In 1999, a music festival in upstate New York became a social experiment. There were riots, looting, and numerous assaults, all set to a soundtrack of the era’s most aggressive rock bands. Incredibly, this was the third iteration of Woodstock, a festival originally known for peace, love, and hippie idealism. But Woodstock ’99 revealed some hard truths behind the myths of the 1960s and the danger that nostalgia can engender.
Break Stuff, an eight-part documentary podcast series available exclusively on Luminary, investigates what went wrong at Woodstock ’99 and the legacy of the event as host Steven Hyden interviews promoters, attendees, journalists, and musicians. Episode 1 questions one of the commonly held beliefs about the festival: that nu metal bad boys Limp Bizkit were chiefly responsible for the rioting and chaos. The answer isn’t as simple as it may seem.
Below is an excerpt from the first episode of Break Stuff. Subscribe here and check back each Tuesday through August 27 for new episodes.
By 1999, Limp Bizkit wasn’t merely a popular rock band—they were a pop band. MTV’s signature teen music show, TRL, played the video for “Nookie” nearly as often as it played clips by Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. After Woodstock ’99, Limp Bizkit went from the bad boys of TRL to the villains of the festival. The media said Limp Bizkit drove the audience to riot when they played the incendiary “Break Stuff,” a standout track from the band’s second album, Significant Other.
Even now, this is probably the one thing that everybody thinks they know about Woodstock ’99—Limp Bizkit played “Break Stuff,” and tens of thousands of hooligans were provoked into breaking lots of stuff. That’s the story, right?
Well, it’s what at least one of the organizers of Woodstock ’99 would have us believe. Even now, John Scher, the festival’s promoter, doesn’t mince words when it comes to Limp Bizkit.
“You had a cheerleader in Fred Durst, who, if I haven’t said enough times, is a complete asshole,” Scher said. “Fred Durst was a moron. He was out of his mind. He was completely out of his mind.”
Here’s the thing. Blaming the bands for all the rioting, looting, and assaults? It’s a little too easy and reductive. And for the people who organized Woodstock ’99? It’s very convenient.
Hip-hop and metal have always been the easiest genres to demonize. So naturally, the melding of these genres made nu metal acts especially susceptible to being scapegoated. Jonathan Davis, the lead singer of Korn, who performed at the festival, agrees.
“I don’t think that the riots shoulda happened, period,” Davis said. “That was some bullshit. But I think Bizkit being blamed for it is because they were the heavy band. We were the outlaws at that time. I don’t think it was their fuckin’ fault.”
Here’s another reason why you can’t solely blame Limp Bizkit for the madness at Woodstock ’99: The riots didn’t actually happen after Limp Bizkit played. In fact, the demonization of Fred Durst and Limp Bizkit is partly based on a faulty timeline.
The riots occurred on Sunday, the festival’s final day, around the time that the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Megadeth performed. Limp Bizkit played on Saturday night. It’s true that there were other bad things that occurred on Saturday night. But the fires, the looting of vendors, the exploding refrigeration truck—that all occurred on Sunday.
Durst and guitarist Wes Borland attempted to make that distinction in a 2014 interview.
“To watch the news reports of the mash-up of our day and the next day where the fires were––watching them cut footage of the fires, cutting that into our set at the same time, was just like, they were just like, let’s make this worse,” Borland said.
“Found opportunity to point a finger,” Durst said. “I think they found a good spin on it.”
I wasn’t at Woodstock ’99. But I have watched video of the Limp Bizkit performance on YouTube many times. From the video, two things are immediately obvious. First, the crowd was extremely rambunctious and unruly. Some of the misbehavior is typical drunken buffoonery that’s ultimately harmless; other acts are flat-out criminal.
Two random cutaways to the audience show topless women whose breasts were groped by nearby men––men who didn’t, from what I can tell, have permission to touch these women. This happens in shots that last for maybe a second or two each. If it was that easy to capture footage of women being sexually assaulted, I can only imagine how widespread it was.
Second, Limp Bizkit pulled out all of the stops to rev up the audience. For the first half of the show, there’s a familiar pattern: Limp Bizkit plays an upbeat and pile-driving number, and the audience goes wild. Then Durst encourages everybody to get even crazier.
But the wildest moment of the show isn’t “Break Stuff.” It actually occurs about 20 minutes earlier, when Limp Bizkit plays a cover of “Thieves” by the ’80s industrial-rock band Ministry. The reaction from the audience is awe-inspiring—I mean that as both a compliment and a condemnation. You know those berserker crowd scenes in Mad Max: Fury Road? That’s how crazy it was. It’s terrifying, and kind of exhilarating, to watch.
The Limp Bizkit performance sent hundreds of kids from the mosh pits to the medical tents. Brian Hiatt was there, covering Woodstock ’99 for a website called Sonicnet. He later investigated the festival for a year.
“I watched the Limp Bizkit set,” Hiatt said. “Fred Durst, in not a great moment of judgment, basically told the crowd to tear shit up, which they did, and ripped pieces off a sound tower and were surfing on them. I then went to the medical tent and saw weeping kids who had been injured in the mosh pit and talked to medical staff who were just overwhelmed with kids injured in some of the craziest mosh pits ever. They had kids going in the medical tent telling the doctors, ‘They need to stop the show, this is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.’”
Eventually, Limp Bizkit started to play a few slower numbers. It’s around now that the Woodstock ’99 cameras find the surfers that Brian saw, hanging 10 on wood removed from one of the central towers. When you watch the video, it appears that Durst sees this, though he doesn’t acknowledge it at first.
Here’s what I don’t know for sure: Was Durst aware of how crazy the audience was and actively working to steer things in a more manageable direction? Or was he too far removed from the crowd to know one way or the other? Unfortunately, neither Durst nor anybody else from Limp Bizkit would talk to me.
But Rob Sheffield, a journalist who covered the festival for Rolling Stone, remembers Durst actually encouraging audience members to help one another.
“From where I was standing in the crowd––deep in the crowd––there was a sense that he was trying to sort of encourage a fun and rowdy environment,” Sheffield said. “But not trying to incite a riot. He kept stressing, if somebody falls down, pick them up. At a certain point during the set he said, ‘OK, we let some negative energy out.’ This is after they play ‘Break Stuff.’ And he said, ‘Now we want to bring the positivity,’ and then they did ‘Nookie.’ And they did George Michael’s ‘Faith,’ which was also a great festival jam; everybody knew the words to that one.”
Limp Bizkit finally plays “Break Stuff” about two-thirds into the set. It’s an intense performance that brings the audience back to its feet. As the energy builds and builds, you can see more and more boards being removed from the central tower. Eventually, Durst himself will end up crowd-surfing on one of those boards.
As someone who has watched a lot of Woodstock ’99 performances, I can’t argue that Limp Bizkit didn’t do their job. Slamming Fred Durst seems like an act of deflection. It’s not an honest attempt to address the mistakes that were made at the festival.
Looking back, Maureen Callahan, who covered the festival for Spin, feels the same way.
“Somebody asked me recently, ‘Would you blame any of the acts for what happened?’ And I think that’s really unfair,” Callahan said. “These are acts that are parachuting in and parachuting out. Again, that’s sort of my reluctance to ascribe it to a particular act. Because then you’re also taking away any culpability on the part of the kids who were, you know, going too far. And I don’t think that’s necessarily fair.”