Rage Against the Machine

Rock/rap band

Greek philosopher Plato once wrote, "The introduction of a new kind of music must be shunned as imperiling the whole state, since styles of music are never disturbed without affecting the most important political institutions." It is this idea that fueled the inspiration behind Rage Against the Machine. Combining the aggressiveness of metal with the vocal styling of rap, the band decided to use this hybrid to broadcast their societal message to anyone who would listen. Their self-titled debut album sold more than four million copies worldwide, and the musical message reached ears all over the world. "We're trying to do something most bands don't do," guitarist Tom Morello told Katherine Turman in Spin, "which is combine music and activism. The lofty goal would be bringing down an oppressive, racist, capitalistic system that feeds on the exploited and repressed."

Singer Zack de la Rocha met bassist Timmy C. (a.k.a. Tim Bob) in the sixth grade. De la Rocha and Timmy C. grew up in Orange County, California, an area known for its suburban conservatism. As a child, de la Rocha's parents put him in the middle of a heavy custody battle. He moved back and forth between his mother's home in Irvine, California, and his father's in East Los Angeles. His mother worked as a teacher's aide at the University of California at Irvine, while his father was a first-generation Mexican muralist.

De la Rocha compared his own career to his father's in an interview with Timothy White in Billboard. "Back in 1974, my father's paints were part of the first Chicano art exhibit ever organized at the L.A. County Museum of Art ['Los Four: Almarez, de la Rocha, Lugan, Romero']. That accomplishment was really something to be proud of. I want to make music that gives people that same sense of identity, and lets them see that human rights, civil rights, and spiritual rights are part of the same struggle we all face: to take the power back."

Birth of a Revolution

De la Rocha and Timmy C. met guitarist Tom Morello and drummer Brad Wilk in the early 1990s. Morello's father served as a member of the Mau Mau guerrilla organization that freed Kenya from colonial rule in the 1960s. His mother, Mary Morello, was a schoolteacher and later founded the anti-censorship organization Parents for Rock & Rap. Before moving to Los Angeles, Morello, originally from Libertyville, Illinois, graduated from Harvard University in 1986 with a degree in Social Services. He played in a punk band called Lock-Up, then co-founded Rage Against the Machine in 1991.

The group recorded and released a self-produced, 12-song cassette in 1992, which included the song "Bullet in the Head," which later became a single from the band's debut album. The members sold the tape through their fan club and at live shows in the area, and ended up selling more then 5,000 copies. Rage Against the Machine had received its first contract offer from a major label after its second club performance. However, the group wanted to make sure they had the freedom to express their message and took their time before inking a deal with Epic Records.

Before Rage Against the Machine ever hit the stores, the band had played with Porno for Pyros on that band's debut performance, a European tour with Suicidal Tendencies, and performances on the second stage of the Lollapallooza II tour. On November 6, 1992, Epic released the record, which included the singles "Killing in the Name," "Freedom," and "Take the Power Back."

Reinforced Message with Activism

Timothy White wrote of Rage Against the Machine in Billboard, "On the strength of the Epic album, they must be viewed as one of the most original and virtuosic new rock bands in the nation, capable of a latticed wall of stridor so deftly woven that it's destined to be the standard for any audacious headbangers who dare follow." Despite the band's obvious rap and hip hop influences, they stayed true to their name and shunned electronic keyboards, samples, and drum machines. "You'd assume there was a DJ in the band if you didn't know better," Morello told Chuck Crusafulli in Guitar Player, "but all the sounds we make are guitar, bass, drums, and vocals."

Rage Against the Machine's first video for "Killing in the Name" did not receive any airplay in the U.S. because of the language in the song's refrain. However, it did receive substantial airplay in Europe and boosted the group's popularity and sales overseas far above its home country.

Right out of the gate, Rage Against the Machine stood behind its activist message by participating and producing many benefits for political organizations. On January 23,1993, the band headlined a Rock for Choice show in support of pro-choice abortion organizations. On July 18,1993, Rage Against the Machine created a silent protest onstage at Lollapallooza III in Philadelphia. Each member of the band stood naked without singing or playing a note for 25 minutes in a statement against censorship. With duct tape sealing their mouths, they each wore a letter spelling "P-M-R-C," for the Parents Music Resource Center. They also headlined a sold-out Anti-Nazi League benefit at Brixton Academy in London, England, to raise money and promote an anti-Nazi march that took place the next month.

Nearly a year after the album's release, Rage Against the Machine reached No. 70 on Billboards Top 200 albums chart without much radio or video exposure. On December 19, 1993, Rage Against the Machine released its first MTV-aired video, "Freedom." Directed by Peter Christopherson, the video mixed live footage of the band with scenes from Robert Redford's 1992 documentary Incident at Oglala and text from Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. The video argued for the innocence of American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier.

Sophomore Release Even More Political

In 1994, Rage Against the Machine released the song "Year of tha Boomerang " on the soundtrack for the John Singleton film Higher Learning. The following year, the group organized and headlined a benefit concert at the Capitol Ballroom in Washington, D.C. The show raised more than $8,000 for the International Concerned Friends and Family of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an activist sentenced to death. In 1996, Rage Against the Machine released their second effort, Evil Empire on Epic Records. Evelyn McDonnell wrote in Rolling Stone, "Rage's second album, Evil Empire, may be the most politically radical album ever to hit No. 1 on the pop charts." This album again focused on political and social commentary.

"We're able to make music that can reach a lot of people and contains a really potent message," Morello told James Rotondi in Guitar Player. "It's not merely about thinking for yourself, or supporting the occasional feelgood cause. It's about revolutionary values.... But there is a depth and importance to our message which completely transcends the artist side of it."

Selected discography

Rage Against the Machine, Epic, 1992.

Evil Empire, Epic, 1996.

Sources

Anti-Matter, April 1993.

Billboard, December 26, 1992; July 3, 1993; July 10, 1993; February 5, 1994; March 23, 1996.

Desert Sun, June 6, 1996.

Entertainment Weekly, July 16, 1993; January 13, 1995; April 19, 1996.

Guitar Player, July 1993; June 1994; June 1996.

Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1993.

New York Times, November 8, 1993.

People, May 20, 1996.

Playboy, February 1993.

Rolling Stone, March 10, 1994; June 16, 1994; April 18, 1996; October 3, 1996.

Spin, November 1993; February 1994.

Stereo Review, August 1996.

Time, September 23, 1996.

Additional Information for this profile was obtained from Epic Records press material, 1996.

Sonya Shelton

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