Rage Against The Machine Rages On
Halloween in Washington was more like Apocalypse Now, as Rage Against The Machine brought The Battle of Los Angeles to the nation's capital. Under the imposing specter of a 20-foot-high, spray-painted silhouette of the fist-waving rebel who graces the album's cover, Rage delivered an incendiary showcase of their third album, while tossing a few old bones like "Bullet in the Head," "Bulls on Parade," "People of the Sun" and a rampaging cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Ghost of Tom Joad" to the roiling, ravenous crowd.
Bringing the noise with an even heavier, funkier and livelier attack, the band opened with Battle's turbulent lead-off track "Testify" and followed with the bruising, profanity-laced hit single "Guerrilla Radio." "Sleep Now in the Fire" and "Born of a Broken Man" were propelled by Tom Morello's mammoth riffs and screeching, otherworldly solos, while the slightly less bone-rattling "Calm Like A Bomb," "New Millennium Homes" and "War Within A Breath" rode the rhythm battery of drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford.
All the while, frontman Zach de la Rocha paced the stage - mic on one hand, the other emphatically punching the air in time with his lyrical cadence - strafing the evils of racism, greed and media manipulation, and touting some of the band's prominent political causes, such as death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, the plight of the Zapatista rebels in Mexico and the exploitation of the underclasses.
If Rage's self-titled 1992 debut was a revolutionary call to arms, and 1996's Evil Empire the marching orders, Battle of Los Angeles is the full-blown assault. "Violence is in all hands, embrace if it need be," de la Rocha rants on "War Within A Breath. "Livin' been warfare, I press it to CD."
The album's title draws the analogy to Los Angeles as a microcosm for just about anywhere in the world where the environment is rife with tension from various factions and ready to explode at any time if the battle lines are crossed.
"It seems fitting that a lot of what the band is about has to do with Mexico and California," says Commerford during a phone interview several weeks before the D.C. show. "And there's a lot of Hispanic people in California and a lot of non-Hispanic people who resent that and try to make it so kids can't get health care and can't go to school, so there's definitely a war going on in that way.
"It's not hard for me, living in California, in Los Angeles, to go right down the street and see some kids that might be at war, like in gangs. And there's a lot of different people. In Los Angeles, you look around and you see everyone, and with that comes tension, like it or not. And some day the shit is gonna go down."
"I've always felt that I'm going to be in a war some day, that it's gonna go down and that it's gonna be part of my life," he adds, while reflecting on the doomsday paranoia that was building to near fever pitch as the new millennium approached - something he poked fun at with the YTimK moniker he adopted for the new album.
"People in other parts of the world experience that, they look out their window and see tanks rolling by, and I've never seen that shit before, America has never seen that before, and it's gonna come in the new millennium. But I'm excited by that kind of shit, to be honest with you - chaos and war, I feel that shit."
Commerford offers several possible scenarios for "the shit going down," something that, ultimately, did not happen during the Y2K rollover as many people feared - or hoped.
"All you've got to do is look at the world around us," he explains. "There's still racism, rampant poverty and serious class divides in America, so racial and cultural upheaval are certainly within the realm of possibility. And there's war going on in other countries and there's plenty of well-armed countries and terrorist groups itching to get at us. All it could take is a guy with one of those suitcase nuclear bombs and it's on. The world's not a good place now.
"But I've got some friends who've spent time in prison and one friend who's a police officer who worked in prisons and there's a good possibility if something's gonna happen, it's gonna start there. There's something like 2 million people in prison in America right now, that's more people than are in the active military. Think about that. If one prison riot sparks another and another, pretty soon its anarchy and they've got the numbers on their side."
During the past year, Rage Against The Machine earned notoriety - and notoriousness - for raging on behalf of one such prisoner, the aforementioned Mumia Abu-Jamal. His controversial - and some say bogus - conviction and death sentence in the killing of a Philadelphia police officer has galvanized people into two camps: those who contend he was framed and did not receive a fair trial and those who side with law enforcement and view the support on his behalf as an effort "to free a cop killer."
The release of Battle - with its pro-Mumia track "Voice of the Voiceless" - came in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's rejection of his fair-trial appeal. With that, the former Black Panther and radio journalist had been scheduled to die Dec. 2, but he was granted a stay of execution by a U.S. District Court judge on Oct. 26. The stage is now set for a further round of appeals.
"It's something that is going to be a long process and that's something that depends on people and speaking up about it," said drummer Wilk in a separate interview. "He needs more support and people need to make that (new trial) happen and the only way that's going to happen is by people writing in and demanding he does get a fair trail."
With The Battle of Los Angeles, Rage Against The Machine serve up a welcome plate of food for thought at a time when the rap 'n' roll genre has become a sorry-ass playground of retarded gimmicks and turgid spleen-venters aiming to follow Korn and Limp Bizkit into the platinum-plus breach Rage opened in the first place with their debut.
Yet despite the band's passion and the obvious conviction of their politics and their message, is this food for thought something "kids these days" really want or can even comprehend? Or, would they rather just get a cheap thrill from Rage's formidable musical groove while all of the ideology either sails right over their heads or goes in one ear and quickly departs the other?
Commerford really doesn't care one way or the other. "There's always those kids who are into it for the aggressive style of music and I respect that; I have a certain amount of that in me, too," he laughs. "Then there's always going to be those kids who know more about the political topic of a song than we do."
"I feel like music transcends words, it's the universal language. And we go up there, and whether we're in Japan or America, it doesn't matter. They feel it. They know that we're giving every ounce we have, and that's the coolest thing. We've achieved our mission."
And for whatever reason kids do choose to get into Rage Against The Machine, get into the band they do. The Battle of Los Angeles debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart following its Election Day release and has already sold more than 2 million copies. The 3-million selling Evil Empire also debuted at #1 on the strength of the debut that made a slow, gradual climb onto the charts thanks to the band's more grassroots approach that relied on word of mouth garnered from constant touring and tons of glowing press.
Oddly, after doing almost no press or promotional work on behalf of Evil Empire, Rage Against The Machine went on a six-week, worldwide campaign swing on behalf of Battle that culminated with shows in D.C., New York, L.A. and Mexico City, the band's first-ever in-store appearances and a rain-soaked, Election Night performance of "Guerrilla Radio" on 53rd St. in New York for The Late Show With David Letterman. It was the band's first network TV appearance since they were kicked off Saturday Night Live for hanging an upside-down flag on one of Commerford's speakers.
"We've got a record that we feel really strongly about," said Commerford. "It's been three years since our last album, and music is a hell of a lot different than it was then. In the past there weren't a bunch of bands doing what we do. Now there's a lot of bands with that sort of musical fusion, there's a lot of multi-racial bands. And I think that's great, it helps shake up the mainstream. But it also crowds the playing field and we want to elbow our way back into the game.
"And it's brought us together and empowered us. We dropped our management a year ago and we've been handling our own affairs since then. Right now, everything that happens within the context of Rage had to come from each member of the band and it feels good. And it's not really that big a deal to have to go to an occasional meeting and discuss something cool like how we're going to make the band bigger."
Togetherness has never really been synonymous with Rage Against The Machine, who've been dogged by break-up rumors since they burst into the mainstream consciousness in 1993. They reached their peak leading up to the release of Evil Empire, an album plagued by fruitless songwriting outings and distractions from the band members' various political concerns. And despite Empire's triumph and the relative ease with which Battle came together, there again as talk of an imminent split just weeks before the new record was issued.
"When you're not out there in the scene and not making music and going out on tour, these things come," Commerford shrugs, though admitting the writing and recording dynamic with Rage can be contentious. "We're four strong-willed, driven individuals who take a lot of pride in what we do, but we're also a unit and the unit, the band, comes first," he said. "So no matter how strongly you feel about this riff you wrote or whatever, if the band doesn't dig it, you've got to swallow your pride and move on. That can be discouraging, it can piss you off, but in the end the band comes out the better for it."
And any hurt feelings that may result during the creative process are soon forgotten when Rage plugs in and rocks. "I love the chemistry that happens between the four of us when we get together, it's just something I'll never feel in any other band. I don't think any of us will," said Wilk. "I think that from the first time the four of us got together in a room, something clicked. I don't take chemistry for granted, and whatever happens was there from day one and we knew it and we knew that we were onto something that was special to us and that we thought as unique."