The Rage article:
Whatever happened to politics and rock? Even in the face of comfort and complacency, Rage Against the Machine keeps testifying. By Lorraine Ali
“You can communicate more with a scream over feedback than most college professors can in an entire dissertation,” says Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha, a man who has never been one for armchair politics. Instead, the dread-headed singer and his three bandmates have expounded on such heavy subjects as China’s ethnic cleansing of Tibet and the controversial death row sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal. But it’s in a language their most casual, apolitical listener can understand: organic breakbeats, pummeling hard rock, and furious, railing raps. As a result, Rage is the only major band to push political awareness in the complacent 90’s. The way Zack talks, it often seems like the group is a political action first, and a band second. “We figured, just give the people another source of media,” he says, like some sort of information minister. “Let them respond to issues and concerns that effect them so greatly, but do it in a form they can plug into.”
On their last record, Evil Empire, Rage attacked the economic elite with blistering vehemence. The cover of their 1992 debut, Rage Against the Machine, featured the ultimate symbol of protest: a photo of a self-ignited Buddhist monk. Now the band is organizing press campaigns from Mexico on behalf of their new album. Why? To focus attention on the killing fields of Chiapas.
“Oftentimes music fails to reflect what’s happening in the streets politically,” says 29-year-old Zack. “For instance, the ‘90s were marked by the Gulf War. It was a time when there was almost as much dissent and anger at what was happening to the Iraqi people as there was in my parents’ generation against what was happening to the Vietnamese. There were massive demonstrations, but there really wasn’t a reflection of that in music. Instead, it was mostly guys singing ‘I’m white, I’m middle class, and I lost my place in the American dream.’ It’s a real expression of something that’s truly happening. But we’ve tried to focus not only on the alienation, but also address the problems at the root of it.”
It’s no small feat that such a radically political band, which started back in 1991, can actually exist and thrive in such numbingly comfortable times. The economy is strong, the pursuit of more stuff is nearly a constitutional mandate, and political awareness has become a nuisance – considered passé. The natural idealism and anger of youth have been channeled into Gap-sponsored revolutions calling for “Everybody in Vests.”
But it’s not Rage’s heated social commentary the moshers are initially coming for. It’s the power of the music. The band’s mix of heavy hip hop beats, reverberating hard rock, and screaming vocals pack the power of a Molotov cocktail. It’s guerrilla warfare of sorts: Rage lures unsuspecting listeners with a testosterone-rich sound, then smacks ‘em upside the head with real news of the world.
It’s no coincidence The Battle of Los Angeles was set for release on November 2, election day. Though it’s been three years since Evil Empire, the So Cal foursome – Zack, guitarist Tom Morello, drummer Brad Wilk, and bassist Y.tim.K – continues to fight the powers that be with explosive sonics and incendiary politics. Zack once again tackles Western imperialism in “Calm Like a Bomb”: “Pick a point on the globe/Yes the picture’s the same/There’s a bank, a church, a myth, and a hearse/ A mall and a loan and a child dead at birth.” There are several songs dedicated to the injustices of life in contemporary Mexico, from tales of immigration and slavery in “Maria” o the horrific plight of the Chiapas Indians (indigenous people reportedly being slaughtered by the Mexican government) in “War Within a Breath.” Musically, Rage now leans a little harder on its traditional, acid rock roots such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Tom’s guitar work is more intricate and reeling, the groove more fluid and melodic than jerky and dissonant. “There are bands that do the political lyrics thing, but they don’t have a rocking soundtrack to go with it,” says Tom from his Los Angeles home. “Those overtly political bands are out there, but the reason you’re not writing about them now is that the lyrics aren’t as poetic or the music isn’t as compelling. I think we just hit the right combo.” Much to their chagrin, they’ve spawned legions of bands who lifted the rock-rap sound, but clearly missed the second part of the formula: potent lyrics. Not that bands have to be political to have impact (Zack’s passionate need to vent can get suffocating at times), but bands such as Korn and Limp Bizkit have reverted back to self-obsessed declarations of misery, locker room boasting (so you get laid; big whoop), and other yawn-inducing tales of manliness. Fred Durst does it “all for the Nookie,” while the far more talented Kid Rock still can’t think of anything more inspired to rap about than pimping from the top of Four Seasons. At least Eminem had the imagination to conjure up a battle of the conscience.
“What you see now is bands with hip hop, hard rock influence, but the lyrical content is not much different from Van Halen II,” says Tom. “I’ve never worried about being buried in the current saturation of hip hop hard rock bands, because we are so clearly different that any other band of similar ilk – from Zack’s lyrics to the unique musicianship of the band. Also, it seems to me the rock part of other bands is more derived from bands like Metallica and Pantera, whereas with Rage, it comes more from Zeppelin or Sabbath. Then there’s the lyrical content, which stood head and shoulders above the pack.”
The band emerged at a time when Guns n Roses were still ruling the charts, hip hop was yet to become a huge Top 40 force, and celebs like Kevin Costner were taking part in “morale boosting” singles to support our Gulf War troops. Still, the album miraculously hit a nerve and inspired a loyal, zealous fanbase.
“Our album is the one that launched a thousand bands,” says Tom. “The success was a tremendous shock and surprise. I thought there was no way we could have a fan base, let alone a record deal, with the juxtaposition of the two styles mixed with revolutionary politics. But it struck a chord. When we performed, the combo of the music and crowd was so powerful it was like holding a live wire.”
“It’s not like it hasn’t been done before,” says Zack of Rage’s political coup in the pop world. “Look at what the Clash or Public Enemy did. But what makes it exceptional with us is the time period we came from – a greedy, greedy era. Rage wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did. It happened in the face of critics who had pretty much abandoned the possibility of music to effect change. I think we proved they were wrong.