The Psyche of the City Rages On in a Mix of Hip-Hop and Punk

Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha leaps so high onstage that he seems on the verge of taking flight. It's an energy that is matched in concert by thousands of fans, who sing along and jump in salute to him.

So it is odd seeing De la Rocha leap into the air in a deserted hotel hallway accompanied only by the dull click of a camera.

It is late afternoon, and the singer-rapper and the rest of the Los Angeles-based band are in the second-floor kitchen of the long-shuttered Ambassador Hotel, just 100 feet from where Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated on the night of the California primary 31 years ago.

A "no access" sign blocks the stairs that lead to the assassination site, but the band members can't resist. They step over the sign and gaze solemnly at the place a bleeding Kennedy lay.

Danny Clinch, a veteran rock photographer, flew here from New York to shoot 40 rolls of film in hopes of getting a couple dozen photographs that the group's label, Epic Records, will then send to hundreds of magazines and newspapers around the world.

Clinch chose this location for the wide variety of images available on the Ambassador's grounds--from pockets of obvious decay to the remaining traces of opulence in what was once one of the most glamorous spots in Los Angeles: the home of the world-famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub, where stars like Gable and Bogart dined.

The members of Rage are interested in hearing about the Ambassador's past because they think the city's culture has helped shape the group's music.

"The music we make is [tied to] the chemistry of the city," says guitarist Tom Morello, who graduated with honors in social studies from Harvard before heading west in the late '80s to pursue music. "It is part of the osmosis of living in the city . . . the tension, the diversity, the uncertainty, the hopes. It's very different--the mixture of hip-hop and punk--than the music which went through me when I lived in Boston or Chicago."

Lisa Markowitz, a publicist in Epic's New York office, is at the photo shoot because these sessions can be tricky. Posing for five or six hours isn't a favorite pastime for most musicians, and results can be woeful if the band doesn't get along with the photographer.

Markowitz recalls, for instance, the time when Oasis' notorious Gallagher brothers got so upset at a Rolling Stone photographer that they said "bollocks" and stormed off.

But Clinch, who has photographed everyone from Pearl Jam to Johnny Cash, is easygoing and works quickly. Rather than spend lots of time setting up shots, he simply stops when he spots interesting backgrounds on a tour of the old hotel grounds. Clinch also involves band members by frequently taking Polaroids so they can see the picture he has in mind.

Clinch suggested De la Rocha leap into the air during the one shot because the leaps are a trademark of the 29-year-old--and he takes a Polaroid of the action.

Morello, Rage's most outgoing member, looks at the Polaroid and laughs.

"The only trouble is it doesn't look like Zack's jumping," Morello says. "It look like he's stuck in the air on a meat hook." His bandmates--De la Rocha, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk--join in the laughter.

Markowitz, nearby, relaxes. The rapport is good, and she's confident Clinch will come up with the photos she needs.

Like many bands that were influenced by punk's anti-mainstream tenets, Rage wrestled with the issue of photo shoots and videos early in the group's career, but the band members now see them as useful devices in trying to attract a wider audience for its music.

"I think it's just an avenue," De la Rocha says of photos and other promotional devices, including videos. "There is always that fine line between promotion of a product and promotion of an idea, and I've fought hard to protect the integrity of the idea as opposed to just selling a product."

The key, drummer Wilk says, is to make the photos reflect the band's no-frills approach.

Unlike so many photo sessions, there are no hair stylists or makeup artists, not even an entourage. Each of the four band members drove himself to the mid-Wilshire hotel, which supervisors on the grounds say has an appointment with the wrecking ball.

When the four came together in 1991, it was the era of glam-rock in L.A., and the band members thought they would be lucky to get an indie label record contract. Surely, no major label would be interested in a group that combined socialist politics and a blistering blend of two of Los Angeles' most extreme musical forces: the hip-hop fury of N.W.A and the punk assault of Black Flag.

But the group--whose themes deal with various forms of social or cultural repression--has proved so powerful that it has joined Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails and the Smashing Pumpkins as one of the great rock groups of the '90s. Spin magazine has praised it as a "blisteringly conscious wake-up call that inspired dozens of genre-crossing offspring."

The group's two albums, 1992's "Rage Against the Machine" and 1996's "Evil Empire," have sold an estimated 7.5 million copies worldwide, and Epic is optimistic about the still-untitled new collection, which is due Nov. 2. Some of rock's most respected bands, including R.E.M. and the Smashing Pumpkins, have seen album sales plummet in this age of novelty pop, but Rage may beat the odds because it hasn't been overexposed and its rap-rock sound is at its commercial peak now. During a break in the shooting, all four band members still seem amazed at the band's rise.

"I think this band assembled originally in the '90s not only to fuse, as tastefully as possible, hip-hop and punk, but to destroy the boundaries between art and politics," De la Rocha says. "This was done in the past, but what I think made it exceptional in our case was that it happened during a time when the greed and indifference that marked the Reaganite '80s had spilled over in the '90s, . . . a time when people had given up on the possibility of music effecting change."

As Clinch signals to the band that he's found a backdrop for another round of photos, Markowitz reminds everyone to change shirts so that some shots, which will be spaced out to media over a period of months, won't all look as if they came from the same session. Morello also changes his baseball cap, replacing one that says "Unity" to a blue Chicago Cubs hat.

"You feel a little silly sometimes getting your picture taken, but I remember how I was when I was 10 or 11, living in a tiny town in Illinois," he says. "I tried to get my hands on everything I could about my favorite bands. The important thing is the music, but there's also the sense of community and a bonding. You want to connect. I'd pick up Hit Parader and Circus and see pictures of all these groups out in Los Angeles and I said, 'That's for me.' "