Rage Against the Machine Battles the Man
By Maureen Herman
Some say music and politics don't mix, but Rage Against the Machine has become famous for its powerful concoction of grassroots activism and an inventive rock assault that adds elements of punk, funk, and rap to its heavy metal roots.
Instead of doing benefit concerts or championing a cause after they had received a certain comfortable level of fame, Rage came out fighting with its first self-titled album and was vocal about controversial issues like the imprisonment of American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier from the get go.
At the Tibetan Freedom Concert in Chicago, CDNOW caught up with Rage guitarist Tom Morello, who discusses the problems and conflicts of being a rock star and political activist against a fitting background of chanting Tibetan monks and the constant buzz of tour personnel cell phones and pagers.
CDNOW: You definitely have your fans and your detractors, but how do you respond to criticism that your stated position against "The Man" is in conflict with being a major label band making a lot of money?
Tom Morello: You hear it predominantly from well-off white kids. And you certainly only hear it from people who have little or no experience with activism in the real world.
Our supporters who are down with Rage Against the Machine putting out records through Epic include people like Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Noam Chomsky. We've never had any conflict in regards to that, to the path that we've chosen.
First of all, if you're going to criticize our tactics, you need to look in the mirror and see what it is that you're doing in your life that is being more productive from an activist point of view than Rage Against the Machine. If you are able to do that, then I'm willing to listen, but if it's just some college kid whose mommy and daddy are paying for their school who's got a Fugazi poster on the wall, and they've got problems with us, then forget it.
"We never suspected we'd sell a single record, because of the political content of it. So we were kind of making it up as we go along."
Speaking of Fugazi, for example, they only do independently promoted shows, don't go through Ticketmaster, and manage to be successful. Some people may wonder why that isn't a route you've chosen?
Part of that is that there's a disturbing, almost fascist mentality behind some of that thinking. I don't care what people at indie-record stores necessarily think. What we're trying to do is get Leonard Peltier out of jail. How do we do that? Do you want fewer people organizing to get him out? Or do you want more?
If you think that you're going to be pure and sell your records out of the back of a van, and the end result is that you've lessened your chances to achieve significant political change, then it's worthless to sell records out of the back of a van. That kind of punk posturing is just so foreign to anyone who's really involved in grassroots activism.
When you started the band what were your intentions politically?
I had a horrible experience on a major label before. I was on Geffen Records with another band, and my problem with major labels was from an artistic point of view. They meddled artistically.
I have many friends on many indie labels, whose labels meddle with them artistically, whose labels steal from them; it's not like it's some sort of punk-rock paradise being on an indie label, it's the same sleazy people but with better haircuts.
The reason it was a no-brainer for us to sign with a major label was because we were able to get contractually guaranteed 100 percent creative control over every aspect of our career -- period. Once that was out of the way, then I had no argument with being on a major.
We never suspected we'd sell a single record, because of the political content of it. So we were kind of making it up as we go along. Then all of a sudden, eight million people own Rage Records. So how do we use that to affect change in some way?
Does it seem that people hold you up to an unfair scrutiny?
I don't believe that there is any contradiction in any lyric or interview that goes against what we try to do in the realm of activism. If you're not just talking about posturing, but concrete acts of activism -- whether it's galvanizing support for the anti-Nazi League in Europe to get specific National Front Members out of office in England or whether it's organizing to pay for the entire Federal Appeals process for Mumia Abu-Jamal -- those are real things that you need an amount of support, publicity, and fans to be able to try to achieve.
"If you're going to criticize our tactics, you need to look in the mirror and see what it is that you're doing in your life that is being more productive from an activist point of view than Rage Against the Machine."
And you feel you can't be nitpicking every step of the way?
You can, but I don't know how productive that is. I love and respect the band Fugazi, but I don't know that they've done more than Rage Against the Machine. They have business acumen as label owners, but I don't know that they've accomplished more.
I like the band, and I respect their integrity and their being stalwarts, but the thing that they do, which we are totally incapable of doing, is that they're businessmen; they run a label; we do not have the capabilities or the desire to do that. I want to play great music and off "The Man," and I have no time to deal with receipts from Bulgarian record sales -- they do.
You were originally supposed to play Amsterdam for the benefit you're doing today for Tibet. Why the change to Chicago?
We changed venues because we were asked to by the Milarepa fund, who organizes the benefit concert. They believed it would heighten awareness of Tibet and sell more tickets for the show in Chicago. They are very apologetic towards our fans in the Netherlands, who we look forward to playing a show for as soon as we're back on tour.