Here we are again. March 11: 311 Day. And for me that means…well, what does it mean for me exactly? It’s an existential quandary that’s nagged at me for the better part of two decades. In fact, after my parents’ divorce and my mother’s death, it’s probably the dilemma that has most defined my manhood. I’m not exaggerating. Music is that important to me.
First off, yes, 311 Day is a real thing. It is celebrated every year by fans of the ganja-loving Omaha rap-rockers whose hit singles “Down” and “All Mixed Up” had them all over the radio and MTV for like five months in 1996. Every March 11, these fans are likely to call off work and stay home and listen to 311 all day and get really fucking high. Or they’ll go into work and listen to 311 all day and sneak outside right before the clock strikes 3:11 and get really fucking high. Okay, so for 311 fans this probably isn’t much different from most days. But they definitely get extra high on 311 Day.
Even-numbered years are still more ceremonious/blazed. Since 2000, the band has played a show every other year on March 11. The shows are marathons. 70 songs with hardly a break between. Even Springsteen would be like, “You guys are really overdoing it.” Tonight’s show is in New Orleans, at something called the Smoothie King Center.
I’ve never been to a 311 Day show, because by 2000 I’d pretty much given up my 311 obsession. And holy shit was I obsessed, starting freshman year of high school. I had a bumper sticker on my base-model Dodge Neon—which only had a tape deck, so I would use a D-battery-powered boom box in the passenger seat to play their CDs. I tracked down bootlegs of their early independent releases—not an easy thing to do in Camelot-and-Sam Goody-dominated Akron, Ohio. And not cheap, either: I paid like $40 each for them. I passed out cards for their fan club around school. I saw them live at least a half dozen times, in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida and Georgia. At one of the shows, at this dungeony amateur ice hockey rink in Belle Vernon, Pa., there was a camera crew interviewing superfans for a DVD. I wound up making the final cut.
Honestly, I can’t tell you why I liked them so much. I was a teenager. I didn’t try to analyze or verbalize or justify why I liked something. I just liked it. But I do know why I stopped liking them. Because I graduated from college and moved to New York City and got a job as a cater waiter and had to pass hors d’oeuvres to a bunch of rich dicks, and wear a Nehru jacket so starched it would make my skin burn, and ride the unairconditioned subway in the summer and sweat like a son of a bitch though not smell as bad as the homeless guy down at the other end of the car who just took a dump in his pants. Which is to say I no longer related to 311’s whole pot-positivity-southern Cali shtick. I was more Pabst-pissed off-East Village.
And being in my early twenties, I did judge myself—and other people—on taste. I was every bit a snob as the rich dicks. I was embarrassed that I was ever into 311, all the more so after they did a video with Shaq and got into a fistfight with Creed. I hid my secret from new friends and co-workers and girlfriends for as long as I could. Sooner or later it would always come out. I would laugh it off but deep down I was humiliated.
Why? Everybody is embarrassed by some band they liked growing up. The Osmonds or Milli Vanilli or 98 Degrees or whatever it is right now. (5 Seconds of Summer? I just Googled “new boy band.”) Every generation has them. But those groups quickly disappear, replaced by other shitty and soon-to-be-replaced groups. Years pass without you thinking of them, especially now that radio is dead. Maybe one day you hear their big hit in a movie or in a grocery store. And you chuckle to yourself thinking how long it’s been and how much has happened since then and how you’ve changed. Those embarrassing bands are valuable in that they give you perspective on the person you were and the person you’ve become.
Only I didn’t have that luxury with 311. I’ve never been able to forget that I liked them. Because I’ve never had that necessary interval, that essential interregnum. For the last fifteen or so years, I’ve been reminded of them constantly. Not a week or two goes by without me seeing that combination of numbers somewhere. I’ll glance at the clock: 3:11. I’ll be reading a book and turn the page: 311. I’ll buy snacks at a bodega and the total will be $3.11. I’ll fuck around online looking up random baseball statistics and discover Jackie Robinson’s lifetime batting average was .311. I’ll be desperate for something on Netflix and for some godforsaken reason even more inscrutable than my relationship with the band I’ll put on Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and watch him in the opening scene knock on apartment number 311. Or in Fight Club there is an actual 311 poster in the pawn shop where Marla sells her stolen laundry clothes. And of course there’s the New York City number for non-emergency services.
On top of that, 311 hasn’t disappeared. They’ve gone more than 20 years without a break-up or even a prolonged hiatus. They’re still recording, still touring, still…existing.
Thing is, it’s that longevity that has me reconsidering my opinion of them yet again. Yeah, 311 smokes a lot of weed. But they also work really fucking hard. You can’t stick around for as long as they have without a strong work ethic. All those years touring, all those months in the studio—that’s dedication. They have vision, too. Whether you like rap-rock or not, they were doing that shit in the late 1980s, before pretty much anybody besides the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers—who are way more their contemporaries than, say, Limp Bizkit or Linkin Park. They were one of the first bands to do their own cruise, back in 2011. Now everybody’s cashing in on that idea. A couple years before Tidal, they were talking shit about major record labels, calling them “corrupt,” “incompetent,” “a rip-off.” And they didn’t just talk about it. They recorded their last album independently.
Granted, that album was…Well, I only skimmed through the tracks on Spotify. Same for the rest of the albums they recorded since I stopped listening to them. And they all kind of suck. I really hate saying that or being critical of any musician because who the fuck am I? It’s not like I know how to play an instrument. At least they are out there creating something rather than sitting around writing some bullshit think piece for a web site. But I also have to be honest. I wasn’t feeling any of the recent albums.
Those earlier ones, though, the ones I grew up with… Music. Grassroots. The self-titled blue album. Transistor. Even a few tracks off Soundsystem and From Chaos. I’ve been listening to those for the last couple hours while writing this and dammit if I don’t feel like I’m 15 again.
I realize now—right this second—that’s the real reason I despised 311 for so long. Because they reminded me of when I was young. They reminded me I was still young. Like a dumbass, I wanted to be older. And now that I am older…Hell, I’ll take any opportunity to feel like I did when I was 15, to even catch a whiff of that euphoria, that innocence.
That feeling is hard to come by when you get to your mid-thirties. The trade-off is that you give even less of a fuck what people think than when you were a teenager—because not only have you stopped trying to impress people, your skin has cleared up, too. And so, after all these years, I can finally say it: I love 311.
Especially these 10 songs, the ones I’ll be listening to all day at work.
1. 8:16 AM (1994)
311 really are branding geniuses. They are. They know how to get inside your head and stay there. The same way I can never see the numbers 311 without thinking of them, I can’t see a clock reading “8:16” without thinking of this song.
2. Welcome (1993)
The only thing I love more than music is books. And this song is partly responsible for that. I was fifteen when I first heard the lyric: “A Coney Island of the mind, it’s mine.” That’s how I found out about Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which then led me to the Beats.
3. Omaha Stylee (1994)
Since the very beginning 311 has had a very genuine love for reggae and dancehall. I’m talking deep cuts like “Wake the Town” by U-Roy, which is sampled on this track. The very same year it was also sampled on Dawn Penn’s classic “You Don’t Know Love Me (No, No, No).” 311 gets credit for rap-rock. But they also should be recognized for helping introduce American kids to dancehall and dubstyle and leading the way for modern acts like Major Lazer.
4. Guns (Are for Pussies) (1995)
Four years before Columbine, 311 released this protest of gun violence. Granted, they were talking more about wannabe gangsters than school shooters. But still a prescient and powerful stand to have taken.
5. Use of Time (1997)
Thanks to “Down” and “All Mixed Up,” the self-titled blue album sold more than three million copies. But they refused to follow the same formula for their next album. As lead singer Nick Hexum told Kennedy (Kennedy!), “The rent’s paid for a while so we can try and stretch out artistically.” The result was Transistor, the group’s most adventurous work: a Frankenstein of pop, thrash metal, dubstyle, chopped-and-screwed, and—on “Use of Time”—even acoustic guitar.
6. Transistor Intro (1997)
One of the ways CDs will always be better than streaming are hidden tracks. The ’90s were full of them: Nirvana’s “Endless, Nameless,” Cracker’s “Eurotrash Girl,” Beck’s “Diamond Bollocks,” Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit.” But those all came at the end of albums, hidden after the last listed track. Transistor one-upped the idea. The only way you could listen to the album intro was to pause your CD player on the first song and skip backwards.
7. Who’s Got the Herb? (1995)
Another thing the ’90s had a ton of? Compilation albums. They make up about a quarter of the CDs in my old Case Logic book that I just can’t bear to throw away even though I’ve already imported all the albums onto my iTunes. This slinky H.R. cover is from the (really good!) album Hempilation, which supported the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws. See? 311 = VISION.
8. Gap (1996)
A bonus track off the EP that came with their first band film (released on VHS). It’s only two-minutes and the corny refrain is “Eat smoked fish, that is my favorite dish.” But the synthpop instrumentation and sheer danceability make it a must for any pre-party playlist.
9. Amber (2001)
Also corny. Also irresistible. That video, though…Their music is one thing, but I cannot in good conscience defend 311’s videos. The Shaq one. The one with Finch from American Pie where he lives in an alternate reality where everyone wears orange prison jumpsuits. The walking-around-New York City-in-slow motion-one, which admittedly every band is contractually obligated to do. The one that’s just a dude skating a halfpipe and a hula dancer and a guy in a bunny suit, which could have been cool if Harmony Korine did it. (He didn’t.) But at least they were trying. This one for “Amber”: it’s like they finally just said, “Fuck it, let’s just rent an Airbnb in Santa Monica and invite some girls over. Ride bikes on the beach, play a little ping-pong. Oh, and make sure there’s a hammock. There has to be a hammock. The dogs? Yeah, why not? We can throw some frisbee.”
10. Homebrew (1994)
Of course, all along the explanation for my anxiety over 311 could be found in their lyrics. True, in this song they’re talking about dropping acid. But the same thing applies to getting older in general. “I was nineteen, I’d do anything/Shit like that now scares me but I’d like to do it again.”