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The definitive oral history of Korn’s “Freak On A Leash”
The story of the unlikely hit that made the Nu metal pioneers into a household name.
Getty/ Mick Hutson

With one “Da boom na da noom na namena,” Jonathan Davis changed the world. When Follow the Leader came out in 1998, KoRn was already poised for success. After their first two albums gave them a cult following, Sony invested in the band and ushered in the rock star part of their career. Suddenly, everything was possible: The band recorded in NRG Studios amidst a weekly webcast and a constant revolving-door party vibe, made a video using cutting-edge technology, and released their album on a Kampaign tour complete with a tank and a private jet — and it all paid off.

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If their self-titled debut pioneered nü-metal, Leader brought it to the masses, and its “Freak on a Leash” became the band’s biggest song. Paired with an iconic video of a bullet hurtling through the suburbs in slow-motion, it spent three months in the top ten on Total Request Live before being retired, eventually winning the band a Grammy and two MTV Video Music Awards statues.

The song’s enduring success points to a zeitgeist moment—a historic cusp in which bands were able to use the internet to build a fanbase, but streaming hadn’t yet decimated label budgets. There was an unexpected opening in the pop landscape, and Korn articulated a generational coming-of-angst for a claustrophobic, self-surveilled consciousness. “Freak on a Leash” became the soundtrack for a generation’s arrival as a snarling, thrashing, systemically-restrained freak show.

We caught up with four of the five original members—along with producer Toby Wright, video directors Valerie Dayton and Jonathan Faris, and Korn Kampaign host Jim Rose — to talk about “Freak on a Leash”’s creation, reception, and legacy.

Korn began writing Follow the Leader in a small Redondo Beach rehearsal studio, experimenting with different ways to bring together their different influences: Pantera, Biohazard, Helmet, Portishead, Far, and Praxis, with early Outkast, Faith No More, and 80’s new wave thrown in—and, of course, a ton of hip-hop.

Jonathan Davis (lead vocals): We were writing by ourselves in a little studio — just a room with a PA. It was nothing special, just us with the music.

Brian "Head" Welch (guitar): We were in a good headspace. We were all like one — no issues with band members or anything. We were still climbing up and doing theaters, touring with bands like Deftones and opening for bigger bands like Megadeth, Ozzy and all them. We were in the studio without any producer or leader, just us friends hanging out. That would come to an end after that record.

James "Munky" Shaffer (guitar): [“Freak on a Leash”] was one of the first tracks we wrote for that album.

Jonathan: [I wrote “Freak On A Leash” about] the music industry, entertainment in general — how the machine worked. The label, management, publishers, everything that it involved. Looking back on it, “Something takes a part of me” was [about how] they were taking the fun [out] of making music and making it a business.

You can ask anyone in my band, I hate the fucking music [industry] — I don't give a fuck. I love singing and I love fucking making music and I don’t care about shit I don’t care about. I know it’s stupid, but this is how I roll. It was me lashing out, because when [we] started getting bigger after Life is Peachy and got a bigger budget, I [was] watching it become more of a business — gotta do this, gotta do that.

Munky: We already knew we had a cult following, and there was a future that we could shape on our own. It felt like the creative doors got kicked down and we were able to try anything.

Jonathan: KoRn and Life is Peachy were similar. With [Follow the Leader], we started to experiment with more hip-hop-inspired basslines mixed with rock guitar, making the guitar sound like samples. I’ve said it a billion times, but if it wasn't for Cypress Hill there would be no KoRn.

Reginald "Fieldy" Arvizu (bass): Everyone was into different [things]. I was into newer-school hip-hop, the guitar players were into rock music.

Head: When me and Munky started doing that record, it was about, let’s just get guitar pedals out and just get crazy with it. We wanted to make sure the guitar on the noises and the melody parts [would] sound not so much like the guitar, but like samples, keyboards, or synths.

Munky: A lot of that stuff we [still] use now — the DigiTech and Whammy pedals — to get that DJ-sounding element in the guitar sounds. We play a lower-tuned seven-string guitar, so [with the Whammy pedal] it was kind of like, "Whoa, we can make the low end go even lower and the high end go up to fucking dog-ear shit."

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“Freak” builds slow. From the high, slinky taunt of the opening guitar line over a bouncing drum beat, to the heavy, gnarled bridge towards the chorus, it’s structured like a pop song — almost. Nü metal would become a space for men to confront their darkest moments with a confessional vulnerability set against an aggro rock-n-roll lashing out. Davis was the perfect avatar for this, connecting with a mass audience by growling, mewling, and belting through lines that ran the spectrum from “Life’s gotta always be messing with me / Can’t it chill and let me be free” to “Sometimes I cannot take this place / Sometimes it’s my life I can taste.” Midway through the song, language collapses, and he lets loose with what Charles Aaron referred to in 1999 as “the goonniest beatboxing since Police Academy” — a moment that leaves listeners dumbfounded and hypnotized, which makes the song utterly convincing. And then, of course, there’s that drop.

Fieldy: When we did that song, [we] definitely [knew] this [was] going to be one of the hits. I wish I had a better word for that — I know people hate that word, because it’s not like we [were] trying to make some pop hit or something. One of the classics. It stands out. What really took it over the top was when the middle part broke down, and then Jonathan came in and started doing that weird, almost-reggae beatboxing crazy scat voice. That almost made the whole song, what everybody waits for. Right when that hit, we just knew that song was special.

Jonathan: Everybody made a bajillion memes about the “mmbop da mmbob da nena.” That’s just purely heavy scatting, I just felt like some percussive shit. I did that on Life is Peachy when I did “Twist,” that was really the heavy scat. I was beatboxing because I love to beatbox.

Fieldy: Jonathan was a DJ, then a drummer, then a singer. That’s how he has that rhythmic vocal going on. I couldn’t even karaoke that — I wouldn’t know what to do.

Jonathan: That comes from Doug E. Fresh and shit like that, old school hip-hop. Doug E. Fresh was the best beatboxer back then. That was my “doug e, doug e.”

Toby Wright (producer): It was the melody, the heaviness of it. We knew we made the soundscape strange but still very catchy. There were a lot of guitar and vocal hooks. We loaded that one down with those hooks.

Munky: I remember saying, “Wow, that sounds like a rap sort of track.” Everybody got excited because it sounded so different from the previous albums.

Toby: Jonathan made it that much better by really singing his butt off on that song.

Munky: One of my favorite moments is the rhythmic harmonics before [Jonathan] does the scat boom chakas, and the buildup to that drop where he says “GO!” and kicks in the heavy groove in the middle of the song. When we wrote that together I remember thinking, “Man, the crowd's gonna fucking lose their shit right here.” And we were right.

Toby: Back then, the crowd bounce was a big thing. If that crowd wasn't bouncing, you weren't doing your job on stage.

After assembling a few songs, the band dove into the studio. Instead of recording Follow The Leader at Indigo Ranch with Ross Robinson, where they did the previous two records, Sony gave the band a budget of over $750,000 to move into NRG Studio B in North Hollywood for 18 weeks — a huge space, equipped with separate rooms for working on loops, practicing guitar parts, and partying with the tons of people constantly passing through. After things didn’t work out with Steve Thompson, the band brought on Toby Wright, who had worked with Alice in Chains, Slayer, and Metallica. In an effort to make a more professional-sounding record, they experimented ceaselessly, bringing in collaborators such as Ice Cube, Tre Hardson from Pharcyde, Fred Durst, and Cheech & Chong.

Fieldy: It was different back then because it was all not really knowing what we [were] doing. You can hear it in the way the song turned out. If you hear the songs [we do] today, you can hear that we know what we’re doing a little more. But I think that’s why people like “Freak on a Leash” — because it’s kind of raw.

Munky: We probably could have sped things up and had more focus — that's sort of the beauty of it though. There wasn't one direction.

Toby: We probably wasted a lot of time experimenting, but I don’t think experiments are a waste of time at all. You get something very unique and something that not everybody has.

Jonathan: [It was] my first record without Ross Robinson, so I had Ross come in and produce the vocals with me. He was doing some crazy weird shit like sticking his nails in my back when I was singing.

Toby: Jonathan did hire him very briefly as his vocal coach. One of the first thing Ross did while Jonathan was trying to sing was punch him in the back, right on his spine. A couple of times. I was like, “That can't happen. Why are you punching the singer while he's singing? I don’t understand this method.”

Jonathan: He was doing this weird method acting shit and I was just like, “I did that and it was cool, but I'm past this shit with you, Ross. No offense, I love you brother, but I'm trying to do something different. I don't need to have you put your fucking nails in my back and make me hurt to feel the pain.” So he peeled back a little bit.

Toby: He's a very violent person. I’ve heard stories of him throwing chairs, guitars, all kinds of stuff at people while they're playing. I don't think it lasted more than two or three vocal sessions.

Jonathan: He was my crutch. I was very afraid to do an album without him — that's all I'd known. He came in for a couple songs and then I didn't need him anymore and he was like, “Cool, it’s all good, no hard feelings.” I did the rest with Toby.

“You’re giving a bunch of kids money that are already drunks and drug addicts. Probably not the best thing.” — Munky

As part of building hype for the album, KoRn broadcasted a weekly “after-school special” — specifically, an hour-long web series that streamed live on RealPlayer every Thursday for eight weeks, featuring guests (usually bands and adult entertainment stars), fan Q&A’s via call-in or chat room, and demos. While this seems almost standard now in the age of Boiler Room, Facebook Live, and Reddit AMA, in 1998 it was an unprecedented way for a band to create their mythos away from the music press and to connect directly with fans.

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Toby: We were in the studio six days a week, but we were only really working maybe three days. We had No Work Thursday, which was the internet broadcast, and then we had Friday — and people couldn't work because it was Friday and they were hungover from No Work Thursday. Then it was Saturday, and you really couldn't do any work. Maybe we got a little bit of guitars done. And then you'd have Sunday off and we'd go back to Monday, and Monday really couldn't work either because “Oh God, I can't even get out of bed.” Tuesday was a little bit of a workday and Wednesday was used for writing whatever was gonna happen on Thursday, which turned into a big porn party, which, you know. We had special guests in the studio and porn stars because Jonathan was all into that.

Munky: Oh my god, that show was so distracting to our process. But then somebody asked us midway through, “Do you want to stop this?” We were like, “Hell no, this is fun.”

Jonathan: We pretty much pioneered the whole fucking internet thing with bands back in the day. We made it into Time magazine in 1996. We did the very first webcast — we had Adam Carolla come in to host a show, and we partnered up with Quicktime and they came in and brought all these cameras. 1996 — think about that, technology and the internet. You could look around in the studio if you dragged a cursor over it. We'd tape songs right off the board and we had little interviews and shit. We really embraced the internet at the time.

Munky: Dita von Teese came on one of the shows and tied Jonathan up in some weird knot and whipped him. It was awesome.

Although the party environment was good for fans and spontaneous collaborations, it exacerbated the band’s existing issues with substance abuse — something Davis was especially struggling with.

Toby: I'd be working with Munky and Head would be like, “Dude what do I do now?” “Well, there's a room over there, you can go help Justin. Go get in on the hip-hop writing experience, have fun. Or drink 40 more beers — I don’t care.”

Munky: It was fucking crazy. You're giving a bunch of kids money that are already drunks and drug addicts. Probably not the best thing.

Jonathan: I refused to start singing unless [Toby] got me an eight-ball of cocaine right away. Toby started freaking the fuck out, because he knows if I do coke I only get a couple takes and the shit's gonna kick in and then my vocals are going to suck. There was a lot of that.

Toby: I tried to limit the amount of candy that went on before the parts were actually laid down — whether it was beer or weed or whatever. None of it was allowed in the control room. I didn't want to see. I just stayed in the control room and covered my eyes.

Jonathan: I’d come in and do my vocals, and once they were done, I’d start drinking. I wasn't drunk when I did my vocals. I was under the influence of some coke at times, but for the majority of it I'd stay sober. Then I was done and I'd just get hammered. We’d start around 3 or 4 o clock, [then at] 9 or 10 at night we'd stop and that's when the parties would start. We partied at NRG until 4 in the morning. Those poor guys would have to leave the place open and we [were] just raging.

Toby: There's a certain — how do I say it — loveliness to being high while you're playing, and then there's a certain disrespectfulness to your band members and everyone else who's working on your record. You're wasting money and everybody's time.

Jonathan: In the end, it was necessary. It had to happen for me to realize what a fucking out of control motherfucker I was, because it made me become sober — which, in turn, saved my life and my band, because my bandmates were ready to fucking kill me.

Munky: Hey, better have learned it that way than still have to learn those fucking lessons later in life. I just want to get that shit done now. I'm glad i went through a lot of that. I don't want to be an old man sitting in a bar grumbling. I might still be though! Never know.

Toby: It's a matter of just being patient and waiting for the right time. Some people hunt deer and they stand in that darn deer stand until one comes prancing up, and then it's all about that one shot — boom, done. They were patient enough to wait for that one shot. That's what I do with my clients: I wait patiently in the studio for them to have that perfect moment. That's when the "magic" happens. And there were many magical moments on that record. Munky had a bunch of them. Jonathan had a whole bunch of them.

Jonathan: We were just some kids from Bakersfield — it was some crazy, dream-come-true shit.

Toby: It was a lot of fun, and in the process, we made a record.

Thanks to the label budget, KoRn accompanied their album release with another creative PR strategy: a grassroots campaign-style record store tour called the Korn Kampaign, in which they would fly from town to town to connect with fans through “fan conferences.” The Kampaign was hosted by Jim Rose of the Jim Rose Circus—a sideshow host and performer who entered the 90’s pop consciousness after performing at Lollapalooza and touring with artists such as Eddie Vedder and Nine Inch Nails.

Jim Rose(Korn Kampaign host): I created the vibe that allowed the reveal — whatever it was — keeping the crowd entertained and hyping how great KoRn and this album is. It was never the same in any city, a lot of organizing for each event. These guys exploded right in front of me. It was a different kind of vibe, man. They just showed up like vikings, went from city to city, and ripped them apart.

Jonathan: Labels would invest in bands. You could do crazy-ass shit. The shit that we pulled off back in the day… We hired a fucking private jet, flew around the United States, and did two in-stores a day. We signed five to ten thousand [albums] a day. We were fucking beat: start in the morning, go to one city for five hours, jump in the plane, do the next one, do another five fucking hours, go to bed, jump on the plane.

Munky: The only way we did it was because they said “private jet.” So we were like, “Fuck yeah! A jet, I’ll go anywhere!”

Head: One of my best memories was going down the streets of Canada on an army tank. These fans were just running after us like, “Hey you guys rule!” We'd give them peace signs on top of this tank and end up at the record store. Nothing cooler than that.

Jonathan Davis performing live on April 27, 1995 in New York City.   Getty/ Waring Abbott
“We’d give them peace signs on top of this tank and end up at the record store. Nothing cooler than that.” — Head

For the video, KoRn brought in Spawn creator Todd McFarlane (who also designed the cover for Follow the Leader) and the directorial team of Dayton and Faris, who'd previously made videos for Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. and would go on to direct Little Miss Sunshine and Battle of the Sexes. The video was cinematically gripping and, for its time, technologically groundbreaking in its use of the bullet-time special effects that The Matrix would popularize the following year.

Valerie Dayton and Jonathan Faris (video directors): It’s a perfect music video song — like a movie soundtrack. There's so much tension in the opening verses, and it just keeps building until the whole thing explodes in that final bridge. Our favorite part is when Jonathan yells “Go!” and the bullet reverses direction. The structure of the song became our script, and it was clear what we had to do. We suggested the concept of having a bullet leave the animated world and travel through the real world until it finally returns again to the poster.

Munky: They explained, “We'll shoot a bunch of this, we'll have you guys, and then we're gonna tie it in with Todd Mcfarlane’s animation in the beginning.” We were like, “Holy shit, if you can pull this off with this song, it's gonna be a fucking home run.” We were blown away.

Jonathan: It felt like when someone read the fucking script for The Matrix for the first time: “Are you kidding me? This can't be done.”

Fieldy: Today, people do that in like three minutes on their laptops. But back then, nobody.

Dayton and Faris: It was inspired by high-speed still photography where a bullet shoots through an apple. It was so fun to work on. We shot real bullets through all the objects, and most of the “effects” are real. All the bullets were fired on a closed shooting range and then put into locations.

Head: It was surreal being at that level back then, which is unheard of now: a video budget of $800,000, or whatever it ended up being. it was crazy.

Munky: We didn’t really understand how they made it. Even just trying to imagine Jonathan staring at an animated bullet was just like, “What? Really? You want me to pretend there's a bullet right here and I'm looking at it?”

Jonathan: We went home, went on tour, and they beamed it to us in Australia after they got all these special effects done. We saw it and I was like, “Oh my god, this is fucking pretty brilliant.I ain't never seen no shit like this.”

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The video became an unexpected hit. It hit number one on TRL on February 25, 1999 and spent ten non-consecutive days at the top, volleying with Britney’s “Baby One More Time,” *NSYNC’s “A Little More Time on You,” and 98 Degrees’ “The Hardest Thing.”

Jonathan: It was the TRL age — boy bands and pop stars — and we were just flying the torch at that time for rock music.

Fieldy: I was like, “We don’t really fit into this, I don’t understand.” It was so mind-boggling, I was just in denial. And then it kept being number one.

Munky: You couldn't knock that thing off. Not even the Backstreet Boys could knock it off! That's hilarious to me. But that's how music is: diverse.

Jonathan: The TRL retirement home is because of us. We were the first band to be retired because our video would not get out. It stayed number one and two for so fucking long MTV had to figure something out. I have the plaque on my wall.

Head: It was actually the second [video to retire from TRL] — ”Got the Life” was the first.

Jonathan: Our fans are so fucking rabid — they wouldn’t stop calling, they just kept it there. [MTV] was like, “Man they have to go away.” Every time we'd be on TRL or anything like that, there would be literally thousands of people out there, they'd have to call fucking police. We had shit tons of bodyguards, cars almost getting tipped over. It was ridiculous, like some Beatles-type shit back then.

Dayton and Faris: We loved the response, Korn fans are so loyal. We still get people telling us how much they love the video.

Head: It's really cool to be able to say that we were involved in the mainstream MTV before all things changed. That excitement waiting to see your favorite band’s video on TV back then — that’s just not happening anymore. As soon as someone puts a video out, you just watch it over and over. That excitement of not being able to have it when you wanted it was something special.

"Every time we'd be on TRL or anything like that, there would be literally thousands of people out there, they'd have to call fucking police.” — Jonathan Davis

Towards the end of its TRL run, MTV would only play snippets of the video, due to pressure from parental groups in the aftermath of the April 20th Columbine massacre. Regardless, the video pulled KoRn into the MTV fame machine, earning the band nine VMA nominations in 1999. Although they turned down an offer to perform at the ceremony, they showed up to claim two awards for Best Editing and Best Rock Video. The video would also score the band two Grammy nominations in 2000, resulting in a win for Best Short Form Music Video.

Fieldy: I remember going, are we getting punk’d? It doesn’t make sense. Everything flew so fast, I was still in denial about a lot of it. Looking back now, maybe it stood out so far that people took a liking to it. It was just odd enough, but not too far off.

Head: The VMAs were nerve-wracking, man. Everyone in the music business that's hot was there, and we’re sitting up in the front, right behind Dr. Dre and Eminem. I remember walking up to the awards, and we ran into Will Smith right away and we were like, “What’s up Big Willy!” I think he had the Wild Wild West thing, and they were calling him Big Willy. He didn't know our names so he was just like “KORN! HEY WHAT’S UP KORN?” And seeing Tommy Lee… When I was a kid, I would sit there for hours and draw Mötley Crüe — their faces, their costumes, everything. I would listen to them for hours. So for him to give us an award was just so surreal. What a magical night.

After the awards, we all went in different directions. Me and my wife ended up at one of the afterparties — this little dive bar in New York City, invitation-only. We're walking through and look at the bar, and there's Paul McCartney talking to Madonna. I’m just like, OK, that tops the night.

Munky: I felt like it was good for our up-and-coming genre that was about to break. It gave kids a place in this pop-driven world — like, there’s an alternative option for that generation.

“Freak on a Leash”’s ascent to the mainstream was a mixed blessing, enabling KoRn to live out their wildest rock-'n-roll fantasies while putting them even further at the mercy of the music industry machine the song was written against. The pressure mounted, & Jonathan got sober shortly after the Kampaign.

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New fans discovered the song in 2007 when Jonathan Davis performed it as a duet with Evanescence’s Amy Lee as part of an MTV Unplugged performance. (Lee, a fan of the band, reimagined Davis’s beatboxing part as a series of wordless, operatic vocalizations, adding a new dimension to the song’s emotional impact.) President Obama even shouted out the band in 2015, prompting a viral remix video. Twenty years after Leader’s release, the band remains a clear inspiration and “Freak on a Leash” continues to live on: as a meme, a look, and a totally solid song.

Jonathan: After that, we were put right into arenas [for the Family Values Tour]. I quit drinking, so I was detoxing the whole fucking tour. I was going insane and had horrible anxiety attacks. I can’t even put it into words — watching everybody slowly go crazy because we lost our freedom. We couldn't go anywhere without bodyguards. Back in the day, we were the type of band where we'd play a club gig and have tapes and demos we brought to hand out to people —we'd meet people, go to their house, and have keg parties and shit like that. We couldn't do that no more. We couldn't hang out with our fans. We couldn't do shit.

I call it "being stuck in a box," and to this day they keep me in a fucking box — a bus, a dressing room, a hotel room, or a car. I can't be out in public. I can do it now a little more, but back then I had two fucking bodyguards, one with me 24 hours a day. We went kind of crazy during that time period. After I got sober and went through a fucking detox, after all that shit wore off, everything was good. But I remember all these emotions from that time period.

Munky: Jonathan got sober a lot quicker than the rest of us did, so he saw things that the rest of us wish we had seen earlier. He saw a lot of the dirty, shady music-business components earlier than we recognized because we were too busy getting hammered.

Jonathan: That’s what that song is about — I just felt like everyone was using and abusing me. Then that record just made it ten times worse. That’s how it goes, but it’s all good. Looking back, I think it’s amazing I get to do what I love for a living. It’s not work.

Head: I’m really proud of that record, most of the songs, and what we accomplished. Bringing those unique songs to the genre of heavy rock and metal helped set our career up — and we still have a career.

Toby: [Follow the Leader] is right up there with [Metallica's] ...And Justice for All, with some Alice in Chains records. I worked my tail off on this record. I loved working on it — it was one of those records where you keep on keeping on no matter how difficult it got, because I believed in it so much.

Jim: When I was a kid, I listened to Led Zeppelin and I thought, Oh my god, they're so heavy! Twenty years later, I listen to Zeppelin, I go, Hell, I could do the twist to that! But I listen to “Freak on a Leash” twenty years later and, man, it's just really the same song. Time didn't change the perception of what that thing is and what it was. And that's extremely unique.

Fieldy: I don’t think I would change anything — I’m pretty happy with it. There’s probably a hundred different [things] that we done where I wish we wouldn’t have done this and that — tell you the truth, I like it. It’s classic. That’s one of them where I’m alright, even when we play it, every part flows, every part feels good. Most singles, bands do hate. There’s a lot of our singles that I do hate playing, I’m not gonna say which ones. This happened to be one that’s pretty solid, and I’m thankful.

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