Since the earliest beginnings of rock-n-roll, American music has been an avenue and conduit for artists to get their personal, spiritual and political views heard by the masses. By the 1960’s this was such a prevalent them in music pop culture that the term “protest music” had been coined. As record sales, royalties and commercial greed began to dominate and shape the mainstream music in the 1980’s and 1990’s it seemed as if the honored practice of utilizing one’s music to get important social messages heard had fell, if not completely fallen. For one such this was never the case. For one such band their political messages and activisms was the fuel that burned their influential, if all too brief, career bright. That such band was Rage Against the Machine.
In 1991, guitarist Tom Morello (guitar) left his band, Lock Up, looking to start another band. During a visit to a local Los Angeles club he heard a MC/vocalist by the name of Zack de la Rocha freestyle rapper. Being impressed, Morello asked de la Rocha to join the group that he was forming. Morello then recruited drummer Brad Wilk. Morello knew of Wilk because he a previously auditioned to drum for Lock Up. When de la Rocha convinced childhood friend Tim Commerford to play bass for the band, Rage Against the Machine was officially born.
After cutting a twelve song demo tape Rage Against the Machine was coveted by several major record labels. The band decided to sign with Epic Records, of which Morello said, “Epic agreed to everything we asked, and they’ve followed through…. We never saw a[n] [ideological] conflict as long as we maintained creative control.”
Rage Against the Machine released their self-titled debut album on November 3, 1992. It peaked at number 45 on the Billboard 200 chart. Driven by the now classic hit lead single “Killing in the Name” Rage Against the Machine would go on to achieve triple Platinum certification by the RIAA. It is often cited as one of the most important albums of all time. The leftist political views evoked by de la Rocha’s lyrics were a powerful catalyst not only for garnering the band a quickly built, big and loyal fan-base, but they also spread much needed political and social awareness within 1990’s youth culture. The instrumental diversity paired with de la Rocha’s emotionally charged lyrics drew listeners and keep them in a place the band wanted the listeners to be. The album melded aspects of metal and hip-hop, but in no way, shape or form was RATM’s music to be ever confused with your parent’s metal and/or hip-hop. The thunderous drive provided by the rhythm section of Wilk and Commerford was a great foundation for de la Rocha’s versatile and powerful vocal deliveries and for Morello’s heavy, and often experimental, guitar playing.
The debut album was also an audiophile’s wet dream, being held to the highest production standards. Many audiophile web sites and magazines even used Rage Against the Machine, particularly “Take the Power Back” to test amplifiers and speakers for music equipment reviews. Even with all of these aspects of the great recording, probably the most recognizable and lasting part of the release was the album cover’s use of Malcolm Browne’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, burning himself to death in Saigon in 1963 in protest of the murder of Buddhists by the US-backed Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime. The album featured guest performances by Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins on trashcan percussion and Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan on vocals. Not many know that Morello was good friends with Tool guitarist Adam Jones and had a part in introducing Jones to Keenan.
After years of breakup rumors, Rage Against the Machine’s sophomore album Evil Empire debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart in 1996, going on to reach triple Platinum status. The song “Bulls on Parade” was performed on Saturday Night Live in April 1996. Their planned two-song performance was cut to one song when the band attempted to hang inverted US flags from their amplifiers (“a sign of distress or great danger”), a protest against having Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes as guest host on the program that night. This act was positively received for the band’s young audience who wished for a social and political shift in the nation. The band would go on to continue their political activism, notably when the donated their entire profits of U2’s PopMart Tour to support social organizations.
In 1999 Rage Against the Machine played the now infamous festival Woodstock ’99. the festival was affected by heat above hundred degrees; many concert goers where suffering from thirst and dehydration due to this. It was also marked by violence and sexual assaults, notably during fellow alternative metal/rap metal band Limp Bizkit’s set. Said Morello of the festival: “Hey man, leave the kids alone. I’ve had enough of the frenzied demonization of young people surrounding Woodstock ‘99…Yes, Woodstock was filled with predators: the degenerate idiots who assaulted those women, the greedy promoters who wrung every cent out of thirsty concertgoers, and last but not least, the predator media that turned a blind eye to real violence and scapegoated the quarter of a million music fans at Woodstock ‘99, the vast majority of whom had the time of their lives.”
Later that year, RATM released Battle of Los Angeles. Their third album, it debuted at number one and went on to reach double Platinum status. The album was heavily inspired by the George Orwell novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, with several tracks containing direct quotes from the book. The album was named for the Battle of Los Angeles which took place on February 25, 1942. Battle of Los Angeles contained the singles “Testify”, “Guerilla Radio” and “Sleep Now in the Fire”. RATM saw an increased exposure to mainstream entertainment across multiple mediums, including being on the soundtracks for two films from the Matrix movie franchise and soundtracks for video games Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 and Madden NFL 10.
On October 18, 2000, de la Rocha released a statement announcing his departure from the band. He said, “I feel that it is now necessary to leave Rage because our decision-making process has completely failed. It is no longer meeting the aspirations of all four of us collectively as a band, and from my perspective, has undermined our artistic and political ideal.” The band’s final studio album, Renegades, released shortly after the band’s dissolution, was a collection of covers of artists as diverse as Cypress Hill, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. The cover art is a parody of the pop art work, LOVE by Robert Indiana.
Upon their de la Rocha’s departure the remaining three members of RATM formed the ‘supergroup’ Audioslave with former Soundgarden singer/songwriter Chris Cornell. De la Rocha went on to pursue other projects as well, most notably with Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor, but none saw the completion or notoriety achieved by Audioslave. Members of RATM had been offered large sums of money to reunite for concerts and tours, and had turned the offers down. Rumors of bad blood between de la Rocha and the other former band members subsequently circulated, but Commerford said that he and de la Rocha saw each other often and went surfing together, while Morello said he and de la Rocha communicated by phone, and had met up at a September 15, 2005 protest in support of the South Central Farm.
If you look on the internet for examples of the band’s political views and activisms you will find many, including the famous (or infamous, depending on one’s point of view) SNL incident. One of the most interesting quotes came from Morello in an interview from Guitar World when he commented on American wage slavery: “America touts itself as the land of the free, but the number one freedom that you and I have is the freedom to enter into a subservient role in the workplace. Once you exercise this freedom you’ve lost all control over what you do, what is produced, and how it is produced. And in the end, the product doesn’t belong to you. The only way you can avoid bosses and jobs is if you don’t care about making a living. Which leads to the second freedom: the freedom to starve.”
One thing that seems to be lost at times in the midst of RATM’s political stance is their music. During the peak of alternaitve metal and rap metal RATM were certified heavy weights of the genre, winning Grammy’s, selling millions of records and crafting a original and unique sound that has since seen many attempts of duplication. But the fact of the matter is there has been, and ever will be, only one Rage Against the Machine!