The Illinois Entertainer December 1999
RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE: Part of Something Bigger
By Michael C. Harris
Transcribed by Jonathan Ashley
Musically, the 1990s began with a shout and a whine, both aggressively so. Public Enemy dropped their brilliant Bomb Squad joint Fear of A Black Planet, which was met with PC and ethnic indignation, cries of "reverse racism" (my ass!) and nervous hand-wringing by the white media wondering what these articulate negroes could be so pissed off about. The whine came a year or so later, in the form of Nirvana and their "alternative"-making grunge classic Nevermind, which was much easier to grasp for the white press and mainstream music listener: lots of raging – though melodic – guitars, hard rock that wasn’t metal played by three guys and not by machines, and a spokesman in Kurt Cobaine that gave voice to all the teenaged insecurities and self-pity his fans harbored and stoked. Stupid and contagious.
So it only seems fitting that the decade comes to a close with Rage Against the Machine: screaming guitars and cut-throat rhythm bombs- played by three guys and not by machines – and a rapper whose voice and lyrical power commands as much attention as PE’s Chuck D.
The Battle of Los Angeles (Epic) the band’s third disc for Epic Records, is a Rage dispatch on struggles found around the globe and here in the streets of America. The album is unrelenting in its sonic attack, sometimes to the listener’s exhaustion, and lyrically it’s indicting and urgent. It may be the end of the millennium, but Rage isn’t going down without a fight. They may be most needed in the times of seeming opulence in America.
"It’s a great economic time for a specific economic strata," points out guitarist Tom Morello, speaking from his home in L. A. "We’ve never had more billionaires nor more children living below the poverty line. We have the highest domestic product, real wealth, and the greatest disparity between rich and poor in the industrialized nations. We have the most mansions and the most homeless in the western world.
"While the economy is doing very well for the people on top," he continues, "there’s a large section of society that’s being pushed to third-world standards. We’ve always written for the ones who are left behind."
Writing for someone, with purpose it’s a ‘60s notion that is nearly extinct today. Think of the subject matter big-selling acts like Limp Bizkit and Rickey Martin and Jay Z concern themselves with: getting’ paid, getting’ crazy, and getting’ some. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those pursuits, Rage’s goals are loftier, more global, and decidedly more egalitarian. And they always have been. As Morello explained in the last time we talked, in 1996 when the band’s second album Evil Empire was released, "We’ve always defined ‘the machine’ in broad terms. On the street level, where you have INS agents bludgeoning immigrants begging for mercy to the corporate overlords who are puppet masters of our society."
One of the "machine" targets Rage has kept in its scope the past six years is the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has been on death row in Pennsylvania for allegedly killing a cop. The facts surrounding the activist/journalist’s case have been questionable since he was arrested, and just last month, the U. S. Supreme Court decided not to hear Abu-Jamal’s case during the court’s current session (his lawyers were essentially trying to by-pass the appeals process in hopes that the Supreme Court would end the case once and for all now). The case now goes back to the federal appeals system, perhaps ultimately making its way back to the U. S. Supreme Court. But for the second time in five years, Abu-Jamal has been scheduled to die. (The stay of execution, which allows appeals to take place was granted on November 3.)
"They’re trying to put Mumia on a fast track to be executed," says Morello, "and we just can’t let it happen. Mumia is a unique case because it has been tried just as much in the streets as in the courts, and in 1995, the last time Governor Ridge signed the death warrant for Mumia, it was in large part because of the huge national and international outcry to stop the execution that put the brakes on it at that time. It’s going to be quite a battle because they’re intent on killing him this time.
"The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal is a mainstream human rights case," Morello continues. "They try to paint it as something different, but everyone from Amnesty International to Bishop Desmond Tutu, the European parliament to the Pennsylvania Bar association has said ‘You must not execute this guy because there are horrible discrepancies in this trial.’ The one thing that the police and the prosecutors and Rage Against the Machine agree on, and that’s why [Governor Ridge] is in such a hurry to silence Mumia, is that if he did receive a new trial, he’d be acquitted. You’d think if they were so certain [of his guilt], why not put to rest all doubts? Why are they so afraid of it? They’re afraid of it for a simple reason: they know he would be found innocent.
Flip to the back of the CD booklet for The Battle of Los Angeles and you’ll see a dozen or so national and international organizations that Rage urges their fans to support. Flip through the lyrics in the CD booklet and you’ll read the reasons: the media’s filtering of information ("Testify"), the disparity between the American poor and the wealthy few ("Ashes in The Fall"), the learned hate and abject privation of war-torn countries, even the band’s current chart-climbing radio single "Guerrilla Radio" tackles U. S. –controlled third-world elections and urges a call to action: "It has to start sometime," warns Zach De La Rocha, "What better time than now."
Though the politics they espouse are sometimes controversial – and sometimes just confused or disagreeable – it almost defies music industry conventional wisdom that such an overtly confrontational band would find their album debuting at number one on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. With 430,000 CDs sold in one week, it’s hard to say whether the band’s fans are buying the music or the message or both.
So is Rage’s music exclusively political expression? Not exclusively, says Morello: "There’s an element that’s absolutely visceral. I mean, you can be 13 with a tennis racket, looking in the mirror, listening to ‘Testify." There’s an element of it that is very primal and is pure, uncut great rock. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not music that’s elitist and for intellectual sin coffeehouses on the coasts. It’s music that connects in the heartland too. ‘cause it rocks you. But there’s something else: there’s a virus contained inside it, which is the politics of it. A lot of people come to the table for the sound and they leave with something very different."
What cloaks the lyric viruses that rapper De La Rocha crafts is one of the most invigorating, contentious, sometimes frightening rock ‘n’ roll bands roaming the planet. If you’ve never seen Rage live, do so – if only to witness a rare joining of band and audience into one mass, symbiotic throb of human energy, Morello serves up an impressive array of inventive guitar FX, peeling off furious riffs and head scratching guitar skronk, acting as the musical voice behind De La Rocha’s rapid fire delivery. But Rage’s rhythm team – bassist Y.tim.K and drummer Brad Wilk – is the band’s secret weapon.
"Timmy and Brad are clearly the best rhythm section in rock music today," Morello boasts. "There’s not another bass player and drummer that can touch those guys. They’re able to play the deepest kind of hip-hop funk grooves and them seamlessly flow into this tremendously heavy rocking shit that has a real swing to it as well. They know what they’re doing."
Morello is no slouch on guitar, either; he has been frequently singled out by other players and guitar magazines as one of today’s most innovative guitarists. On Battle of Los Angeles, some of the weird noises he wrests from those six strings is reminiscent of the ingenious work of Adrian Belew.
"This record is definitely the most twisted as far as some of the guitar playing. With the first record, I found myself in a band where there was hip-hop grooves being played and I was designated DJ. So I sort of had that obligation to fulfill. With the second record, the more eccentric part of my playing began to swallow the more traditional part of my playing. I was keeping all these lifts and noise charts of cool new things to put in the songs. Now it’s really at the point where that’s how I hear music. I’m comfortable with that being my voice on the instrument. So it’s not even a matter of trying anymore; when we start playing, that’s what spills out – as opposed to looking at chords and notes, it’s wheezes and honks and rhinoceros bellows and blenders and lawnmowers and whatnot."
Remarkably, you don’t see any effect racks surrounding Morello when he plays. And on the floor in front of him, there’s only a few pedals. "It’s the same pedals that I got of out Music Gallery in Highland Park as a boy," Morello laughs. "With the exception of the Digitech whammy-pedal, but that I’v had for about 10 years now. And the same little 50-watt half stack. I’ve always taken pride in the fact that we create an awful lot of racket with a pretty little setup. It’s funny because when we’re playing some of the bigger festival shows, the bands before and after us will have these huge walls of amplifiers, and then we roll out this little half-stack and little drum kit. And we make due. My amp maybe has a Napoleon complex."
Napoleonic or not, Rage’s music is complex. Even more so on Battle of Los Angeles where the destiny of the music is matched by De La Rocha’s most potent lyrics yet. From "Calm Like A Bomb": "Pick a point on tha glove/ Yes that picture’s that same/ There’s a bank and a church a myth and a hearse/ A man and a loan a child dead at birth/ There’s a window, pig, parrot/ A rebel to tame/ A whitehooded judge/ And a syringe and a vein/ And that riot be tha rhyme of tha unheard/ Calm like a bomb." There’s not a superfluous word in that verse – religion, money, death, cops, injustice, addiction… it’s a silenced world bound to explode, and the combination of De La Rocha’s delivery and the band’s plodding persistence heightens the dynamics of the song.
"Zach really did a fantastic job on this record," says Morello" both with his lyrics as poetry and in the performance of them. That’s one of the things that really sets Rage Against the Machine apart from other bands we sometimes get lumped in with: in our band, we have a legitimate MC. Zach’s peers as vocalist are other rappers – and he’s better than most of them. As opposed to a guy in a rock band who sometimes raps."
It has been a full three years since the band released Evil Empire, and though the relentless touring Rage did to support that record filled up more than a year, Morello, Wilk, and Y.tim.K jumped back into writing soon after their world touring ended. The delay was on De La Rocha’s end. "The writing of the songs came together fairly quickly," Morello recounts. "We wrote and recorded all the songs in probably a four and a half month, five month period. The majority of [the music] was finished in October of 1998. That long ago. It has been a process of tinkering with the songs and Zach working on the lyrics as well. He’s very much a perfectionist. We knew we had the best music we’d ever written, and he wanted to make sure it was the best lyrics he’d ever written to go with it.
"We’re tremendously proud of [the album]; we think it’s clearly our best record, our hardest rocking record, and it’s got the deepest funk we’ve ever played. From the very first rehearsals, we knew we were on to something, and it really felt great. It was really thrilling to drive to rehearsal everyday. One day we’d come up with something like ‘War Within A Breath’ and the next day it was ‘Guerrilla Radio.’ It was like ‘Damn!," he laughs. "Even in our grimmy little rehearsal studio in Hollywood, when you hear some of the grooves and riffs explode, you can picture the crowd at Reading Festival or the [New World Music Theatre] just losing their fucking minds."
Which brings up a good question: now that Rage has reached a level of success where they regularly play big outdoor festivals and headline tours in larger venues, do they find themselves writing "bigger"?
"I guess part of it is that when we wrote ‘Killing In The Name’ [from their 1992 debut album], we wrote a groove that felt great to play in that rehearsal room. Later we learned what a groove like that can do live, so sort of through that learning process, whether it’s ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ or ‘Testify’ you get a strong suspicion that that’s going to be like pouring sugar on an ant hill when we play it live."
Considering the sheer intensity level that is Rage’s trademark, after three albums and countless live performances, does Morello feel that the band’s dedication to unmitigated sonic force imposes any limitation or constriction on them.
"Not at all," Morello contends. "That’s just the best! That kind of connection…I think our audience is unparalleled, and I don’t… it’s hard to even explain. There is a connection that we have with our audience that is really unique, that I don’t see with other bands – even historically. The passion and the intensity that resonates in the music is really reflected back by the audience as well. From day one, we’ve never been afraid to rock; we’ve never been apologetic about rocking. There were bands in the early ‘90s, like some of the grunge bands, with your Kurt Cobains or Eddie Vedders, you could tell there was a reticence to rock. They did, but they weren’t sure if it was O. K. You know what I mean? They weren’t sure if they liked their audience, or were suspicious of them. If you’re rocking them too hard, is that O. K.? We never had that contradiction: it is more than O. K to rock your audience.
Despite the sonic allure of Rage’s devotion to rattling the brain sacks and spines of their audience, does the audience understand what Rage is doing with their viral thought bombs?
"Our point of view is on every t-shirt and in every song and every video," Morello explains. "I don’t think you can get with Rage Against The Machine without having a pretty good idea of what we’re about. We don’t hide it very well. The tremendous amount of mail we receive from our fans, about what politically the music means to them, is really overwhelming. But I think that’s a better question for the different activist organizations that we list in our linear notes and we’ve done benefit concerts for and that have booths at our shows. They’re the ones that would shock you with stories of the tremendous support our audience has given them.
"I think our audience in general is a very intelligent one," he continues, " I see in our audience people like we are. I was a guy in Libertyville with London Calling. I was pretty bright and pissed off and [The Clash] was a band that resonated with me in a very different way than Kiss and Alice Cooper did. It was a band that made me feel – and with Public Enemy later, too- made me feel like part of something bigger, part of a community of ideas. It really gave me a strength and a courage not only to be a musician and to play and try to make music that mattered, but also as an activist – to do something beyond trying to get on the wrestling team or get into a good school. To do something that mattered. I see that in the eyes of our audience as well."
So it’s a variation on the George Clinton axiom "Free your ass and your mind will follow." Only with Rage Against The Machine, it’s rock your ass and your brain will rattle open. Anyone who has heard a Rage song on the radio, or especially those fans who have bought the albums and attended the band’s shows, knows how absolutely intense the experience is. Which makes one wonder: is the band always so perturbed and serious.
"That’s the greatest misconception about us," Morello laughs. "There are some funny motherfuckers in this band. You just need to spend 15 minutes in the dressing room to know what we’re like. The periods of our work, the concentrated activities of playing rock or recording, that’s different – we take that dead serious. As far as people, you don’t even know. It’s like a non-stop comedy around heere.
Y.tim.K is big on short-sheeting everyone’s bed isn’t he?
"He’d be probably the most likely to short-sheet a bed. But it’s good people in this band. I’ve got dogs, that I wrangle, and an old muscle car that I baby, there’s probably an embarrassing amount of Sony Playstatioin that goes on. We could discuss the litany of my geek abuses, whether it’s ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Dungeons And Dragons.’ My closet is filled to over-brimming with the geekly pastimes of a dateless suburbanite.
But for Tom Morello and Rage, the communication and ability to reach people that music allows them is too important an expression of their personal and collective beliefs to piss away with disingenuous, trivial rock fare. While they take sheer artistic joy in rocking their audiences into physical exhaustion, the men of Rage Against The Machine are at heart idealists holding onto one of rock’s initial promises: that music really can be revolutionary, and it can make a difference.
"I think that any sonic force that we have, the fuel for it, are our underlying convictions. Otherwise it becomes sort of like ego posturing. There’s nothing wrong with that - one of the cornerstones of rock is ego posturing. But because we’re fueled by deeper underlying convictions, it makes it resonate with us. We don’t just play shows; you’re playing for something that’s more than just self-glorification. It feels like you’re playing for your life.