November marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Rage Against the Machine's self-titled debut album.
For two decades, the US band has helped activists all over the world ruin their stereo speakers by giving them something truly worthy of cranking up. Rage’s unique sound — a fusion of rap, hardcore punk and metal — is one of the most recognisable sounds in music, up there with Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Primus.
Lead singer Zack de la Rocha, of Mexican heritage, writes incredible lyrics and raps them just as well. His voice is indispensable in making Rage's sound so recognisable.
Tom Morello, whose father was a Kenyan Mau Mau guerrilla fighter, is listed as the 40th greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone and is one of popular music’s most innovative guitarists. De la Rocha and Morello are backed by a hard-hitting, forceful rhythm section featuring Tim Commerford on bass and Brad Wilk on drums.
These factors combined to make Rage a hugely successful and influential band.
The band are more than just musically revolutionary — being outspoken in support of revolutionary socialism. They are well known for their support for the Zapatistas, fighting for indigenous liberation in southern Mexico, death-row prisoner and anti-racist activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, and the wrongly convicted Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier.
The inside sleave of the band’s second album, Evil Empire, promotes books about Marx and Engels, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, the revolts of 1968 and US imperialism, as well as works by radical writers such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.
Rage's most well-known song is without a doubt the first single off their debut, “Killing in the Name”. In it, the band condemns racism and the political establishment that promotes and defends racism. De la Rocha screams his refusal to accept this status quo with the repeated line: “Fuck you, I won't do what ya tell me!”
Other memorable tracks from the debut include “Bullet in the Head”, in which de la Rocha raps about how the mass media is essentially a propaganda machine. The song points out that US state propaganda promotes “a yellow ribbon [a symbol of support for the US military] instead of a swastika”. “Nothin' proper 'bout your propaganda,” raps de la Rocha.
Other memorable songs from the highly influential album, which propelled the band to mainstream success, include “Bombtrack”, “Freedom” and “Wake Up” (which features the lines, “I’ll give you a dose but it’ll never come close to the rage filled up inside of me, fist in the air in the land of hypocrisy”).
In 2003, the album was listed 368 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It is noted for its very high production values, with some music magazines using it to test speakers.
Rage have been the target of right-wing attacks ever since they became huge. After the release of Evil Empire, Rage were booked to play two songs on Saturday Night Live — the same night as billionaire Republican Steve Forbes was host.
Before taking to the stage one of the band members tried to hang an inverted American flag up on Commerfords bass amps. SNL staff removed the flag before the performance, but after playing their first song ("Bulls on Parade"), the band were told to leave the building.
Rage played for, and marched along side, protesters at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. The film clip for their 2000 single “Sleep Now In The Fire”, directed by left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore, was filmed outside the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. When police moved to shut down filming, band members and hundreds of fans stormed the stock exchange building, forcing it to shut down for the day.
The band broke up later that year, but reformed in 2007 to play new shows, including at protests against war and for workers’ rights.
Rage Against the Machine brought radical and revolutionary politics to mainstream music in the 90s — a particularly apolitical time in music in many ways. To achieve such a high level of commercial success with such an explicitly radical message was a remarkable achievement — and ensures their awesome music will be part of the soundtrack to the revolution!