On the surface, Rage Against the Machine would appear to be reactionary: four angry young men of various backgrounds, exorcising their contempt for the status quo and social injustice through pummeling music and venomous diatribes. But when you experience their frenetic live show or groove to any of their three albums, the true nature of the band is unveiled. Rage Against the Machine are mighty catalysts-equally as jarring to your fist as to your cerebrum.
"It's easy to incite a riot by getting on the mic and saying 'break shit,'" states Rage bassist Tim Commferford, alluding to Limp Bizkit's performance at Woodstock '99. "It's not easy to incite a riot by just playing your songs."
An aggressive fusion of hip-hop rhymes, metal guitar riffs and underlying jazz syncopation, Rage's music is as hard-hitting as the controversial causes they champion, such as the cases of Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal, and the issue of Mexican sweatshop labor reform. Clearly, no one here is doing anything for the nookie.
Living in racially and socially charges Los Angeles, vocalist Zack de la Rocha, guitarist Tom Morello, drummer Brad Wilk and Commerford formed Rage Against the Machine in 1991. Their self-titled debut was releasedin 1992. Four years later, Evil Empire shot to No. 1, as did their highly anticipated follow-up, The Battle of Los Angeles (Epic), last November.
"We're a microcosm of L.A.," says Commerford. "We have a lot of different ethnicities in the band: African-American, Latin American, Jewish and Caucasian. In L.A. it's the same kind of thing. You walk out your door you don't have to go far to enter into a battle somewhere. There are battles all over that city." While songs like "Guerrilla Radio" and "Testify" discuss both the power of the media and its sometimes biased approach, "Maria" and "Born of a Broken Man" are narratives about sweatshop labor.
As one might expect, Commerford's stance on cannabis is equally well articulated. "I'm into it," he states enthusiastically. "I definitely get high. It's an innocent thing. Not everyone in the band blazes up, but Brad and I definitely partake in a little of the green herb so that we can be a tighter rhythm section. We're the tightest!"
Commerford attributes marijuana prohibition to a perpetual web of career politicians, class struggle and big business. He's appalled by the staggering number of Americans in jail for pot. "There are almost two million people in prison right now. A lot of kids are in there for marijuana, and that ain't right.
"Prison is a huge business," he continues. "They put all these people in prison and break up homes. But the main thing is it keeps people from voting. For the most part, people from the inner city are the ones that need change more than anyone else. But the system throws a disproportionate number of these people in prison. They can't vote if they're in jail.
Rage Against the Machine's radical stances provide an alternative for politically aware fans. "We're a left-of-the-center point of view, and ultimately, will be the cause of a lot of kids raising their hands in history class. We're like a school for kids, and I feel the power of us being able to give them something to look at instead of this one-sided point of view that you see in the newspapers and on TV news, I wish I had Rage when I was in high school. I wish I'd had this point of view that comes from a different place, so I could raise my hand and say, 'Why aren't we learning about Africa?' There's a lot of ill shit happening that the news just doesn't address, and we do. That's our place."