Louder Than Bombs: What Really Happened When Zack de la Rocha Quit RATM?

RATM live in 1996
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In October 2000, Zack de la Rocha walked out of Rage Against The Machine, the band he fronted for nine years. Just days after the news broke, guitarist Tom Morello talked to us about the truth behind the split, their Renegades covers albums and what he and his bandmates planned to do next…

Tuesday September 12, 2000. The atmosphere inside LA’s Grand Olympic Auditorium is electric. Inside, thousands of people have gathered to witness local heroes Rage Against The Machine play the first of two sold-out shows, both of which are being recorded for a forthcoming live album. But there’s a strange feeling in the air too. Rumous abound that Rage are about to split, and that these gigs will be their last. And considering the widely reported internal tensions that frequently surrounded the band, the possibility that the word on the street was true simply can’t be ignored.

Judging from their performance tonight, Rage don’t look like a band on the verge of imploding. Guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk crank out their razor-sharp backdrop to Zack de la Rocha’s seething polemic. At the end of the show, the band grin as they bid their farewells. Contrary to rumours, it looks as though everything is running smoothing in the Rage Against The Machine camp for the first time in years.

Zack De La Rocha at London's Brixton Academy in 1993

Zack De La Rocha at London's Brixton Academy in 1993 (Image credit: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

Six weeks later, Zack de la Rocha drops a bombshell. On Wednesday October 18, the frontman issues a statement to the press announcing: “I feel that it is now necessary to leave Rage, because our decision making process has completely failed. It is no longer meeting the aspirations of all four of us collectively, as a band, and from my perspective has undermined our artistic and political ideal.

“I am extremely proud of our work,” the statement continues. “Both as activists and musicians, as well as indebted and grateful to every person who has expressed solidarity and shared this incredible experience with us.”

After months of speculation, the most groundbreaking, incendiary and politically-driven band of the past 10 years has finally ground to an inglorious halt. “Rage Against The Machine has been a tremendously volatile rock rollercoaster for nine whole years,” laughs guitarist Tom Morello. “It actually comes as something as a surprise that the original line-up has remained intact all this time. It’s important to emphasise that Rage Against The Machine have not broken up. Zack has left the band. Tim, Brad and myself will continue to make groundbreaking music.

Zack’s migration from the Rage ranks is untimely, to say the least. November 27 sees the release of Renegades, an album comprised of covers of revolutionary classics, including the MC5’s Kick Out The Jams, Minor Threat’s In My Eyes and the Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man. Recorded just weeks before de la Rocha’s exit, it doesn’t sound like the work of a band in turmoil.

“Zack called me the morning that the press release was issued,” explains Tom. “One thing that might not be clearly understood is that we were in a period where he was planning to take 18 months to two years off. He wasn’t planning on writing another Rage song or playing another Rage show until 2003. So, as far as it did come as a surprise, in our daily schedule it didn’t have a huge impact on the rest of us. I was disappointed that, come 2003, we wouldn’t be booking a world tour, but Tim, Brad and I were planning to continue to work together and make new music. Those plans will continue.”

Was there any hostility expressed towards Zack in the aftermath of the shock revelation? “No, we parted company on good terms and we wish him well,” he states democratically. “There’s been some confusion over this record, since it coincides with Zack’s departure. It’s a studio album, with Zack as the vocalist. For Timmy, Brad and myself, we’re really proud of this record and want everyone to know about it.”

There has been much speculation over the reasons behind de la Rocha’s sudden decision to leave the band he helped form in 1991. Some sources have pointed towards Tim Commerford’s bizarre antics at the MTV Video Music Awards in September, where the bassist chose to scale a 15-foot stage prop during Limp Bizkit’s award acceptance speech. Commerford’s reluctance to come down angered the vocalist, who left the awards ceremony as a result, telling reporters he felt “humiliated” by his bandmate’s behaviour. Others attribute the departure to on-going internal tension within the band.

“It’s not unique among rock bands to find the occasional dissension,” he said at the time. “But compared to music we make and the causes we pursue, it’s not so interesting.” Right now, Morello refuses to be drawn on the subject of why he thinks Zack quit. “You’d have to ask him,” he explains. “Let’s just say Rage Against The Machine’s forces made us burn brightly and burn quickly. There’s been a constant tension that’s been an enormous challenge for us all over the years. Zack did what he had to do.”

Hanging out, RATM's Tim Commerford scales the heights at the 2000 MTV Video Awards

Hanging out, RATM's Tim Commerford scales the heights at the 2000 MTV Video Awards (Image credit: Getty Images)

Morello says that after the initial promotion for both Renegades and the subsequent live album – which is set for release next year – the remaining members will “figure out what the future holds for the band”. Will you carry on using the name Rage Against The Machine? It is, after all, taken from a song by Zack’s former band Inside Out. “Again, that’s something we’ve got to figure out,” he remarks. “Right now, what we’re concentrating on is Renegades. We’ve got some great ideas for the band, but we’ve got to figure all that out in the coming months.”

Naturally, Morello and co face the arduous task of finding a singer capable of filling de la Rocha’s boots. Various names have been bandied around, including Downset’s Rey Oropeza and Orange 9mm’s Chaka Malik. However, reports suggest that the remaining members of Rage have already approached Cypress Hill frontman B-Real – both parties have been seen out and about together in LA, and the rapper is rumoured to be joining the band in rehearsals shortly, with a view to hitting the road in support of the new records next year.

However, Morello remains evasive on the subject of the replacement vocalist. “We don’t know,” he states. “I couldn’t tell you right now. I’m very optimistic about what the future holds, especially because it hold two Rage records with Zack. He’s a fantastic vocalist and I cannot wait for people to hear what we’ve done. It’s a very fortunate circumstance.

“B-Real has done stuff in the past,” he continues. “He’s on this new record, so I can see where these rumours may have sprung from. Not only is he a great MC, but he’s also a great friend too.” So is he in the frame? “Seriously, we have not made a decision,” says Morello. “We’ve got some great ideas on how to move forward, but we’ll see where everyone’s head is at and take it from there.”

What if, in the future, both parties decide that the best plan of action is to reform. Will the door still be open for Zack? “Well, we’ll have to see where we’re at as a band,” he replies. “He just quit the band a couple of weeks ago. We’re going to hold off a while before even announcing the reunion tour. We’ll see. It’s something I haven’t even considered yet.”

Have you had any contact with your fans since the announcement? “Yeah,” he expounds. “The support has been incredible. There’s been a tremendous amount of love and solidarity shown through the years. We’re not going to let our fans down. Our fans everywhere have been amazing. We’ve got a special relationship with our fans in Los Angeles. There’s nothing like it when we play a show there. The fact that those were the last shows with Zack, I’m glad they were in our home town. And we recorded them for our live record. It was a fitting parting shot.”

Considering the current situation, it’s ironic that the band have two records ready for release: the aforementioned live album and, more immediately, Renegades. Did anyone in the band have an inkling that this would be the last time you would enter a studio together? “No, not at all,” says Morello. “Not while we were in the studio. It was done with spontaneity and light-heartedness. Actually it was done with the same spontaneity as we had experienced on the first record. We were having a great time, and I think Rick Rubin had a great time producing the record. He pushed us when we were in the studio. It works because we were able to let go of some of our conventions, and we pushed ourselves musically.”

So how did the idea for an album of covers come about? “This record grew out of the idea of doing a couple of bonus tracks for the live record we were working on,” he enthuses. “It was one of the most fertile creative periods since the band started. We lucked out, and those two songs became 12 songs. Still, we always just wanted to put out the live record but we sat down and listened to what we had recorded. It hit us that this is a record in itself. I love the idea of the concept. I don’t think there’s been another record like it where someone has recorded an album’s worth of revolutionary songs but classic hip-hop and rock bands.”

What came out best in your opinion? “For a while, I had the idea if a band – a rock ‘n’ roll band – were to attempt to play like The Prodigy and do Street Fighting Man in honour of the Democratic National Convention here in Los Angeles or the WTO protest, it would work. We did it at the Reading Festival, but it was a very unformed version of it. I think Maggie’s Farm is a Sabbath-esque rendering of the Dylan classic. I love the reworking of Devo’s Beautiful World. We remixed Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost Of Tom Joad too. I always thought Jimi Hendrix’s version of All Along The Watchtower can’t even be really a cover song, because his reinterpretation of it makes it a completely new song. I think that kind of applies to Rage’s cover versions.”

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Despite the recent changes, Morello predicts the foreseeable future will be busy. He’s planning to finish a book on the lives of leading black activists he’s been sporadically working on over the past few years. But for now, his priority is Rage Against The Machine. “Obviously, we want everyone to know about these new albums,” he laughs. “But I’ve also been working with Crystal Method, co-producing and writing some tracks on their album.”

His train of thought is momentarily distracted. “You know what?” he gasps. “I’m still getting over the new album. It was only recently that I actually sat down and listened to the whole thing, back to back.” Did it bring home a sense of closure to this chapter of the band’s life? “It had a poignancy,” he sighs. “I was at my mom’s house in Illinois and Rick sent me this CD. I just sat down and listened to it all the way through. It struck me as being a really positive album amid the whole drama.”

The 60 Second Rage Against The Machine Quiz

Simon Young

Born in 1976 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Simon Young has been a music journalist for over twenty years. His fanzine, Hit A Guy With Glasses, enjoyed a one-issue run before he secured a job at Kerrang! in 1999. His writing has also appeared in Classic RockMetal HammerProg, and Planet Rock. His first book, So Much For The 30 Year Plan: Therapy? — The Authorised Biography is available via Jawbone Press.