If we look back in time, and search through the pages of modern music history, we will find a significant number of bands that took on the task of speaking out. Whether it was a voice against war, a critique of the establishment, a call to change society, or a political manifesto, music had always found a mouthpiece among the ranks of rock artists. Just remember the anti-Vietnam war movement during the Hippie era, or the Clash in the U.K. Somehow rock music assumed it’s natural role of rebellion and non-conformity, and there were certain artists that were very good at articulating what’s “wrong with the world”.
Hip-hop had its own beacons, too. Public Enemy is just one of the (and the most prominent one) bands that had a strong political and social message, and often a concrete call to action.
But, in 1991, Los Angeles saw the birth of something really exceptional. Two young men would meet and set the foundation of Rage Against the Machine. The first one was Zach de la Rocha, of Mexican, and Jewish descent, with a strong political and social conscience. The other one was the son of a teacher and a Kenyan revolutionary. His name was Tom Morello. They shared a love for music as well. Both of them were influenced by rock, punk, hardcore, funk, and rap. The rhythm section of this amazing band was a hard-hitting, groovy duo: Tim Commeford on bass, and Brad Wilk on drums.
Rage Against the Machine would make such an impact on the world that their very first album is considered music history. The band would achieve such legendary status, and they still keep to be discovered by new fans, years after they broke up. Their body of work still speaks to new generations. The heavy-rock riffs still make us clench our fists, the groove still moves the body, and Zach’s lyrics are true, and on point just like 30 years ago.
Like many others, I also enjoy watching reaction videos of people listening to my favorite bands for the first time. I think it’s just a beautiful trip back down memory lane, a short bridge to long-gone youth. What I find interesting when it comes to people hearing RATM for the first time is the shock when they realize that the world has not changed one bit in 30 years, and (my favorite) that there was actually someone with the balls to call things by their name, and call out the responsible.
RATM’s music is as relevant today as it was when it was released for the first time simply because poverty, racism, inequality, injustice still plague the world. The rich are still getting richer by exploiting the poor, and Rage has always said it as it is. No sugarcoating, no metaphors, no bullshit. Just hard-hitting lyrics embedded in funky grooves and powerful heavy riffs.
The First Time
It was the summer of 1993 when I heard Rage Against the Machine for the first time. I am not a “conspiracy theory” kind of person, but I always wondered why it took so long for their self-titled album to reach Europe since it was released in November of 1992. I was living in Trieste, Italy at the time, and that June I came to my hometown, Belgrade for the summer vacation. I had read about RATM in magazines I used to collect at the time, but I had never heard a song and wasn’t aware of the hype created around the band in other parts of the world, especially the U.S.
Trieste is a small town, and in the early 90s, it had little to no underground or alternative music venues. The techno scene was booming in discotheques and there were a couple of bars that played Guns n Roses or Cult songs, and that was about it. So, in June of 1992, I was still a virgin when it came to Zach and company.
It was a hot summer night and I was at the club with my friends. This particular club has a summer scene venue that is outside in the open. But, other than not having a roof, everything else is just like a normal club would be. There’s an elevated Dj booth, a stage for live shows, and stage diving (in those days it was the shit, and people would actually catch you), and a huge bar. The first riffs of “Killing in the Name” came through the immense speakers and people lost their minds. Although I had never heard it before, I could tell by the energy in the club that this was something everyone was going crazy over. After the first power riffs and the bass line, as soon as the intro lick hit, I saw my friends going towards the center of the club, getting closer to the pit. By the time the first chorus hit, everyone was going bananas. The mosh pit was uncontrollable, and people were stage diving every 2 seconds, and I was up there having the time of my life.
The Dj would go on and play “Killing in the Name” 4 more times during the night, and I was hooked for life. I bought the tape the very next day, and today, almost 30 years later, I am a proud collector and owner of the complete discography on tape, cd, and vinyl, not to mention a dozen cassette tapes with bootleg live shows.
So, what is it about Rage Against the Machine that makes them stand out so much? Why are they so loved by fans, and respected by peers? What is the magic ingredient that still ignites emotion and awe in every new listener to this day?
The first self-titled album Rage Against The Machine, published by Epic in 1992 was a bolt from the blue in the rock scene of the time, combining tributes to Jimmy Page – among others, “Wake Up” is an evident re-editing of Kashmir – the controversial rap by Public Enemy and the crossover whose greatest exponents were certainly Fishbone, Living Color and, at an already more popular level, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More from San Francisco. It is a sensational album, which contains some of the greatest anthems of Rage Against The Machine, such as “Bullet In The Head” (the first song ever recorded by the band), “Know Your Enemy” (title later stolen by Minor Prophets) and above all “Killing In The Name”, probably the song that best symbolizes the group, with simple and implicitly revolutionary lyrics in the true sense of the term. And, let us not forget “Bombtrack”, “Fistful of Steel”, “Township Rebellion”…
All in all one of the best albums of the nineties, and music history altogether. And, that was no easy feat. Remember that those were the years when Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, Metallica’s “Black Album”, Pantera’s “Vulgar Display of Power”, “Dirt” by Alice in Chains, and many other albums that are considered rock/metal classics came out. Rage Against the Machine managed to establish themselves as force to be reckoned with seamlessly, and with ease, even with such tough competition.
The first thing that struck me was the album cover. As soon you as you see the image of the Vietnamese monk Thích Quảng Đức engulfed in flame, you know that that album was not made with money and billboard charts in mind. You know that there’s no messing around, and that you’re holding a message in your hands. This were the early nineties, and most of us wouldn’t have internet for years to come, so we needed to read magazines, watch MTV, or listen to the radio and wait that someone would explain who the burning man is, and why is he on the cover of an album.
The second shock I got was from listening to the album for the first time. Bombtrack is the first track, and it catches you by surprise. There’s funk in it, killer guitar riffs, some strange effects going on, and this furious voice rapping and yelling at you. And you know that he meant every single word he said. So you focus, and listen more closely, trying not to miss a single syllable. You still don’t know what to make out of this strange crossover, but you feel you’re already hooked on a deeper level.
The album goes on with the iconic “Killing in the Name”, and things are starting to make sense. You realize that the lyrics are shocking, the message is serious as cancer, and you’re overwhelmed by mixed emotions, and the contagious groove. By the time the strange solo is finished, and the breakdown begins with Zack almost whispering “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”, slowly raising his voice, only to yell out his non-conformity at the end, you have an expression of defiance on your face, and your rebellion is awakened. What you thought was a strange repetitive chant, has now taken the form of a call to battle, and you finally understand. These guys see through the bullshit, and they don’t like what they see. They’re here to tell everyone loud and clear that they should not play to the establishment’s tunes, and that action is required. You understand that “Rage” is the personification, the embodiment of youth’s rebellion. They are exactly what the world needs, and what it was looking for. You know that it’s ok to question authority, to call it out for the bullshit. And you know that this kind of furious and harsh expression is necessary if we want to have the slightest chance to change things for the better.
The album goes on, one mind-blowing tune after the other, and by the time you’re done listening to this masterpiece, you feel part of a revolution. You know you have witnessed something extraordinary that has the power to awaken minds.
After I listened to the album for the first time, I laid down in my bed and reflected on it staring at the ceiling. I needed time to process, and I doubt I’m the only one. It was only later when I listened to it several more times that I could focus more on the quality of the sound, the arrangements, and production. It’s enough to say that, even today, it sounds just perfect. There’s no need for remastering or polishing anything, in my opinion. RATM’s first album is truly a masterpiece, and the perfect union of rock, metal, punk, and hip-hop. Something that no other band has been able to do in such a masterful way before, or ever since.
I’m a metalhead deep in my soul, but Rage Against the Machine is in my top 5 favorite bands ever since I played their debut album on my cassette player. It was 1993, I was 16, and they had recruited a lifelong fan immediately.
In 1996 they released their second album “Evil Empire”. I was very excited to hear what they had prepared for the world this time, and I wasn’t disappointed. Although, for me personally, they never topped their self-titled debut, “Evil Empire” clearly showed that the edge was still sharp, the message was the same, and as important as ever, and the music was unique and simply great.
I enjoyed the record from beginning to end, but “Bulls on Parade”, and “People of the Sun” were mind-blowing, and no wonder they’re considered classics to this day. “Down Rodeo” was another song that shocked me. It was a clear wake-up call to a world that was immersed in the mid-nineties’ naive, “we can all get along” picture that most of the mainstream media were trying to portrait. The same wounds were still there. Police brutality, institutional racism, corporate greed, corruption, and poverty were still the most important issues for the majority of the population of the planet, and RATM was once again telling us to get our heads out of the sand and take action.
Once again, we learned about the struggles of the oppressed, and TV shows like “Beverly Hills, 90210” were as far from reality as you can possibly get. Rage was telling the establishment to go fuck themselves all over again, with the same fury and determination.
The Battle of Los Angeles
In 1997 RATM released their live album “Live & Rare” which was an exclusive Japan release to support their Japanese tour, and most of the songs are live versions.
1999 saw the release of their 3rd studio album “The Battle of Los Angeles”. The album went straight to be number 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart list, and Time magazine called it the best album of the year. Many songs were directly influenced by George Orwell’s 1984, and tracks like “Testify”, “Sleep Now in the Fire”, and “Voice of the Voiceless” contains quotes or references from the book. The single “Calm Like a Bomb” is on the Matrix Reloaded soundtrack, while the videos for “Sleep Now in the Fire”, and “Testify” were directed by Michael Moore.
The Battle of Los Angeles is a great album. There are songs like Guerilla Radio, and No Shelter which are considered Rage classics (and among my favorites). What I noticed is that Zach’s writing and delivery had evolved. He got better with years, just like good wine. The bars are more complex, and there’s a lot more metaphors, but the raw rage is always there. Also, on the musical side, a more polished, less punk sound dominates this album, as well as great production.
The evolution in the sound and content is normal. After all, the people in the band develop, and grow in time, just like the rest of us. For me, personally, what is really important, is the fact that you can still hear the same messages, and you know they believe in what they do. The rebellious revolutionary raw defiance never left, and the sound is still aggressive and hard. Rage Against the Machine is part of a small, but elite group of artists that never compromised when it comes to what they think is important. From day one the goals were set clearly, and they never deviated from their path.
The Covers Album
In 2000 Rage Against the Machine surprised their fans by releasing “Renegades”, an album without any of their own songs, but rather a collection of 12 covers. But even so, using someone else’s art, they managed to convey their message, and what they have been all about since the beginning. Whether through Africa Bambaata’s “Renegades of Funk”, or the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” they successfully summarized their conceptual content.
Renegades is their last album to date. In 2000 Zach de la Rocha left the band for reasons of artistic difference. He went on to collaborate with many artists on various projects, while the rest of the band formed Audioslave with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell as the vocalist and released 3 albums.
From 2000 until Today
Although the band no longer existed, their songs “Wake up”, and “Calm Like a Bomb” ended up on the soundtrack albums for the blockbuster movies “Matrix”, and the sequel “Matrix Reloaded”.
In 2003 Rage Against the Machine released their first concert album “Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium”.
In January 2007 RATM reunited to play the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California. Then they went on tour with the Wu-Tang Clan and played a number of summer festivals throughout Europe in 2008.
In December 2009 a Grassroots initiative was launched via Facebook to displace “the X Factor” winner from the 1st place of UK Singles Charts. Rage Against the Machine’s iconic single “Killing in the Name” rose to the top of the Christmas charts. The entire income of the band through the resulting single sales was donated to Shelter, a British homeless organization.
In 2016, the band announced that they will be going forward without Zack de la Rocha. The remaining members hooked up with Public Enemy’s Chuck-D, and B-Real of Cypress Hill under the name Prophets of Rage. The band released the single “Prophets of Rage” later that year. Brad Wilks and Tim Commerford never dismissed the possibility of reuniting with Zack in several interviews.
In November 2019 Rage Against the Machine announced a reunion of the original lineup, and planned live appearances both in the US and Europe in March, and later during 2020, but the tour was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
On January 15th 2021, the band released a 15 minutes documentary titled Killing in the Name in which a teacher tells a group of young white people about the white supremacy ideology.
New performances by Rage Against the Machine are planned for June 2021. I really hope that Zack and company would reunite not just to play concerts (although I will be there), but also creatively. It would be a real shame and a loss for future generations, and for us who have been fans since the beginning to never hear new material from such a powerful force which RATM has always been. I really hope that I will live to go into a record store and see their new album on the shelves. One thing that I’m sure of is that the world needs them.