As an adult who has written a decent amount about music over the past few years, I’ve found it deeply embarrassing to admit what a 311 stan I was as a teenager.
I don’t remember how I came across them originally, because it wasn’t MTV or The Box or via radio. Someone’s older brother passed me a tape or something like that. However it happened, I had discovered this bootleg tape. At the time, this was crucial. It was their first proper album, Music, and I was 11.
Over the next three or four years, I was “that guy.” I saw 311 a good seven or eight times, which is, to this day, still a lot of times to see a band. Their live show was the closest thing to a jam band I could engage with, and their logo (still an all-time great one) was practiced on many a Mead notebook cover.
If you missed 311, it was very much a thing for old millennials (i.e. born in the early ’80s) and overlapped with a lot of predominantly white acts who were following in the Beasties’ wake. 311 are a five-piece from Omaha, Nebraska, who ended up in their spiritual home of Southern California in the ’90s. They’re cannabis advocates who became known for their goofy-but-conscious raps, splicing all the genres, with some heavy jazz and dancehall influence thrown in there. They go for so many different styles and genres that they feel like one of those restaurants with a 20-page menu.
When they emerged, 311 were a proto–nu-metal jam band for potheads. They've sustained a three-decade career despite mostly avoiding MTV and college radio and without breaking up in dramatic rock star fashion or any other major controversies. They have a solid, loyal fan base that shockingly doesn't have a cute nickname.
So I re-listened to every 311 album and found myself surprised at how weird and interesting some of the compositions are, even though many of the lyrics are still hard to swallow if you sit down and consciously pay attention to them. A lot of their lyrics (and general ethos) are extremely earnest, somewhere between late-period RCHP, emo and pop punk, which has always been the No. 1 element working against them. But it seems as if they know their lyrics are ridiculous? That's what I think, at least, but it’s a tough barrier to get over.
Musically, though, I think they have an underrated depth. P-Nut on bass, Chad Sexton on drums and Tim Mahoney on guitar are the talented musical spine of the group. I’m curious what they would make if they were just an instrumental jazz fusion/prog trio. And Nick Hexum’s flat vocal stylings are actually quite charming for me, though this is a matter of taste.
I can’t say their most recent albums are that engaging or that a lot of their work has aged well. The newer albums feel pretty lean and scrubbed of a lot of the weirder elements that made their earlier records so appealing in the first place. But overall I think 311 gets a bad rap. And enough time has passed with most of these records that I miss them now.
So here are my favorite 311 songs, and the ones I think have aged the best. Happy 3/11 Day!
This lost Red Hot Chili Peppers song is, like much of the 311 oeuvre, earnest as fuck. I still stand by it, despite my better sense.
I’m pretty sure this is not a consensus favorite, but it’s one of several weird cuts on 1997's Transistor, which is overflowing with bizarre little passages and experimental asides. Critics mostly were very not into this album, the follow-up to 311's mainstream breakthrough “Blue Album,” but I think it has aged better than any of the others.
8. “My Stoney Baby”
By this point you’re probably noticing a trend: I’m leaning much more heavily on the less aggro tracks. In many ways this is the most on-the-nose 311 song title there could possibly be. It feels both like a Booker T & the M.G.’s track and the five-piece at their jam bandiest.
7. “Do You Right”
“Do You Right” is one of dozens — possibly hundreds — of 311 songs about weed. They’re all about getting ripped, which I guess is also another big draw to the band. After 15 or so years of Auto-Tune, I don’t hate hearing flat vocals as they are here (and on much of their work). Also, this song came out in 1991. It was a different time and all that jazz.
“Grassroots” is a perfect 311 song, because it hits at least four genres in as many minutes. And this song was a pretty great prediction: The band would go on to achieve a huge grassroots following, like a pothead Dave Matthews Band. It was recorded at the band's small house in Van Nuys.
5. “All Mixed Up”
There’s something naive and fun about this song — set to a Stalag riddim and featuring a Yellowman sample — that always edged out “Down” for me. Taken from the “Blue Album” (around the time when people started calling 311 sellouts and their new fans posers), “All Mixed Up” is inspired by a quote by Elvis. Asked how he felt about newfound fame, The King replied, “All mixed up.”
4. “Omaha Stylee”
In addition to being the best song about Midwestern stylees, this tune from Grassroots samples “Wake the Town” more than a decade before Kanye. Just saying.
3. “8:16 am”
This is 311 at their jazziest and a sleepy fan favorite. Taken from their raw, crunchy second LP, it's another of their many earnest love songs.
The most divisive song in the 311 discography, “Amber” is also one of their most recognizable. Is it about a girl named Amber or some highfalutin hybrid strain? (You could ask this about most of their songs.) It’s actually about Nick Hexum’s then-girlfriend, Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls — who, incidentally, is known for her orange-y aura. My guess is that 311 will be remembered most for their ballads, and this is the best one.
1. “Beautiful Disaster”
“Beautiful Disaster” feels like the most complete — if rather restrained by their standards — song in the 311 catalog. Taken from Transistor (their best and most underrated studio album), “Beautiful Disaster” is still the best 311 single that’s gotten significant radio play. And it’s likely their song that will survive the longest via classic rock radio. If you're like me, this song makes you feel both old and young at the same time.