Zack de la Rocha guns his black Ford Explorer through a red light, careening left on Los Feliz Boulevard into the hills east of Hollywood. To the right are wide streets lined with stately homes and meticulously landscaped grounds. “That’s where a lot of the rich Hollywood types live,” says De la Rocha, the 27-year-old frontman of Rage Against the Machine, waving his hand in that direction while looking the other way. Still, De la Rocha, born of Chicano, German and Irish heritage, chooses to live in one of the more upscale areas of this racially and economically mixed neighborhood. “[Los Feliz] is a nice place to live,” he says tentatively. “When I was living in East L.A., my car was stolen a bunch of times, and it took the LAPD several hours before they would even respond. But, just recently, there was an incident here, and within minutes you had the cops and all these security guys at my door going, ‘Just wanted to make sure you’re OK, Mr. De la Rocha.’ It was crazy.”
He pauses. “I’ve lived here for eight months, but that’s just enough time to make me want to get out and go back to East L.A.,” he says. “I need to get back to my people.”
De la Rocha is uncomfortable living like a rock star. Over the course of Rage Against the Machine’s six-year career, during which the group has sold more than 7 million records and become one of America’s most popular bands, they have used their position to rally around numerous domestic and global causes. The band has played benefits for the Zapatista rebels of Chiapas, Mexico, and for imprisoned black militant and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal; last April, Rage attempted to hang two American flags upside down during their performance on Saturday Night Live to protest NBC parent-company General Electric’s ties to the defense industry.
Rage’s latest move, however, may be their boldest yet. Beginning on Aug. 8, the band launched a six-week, 30-city tour with Wu-Tang Clan, America’s hottest hip-hop group. The Rage/Wu-Tang shows offer a collision of two of pop music’s most volatile, provocative and outspoken groups, and De la Rocha says the tour aims to take its inherently political message straight to the nation’s conservative heartland. “We’re not going to play to the [mainstream]; we’re going to hijack it,” says De la Rocha, parking his Explorer on a hill leading up to the Griffith Park Observatory and overlooking the Los Angeles basin. “The tour is going to incorporate everything which the rich, wealthy classes in America fear and despise. Each of the 20,000 people in the audience will be reminded of their independent political power.”
It’s ironic that such a strong statement comes from De la Rocha, who is painfully shy with the media. Wearing loose-fitting green combat pants, a white T-shirt and Converse sports sandals, the diminutive singer frequently starts and stops the interview, at one point shutting off the tape recorder and asking if we can “have a cigarette and chill. I don’t like our ideologies filtered through the press.”
De la Rocha loosens up when conversation turns to Wu-Tang Clan and hip-hop’s political import. “One of capitalism’s secret weapons is to equate freedom with the buying of products,” he says. “In hip-hop, people go out and buy their champagne and their mansions, and when you reinforce that principle where people are free because they can buy products, I say, ‘Fuck that, you can keep it.’ I want my freedom. Those are the values that [rappers] Chuck D., KRS-One and Wu-Tang hold true.”
Particularly at a time when conservative political and religious leaders have tried to prevent controversial groups like shock rockers Marilyn Manson from touring, De la Rocha says, he wouldn’t be surprised if the Rage/Wu-Tang tour runs into trouble. “America is filled with sections of racist conservatism, and they’re misled in thinking that us or Wu-Tang are a threat to their communities,” he says. “I expect we will run into problems somewhere in the country. Honestly, part of me hopes we do.”
De la Rocha first experienced the controversy surrounding hip-hop in the mid-’80s. Then a student at University High School in the mostly white, suburban community of Irvine, Calif., he and some friends took up break dancing during lunch hour. “We would troop out to the football field with our cardboard and break it down with the footwork,” he recalls. “But then, almost immediately, the majority of my white friends stopped speaking to me. Hip-hop, at the time, hadn’t reached the level of acceptance [that it has today]. To them, that’s the kind of stuff that they do, the blacks.”
Rage have long incorporated rapping into their own bombastic, metal-edged rock, particularly in songs like “Vietnow,” from last year’s Evil Empire. The band has shared the stage with hip-hop groups including Cypress Hill, KRS-One and Public Enemy. For one of De la Rocha’s band mates, guitarist Tom Morello, six weeks on the road with Wu-Tang Clan is a dream come true. “We’re so psyched they’re doing it,” he says over a midafternoon breakfast at the International House of Pancakes near his home in the Hollywood Hills. “If there is a better rap group than Wu-Tang, I haven’t heard it, and if there is a better live band than Rage Against the Machine, I haven’t seen it. So, it seemed like a perfect match. It’s all about punishing the audience early and often.”
Morello, who is half-black, was raised by his white mother (his father, Ngethe Njoroge, a member of Kenya’s first delegation to the United Nations, left when Morello was a year old) in the peaceful suburbs north of Chicago. Peaceful, that is, if you didn’t mind finding a noose hanging in your garage to remind you that you were one of the first black people to live in Libertyville, Ill. “I integrated Libertyville,” he says, wearing a Libertyville baseball cap. Morello left home to attend Harvard, where he hung around with members of the college Marxist organization and graduated in 1986 with a degree in social studies. “As a black person, your political views are forged by racism,” Morello says. “It wasn’t until I was 22 years old that I actually realized I was half-white. It never dawned on me. Because when you’re pulled over [by the cops], you’re black; when you’re in the job line, you’re black; and certainly when you’re on the playground, you’re very, very black.”
After Harvard, Morello moved to Los Angeles to form a band, jamming with various local musicians, including Rage’s future drummer, Brad Wilk. While trying to put a band together, Morello took a job working for then-U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, an experience that soured him on conventional politics. “What passes for democracy today is a sham,” he says. “It’s all about raising money and owing favors to the wrong people.”
Morello met De la Rocha through friends in 1991, and the two bonded immediately over their mutual love of Public Enemy. (Both point to that group’s 1988 album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, as the greatest rap record of all time.) From the start, Morello says, he was drawn to De la Rocha’s relentless energy. “We were only practicing, and Zack just uncorked,” Morello says. “The way he jumps around onstage, that’s what he was like the first time we played together. It was mind-blowing.” De la Rocha got his high school buddy Timmy C. to join the group as its bassist, and, in 1991, Rage were born.
All four band members’ interest in hip-hop and hard rock, coupled with similarly held leftist political views, creates a strong but sometimes volatile bond. Tensions in the group have contributed to its sporadic recording; in six years, Rage have released just two records (1992’s Rage Against the Machine and last year’s Evil Empire). Morello claims that relations among the members of Rage are as good as they’ve been in four years; De la Rocha says the relationships are often still rocky. “It’s a tense little family, and we internalize a lot,” he says. “We all have different thresholds for what we can deal with. What Tom may be experiencing, or his perception of what’s going on, a lot of the times is different than mine. [But] it isn’t something that stops us from doing the work that we do.” Rage don’t spend much time together when they’re off the road, so Morello says the only new material the band has prepared for this tour is two covers: Bruce Springsteen‘s “Ghost of Tom Joad” and a version of KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police.”
Despite band tensions, both De la Rocha and Morello are ecstatic when they talk about hitting the road with Wu-Tang Clan. “You know what the greatest thing about Wu-Tang is?” De la Rocha asks excitedly as he bounds into a hotel lobby the next day. “Wu-Tang are more concerned with protecting and defending hip-hop culture than they are anything else. They’re radical in the sense that these experiences aren’t told by everyone, especially in the realm of hip-hop, where political consciousness has taken a back seat to big willie-ism.”
Sitting down and lighting a cigarette, De la Rocha perches nervously on the edge of a large overstuffed chair. During the next 75 minutes, he never seems fully relaxed, but as the conversation shifts from him to the state of hip-hop, De la Rocha becomes more engaged. “There is a particular formula that is used in the hip-hop market now: the verse, the R&B chorus, followed by the funky worm and the big Parliament beat,” he says. “It’s the redundancy in hip-hop that’s destroying it. That’s where the Wu-Tang come in. You listen to the Wu-Tang record, there’s not a single song on it that’s a marketable single. There isn’t a single hook on it. It’s just straight-up, controlled chaos that can only come with nine people kicking it with their unique styles.”
De la Rocha has no interest in the gangsta postures of rappers like the late Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. He says: “What happened to [Smalls and Shakur] is a tragedy, but I don’t relate to people on the Riviera in speedboats.” He doesn’t support some of Wu’s misogynous lyrics, particularly on tracks like “The Projects,” from the group’s new Wu-Tang Forever. But De la Rocha hopes the tour will provide a chance for his band to start a dialogue with the members of Wu-Tang about songs he feels are degrading to women. “Straight up: There’s got to be a more creative way to express the tension that sometimes arises between men and women than to dehumanize a woman by calling her a bitch,” he says.
Morello, too, bristles at some of Wu-Tang Clan’s material, but says that Rage Against the Machine should not be the guardian of political correctness. “We don’t have an ideological litmus test you have to pass to share the stage with Rage,” he says. “There are few groups filled with saints. Wu-Tang makes a lot of great music, but the misogynous content is something we’re not into at all. It ruffles the Alan Alda side of my personality, but I’m not going to call off the tour.
“All of the great rap groups, from Run-DMC and Public Enemy, have come at a time when naysayers have been counting hip-hop out,” Morello continues, sitting in his maroon Chevy Astro van in the IHOP parking lot after breakfast. “Wu-Tang has come in and completely reinvigorated the genre. We’re psyched to be able to bring Wu-Tang to places like North Carolina.” He pauses, rapping his hand on the dashboard: “Knock, knock, Jesse Helms. We’re here.”