Rage Against the Machine Articles/Interviews


Vibe - February 2000
Rage Against the Machine
Rebel Music by Cheo Hodari Coker

"RAGE! RAGE! RAGE! RAGE!"

Five thousand kids shout the words in unison, sweat dripping down their faces, their eyes hungry. Most of these kids’ heroes don’t appear on no stamp, but they’re on their T-shirts: Che Guevara. Emiliano Zapata. Smashing Pumpkins.

Burly guys in blue coats with no necks-nothing but arms and chests and walkie-talkies work feverishly to secure the barricades that keep the crowd seven feet from the stage. A petite girl with long black hair shrieks as the force of bodies pushes her up against the partition. A guard pulls her out of the throng before she’s crushed.

"Rage! Rage! Rage! Rage!" The cheers are getting louder. The barricades rattle. Inside this hangar-size, aluminum-sided shack, right next-door to Mexico City’s Palacio del Deportes (Sports Arena), the shit is about to go down.

"Rage! Rage! Rage! Rage!"

Tall and lanky, a mop of dreads falling into his eyes, Zack de la Rocha bounds out onto the stage. The gentle quiet nature he exhibited in the arena corridors after sound check is gone. He looks aggressive now. Coiled to strike. The crowd screams when they see him, and he absorbs the decibels. His locks shake as he approaches the microphone stand.

"Nosotros somos Rage Contra..." The cheers drown out the rest.

And then they’re off. Sitting behind a drum kit that seems impossibly small to be making the huge sound it’s sending into the air, drummer Brad Wilk lets loose a cavalcade of beats. His eyes are closed, long black hair flailing. Bassist Y.tim.K (a.k.a. Tim Commerford) has black "sleeves" tattooed on each arm. He pounds the strings of his instrument, wrestling booming hums from his amps. Tom Morello, Rage’s resident guitar god and conceptual guru, wears his ever-present baseball cap and a five o’clock shadow edging toward six. His instrument sounds like a 747 crash-landing.

De la Rocha grabs the mike with both hands and snarls. Eyes closed, he shouts the lyrics to "Testify," the opening track on the band’s third album, The Battle of Los Angeles (Epic, 1999):

The movie ran through me
The glamour subdue me
The tabloid untie me
I’m empty please fill me

The kids’ faces register understanding, through de la Rocha raps so quickly that even a fluent English speaker has a hard time deciphering his words. The anger and the anti-materialist venom are unmistakable. Whether he’s rhyming about child labor in corporately funded sweatshops, the suppression of the Zapatista rebel movement in Chiapas, Southern Mexico, or the privatization of the national university here in the capital city, the message comes through loud and clear: He ain’t having it. No wonder students outside the arena feared that President Ernesto Zedillo wouldn’t allow the group to perform here. They worried that he’d block the band from spreading musical revolution to the jovenes, from translating protest into a universal language that everyone could understand.

Nowadays, kids north of the border are just as likely to have sampling keyboards and 24-track mixers on their iMacs as they are secondhand guitars and amps in the garage. The late 90’s produced a new breed of rockers, those who grew up worshiping Eddie Van Halen and Terminator X, David Lee Roth and Rakim. But what distinguishes Rage from the recent crop of rap-rock outfits – folks like Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Kid Rock – is that Rage define themselves as much by their radical politics as by their music.

"The music wouldn’t exist without the politics," says Wilk. The day of the concert, the quiet but congenial drummer stands in the plush lobby of Mexico City’s Four Seasons Hotel. "When we’re playing a show," he says, "if something clicks for any one kid in the audience-starting that change, that process of thinking for themselves-that’s the most potent time Rage Against the Machine can have as a band."

Clearly, the people have been waiting for this new brand of rebel rock. Combined, Rage’s self-titled 1992 debut and it’s follow-up, 1996’s Evil Empire – both on Epic Records – have sold more than 7 million copies worldwide. As VIBE went to press, The Battle of Los Angeles entered Billboard’s album chart at No.1, selling 450,000 copies its first week in stores.

But as the band ascend to the top of the pop pantheon, they’re faced with a serious dilemma. Their label Epic, is owned by Sony Music; MTV, which taped the Mexico City show for a special presentation, is owned by Viacom; the Four Seasons is one of the most expensive hotels in town. How can Rage Against the Machine reconcile being accepted and celebrated and paid (extraordinarily well, thank you very much) by the same corporate culture they’ve been railing against since day one? What do you do when the evil empire anoints you king?

It started off simply in early 1991: A biracial guitar-playing Harvard graduate (Morello) who once worked for Democratic California State Senator Alan Cranston. A nomadic teenage drummer (Wilk) who lived in Oregon and Chicago before enrolling in LA’s Taft High School – Ice Cube’s alma mater. An introverted bass player (Y.tim.K) from Orange County Calif., and his childhood friend, a stormy-tempered, punk-rock-and-rap loving Chicano (de la Rocha). The four came together in a San Fernando Valley, Calif., rehearsal studio and assembled a bomb.

Well, not a bomb exactly. But something close. A rock group that would combine the Clash’s thrash, Public Enemy’s boom, Led Zeppelin’s presence, and Method Man’s pain. They had a combustible chemistry that came through best when they began playing for audiences. They peddled a 12-song demo at their shows, and word began to spread among LA’s rabid rock fans.

"We’re a multi-ethnic band," says Morello, "and that was completely alienating to radio stations at the time. Even though we were hip hop, we were a real live band instead of introducing a DJ and samples. And then there was the political element, so it was kind of like three strikes [against us] with regards to a commercial connection," he says.

As it turned out, plenty of record companies wanted to take a chance on Rage. But only Epic agreed not to soften the group’s harsh sound or treat their politics as a gimmick. Still, they would have to work to reach the masses.

At the beginning of 1993, Rage Against the Machine had only sold 75,000 copies. Then the band landed a spot on Perry Farrell’s Lollapalooza tour alongside groups like Alice in Chains, Arrested Development, and Fishbone. All summer, from city to city, Rage cranked up their Godzilla funk and had mosh pits full of young anti-authoritarians chanting the chorus to their song "Killing in the Name": "Fuck you/I won’t do what you tell me!" By the end of the year, their record sales had topped 400,000. A year later, more than one million copies were sold in the U.S. and 2 million overseas.

"We toured for almost three straight years," Morello says, reflecting on the blur between 1992 and ’95, when they recorded Evil Empire. "It was like a European tour, then three days off, then Lollapalooza, a day off, and back to Europe. It was almost like a runner’s high."

As they became more popular, Rage never backed off the political tip. In contrast to rockers who show up once a year at a Save the Rain Forest rally and declare that their fur is fake, Rage has walked the walk. They’ve used their shows to protest Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Committee and raised funds for anti-Nazi groups and AIDs organizations. De la Rocha has taken four separate trips to Chiapas to support the Zapatistas in their struggle for social and economic justice. In December 1997, Morello was arrested in Santa Monica, Calif., during a demonstration against alleged sweatshop conditions at Guess? Jeans plants.

And in January 1999, Rage headlined a benefit concert at New Jersey’s Continental Airlines Arena for the legal defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the journalist/activist sentenced to death in Philadelphia after being found guilty of murdering a police officer. Gov. Christine Todd Whitman urged would-be concertgoers to return their tickets. "I think it’s deplorable that anyone would have a concert to benefit a convicted cop killer," Whitman told the Newark Star Ledger.

Tom Morello and Brad Wilk are in the back of a Chevy Suburban, winding through Mexico City on the way to the former home of Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky. The sweltering streets teem with pedestrians. Imagine Los Angeles time 10. Every other car is a Volkswagen Bug taxicab. There aren’t many skyscrapers, just two-story structures scrunched together with clotheslines strung between, mostly apartment buildings and small storefronts.

A huge billboard promises the same thing that the Goodyear Blimp did in Scarface: EL MUNDO ES TUYO (The World is Yours). Another presents candidates from the notoriously corrupt PRI political party, which has maintained a stranglehold on Mexican government for the last 70 years.

"Los porros," says Ulysses, our driver. "The students." The Suburban just passed La Plaza de las Tres Culturas (The Plaza of Three Cultures), where in 1968 shortly after the Olympics, thousands of students took over the college, demanding that the president give them better teachers, better materials, freedom of expression.

It didn’t turn out well.

"It was a nighttime, and there was a light in the sky, and a helicopter appeared, and the army appeared in the square," Ulysses says. "There were a lot of dead. No one says the exact number, but there are thousands of students, to this day, that are unaccounted for."

You can’t help but notice the graffiti here. Not just names, but full-blown tags, the kind you see in train yards all over New York City, on walls in the South Bronx.

"The porros," Ulysses says again. "Students go around causing ruckus, painting the streets." He looks at Wilk in the rearview mirror. The drummer sits quietly looking out his window. "The music the porros listen to is their music," Ulysses says with a smile and a wink. "Rage Against the Machine."

Despite the populist response to Rage’s music, it’s hard not to notice the privileged circumstances the band find themselves in. "I absolutely agree," says Wilk. "It doesn’t feel right to talk about something like the Zapatista movement in the Four Seasons. So I don’t pretend to be part of the Zapatista’s fight. We’re basically bringing information to people and making them aware of the struggle that’s going on there – which I totally back."

The week after the Mexico City concert, the four members of Rage sit on a couch with VJ John Norris at MTV studios in New York. They’re there to promote the video for their new single, "Guerrilla Radio," but all de la Rocha wants to talk about is Mexican students protesting their government’s privatization of the national college.

Shortly thereafter, de la Rocha shuts down all press engagements for three weeks. (This presents a problem, as I have yet to secure an interview with him.) Epic publicist Lisa Markowitz explains via e-mail that the frontman was feeling overwhelmed.

"Zack takes talking to the press very seriously," Markowitz writes. "Hence, he does not like to do interviews if his head is not in the right space….Because much of what he talks about in interviews is politically based, he feels a major responsibility for how he articulates. Bottom line, if he doesn’t feel in the right place to do an interview, he just doesn’t do it."

Says Alan Light, editor in chief of Spin magazine, "Zack has some hard choices to make about what kind of rock star he wants to be. With this record, at this moment, Rage could be as big as they want to be. But how is Zack going to be able to navigate his politics, his convictions with being a multiplatinum rock star? Not just a subcultural hero, but a mass-culture icon."

"There’s always been contradiction built into the Rage project," Light continues. "But now is when a lot of that comes to the fore. Are you willing to really play the game with MTV? With the press? With the powers at Sony Music?"

For now, de la Rocha in unavailable to answer the tough questions. And though it’s arguable that as an artist he shouldn’t have to, he’s opened the proverbial can of worms. If a band insist that they and their music can make a difference, it’s fair to hold them accountable, to ask just exactly what it is they’re preaching, what kind of revolution they’re striving for.

"There’s no real precedent for this," says Morello, "so we’re making it up as we go along. There’s not a blueprint for a band that sells as many records as we do that has our kind of politics. So a lot of it is just figuring stuff out."

Micheal Rimoin is shaking. The 16-year-old white youngster stands in the courtyard just outside of Los Angeles’ Virgin Megastore on Sunset Boulevard. He has a shaved head and an electric guitar in his right hand. In his left, he’s holding a purple guitar pick aloft like he just found the Holy Grail.

"Dude, he gave me this fuckin’ guitar pick," he crows. Michael and a few fellow Harvard/Westlake High School students waited for hours in a line that stretched almost three blocks for the chance to meet the members of Rage Against the Machine. "I have a picture of him holding this pick on my wall! And now I’m being interviewed by VIBE magazine. This is the dopest day of my life!"

The joy on his face is so pure, it makes even the most hardened cynic believe that a rock band can change lives.

"I read all of the books [pictured] on the inside cover of the Evil Empire album," Michael says. "The Anarchist’s Cookbook, Johnny Got His Gun. I live in Beverly Hills. I would’ve never heard of all this shit otherwise. I wouldn’t even know about the Zapatista movement if it weren’t for Rage. And even if you hate their ideas, you can’t deny that they’re the greatest band alive."

Moments later, away from the controlled carnival atmosphere of the signing, Tom Morello and I hide out in a back office of the Virgin Megastore while the rest of the band pick up a few CDs. I tell his about an image I just saw that I can’t get out of my head: a white girl, about 12 years old, still a little baby fat around her cheeks, the kind of girl you see running around malls with her girlfriends all over America. Hanging from around her neck? A cardboard-mounted FREE MUMIA poster.

"That’s one of the questions I get asked all the time," Morello says with a frown. "Do you think the kids get it? That’s not only insulting to the band, but it’s insulting to our fans. It’s like, certainly the music critics get it. But they act like the people actually buying the records are a lower order of being, and that they couldn’t possibly get it. But that’s not true. You saw them out there. The message, the band’s philosophy, it isn’t hidden. It’s on every shirt and in every video and in every song. And in ever interview.

"The message in Rage Against the Machine’s music is the virus," Morello says. "It travels through jams."

Back home in Los Angeles, I flip on my 35-inch Sony. MTV. It’s Rage Against the Machine standing on blocks in the middle of a stark white room, a parody of those ubiquitous Gap commercials. But between the jams there are flashes of weary laborers sitting at sewing machines, images of glassy-eyed people turning into plastic mannequins.

I walk downstairs to get a newspaper. On the scaffolding right next to the newsstand, there’s some graffiti that wasn’t there before. A message scrawled in stark black spray paint. FREE MUMIA, it says, the outline of a face very clear.

The battle is being fought. And the virus is spreading.


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