Ohhh, my god, I looove Rage. They make me so aggro!" says the quite buzzed, petite Cameron Diaz look-alike who has somehow latched onto me moments before the start of this not-much-of-a-surprise surprise Rage Against the Machine show at LA’s El Rey Theatre. "I’ve been into them ever since the Fuck You I Won’t Do What You Tell Me album," she continues, the pungent aroma of rum rolling off her every exhale. I don’t correct her error—Rage’s first album was self-titled—because she’s just too much fun to watch.
"How did you get your tickets?" I ask. "This thing sold out in two minutes."
"Weeell, me and my brother paid a scalper, like, $175 each for our tickets, but it’ll be, like, sooo worth it. It’s for the revolution! They rock!" she exclaims, jabbing the air with a clenched fist.
"Um, wouldn’t it have been better for the revolution to have given all that money to something like the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee or any of the other causes that Rage champion?" I ask.
" . . . "
" . . . "
"I looove Rage," she coos on obliviously. "They are, like, just so friggin’ awesome. And Zack is so cute!"
The lights go down, and "Cameron" slips off somewhere—just a victim of the in-house drive-by. An unusual person to run into at a Rage gig, sure, but when you move 430,000 copies of your new album in its first week of release—as Rage just did with The Battle of Los Angeles—you’re bound to attract a few oddballs. Just as strange is the room they’re playing. The El Rey, a tiny movie house in a previous life, was converted to a concert hall several years ago, but its walls seem way too fragile to hold the sonic wallop that Rage regularly delivers. What’s more, three opulent, glittery chandeliers dangle above the socked-in crowd, a slice of extravagance that seems unfitting for a group of proletariat-praising socialists. But the T-shirts draped over the chests of 1,200 pumped-up Rage fans really tell you what time it is: Free Leonard Peltier; Students for a Free Tibet; Aztlan Underground; Che Guevara (a bunch); EZLN; a quote from Emiliano Zapata—"Tierra, Justicia y Ley!"; Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The band members take up their arms—guitars, bass, drums and mics—and prep for battle. There’s the ever-scowling Brad Wilk on skins; Tom Morello, in his standard Army shirt and buzzword ball cap ("GUERRILLA" this night), ready to make his axes—on which are scribbled "ARM THE HOMELESS" and "THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS"—sound like anything but; and the two grads of Irvine’s University High School: immaculately sleeved bassist Tim Commerford and frenzied, dreadlocked front man Zack de la Rocha. De la Rocha does some quick warm-up stretches, and then the band crunches into the new album’s lead track, "Testify," an angry rant on media complacency and the aftermath of the Gulf War that doesn’t sound dated in the least (seen any news reports on the effects of UN sanctions on the Iraqi people lately?), with de la Rocha bathed throughout in a blood-red spotlight. "Guerrilla Radio" drops next, which turns into what you expect out of a Rage performance—total Aggro City, with a wild-eyed de la Rocha leaping around the stage, throwing down rhymes like prime Chuck D, waving his finger like a wigged-out Jimmy Swaggart, screaming, "All! . . . hell! . . . can’t stop us now!" as the band churns out teeth-grinding, post-metal riffs. The pits, of course, are going off, while the songs slip freely from one into another: "People of the Sun," de la Rocha’s paean to the 1994 New Year’s Day Indian uprising in Chiapas, Mexico (as is the new "War Within a Breath," which they do later, a tune in which they effectively swipe from U2: "Everything can change on a new year’s day/As everything changed on New Year’s Day"); "Sleep Now in the Fire," which has one of Morello’s most slamming riffs ever; "The Ghost of Tom Joad," a Bruce Springsteen song; and "No Shelter" (which, with de la Rocha’s casual utterance of Godzilla, the lame-ass movie it was penned for, seemed like a case of subtle product placement when it was all over the airwaves during the summer of 1998. But in a crafty bit of bite-the-hand-that-pays-me subversion, it was easy to miss the rest of the line: "Godzilla/ Pure motherfucking filler/Get your eyes on the real killer"). The set ends, there’s an unusually long break, and the band bounds back out for "Killing in the Name"—a.k.a. the "Fuck you! I won’t do what you tell me!" song (sudden fear: in 50 years, it’ll be used to sell Toyotas). Rage slash through it like a hot sickle through a Soviet wheat field, and they exit again.
The crowd will have none of a mere 70-minute set, so they start up a "Rage! Rage! Rage!" chant. No luck. The lights go up, and some wretched ’80s synth starts oozing through the sound system, seemingly designed to drive us out of the El Rey as quickly as possible.
Angry, urgent music for angry, urgent times. But unlike lesser rap-rock bands who have come up in the years since Rage’s 1992 debut (the one with the 1963 photo of a monk burning himself to death to protest an anti-Buddhist movement in Vietnam—an art direction decision that was alone a signal that here was a band worth keeping an eye on), Rage actually have something meaningful to say. Kid Rock? "Put my balls in your mouth!" is about as deep as he gets. Korn’s Jon Davis apparently still can’t get over his bad childhood, so long as he can make money selling it back to you (Korn "aren’t really screaming about anything. It’s just this fabrication," says de la Rocha in the latest issue of George). Limp Bizkit are just stupid, one of the most ego-driven, self-centered piles of aural poop ever (turn to page 50, where we psychoanalyze vocalist Fred Durst). At this year’s KROQ Weenie Roast, Durst nearly incited a riot when he called out for everyone in the crowd to come down to the stage. "Fuck security!" he screamed into his mic. (I watched a woman in a wheelchair get knocked over by some doofus, which, conveniently, reminded me of a Rage lyric: "They say, jump; you say, how high?") Meanwhile, Wes Borland, Bizkit’s guitarist, came out wearing blackface; obviously, history wasn’t the boy’s best subject.
While the anger that these three project seems neatly packaged for their largely pent-up teenage-boy audience in order to move as much "product" as possible—and hey, it works! Cha-ching! —Rage’s anger has always been rooted in real causes. De la Rocha was warming his hands over a burning American flag in the first song on the band’s first album. And while Rage’s music is almost always good (except when it’s great), what’s maybe most intriguing is this: at a time when real Leftist ideals—"radical" stuff like justice, affordable housing, feeding the hungry, human rights, a living wage—have all but disappeared from mainstream debate, Rage is the only band talking about them, certainly the only one with such a huge forum.
It’s scandalous but true: the only mainstream media outlet from which you’ll regularly hear about the plight of people like Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier, movements such as the Zapatistas, and causes like exploited garment workers is this one, an LA rap-rock band.
Such is the subversive point of "Guerrilla Radio," the first single from The Battle of Los Angeles: you hear a Rage tune around the dial, and you can be sure that the opinions expressed therein are solely those of the artists (who’s Rage endorsing in the 2000 election? "More for Gore or the son of a drug lord/None of the above fuck it cut the cord"—turn that shit up!). While the Democrats have found life cushier in the center, that pretty much leaves Rage as the most popular Leftist-progressive radicals in America. And while their passion can sometimes overtake common sense ("So long as the rope is tight around Mumia’s neck/Let there be no rich white life we bound to respect," de la Rocha sings on "Voice of the Voiceless"—ummm, would that include Commerford, the band’s Anglo bass player?), they’re impossible to ignore, a vital info source in much the way that Chuck D labeled his Public Enemy the black man’s CNN. While Korn want to sell you Adidas and Puma, Rage would rather drop knowledge about garment workers chained to their sewing machines in Third World countries—which is what they do in the "Guerrilla Radio" video.
Rage is big enough now that the straight media actually want to hear what’s on their mind—when it suits their interests, natch. There they were two weeks ago on MTV, with de la Rocha talking up the Mexican students’ strike and the government that’s trying to take away the students’ 60-year-old right to a free education. Then a Backstreet Boys video came on, and you were now returned to your normal programming.
Still, the strike hasn’t likely passed through Tom Brokaw’s glossy lips. But it ain’t like he’d go into depth, anyway —Rage says more in a phrase like "Ain’t it funny how the factory doors close/ Round the time that the school doors close/Round the time that the doors of the jail cells/Open up to greet you like the reaper" than a TV anchorman could say in an entire half-hour.
The Battle of Los Angeles. A rather provocative title, and, says Rage guitar god Morello, "We wouldn’t have it any other way."
"It’s intentionally ambiguous," he continues, "but part of it speaks to the fact that there’s an ongoing battle of LA boiling just underneath the surface. There’s a tremendous amount of tension in the city, as evidenced in the wake of the Rodney King verdicts, and it’s still bubbling close to the surface. We’re just one court verdict away from the whole place blowing up all over again. And it’s something you notice here every day on the streets. On the Sunset Strip, for example, there are Bentleys and Rolls Royces driving by, and there are people at the same time who are so hungry that they’re almost ready to attack you for spare change. And also in our music, you can hear the tension of the city:the aggression, the smog, the hip-hop, the desperation and the hope that’s all part of LA."
Aggression, rage, tension and flat-out venting fuel Rage’s live shows, too, both onstage and in the pit. De la Rocha perpetually looks like he’s gonna kick your ass. And the pits are some of the intensest you’ll find at a rock show these days. But since Rage is so much about messages, you have to wonder if the moshing hordes are picking up any of it. When you’re flailing away, survival is probably more on your mind than Chiapas is.
"A tremendous number of people have picked up on the politics of it," Morello insists. "We hear from them every day. The glut of mail and e-mail we receive is astounding. But I think our audience in general is a very intelligent one. There are always gonna be people who are just coming for the aggression in the music, and that’s perfectly fine—we don’t play this elitist music that’s for New England coffeehouses. It’s not this kind of political folk music for the converted. But some of the people who come for the rock will leave with something very different than what they came with. When you sell 9 million records, you can’t expect there to be 9 million ideological adherents. And that’s okay—if you get 10 percent of them, that’s still 900,000."
Rage isn’t some Stalinist dictatorship, Morello makes clear, in which you have to believe everything the band trumpets or otherwise get shunned. People get out of Rage what they want to get, he says. "In the same way, I can talk about my own experience. I was very much a fan of escapist heavy metal. I loved Kiss, Sabbath and Aerosmith—stuff like that. Then I discovered the Clash, and I loved the rock of that, too, but their music also had something else in it that resonated with me in a way that made me feel like part of something bigger, like this community that went beyond my small Midwestern town [Morello was raised in Libertyville, Illinois], so it also helped to give me more resolve in the things that I believe in."
The band members back up their words with action, regularly performing benefit shows for causes that can use some hard cash. That’s gotten them in trouble, though the kind that’s to be expected when you hold less-than-popular opinions. In January, Rage organized a benefit for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and former Black Panther on death row for murdering a Philadelphia police officer. Many questions have been raised about Abu-Jamal’s conviction and how it was obtained; Amnesty International, among several other groups, has called for a retrial. Cops, though, are convinced the original verdict is the right one. So Rage became the target of a boycott by several police groups—which, of course, brought lots of free media attention for Mumia’s case. Despite various threats, the show went on, and Rage raised $80,000.
"We raised awareness about the case, and we also made a lot of enemies," Morello says. "But for a band like Rage Against the Machine, if we’re doing our job right, that’s gonna happen. When no one’s paying attention, then we’ll know we haven’t been active enough. But the bottom line is if you want to have justice in the United States, then you’ve gotta have cash; it’s really that simple. There are zero rich people on death row in the U.S.—zero. And that was one of the main problems in Mumia’s first trial. There was no money to do any of the forensic tests that would have exonerated him at the time."
Tickets for their upcoming tour are a little more expensive than they’ve been in the past, Morello says, because they plan to use the extra money for activist causes and charities in each of the cities they play in, continuing their get-something/give-something-back belief. Rage made $400,000 opening shows for U2 on their 1997 PopMart tour, but Morello says they kept none of it and gave it all away to organizations that needed it more than they did. "We want to raise a lot of money. That’s one thing that rock can do, and it’s so easy," he says. "People pay money to see it, and you can use that money to enrich yourself, or you can use it to benefit other people and other causes."
The record-company publicist cuts in on our chat—when you’re in a band that’s as big as Rage, your time is spread pretty thin. One more quick question: "Is Zack a fun guy to hang out with? He never looks too happy. Onstage, he always acts like he’s just gonna go off."
Morello laughs. "That’s probably one of the big misconceptions about our band, that we have no sense of humor. But there are some funny guys here. It’s nonstop entertainment."
De la Rocha may be funny, but he sure isn’t talkative. Morello does most of the band’s interviews, but de la Rocha is fairly press-shy, reasons for which likely stem from an incident several years ago when he agreed to talk with a British journalist, so long as he didn’t print anything about his estranged relationship with his father. But the reporter printed all of de la Rocha’s personal business anyway. We would’ve loved to talk with de la Rocha, him being from Irvine and all—yo, Zack! We’re really, really swell people here!—but, understandably, when you’re the vocalist in one of the biggest bands in the world, you don’t have to talk to anybody if you don’t want to. So we tracked down some folks from back in the day who knew de la Rocha when he was going to University High School, where he palled around with fellow student and eventual Rage bassist Tim Commerford.
"Zack and Tim were both heavily into hardcore, especially the Sex Pistols," says fellow University High alum Tim Connoly, who plays drums in the Angoras. "Zack could play Sex Pistols songs at an early age. He wasn’t really political back then, not really a supersocial guy. But Tim always excelled in bass, even in high school. He was always involved in music, always jamming around with friends."
And what does Connoly think of Rage? "I like their music; I like their grooves," he says. "They’re a band that can do almost anything now, like Metallica. I sometimes wish they’d do something different—I think Zack could actually sing if he wanted to."
Paula Spas, the Angoras’ lead singer, says she knew Zack pretty well. "He had really short, cropped hair back then. He was really into the straight-edge scene at the time, around 1989, 1990—the black X’s on the hands, the whole bit." (Reality claims another straight-edger: in the current issue of Rolling Stone, de la Rocha reveals that he’s taken up smoking, an aftereffect of his trips to Chiapas.) "He wasn’t a talker, more like a listener," continues Spas. "Really quiet, much more interested in emulating someone with strong ideas, much more of a follower then, gleaning ideas to use later."
De la Rocha’s Irvine life wasn’t a terribly cheery one, if you believe what he’s said about his old hometown in the few interviews he’s given. He lived in student housing at UC Irvine, where his mother was pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology. With his slightly Chicano features, de la Rocha stood out at mostly white University High School, and he has often repeated the story of how one day in geology class, the teacher made reference to the California border checkpoint on the I-5 near San Onofre as "the wetback station." De la Rocha has explained how incensed he was—not just over this lame-ass teacher’s comment, but how white kids in class laughed at it. He didn’t speak up about it, though, and instead internalized his anger—but he vowed never to keep silent again about such slights and injustices.
Years later, de la Rocha still hasn’t gotten over his Irvine days. In an interview in George, he calls Irvine "one of the most racist cities imaginable. If you were a Mexican in Irvine, you were there because you had a broom or a hammer in your hand."
He found a way to channel his bottled-up energy through the glorious power of punk rock, joining various hardcore and straight-edge bands, playing guitar in Hardstance and serving a stint in Farside (who, by the way, are still together and playing Saturday at Koo’s Art Cafe). But by several accounts, it was de la Rocha’s time as the front man of Inside Out when he really began moving along the path that would lead to Rage Against the Machine. Inside Out, in fact, just may have been one of the biggest underground OC bands ever.
"Inside Out were pretty popular in OC back in 1990 and ’91," says Jordan Cooper, who owns Huntington Beach-based indie label Revelation Records. "They were great, one of the best bands of that time period. And Zack was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. I was really surprised that he got into politics and activism. He always seemed to be more into making people laugh."
They released a single EP on Revelation, No Spiritual Surrender, on which de la Rocha sang about decidedly more personal topics than he’s noted for now: communication, separation, sacrifice and redemption. Musically, their sound was typical screamadelic hardcore, nothing too distinguishable from what you’d hear from your average hard band these days. Then again, maybe bands today are stealing from Inside Out. Mike Rosas of Smile was Inside Out’s guitarist for six months, one of several the band employed during its brief life. He joined right before they were scheduled to record the follow-up to their EP—an album that was to have been titled Rage Against the Machine, after one of de la Rocha’s songs. But in 1991, the band split up, and de la Rocha took the title and used it as the name of his new band. "The band was pretty well-established by the time I stepped in," Rosas remembers. "But Inside Out was really Zack’s band. At the time, I think he was one of the most focused, articulate and driven people I knew. I could always tell he had a vision. He wanted to accomplish something. Then, I had no idea you could start a band like he’s in now and get as popular as he has. Nirvana wasn’t even on the radio back then; there was nothing. He was just a very nice, very spiritual person, someone I really respected a lot. He was never the boob; he was someone who always had something interesting to say.
"Especially at a time when a lot of people didn’t want to hear a lot of talk from the stage," continues Rosas. "I guess it’s kind of the same thing now, but he had a lot of great things to say. When we would play shows, he would take a lot of time to explain what the songs were about and really try to get the message across. I think a lot of times, it was a big challenge because people just wanted to slam dance. But at the same time, it made a difference—a lot of people paid attention to him and went on to start other bands. A lot of bands you see nowadays are definitely influenced by Inside Out and other bands that existed in the early ’90s."
True. Though they haven’t been around for eight years, there’s still a Doors-like cult following for Inside Out that hasn’t gone away (though largely because of de la Rocha’s Rage fame). Last year, Eric Axen, bassist for the British Columbia punk band Octember, put up a fairly comprehensive Web site dedicated to the band (www.bulkley.net/~chloe/bio.htm), which he says receives about 100 hits each week. There’s even a Canadian emo band called By a Thread, which takes its name from an Inside Out song.
"The hardcore scene was really strong back in those days," says Rosas. "Shows took place in all kinds of places: VFW halls, gyms, rec rooms. There were no places that stayed established, like Koo’s, nothing like that. Shows were held in almost word-of-mouth locations—in garages, even. Some of the most crowded shows I’ve ever been to were ones that were going on when that scene was around."
By 1992, when Rage started to break, Rosas says he felt a bit strange seeing all the hype that his old bandmate’s new project was getting. "I was really happy for him, but that was at a time when I really wasn’t talking to Zack much, so it was still easy for me to separate. It was almost like I was seeing somebody else instead of this star. But I was happy and excited for music in general because there needs to be bands like Rage Against the Machine. They were just so different when they came out; I thought it was great they were getting exposure. There were a lot of bands that came before them, though, that were kind of . . . I don’t want to say doing the same style of music, but different bands that popped up and failed because they didn’t really do it right. Rage came out and nailed that sound, they had a message, and they’re really good musicians. They pretty much had the whole package.
"So when I see them on MTV, I don’t get angry—that’s a good sign," he adds. "I don’t get frustrated and fed-up with the music, so it’s cool; it’s inspiring. It may not be entirely my cup of tea, but I can’t think of anything that’s wrong with them."