The Battle of Rage Against the Machine

The mightiest band in rock & roll is ready to take on racism, economic injustice and political oppression - but first they had to learn to get along with each other

Rage Against the Machine on the cover of Rolling Stone
Martin Schoeller
Rage Against the Machine on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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Zack de la Rocha clearly recalls how the hurt, anger and cruel surprise – the compound whack of ignorant racism – literally knocked the speech out of him. The singer and lyricist of Rage Against the Machine was in high school: a solitary Mexican-American teenager in a classroom of bone-white faces, a self-conscious exception to the privileged homogeneity of the Los Angeles suburb of Irvine, California. A teacher was leading a discussion about rock formations on the state's Pacific coast.

"He was describing one of the areas between San Diego and Oceanside," de la Rocha says, "and as a reference to this particular area of the coastline, he said, 'You know, that wetback station there.' And everyone around me laughed. They thought it was the funniest thing that they ever heard."

De la Rocha's voice – usually a rapid-fire thing, a formidable weapon of debate in conversation and on the three Rage albums he has made with guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk – drops to a measured snarl: "I remember sitting there, about to explode. I realized that I was not of these people. They were not my friends. And I remember internalizing it, how silent I was. I remember how afraid I was to say anything."

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He later told his mother, Olivia, what had happened. "She was disgusted by it," de la Rocha says. "She was well aware of the ignorance that permeated the whole town. But she was tied to finishing her dissertation there" – Olivia de la Rocha was completing work toward her Ph.D. in anthropology at the Irvine campus of the University of California –"and she saw the pain that I had internalized as a result of living there."

Yet Zack – short for Zacarias – made a pivotal, empowering decision in class that day. "I told myself," he says, "that I would never be silent again. I would never allow myself to not respond to that type of situation – in any form, anywhere."

De la Rocha, 29, now externalizes his indignation – at large and at high volume. "He's unafraid to call people out on things, ill racist shit, things that are just not right," says Commerford, who has known the singer since grade school. During Rage's mighty Saturday-night set at Woodstock '99, de la Rocha tried to sober up the mosh pit with a call for justice for the jailed American Indian activist Leonard Peltier. Two weeks later, at a Rage show in Honolulu, de la Rocha cut the music to scold male goons in the pit who were harassing female crowd surfers. And last spring, he donned a suit and tie for an unusual solo gig: an appearance in Geneva before the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights, where he called for a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the journalist and former Black Panther whose conviction and death sentence for the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer have already been questioned by Amnesty International and the European Parliament. (Abu-Jamal is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on December 2nd.)

De la Rocha is also a habitue of the northeast corner of MacArthur Park in downtown L.A., where he is perched on a sunny park bench and talking at high speed between drags on a parade of cigarettes. He jerks a thumb over his shoulder at a square white building across the street: the office of the Consulate General of Mexico. On Thursdays and Fridays at 6 P.M., demonstrators gather there to protest Mexican army actions in the state of Chiapas against farms and villages allied with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. De la Rocha, who has traveled to Chiapas and worked with campesinos in Zapatista communities, is often among the marchers.

"It's been hard for me to create that balance between writing music and also being a part of the solidarity movement in L.A.," he says with the weariness of someone trying to live two lives at once. But de la Rocha's militant labors are indivisibly tangled with his eight bumpy, triumphant years with Rage: more than 7 million copies sold worldwide of the band's first two albums, 1992's Rage Against the Machine and 1996's Evil Empire, visionary packages of war-cry rap and politicized Zeppelin; the incandescent stage shows and newsmaking benefits for Abu-Jamal, Rock for Choice and Britain's Anti-Nazi League; the personal tensions that have bedeviled the band since its inception and prolonged the genesis of Rage's third album, The Battle of Los Angeles, which took more than a year to finish.

Morello, 35 – himself a rarity in modern rock, an African-American socialist with a Harvard degree who plays guitar like a Marxist Jimmy Page – characterizes the troubles and glories of being Rage this way: "If we were just singing about driving with the top down, this band would have broken up a long time ago."

Indeed, de la Rocha will not rock without mission: "That's why I'm in this band – to give space and volume to various struggles throughout the country and the world. To me, the tension that exists in this band, and its effect on me, is a minimal sacrifice."

Without the politics, he contends, "I would not be in this band. And that's the honest truth."

There is a startling moment of quiet on The Battle of Los Angeles – near the end of "Guerrilla Radio," after a blast of the hallelujah chorus ("Lights out, guerrilla radio/Turn that shit up!") and Morello's squealing-hog guitar break. Against a bed of dead air, de la Rocha flattens his voice into a snake hiss and demands Armageddon on the double: "It has to start somewhere/It has to start sometime/What better place than here/What better time than now." Then, after a half second of nothing, de la Rocha explodes all over Commerford and Wilk's crushing funk-metal cadence and Morello's concrete-block power chords: "All hell can't stop us now!"

Hot, taut and so in-your-face that it sounds like the band and its producer, Brendan O'Brien, cut the album inside your skull, The Battle of Los Angeles is Rage Against the Machine at the top of their warrior-rock game, a record that rants and rolls like the MC5's Kick Out the Jams hammered into hip-hop shape by the Bomb Squad. In the commercial high season of rap-metal fusion, Rage drop their electric hymns for the underclass – "Testify," "Born of a Broken Man," "New Millennium Homes," "War Within a Breath" – like A-bombs into Kid Rock's hot tub.

But to sing of hell, Rage endure much of their own making. They can be as militant with one another as they are on behalf of Abu-Jamal and sweatshop workers. Intense sprints of writing and touring are punctuated by long, mutually agreed-upon periods of separation. The group members do not generally socialize off the road. The results: just three studio albums in eight years, a slim library for a band of such enormous gifts and activist designs.

"The energy between us is not an even-keeled thing," says Wilk, 31, laughing at his own understatement. "Either nothing's going on or we're no percent full on. Maybe that is the reason we still are able to do this. We take the time off before we get sick of each other and break up."

Commerford, also 31, notes that at a recent band meeting, he was given a list of every show Rage had ever played. He was shocked to find the tally in the low three digits. "I can't remember the exact number," he says, "but it was like 380 shows. I was thinking we'd played more like a thousand."

But, he adds quickly, "we take the time, and it builds up the angst. Then when we go onstage, it's not all 'Hey!' – big smile on face, rockin' with the girls. It's fierce rock. Always."

"I'm still learning about the thing that is Rage Against the Machine," Morello confesses one morning over an International House of Pancakes breakfast in Hollywood. "We are four people who are wired completely differently – and have been, at times, superinsensitive to each other. Without any malice aforethought.

"I want to underscore that it's much better now," he insists, citing the big pow of Los Angeles as proof. Also, Rage are currently without management and are effectively overseeing their own affairs – without a referee. When prodded about past troubles, all four members slip into euphemisms such as "issues" and "tensions." They don't like going back over thin ice.

Finally, Morello describes, for example's sake, Rage's darkest hour as a band: de facto house arrest in Atlanta in the winter of '94-'95, during which Rage's record label, Epic, pressed the group to get started on an overdue second LP. "There was," he explains, "no musical or personal communication going on. We were unable to agree on anything – to write music or choose a T-shirt design. Our A&R guy, Michael Goldstone, said, 'Let's get rid of every distraction. You guys live in a house down there. Either write a record or don't be a band anymore.'

"It was," Morello sums up with evident regret, "like [MTV's] Real World times ten." Rage rehearsed daily but left Atlanta without one new song. In comparison, consider this: Rage wrote nearly all of their debut album in one month – and cut a twelve-song independent cassette before playing their first L.A. club show. Another measure of the band's Atlanta agony: Goldstone, now an A&R executive at Dream-Works, says the group-living experiment lasted about four weeks. Morello claims it was five months. No doubt it felt that long. (Evil Empire was finished and released a year later, in April 1996.)

"My frustration," Goldstone says now, "was, 'How can I be involved with a band this great and not figure out a way to get them to make records?'" But he contends that the music was incomplete without the arguing: "The differences made it difficult to move the process along, but it was the conflict that made the band so great."

The slow, weird birth of Los Angeles belies its live-at-the-front-lines immediacy. After Rage cut the steaming "No Shelter" in February 1998 for the otherwise sorry-ass Godzilla soundtrack, Morello, Wilk and Commerford wanted to keep going and begin a third Rage album. Out of fear of reliving Atlanta, de la Rocha said fine. For the time being, they could start without him. Which they did.

"I was unable to separate myself from some of the tensions going on within the band," says de la Rocha, an accomplished guitarist, drummer and bassist who actively contributed music, as well as the lyrics, to the first two records. He shakes his head in embarrassment. "Shit, given what people are experiencing these days, people in Mexico whose entire existence is being threatened, if this is all I have to contend with . . . " He laughs, then goes serious again. "But it did affect the way I wrote."

De la Rocha labored over his vocals and verse – machine-gun sprays of battle metaphor and hot-wired hip-hop dialects; part Chuck D, part Joe Strummer, no love songs – for months, deep into '99. He drowned himself in his favorite writers: Gil Scott-Heron, Amiri Baraka, the Cuban poet Jose Marti and the Uruguayan journalist and essayist Eduardo Galeano, whom de la Rocha cites as his biggest influence ("He is to Latin American literature what Che Guevara was to the Cuban revolution"). De la Rocha also went into self-imposed exile in New York, where he filled notebooks and journals as he walked the Lower East Side and hung out at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe – "chatting with folks," he says, "listening to them deliver their souls out through their poetry.

"I have the Leonard Cohen approach to writing," de la Rocha admits, grinning. "You start a great piece – and six or seven months down the line, you pick it up again and work with it. I have to make sure this music resonates with people, that it doesn't talk to them. What I did a lot on the last record was, 'This is what I think. This is my comment.' I've had to change. I want people to see reflections of themselves in the songs."

Morello now professes to be at peace with the edgy, arrhythmic quality of Rage life. "If we wrote three songs a day, I'd be OK with that," he says wistfully. "But with Rage Against the Machine, the band I want to be in, that doesn't happen."

De la Rocha insists that the music's higher duty supersedes all bullshit below: "We engage in what we think is important work: to present ideas that are not accessible to young people, to allow them to look through our music as another lens to see the world.

"To me, he says, his voice tight with purpose, "that is an important thing to protect."

Sitting in an L.A. hotel room one evening, de la Rocha pulls a cigarette from a turquoise-green pack of American Spirit and explains how he picked up his one major vice – smoking – in Chiapas.

"We'd wake up in the morning and as part of our project for the day, we'd meet with the campesinos and cook for them," he says. "And one of the ways to initiate conversations was to pick up a cigarette. I'd never smoked before, but I'd have one and communicate a bit. J thought, 'This is nasty, but I'm gonna do it.'"

The Battle of Los Angeles is thick with images drawn from de la Rocha's four tours of duty in Chiapas: "Calm Like a Bomb," "War Within a Breath," the graphic tale of "Maria," a young Mexican woman who is murdered on a U.S. sweatshop floor. On his first trip, in the spring of 1995, de la Rocha joined a team of observers from Mexico City monitoring talks between the Zapatista army and Mexican government officials. At one point, de la Rocha's group formed a protective human chain around the building where the negotiations took place – "to make sure," he says, "that if there was any attempt on the Zapatistas' lives, we would be there." De la Rocha has also organized awareness-raising expeditions from L.A. to the region; assisted in Spanish- and English-language classes for indigenous villagers; and participated in Zapatista-community defense patrols. "Did I carry a gun? No, no," he insists. "Just my pen."

Because he doesn't write about it – de la Rocha refuses to stoop to specific autobiography in his songs ("It is very indulgent") – you would not know that he has personal roots in Mexican and Chicano revolutionary affairs. Early in this century, his maternal grandfather fled Sonora, Mexico, to escape turmoil there and was a farm worker in Northern California. And Beto de la Rocha, Zack's father, was a member of Los Four, a pioneering collective of painters in Los Angeles whose politically charged mix of Hispanic iconography, graffiti and vibrant portraiture transformed Chicano art in the Seventies. Among Los Four's first pieces were street paintings with three words: "Chicano Art Existe!" "That was it," says Zack." 'It exists! Here we are!'

"He was a very interesting character," de la Rocha says of his father, who was also a master printer and the art editor of several independent Chicano-movement publications. "He refused to sell his art work: 'What do you mean, sell my pieces? This is popular art.' I admire him for his position. But his sense of realism, given the situation – 'Look, there are only so many roaches we're gonna pull out of the cereal box.'"

The family could not survive on Beto's idealism. After his parents divorced, Zack commuted between the two for a time, until Beto fell into a punishing spiral of frustration and religious obsession. He burned many of his creations and stopped painting altogether. "He was trying to salvage himself," Zack says, "trying to get a sense of his own identity."

Zack remains in contact with Beto and says the latter is very aware of his son's work. Beto is also painting and exhibiting again. "It's a really exciting thing," says Zack proudly. "I think he kind of saw in me a reflection of himself that he used to know. All the stuff he was once very in touch with – I saw the imagery coming back in his work." One recent series by Beto incorporates small dolls of Zapatista figures –like those actually made and sold by the Indians in Chiapas – against images of historic Mexican revolutionaries such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.

"It's fucking magical for me," Zack raves, "to see that resurface in him after all the struggle he went through. For him to come through that, for me to somehow make it happen…"

His brown eyes dance with delight. "It's a beautiful time."

I was totally blown away." That is how Morello describes his first impression of de la Rocha – at the mike, free-styling, at one of the get-acquainted jams that led to the formation of Rage Against the Machine, in 1991. "It was the passion of his performance in rehearsal. We were playing in some guy's sweaty side room of his mom's house, and Zack was as intense as he is onstage.

"But the real clincher was when I looked through his book of poems and lyrics. It was like I'd found an ideological brother. And it wasn't just paragraphs about Mao and Paraguay. It was great poetry." Much of de la Rocha's writing in that book, including "Take the Power Back" and "Bullet in the Head," ended up on Rage Against the Machine. The name of the band came from another song de la Rocha had performed with his previous band, Inside Out.

Morello also has a full-blast personality – a high-speed wallop of competitive drive, sharp business sense and higher education, spiked with a warm, wide smile and a loud, rattling laugh. "Tom can be kicking your ass at Madden 99," says Commerford, referring to the PlayStation football game. "Then you can ask him, 'Tom, tell me something about the political situation in Peru,' and he breaks into it at the drop of a hat." Commerford points out that it was Morello's idea to make the demo cassette, sold at Rage shows, that had record-company business cards flying at the band by its third gig.

"Businessman Tom Morello, cracking the whip," Commerford says, grinning. "I remember going, 'Man, we can stop at eight songs. Eight will be fine.' He's like, 'No, we need more. We need twelve.' And that's what we did."

"He is the guy in the band who always wants to do as much as we possibly can," Wilk says of Morello. Wilk also admits that when he discovered that Morello was a Harvard alumnus, "I thought there was going to be this really pretentious vibe. He really didn't come off like that. A lot of times, Tom is just a joker."

Morello was born in Harlem, into what he calls "a very political household." His African father, Ngethe Njoroge, is a former rebel and diplomat. He was part of the Mau Mau guerrilla movement that fought for Kenya's independence from Great Britain, and he was Kenya's first representative to the United Nations after the country won its freedom in 1963. Morello's mother, Mary, who is white, has long been active in civil-rights and free-speech efforts. She worked with the Urban League and the NAACP in the Sixties and Seventies; in the late Eighties, before her son started playing with Rage, she founded Parents for Rock and Rap in opposition to right-wing censorship efforts against rock and hip-hop. "Here's this suburban more, a retired schoolteacher, speaking out about 2 Live Crew," Morello says admiringly.

"His bedroom door was always open," Mary says of Tom, "and when he listened to anything – Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper – he'd always call me in to listen. And I listened. Twice I took him to Alice Cooper concerts."

She, in turn, gave her son vital lessons in equality and self-worth. "What I've always told him," Mary says, "is you are no better or less than any other person. And we've met lots of prejudice, believe me." Tom's parents split up when he was very young; Mary and Tom then moved to Libertyville, Illinois, a largely white suburb of Chicago. For a time, Mary had trouble finding a job because she and Tom were an interfacial family. She once found a noose that someone had hung in her garage. And Tom, like de la Rocha, felt the cold slap of racism at an early age. "When you're on the playground, fools calling you names," he says flatly, "that's political."

So was his reaction. "I always exposed Tom to everything to read," says Mary, "which he did." In his teens, Tom studied books about the Black Panthers and wrote about civil rebellion in Central America and South Africa for an underground high school paper. At Harvard, where he graduated with a degree in social studies, he juggled obsessive guitar practice with anti-apartheid protests.

Today, Morello dismisses his two years as a scheduling secretary for Democratic senator Alan Cranston of California as a "day gig" and calls himself, without hesitation, "a socialist. I believe that people should have meaningful control over their society, which we don't have. And there should be democracy in the workplace, as well as in politics." In December 1997, Morello was one of thirty-three people arrested in Santa Monica, California while demonstrating against alleged sweatshop conditions at plants manufacturing Guess Jeans.

Wilk concedes that in comparison to Morello and de la Rocha, he is a student of politics. "When we first started the band, I was learning shit," he says quite openly. "The stuff that I was learning from Tom and Zack – my eyes were opened in the same way as our fans'."

Commerford says much the same thing: "If I could go back in time, to high school, with this knowledge, I'd be psyched," he crows. "There wasn't anything like that for me, except for the Clash." Commerford finds it ironic that he is now playing the messenger. Recently, he's been talking about the Abu-Jamal case with two guys on his neighborhood flag-football team, both black police officers. "They really didn't know anything about it," says Commerford. "I was a little bummed."

But Wilk (born in Portland, Oregon, the son of a jewelry salesman) and Commerford (a native Californian who learned to play Sex Pistols songs on the bass from de la Rocha in grade school) are hardly silent partners in a Morello- de la Rocha war ministry. "They all have the same interests," says Mary Morello, who has, on occasion, introduced the band onstage. She recalls going to an early Rage rehearsal where she gave Tom a book on Che Guevara. The other guys then said, "Where's mine?" Mary got a copy for each of them.

At Woodstock '99, Commerford torched the Stars and Stripes draped over his bass rig without alerting anyone else in the band ahead of time –including Wilk, who nearly passed out from the fumes caused by Commerford oversoaking the flag with gasoline. "The flag represents all my freedoms – one of them is my right to express myself," he says, defending his action. "My burning the flag is as much glorifying as desecrating it."

And when Rage played a run of dates opening for U2's ironic-materialism pageant, PopMart, in 1997, the group donated its net earnings to charities selected by each band member. Commerford picked Women Alive, a support organization for women with AIDS, which he became acquainted with through a former girlfriend. "It's anyone's forum," Commerford says emphatically of Rage. "Anyone can bring up anything they want."

There are times, too, when in spite of their naturally combative chemistry, Rage can make an unforgettable point without saying a single word. One such case was the band's legendary performance of sorts in Philadelphia on the '93 Lollapalooza tour. The set was twenty-five minutes ofRage standing naked and still against a wall of feedback –duct tape pressed across their mouths and the letters P-M-R-C (for Parents Music Resource Center) scrawled, one to a man, across their chests.

"The brilliant reason for that," Wilk explains, "was Zack blew his voice out that day. Couldn't sing. It was either cancel or do a half-ass show. We were in Philadelphia" – the birthplace of American independence –"and thought, 'We need to take advantage of this."Is everybody cool with being naked?' 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.'"

It was a great stunt – "until after about ten minutes," Wilk goes on, "people realized all they were going to hear was feedback. I got hit with a lighter, some other shit people were throwing. I remember my hand sliding from my waist down to my private parts, going, 'Please don't get hit there.'"

We were in Detroit," says Michael Goldstone, recalling a night on a 1993 Rage tour, "and Zack was holding a political discussion in the parking lot with fifteen kids. And he was bummed out that the show was 4,000 kids and he was only talking to fifteen. I said, 'Yeah, but those fifteen will tell fifteen other kids, and those will tell fifteen more kids.'"

Today, Rage Against the Machine receive up to 200 letters a week, even during the dry cycles between albums, and those come from "some sharp kids," says Bryan Carichner, who manages Rage's fan club and merchandising. "It's not a lot of gushing. You get questions: 'What should I do?' And 'I'm standing behind you. Fuck the system.'"

He notes that Rage also get a lot of fuck-you mail for their stances on hot-button issues. When Rage headlined a show in New Jersey last January with the Beastie Boys and Bad Religion to raise defense funds for Abu-Jamal, there was a major spike in threats and cussing, according to Carichner: "You had people saying, 'You used to be my favorite band. I'm gonna break every one of your CDs.'"

Letters of support arrived in equal number. "Then," Carichner says, "you had people who just didn't know. 'I don't know why you're supporting this guy. There must be a reason. I'm gonna look into it.' That's when the band has done the job it set out to do. They're trying to get you to learn about this stuff. Make your own decision, but at least learn about it."

De la Rocha does not kid himself about the pace of change and enlightenment – in rock & roll, in politics, in anything. He speaks of what he saw from the stage of Woodstock in July with unmistakable distaste: "Kids just dancing around in a way they saw in so many videos on MTV, beating each other up and tearing each other's hair out, doing this stupid little ritual.

"I also saw Zapatista flags," he says sharply. "And I saw a contingent of people at the front from Tijuana, Mexico, who had driven all the way across country to be at the show. A lot of people who are cynics" – de la Rocha spits the word out – "have completely abandoned the idea that music can effect political change, abandoned it entirely as a product of cultural cynicism. That's completely defeatist.

"Music will always be able to engage people," de la Rocha proclaims with the contagious force of one who has been saved. "KRS-One, Public Enemy – they had as much an effect on me and the way I saw the world as viewing my father's art or growing up poor in a white suburb.

"You know, I think every revolutionary act is an act of love. Every song that I've written, it is because of my desire to use music as a way to empower and re-humanize people who are living in a dehumanizing setting. The song is in order to better the human condition.

"Every song that I've ever written," he concludes without a drip of irony, "is a love song."

This story is from the November 25th, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 826: November 25, 1999
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