Anyone with half a mind knows that Rage Against The Machine were a hugely important and massively influential band. But you might not know that Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan sang on their self-titled debut album, or that documentary filmmaker Michael Moore was partly responsible for the band breaking up.
Here are 26 things you need to know about the Los Angeles rap-rock pioneers…
A is for Activism
Few protest bands can claim to have practiced what they preached quite as much as Rage Against The Machine. Throughout their time as an active unit, the band and its individual members participated in numerous political protests to support their revolutionary views: Tom Morello formed the non-profit organisation Axis Of Justice with System Of A Down frontman Serj Tankian, Zack De La Rocha aided the Marxist Zapatista rebels in Mexico, and the band famously shut down Wall Street whilst filming the music video for their anti-capitalist anthem Sleep Now In The Fire. Only a fool would question their commitment to the cause.
B is for Bulls On Parade
The lead single from RATM’s second album, Evil Empire, represents everything great about the band: the steadfast groove of its rhythm section driven by Brad Wilk’s urgent stop-start drum fills and the crunchy distortion of Tim Commerford’s bass, the unmistakable wah-wah guitar work of Tom Morello and his impenetrable solos that flip from explosive riffing to turntable scratching at the flip of a hat, and the rapid politicised polemic of vocalist Zack De La Rocha. Aside from that, it’s a scathing lambaste of the US military, seething in anger and explosive in deliverance, and a fine example of the rousing mix of music and politics that made RATM such an unstoppable force.
C is for Commerford, Tim
Bassist Tim Commerford is an imposing figure. He’s heavily tattooed, built like a brick shit house and unafraid of a ruckus – as his prop-climbing stunt at the 2000 VMAs proved. But it’s his musicianship that marks him out, and it’s impossible to imagine songs like Take the Power Back or Know Your Enemy without his booming bass slaps punctuating every exhilarating twist and turn. He’s also a pretty nifty singer too, as his latest project, hardcore punk trio Wakrat, has proved.
D is for Down Rodeo
You could pretty much use any Rage song as an example of what a brilliant lyricist Zack De La Rocha is, but the opening line from this promotional single for Evil Empire is particularly disarming: “So now I’m rollin’ down Rodeo with a shotgun / These people ain’t seen a brown skin man since their grandparents bought one.” It’s frontline class warfare, and just like the MC5 and Public Enemy before them, RATM deployed menacing soundscapes and unflinching imagery to address the social inequality in America – to equally staggering effects.
E is for Evil Empire
How do you follow something as faultless as the self-titled debut album from Rage Against The Machine? Lesser bands would’ve undoubtedly buckled under the pressure, but not these guys – they simply honed their skills and refined their attack: if Rage Against The Machine was a call to the arms then Evil Empire was an all out attack. The subjects of De La Rocha’s radical rhetoric range from the American dream (Tire Me) to right-wing propaganda (Vietnow) and the emancipation of the Zapatista peasants (Without A Face/People Of The Sun), whilst the musical foundations expanded to incorporate a deeper appreciation of funk and hip-hop, as well as post-hardcore and alternative metal bands like Fugazi and Helmet. No difficult second albums here.
F is for Fuck You I Won’t Do What You Tell Me
Repeat 15 times and add a “Motherfucker” on the end.
G is for Guerrilla Radio
This Grammy Award winning single taken from the band’s third studio album, The Battle Of Los Angeles, has been covered by acts as far-reaching (and far-fetched) as Richard Cheese and Alanis Morissette. That just proves how revered RATM were in the mainstream music world at the height of their career, and Guerrilla Radio is the rap-rock agitators at their very best. It’s the ultimate mix of rap and metal, in fact, and contains some of De La Rocha’s finest lyrics, including the immortal rallying cry, “It has to start somewhere / It has to start some time / What better place than here / What better time than now?”
H is for Hip-Hop
RATM weren’t the first act to meld the worlds of rock and hip-hop, but back in the early ‘90s they were certainly the most innovative, and they remain so to this day. De La Rocha’s mix of punk rock aggression and hip-hop lyricism was fundamental to the group dynamic, and Morello possessed an uncanny ability to switch between face melting metal riffs and the kind of funky sound effects traditionally created by DJs – only he did it all on a guitar. Simply put, without hip-hop there would be no Rage Against The Machine. Remember that the next time you say that rap music sucks.
I is for Irvine Meadows 1995
On June 17, 1995, RATM played the annual KROQ Weenie Roast at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in Irvine, California, the largest amphitheatre in Orange County. The setlist boasted highlights from their 1992 self-titled debut album and snapshots of their soon-to-be-released follow up Evil Empire, and the performance was recently re-mastered and released as the Irvine Meadows 1995 live album. As you’d expect from a live RATM record, it’s noisy, volatile and hard-hitting as hell.
J is for Jon Knox
Jon Knox was the drummer for Lock Up – an LA rock band that also featured Tom Morello on guitar. When the band broke up in 1990, it was Knox who actively encouraged bassist Tim Commerford and vocalist Zack De La Rocha to jam with Morello. Morello, in turn, extended the invitation to drummer Brad Wilk, who had unsuccessfully auditioned to be in Lock Up, and that line-up went on to form Rage Against The Machine. So we have Jon Knox to partly thank for the band. Incidentally, he also plays drums in Future User, Tim Commerford’s electronic progressive rock side-project.
K is for Killing In The Name
The band’s signature song, and the only Christmas number one ever to feature the positively non-festive lyrics, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” It’s now so well known that it’s become part of popular culture – even your gran knows it, much to her disapproval – yet it still sounds outright hostile, even to this day. There aren’t many songs that could pull that off, but then there aren’t many bands like Rage Against The Machine.
L is for Los Angeles (The Battle Of)
RATM’s third studio album, The Battle Of Los Angeles, came out in 1999. That means it’s been 17 years since we last heard new original material from the band. Yet here we are, still talking about them, nearly two decades later. What’s even more impressive is how fresh, vital and relevant their music still sounds, and The Battle Of Los Angeles was the moment the quartet perfected their art. The first three songs (Testify, Guerrilla Radio and Calm Like A Bomb) in particular are absolutely unstoppable, whilst the record as a whole serves as a lasting reminder of the groundbreaking music RATM created.
M is for Michael Moore
American documentary filmmaker Michael Moore might be the man to blame for RATM breaking up in the first place. After all, it was him who encouraged Tim Commerford to protest Limp Bizkit winning the Best Video Award at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, a stunt that ultimately led to Zack De La Rocha quitting the band. But we won’t hold it against him, especially since the director made a couple of great videos for the band before they split, namely Testify and Sleep Now In The Fire, which as mentioned earlier led to the New York Stock Exchange momentarily shutting down. All in an afternoon’s work for RATM and Michael Moore.
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N is for Nu-Metal
Even though they wouldn’t like to admit it (they abhor the very suggestion of it), Zack De La Rocha and company massively influenced the army of genremashers that followed in their footsteps, and without them there would arguably be no Korn, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park or Papa Roach. So in a sense, RATM are largely responsible for nu-metal. Don’t let them hear you say that, mind.
O is for Other Projects
If the four musicians in Rage Against The Machine had only ever done RATM, that would’ve been enough to cement their legacy. But they’ve also given us so much more; from the hard rock juggernaut of Audioslave to the revolutionary rap rock of Prophets Of Rage, the band have continued without De La Rocha while he’s been off making music with the likes of DJ Shadow and Trent Reznor. And then there’s all the other bands RATM’s members have started or joined: One Day As A Lion (De La Rocha), The Nightwatchman and Bruce Springsteen (Morello), Future User and WAKRAT (Commerford), and Black Sabbath and Juliette Lewis & the Licks (Brad Wilk). Basically, when it comes to other projects these boys don’t fuck about.
P is for Prophets Of Rage
People who aren’t interested in Prophets Of Rage because Zack isn’t in the band are being silly. Zack is irreplaceable, everyone knows that. But why the hell would you not want to see B-Real and Chuck D slay their way through a set of RATM, Cypress Hill and Public Enemy bangers? We need political bands more than ever right now, and if the prospect of RATM’s three iconic musicians teaming up with two of the originators of hip-hop doesn’t excite you, then honestly, what fucking well does? A new Rage Against The Machine album? Fair enough. We’ll give you that one.
Q is for Quảng Đức, Thích
Thích Quảng Đức was the Vietnamese Buddist monk who burned himself to death on a busy road in Saigon in 1963 in protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. Take a minute to let that act of inconceivable heroism sink in. No wonder, then, that RATM chose to use a photograph of his burning body for the front cover of their debut album. When the original photo began to circulate, US President John F. Kennedy is quoted as saying, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” A truly iconic cover for a truly iconic album.
R is for Renegades
The fourth and final RATM album was the covers album Renegades, and as far as covers albums go, it’s definitely up there with the best of them. It was also the perfect full stop on their recording career, leaving fans with the necessary tools to go back and trace the roots of the band through the various acts that inspired them. From the classic rock of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, to punk pioneers MC5, The Stooges and Minor Threat, and hip-hop legends Afrika Bambaataa and Eric. B & Rakim, RATM took the songs and made them unequivocally their own – and introduced a whole new generation to the great lineage of protest music in the process.
S is for Stephen Perkins
Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins appeared on RATM’s self-titled debut album, adding background percussion to Know Your Enemy. The song also features Tool’s Maynard James Keenan performing trance-like vocals during the bridge section, where he sings the enduring words, “I’ve got no patience now / So sick of complacence now / Sick of you / Time has come to pay.” Originally, Perkin’s co-conspirator Perry Farrell was scheduled to sing the part but for whatever reason he couldn’t do it, so Maynard stepped in at the last minute and absolutely nailed it. And if you listen closely to the song, amidst all of Timmy C’s bass slapping and Tom Morello’s guitar heroics, you’ll hear Stephen Perkins banging on stuff alongside Brad Wilk.
T is for Tom Morello
Tom Morello was Generation X’s answer to Jimi Hendrix – a true guitar hero in every sense of the word. He played guitar like no one else and he looked cool as fuck while doing it. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Stooges, The Clash, Sex Pistols, Fugazi, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and The Bomb Squad can all be heard in his hybrid of heavy metal/punk rock riffs and hip-hop sound effects, and his blend of gizmos, solos and power chords created a new sonic vocabulary for a new wave of rock guitarists. And that’s before you even get into all the amazing work he’s done outside of RATM (that little known supergroup Audioslave, for instance), not to mention his political activism, rallying and charity work. Tom Morello is a total badass.
U is for Urban Dance Squad
We’ve already name-checked most of the heavy metal, rock, punk and hip-hop acts that inspired RATM’s Molotov cocktail of sound, but one band that rarely gets mentioned is Dutch crossover crew Urban Dance Squad. Formed in Amsterdam in 1986, they fused a multitude of genres (jazz, ska, reggae, funk, soul, hip-hop, rock and metal) in groundbreaking style, inspiring not just RATM but also fellow LA musical mixologists Fishbone and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. If you like all those bands, these guys are well worth checking out.
V is for Voice Of The Voiceless
Voice Of The Voiceless is the title of an album track on The Battle of Los Angeles, but it’s also a neat summary of the band’s mantra, for they truly were the voice of the voiceless. The majority of alternative rock bands that rose to fame during the ‘90s appeared to be offering an alternative to the mainstream, but their core audience was often made up of white middle-class suburban kids, and there was very little in their music that spoke to the more marginalised and victimised members of society. RATM changed all that. They used music to address domestic and global concerns such as cultural imperialism and government oppression, and in doing so highlighted issues often overlooked in the mainstream media.
W is for Wilk, Brad
Brad Wilk is the drummer in Rage Against The Machine. But then you already know that. What you might not know is he’s obsessed with the number three: the number can often be spotted on his drum kit, and he even has it tattooed on his arm. Weird, huh? He also played drums on the last Black Sabbath album, 13, as well as all three Audioslave albums (there’s that number again), and he’s jammed with the likes of Foo Fighters, Puscifer and the Smashing Pumpkins over the years. But it’s his work as one half of RATM’s powerhouse rhythm section that he’s most celebrated for, and the thunderous beats he laid down across those four era-defining albums will have us air drumming for many years to come -– at least 333, right Brad?
X is for X Factor
From 2005-08, the Christmas number one spot in the UK Singles Chart was dominated by god-awful songs performed by winners from The X Factor. By 2009 one British citizen had had enough. With the help of his wife Tracy, rock DJ Jon Morter launched a Facebook campaign to end Simon Cowell’s reign of terror by instating Killing In The Name as that year’s festive number one, and they only bloody well snagged it. The song sold over half a million copies and became the first exclusively download-only single to be Christmas number one. It was a glorious victory for grassroots activism and underground music, and the band celebrated by throwing a free gig in Finsbury Park, followed by a triumphant headline set at Download Festival in 2010. We’re still waiting on that new music they promised us though.
Y is for YOU ARE NOT A SLAVE
Inside the sleeve for the Renegades album is a photo of an American dollar bill with the words “YOU ARE NOT A SLAVE” written on the back. The cover itself parodied/paid homage to the Pop Art image LOVE by Robert Indiana, who later designed the HOPE logo for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and it remains one of their most visually arresting album sleeves. The band, of course, were also the masters of agitprop sloganeering and this phrase stands out as one of their most memorable. YOU ARE NOT A SLAVE.
Z is for Zack De La Rocha
What better way to conclude our A-Z of Rage Against The Machine than by paying tribute to the band’s vocalist, Zack De La Rocha. Not only is he one of the greatest lyricists to ever pick up a pen, and one of the fiercest singers to ever pick up a mic, he’s also one of the most outstanding champions of human rights in the history of recorded music. Indeed, it’s hard to think of another musician who’s done more frontline fighting for justice and equality than him. And as great as Audioslave were, and as exciting a proposition as the Prophets Of Rage might be, nothing the other band members have done has matched the material they made with Zack as the frontman – just like nothing he’s done without them can compare to the vocal performances he delivered in Rage Against The Machine. The magic lies in the chemistry between those four individuals, and the sooner they get back in a room and start writing songs together again, the better – for everyone. Are you listening lads? We need you now more than ever.