Treble 100: No. 45, Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine

Avatar photo
Rage Against the Machine s/t album

The fusion of rap and rock music has come a long way. Both spheres of music have told stories from the underground with grit, immediacy and attitude. And though some of the earliest melding of the genres did capture that, on reflection, crossover moments like “Walk This Way” from Run-DMC and Aerosmith waded a little too far into kitsch.

In ‘90s Los Angeles, alt-rock had usurped Sunset Strip heavy metal while hardcore hip-hop exploded through the uncompromising voices of NWA, bringing gangsta rap to an unexpecting mass market. These two disparate styles provided a chasm that could only be bridged by bands daring enough to try; remarkably, we got (at least) two. Ice T’s Body Count shouldered against another destructive act blending ample arena hooks, metal theatrics, hardcore antagonism and rapped verses promoting a left-leaning iconoclastic agenda. So it was in 1992 that Rage Against The Machine best validated the rap-rock crossover with their own sense of purpose.

Tom Morello, an early adopter of anarchist philosophies in school, left for L.A. with fellow Chicagoan native and guitarist Adam Jones (later of Tool), fortuitously where Zack De La Rocha was cutting his teeth in the Orange County hardcore punk scene. When Morello drafted the singer for his admirable mic antics and shared family background in political activism—joined by De La Rocha’s childhood friend and bassist Tim Commerford, then bolstered by the powerful backbeat of Brad Wilk—Rage’s radical matchstick-laden demo cassette caught the attention of major labels. Giving the group full creative control, Epic’s gamble paid off from critical and commercial success, even for an act whose later live art pieces triggered TV studios, radio stations and pretty much everyone else that unleashed their passionate, eponymous anger through accident or intention. “I didn’t think we’d be able to book a gig in a club, let alone get a record deal,” Morello said. “There was no market for multi-racial, neo-Marxist rap-metal punk rock bands.” I couldn’t have phrased it any better myself.

But there they were, explicitly thrusting up eight middle fingers. Rage Against the Machine saw the unit fully formed in formaldehyde, shunning the powers that be in a coup armed with poisonous microphones and weaponized guitars. The self confessed “militant poet” De La Rocha cited politically oppressed figures at the hands of white supremacists or their home country, documented human plight in South Central Los Angeles and Johannesburg, and spoke of guerrilla fighters in Peru, while the band thanked a select choice of inspirations in the liner notes from Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton to Provisional IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. With cutting lines such as “Cellular phones soundin’ a death tone / Corporations cold turn you to stone before ya realize” or “Born with insight and a raised fist, a witness to the slit wrist / as we move into ’92, still in a room without a view,” hindsight proves how De La Rocha galvanized the group’s chemistry that hasn’t burned nearly as hot since. The remaining trio’s grounding to Chris Cornell’s soulful bellow gained reasonable success with Audioslave, while a far less rewardimg supergroup concept with exceptional wordsmiths Chuck D and B-Real slid sideways into cringe cover-band cash-in that it’s mind blowing to hear every player’s recipe for success falling so far from grace.

I digress. On the contrary, Rage Against the Machine couldn’t have lit up the decade with any more idiosyncratic flavor and swagger. The palm-muted string tickling of “Bombtrack” is still the snaking, flamed detonator to the gunpowder of Wilk’s drumming exploding their concept into life. De La Rocha is the curriculum-burning history and politics teacher, delivering heaps of attitude through tactful grunts and near-sarcastically spitting: “Ayo, it’s just another bombtrack.” Wilk balances powerhouse playing with crafty hip-hop breaks alongside ‘Timmy C’, whose menacing bass pulsates to let Morello flaunt along the fretboard with virtuosic hair metal arpeggios (“Township Rebellion”), or to treat his guitar like Grandmaster Flash’s deck setup on “Know Your Enemy,” featuring scene adjacent singer-in-the-making Maynard James Keenan.

So unusual are Morello’s bouncing licks that “no samples, keyboards or synthesizers used in the making of this record” had to be signposted. The man proved that guitars could make inconceivable noises, reinventing the instrument and producing a contender for any greatest-guitar-albums-of-all-time list with its siren sounds, funk fills and ad libs, quiet hums to full-scale leveling, ominous cliffhangers in the “Settle for Nothing” chorus and the closure-free outro of “Freedom” which continuously boils over from De La Rocha’s frazzled “Freedom? Yeah, right!” screams.

No matter when or where you first experience the metallic slap bass of “Take the Power Back,” or the harmonic laden stomp of “Fistful of Steel, the bottled electricity from decades past has never been let go. Like retrospective listens to the provocative punk culture timestamp Never Mind the Bollocks… or Reign In Blood’s blistering thrash, RATM’s self-titled acts as a climactic and throttling moment that penetrates from its successful, if not confrontational, mission statement. It’s tough to forget clutching the cover’s ultimate act of defiance –  Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation against U.S.-backed Ngô Đình Diệm’s persecution of Buddhists—or learning that the band pissed off Saturday Night Live for displaying inverted Stars and Stripe flags and getting booted off before playing “Bullet in the Head,” ironically the album’s graphic spotlight on the media’s lobotomizing effect on the populace.

So vivid was Rage Against the Machine’s definitive sound and image that their cultural significance spanned bizarre offshoots. Many first heard “Wake Up” after seeing Neo hanging up a telephone in The Matrix. In 1992, this reviewer was neither born nor had any inkling about socialist doctrine. Instead, Rage-excitement was introduced through a Guitar Hero III cyborg avatar of Morello, a stick-arm gripping his signature Arm the Homeless model and clunkily mimicking the pickup wiping technique on the “Bulls on Parade” solo (from the jointly excellent follow-up Evil Empire). Its hammerhead “lean of F#” octave lick, written on a broken-stringed acoustic by the fireplace, is the most fitting stylistic overhang since RATM’s debut: gnarly, simplistic riffs to get the headbangers throwing themselves into cyclone pits, left-turns to make the absence of computerized effects a real head-scratcher, all underscoring scathing verses on the dire state of things.

Speaking of, at this stage, “Killing In the Name” is not so much an important heyday soundtrack as an audible document of history repeating itself. Written before the vicious beating of Rodney King at the hands of Los Angeles police officers, their shared connotations mingled succinctly, from the legendary “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses” refrain, all through to its rightfully milked-to-death, spit-in-the-face closer. No anti-establishment anthem reverberates so truly when similar social injustices are brought to the world’s attention, and its whiplash effect remains so profound that it’s no wonder it has such a remarkable recontextualized legacy.

For myself and fellow British teenagers in 2009, far removed from the band’s cityscape battleground yet already educated in the school of politicized punk by De La Rocha et al, that December cemented RATM’s hold once more. Fans of the band hurt their faces with giddy grins when “Killing In the Name” was named UK Christmas number one, for little other reason than a Facebook user taking on cookie-cutter X Factor artists that defined every year’s top holiday spot. Less rage against a machine than a nationwide yawn against Simon Cowell, it catapulted the revolutionary anthem back into the mainstream, gained Rage a new legion of fans, and caused a fuss with suburban parents who’d never been told to go fuck themselves while they decorated celebratory pine trees. Incidentally, the whole tale’s rebellion against regurgitated made-for-the-masses bunkum gained the attention and support of Sir Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl and Johnny Rotten. The campaign’s grass-roots activism also struck a note with the band themselves, thanking the public with a few-and-far-between gig in Hyde Park complete with fence jumpers duly dodging imposed ticketing systems.

That felt as close a watershed moment as it may have been to hear 52 minutes of rock-funk-rap-metal brilliance upon the debut’s release. From that point onwards, a ripped captured image of De La Rocha, Morello, Commerford and Wilk excitedly playing in rehearsal has adorned many walls throughout my own life. But for all that poster represented my own personal appreciation for heavy music that stemmed from discovering the band’s first record, their own core principle extends to walls far further. As was its aim, Rage Against the Machine rightfully deserves its podium place as a politically evocative masterpiece. “Anger is a gift” is a potent a mantra in its call for revolt, perhaps too much for some to accept, but invoking change through music will always be pertinent when fatigue and frustration, politically and socially, is felt even more strongly. And we unfortunately don’t have to look too far for that.

Buy this album:

When you buy something through our affiliate links, Treble receives a commission. All albums we cover are chosen by our editors and contributors.

Treble is supported by its patrons. Become a member of our Patreon, get access to subscriber benefits, and help an independent media outlet continue delivering articles like these.

Scroll To Top