Rage prepares to fight ``The Battle of Los Angeles''
By Gary Graff
Transcribed by Julie Nolan
DETROIT (Reuters) - For Tom Morello, the Harvard-educated guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, the success of the politically strident rock band ultimately will be gauged less by its considerable record sales than by its good works.
Morello says that's the biggest difference separating the rap-rock group from such acts as Limp Bizkit and Metallica, with whom Rage shared a headbanger triple-header at July's Woodstock '99 festival.
``I'm a fan of both of them,'' says Morello, 35. ``We share some things musically. But Rage Against the Machine is something entirely different ... not only from a musical standpoint but also from a philosophical one.
``From our first rehearsals we have been not just about making great music but about forging those songs with our convictions, which is somewhat different than doing it just for the nookie,'' he adds, referring to Limp Bizkit's summer hit.
There are indeed few -- if any -- bands in rock like Rage Against the Machine, whose third album, ``The Battle of Los Angeles,'' recently debuted at the top of the pop charts. The quartet emerged in 1991 with a mix of rap and rock that lit the fuse for what became the defining pop trend of 1999.
But the band further distinguished itself with frontman Zack de la Rocha's lyrics, consisting of rapid-fire political broadsides about societal ills generally and specific issues such as Mexico's Zapatista rebels or Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther and radio journalist condemned for killing a policeman 18 years ago.
Rage has backed up its convictions, too, playing numerous benefits -- including the Tibetan Freedom Festival and concerts for Mumia and imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier -- and even donating its fees from a 1997 opening stint for U2 to a number of activist organizations, including Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and Women Alive.
``I think that we are on the threshold of being able to really push the boundaries of what it means to be activists in the world of music,'' Morello says. ``It's not just enough for us to just dabble in feel-good issues and do the occasional benefit show.
``We want to really try to build a bridge between our pretty sizable audience and the world of getting-your-hands-dirty activist. And the band's success, in the end, will be judged not by record sales but by tangible gains in that world.''
Rage has enjoyed significant record sales, too; each of its first two albums, 1992's ``Rage Against the Machine'' and 1996's ''Evil Empire,'' have been certified platinum. ``The Battle of Los Angeles,'' meanwhile, sold 430,000 copies its first week in release to hit No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts.
Morello says the objective Rage sought to achieve on ``The Battle'' was ``to not just make the best Rage record but to make a defining record.'' And that was not easy to accomplish; while Morello, de la Rocha, bassist Tim Crommerford (aka Y.tim.K) and drummer Brad Wilk finished writing most of the music for the album more than a year ago, de la Rocha struggled with the lyrics, and the album wasn't wrapped up until July.
Still, Morello says, there were no complaints.
``We have a tremendous and unique musical chemistry, but it's a chemistry that does not always work at a sprinter's pace, and that's OK,'' he says. ``I've played with dozens of other musicians, in different situations, and nothing approximates what it's like to play with Zack and Timmy and Brad.
``And if I have to wait a little bit longer to make records with those guys, that's all right. It's well worth the wait. It would have been a tragedy to put something out before all four of us were behind it.''
The songs on ``The Battle of Los Angeles'' rage hard, living up to de la Rocha's characterization of Rage's music as ``the weapon of sound above ground'' on the first single, ``Guerrilla Radio.'' He raps about popular apathy, mediocre media, corrupt politicians, unjust socioeconomic conditions and, in ``Voice of the Homeless,'' about the continuing Mumia controversy.
But ``The Battle of Los Angeles'' also is distinguished by its music, which is unquestionably the strongest Rage has yet produced. Throughout the album's 12 songs, Crommerford and Wilk lock into solid grooves supporting Morello's pyrotechnic guitar work, which runs from straightforward and gritty on songs like ''Testify'' and ``Sleep Now in the Fire'' to effects-laden simulations of bombs, tracer missiles, Celtic pipes and helicopters.
``One of the things I really like about this record is there's a compactness to it, both as a whole and on some of the individual songs,'' Morello says. ``I love some of the sprawling opuses from record one, where the modus operandi was, 'Hey, we've got another riff. Let's just sew it onto the end of whatever songs we happen to be working on that day.'
``But on this album, the song structures tend to be tighter, and that makes it even more powerful.''
Prior to release of ``The Battle,'' Rage played some shows with hip-hop friends Public Enemy and Gang Starr. The quartet -- which also has toured with rap collective Wu-Tang Clan -- plans to return to the road this fall and tour through 2000, and Morello says he can count on top-shelf opening acts, which Rage books to push itself as well as to entertain its fans.
``We always have our hackles up,'' Morello says. ``Of course, music is an art form, and it's not all that competitive. But we don't ever intend to be the second-best band on a stage at any show.''