They say they want a revolution...
By Donna Freydkin Reporting for CNN Interactive

(CNN) -- Ask Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello whether he ever anticipated that his band would top the Billboard album charts, and he cackles loudly.

"Oh, heavens, no. Heavens, no."

"Our goals were pretty modest," he says. "We were going to write and play music that was absolutely uncompromised in any way. It was music that was combining the hardest and most radical fringes of hip-hop and hard rock and it was mixed into this revolutionary political cocktail. I honestly didn't think we'd be able to book a show, considering the band's ethnic makeup and the heaviness of the music."

As it turns out, Rage Against the Machine's third album, "The Battle of Los Angeles," has spent nearly 40 weeks on the Billboard charts, and made its debut at No. 1. Not bad for a band currently flanked on the charts by the comparatively rage-less 'N Sync and LeAnn Rimes.

But kids dig Rage Against the Machine. Maybe because listening to a bombastic, politically charged Rage album is akin to having an icy bucket of water dumped over your unprepared body.

"We offer a stark contrast to the bland escapism that chokes the charts," says Morello.

According to the guitarist, from the days when singer Zack de la Rocha, bassist Tim Bob, and drummer Brad Wilk first came together in 1991 in Southern California's suburban Orange County, the band was all about ruffling a few feathers. And the members had the right activist credentials. De la Rocha's father was a Chicano political artist. Harvard-educated Morello is the son of a Kenyan delegate to the United Nations, one who was active in his country's struggle for independence.

The band wasted little time living up to its name. Members stood naked on a Philadelphia stage in 1993 to protest censorship. A 1996 Rage performance on "Saturday Night Live" was cut to one song when the band tried to hang inverted American flags from their amplifiers. This year, the group staged concerts to raise money for the death-row defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and radio journalist convicted in the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.

"A musician's or artist's responsibility is a simple one, and that is, through your music to tell the truth," says Morello.

"And I think that on this record, we've accomplished the mission we set out at the beginning of the first rehearsals. And that was, not to just make the best Rage Against the Machine record, but to make the best Rage record by a wide margin. We've made the heaviest record to date and it's our funkiest record to date."

Music aside, "funky" and "hard" are apt descriptions of Rage Against the Machine's activist lyrics.

It doesn't hurt that Rage's collective social consciousness has paid off in spades. All three of the band's albums -- its self-titled 1992 debut, 1996's "Evil Empire" and 1999's "The Battle of Los Angeles" -- have gone multiplatinum.

And the band puts it mouse where its lyrical mouth is. The official Rage Against the Machine Web site profiles an activist each month and provides information on the band's pet causes. Not all are without controversy, especially Rage's support of Abu-Jamal.

"Music is not some stuffy college lecture," says Morello. "On a good day, Rage Against the Machine is not able to just rock you like a hurricane, but also to fuel the engine with indignation and the band's activist convictions."

Some might wonder how a band so anti-establishment could end up signing with a record label as humongous as Sony. Or how it could continue releasing videos played on the same cable music channel that spins tracks from Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Robbie Williams.

None of this seems to bother Morello. "We've been able to have our cake and eat it, too. Every song, every T-shirt, is absolutely a pure expression of what we want to do. And it connects."

Morello's laissez-faire attitude extends to the host of diluted copycat bands populating record store shelves. Some would argue that Limp Bizkit is a poor man's version of Rage Against the Machine. But not Morello.

"The underlying philosophies of those bands are worlds apart from us," he says. "But I've seen them live and they have a great energy and connection with their audience. They're fine rock bands."

Do the band's younger listeners really get what Rage Against the Machine is raging about? Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst may be bummed about not getting any "Nookie," and Kid Rock can call on his fans to "get in the pit and try to love someone."

But what about Rage's hit "Guerrilla Radio," which rings like a full-tilt revolution?

"A spectacle monopolized/ The camera's eye on the choice disguised/ Was it cast for tha mass who burn and toil?/ Or for tha vultures who thirst for blood and oil?"

Or how about "Voice of the Voiceless," a paean to Abu-Jamal?

"True rebel my brother Mumia/ I reflect upon/ You be tha spark/ That set all tha prairie fires on."

Sure, not every music fan is ready to come to the aid of Mexico's Zapatista rebels (another pet Rage cause) with a fervor equal to that expressed in the song "War Within a Breath." But that doesn't mean the band should dilute its message, says Morello.

"I don't think what we're talking about is very well hidden," he says. "We come with it. I don't think you can be a fan of Rage without at least being aware of what the band is about. Now, whether 100 percent of the people who bought ours CDs are erecting barricades in the streets of Peoria, Illinois, that's a different story."

To that end, Morello feels his band is providing a service. Rage Against the Machine is trying to provoke you, yes. But it's for a higher purpose.

"There are a lot of kids out there who are intelligent and pissed off and want to find a way to connect. So if you have something as simple as a Web address in your liner notes, it gives them a way to get out and participate in changing the world."