Rage Against The Machine
The Battle Of Los Angeles was one of the few records to confront pre-millenial tension in 1999's tame musical arena. Venting their emotive excesses, Rage Against The Machine have perfected an irresistible funk flow to mobilize their revolutionary messages, as their agitated audio assault fearlessly combines Public Enemy's noise with Zeppelin's riff armoury. Ceaselessly promoting the excitement of protest, what's most remarkable about the record is the band's fervent intensity in the face of the music industry's pacification program. Having survived several rumoured splits and America's ghetto mentality - which segregates racial communities as emphatically as it divides radio playlists - the group's third album, a US No 1, reclaimed their rap metal crown from pedestrian pretenders such as Limp Bizkit and their opportunistic ilk.
Having unleashed their self titled debut in 1992 and followed it up with the astonishingly powerful and woefully overlooked Evil Empire, RATM.'s militantly confontational approach has led them into all manner of trouble. It's ironic, then, that lyricist Zack De La Rocha refuses to do interviews. But group spokesman, diplomat and guitarist Morello agreed to talk from his Stateside hotel room halfway through their current world tour.
How do you feel the sound of RATM has developed over the 9 years that you've been together ?
I think it's been a positive progression. When we wrote the songs for our self titled debut, we wrote most of them in only the first month we had known each other. It was like a creative explosion. Evil Empire was far more meticulously put together. We were tryin' to find a path to accommodate our what had become divergent musical tastes into a record that would be cohesive. With The Battle Of Los Angles we just unleashed the band's chemistry. Timmy and Brad are tighter, playin' with more swing than any rhythm section in rock, I had got a whole new bag of tricks and Zack had woven his polemics far more into poetry than on the previous two releases.
Listening to the evolution of the three, it appears that the writing is getting leaner and meaner.
Yeah, that's the opposite of the normal progression of most bands where, by record three that's when you bring in the orchestras, choirs or long Pink Floyd-style arrangements. Our songs are gettin' harder 'n' tighter. The best Rage songs happen when we're all in a rehearsal room jammin'. If we sit around a table askin' what type of song we should be doin', it just doesn't work as well. This time we just let our creative impulses out of the playpen (laughs), and out came these angry songs. With the longer arrangements on the previous album the modus operandi was to say. 'Hey, we've got one more cool riff, let's sew it on the end'.
With the title The Battle Of Los Angeles were you prophesizing a potential civil or race war in the USA ?
When you live in LA, the tensions of race and class are palpable. As we witnessed in the riots in '91 or recently in Seattle, there is a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction which can explode given the slightest tension here in the States. That's the tension you feel every day in LA's streets. I think our music confronts that particular combination of glory and horror that is the City of Angels. I have very much of a love/hate relationship with the city. It is a city that has both racism and advanced cultural opportunities, it also has extreme police brutality as well as 350 days of sun per year. It's a city of both horror and beauty. It is that complex cultural make up of LA which makes a band like RATM. possible. It couldn't have happened anywhere else.
The polarities you refer to are echoed by your choice of fusing hip hop and metal. When you formed the group was it a pre-meditated exercise to blend two genres and to try and bridge a cultural divide ?
We had no real hope of ever really having an audience when we first started. At the time not only was the band ethnically alienating to club bookers, record companies or radio, but there was no precedent for a multi-ethnic rock band. Add to that a rock band with revolutionary politics playin' the most hardcore elements of fringe musics - hip hop, hardcore punk and hard rock. We didn't dare to dream we could have the opportunity to mold the disparate audiences. The music really came from our hearts. We were determined to be 100% pure and uncut, uncompromising politically and musically. With that we didn't even care if we were able to get shows, and it was through havin' that sense of conviction that I think we got an audience.
Having seen your live video, it appears that your audience is primarily white.
I don't see it like that, the audiences vary greatly city by city. Out of all the rock/rap crossover groups I think our audience is the most culturally diverse. We've always had one foot in hip hop. We're travelling with Gang Starr right now and we count each other as our greatest fans. If there's a problem with the ethnic dymanic it's with urban radio which refuses to acknowledge rap fronted group that has a guitar.
You've said that you wanted to make music that was anti-careerist and suitably uncompromising, but two things occured to me; firstly, the music you're making is surely just extending the conservative traditions of metal and hip hop, and secondly, with your punk background it seems strange that you chose not to found your own independent label and signed to a major.
We just let things flow naturally and combine our influences. One of the reasons why I think Rage has been successful musically is because there' s not an over-intellectualising of the rock process. There exists in me a loud voice which is the thirteen year old kid jumpin' on the bed with a tennis racket strummin' along to 'Black Dog'. We unapologetically rock. If there is a hi-brow ideal with regards to my guitar approach, I guess it is to sort a deconstruct the instrument. As regards to labels, there was not one substantive debate in the band as to whether or not we should go with a major label. To be honest with you, once we sat down with the company at those early meetings, there was only one question that we absolutely demanded even though were literally starving at that time. And that was absolute creative control over every aspect of our careers in perpetuity. We told them you're just gonna get R.A.T.M. without compromise, and we're gonna push the boundaries of what it is to be a rebel rock band. It was during that period between Jane's Addiction and Nirvana, where labels had the attitude that they should give these crazy kids what they want 'cause it seems to be sellin'. So we were shocked to get a green light at meeting after meeting for the right to be unmolested for the rest of our career.
Do you think with the confrontational quality of your music and politics, there's a danger of only preaching to the converted?
If you think of Marvin Gaye, Marley or Sly Stone, do you think their method is ultimately more influential for their subtler approach ? With regards to those great artists, I wouldn't put us in the same ballpark artistically. But we do have something in common. We play music which, irrespective of the political content, people are drawn to on a broad scale. People react to the passion and melody of Marley's music, even before they intellectually analyse the meaning of 'Get Up,Stand Up'. In the same way people are perhaps drawn to the beats, riffs and aggression of Rage, regardless of their political persuasion.
So was the initial idea just to make great music or create a monolithic propoganda machine?
It just started out as a rock band with some ideas and we just concentrated upon tryin' to write this great batch of songs, expressin' what we felt. But with every passing show or record, the possibilities have just become so much greater, so the challenge is to take advantage of those opportunities. On this tour of the States, we're donating dollars from every show to local homeless shelters and food banks. I think it's just a healthy challenge to try and find ways to weave your convictions through your music.
What do you think Rage has still got to try and achieve, and what particular disappointments have occured thus far?
As far as what we set out to achieve, there's a mountain of great music that we still have to put out. I think we've made the record of our careers with The Battle Of Los Angeles. So, as regards creativity, the sky's the limit. On the activist front, I wouldn't say there's been major disappointments but that's the area where there's the greatest room to push the boundaries of what a rock band can do. For those who say rock can't change anything. I think that's just absolute bullshit. I know for certain that it changed one person's life and that was mine. From Public Enemy to the Clash or simply encouragin' you to donate money for a defence fund, it makes a valuable difference.
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