys to make something exceptional.
WH: For better or worse, Linkin Park was one of the most popular groups in their genre. Jay was obviously the superstar, but both were big names, and it can be argued that Jay’s musical output has steadily been declining since Collision Course as well. It’s interesting to guess at the artists the collaboration could’ve featured instead – and perhaps the fact that I can’t think of two artists I’d rather hear put out a collaborative rap-rock project means I enjoyed Collision Course more than I was initially willing to admit.