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."
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."
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