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The Battle of Rage Against the Machine

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"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.

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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