RAGEAGAINST THE MACHINE 1996
[Photo: Marina Chavez]

Intent on not writing another Black Sabbath-meets-rap record, Rage Against The Machine stuck to their roots, radically. Deeply involved in civil rights activism, this group believe music and politics can still form a more perfect union.

“Everyone’s a comedian.” The old aphorism probably never rang as true as it does on the set of Saturday Night Live the evening that somebody let millionaire publishing mogul Steve Forbes guest host. Perhaps his ailing campaign for the Republican candidacy wasn’t enough. Maybe the millions of dollars wasted on TV ads denigrating his opponents didn’t teach him a thing about public perception. 

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Forbes may have figured that if his entire platform is turned into a joke, he might have the last laugh. Whatever the case, he certainly has no problem with also single-handedly pounding the final nail into the coffin of this ailing comedy show.

The mostly 20-something troupe of spectators congregating in NBC’s green room area don’t seem to care for the insipid “flat tax” jokes that infiltrate almost every skit. When members of Rage Against The Machine loiter the hallways anticipating their performance, it becomes particularly clear who tonight’s main attraction really is. 

“Do you know who that is?” one girl remarks. “He’s in the band!”

“I know that,” her friend replies defensively, staring at guitarist Tom Morello from a distance. “What do you think I am?”

During the conversation, drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford rush up the stairs in a state of adrenaline, accidentally brushing against the starstruck blonde. They cordially apologize for the oversight, shake hands and go on with their business. Accepting their good nature, she almost instantly turns to her friend in confidence. “They’re good,” she concedes. Then, spilling her finger around her temple, she adds, “But I heard they were cra-a-a-zy.”

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Downstairs in the dressing room, a supposedly relaxing card game called Casino becomes intense. Rage producer Brendan O’Brien is trying to teach frontman Zack de la Rocha how to play, but there seems to be a miscommunication.

“You just said that you can’t stack Jacks!” de la Rocha protests. “What are you doing?”

O’Brien is quick to correct his pupil. “You can only stack them if you have all four,” he says. “Obviously, I have them.”

De la Rocha turns to me with a steer of disbelief, but there’s nothing I can say in his defense. Up until 15 minutes ago, I’ve never even heard of Casino. After the game, he leans forward on the couch and fixates on the flashing monitor. The show is in progress, and Forbes is in the middle of a disheartening skit where the main punchline revolves around the presidential hopeful’s trademark chuckle. Instead of laughing, everyone in the room seems to bear a collective sigh. More than one person is looking at his watch. And show time, they say, is in 10 minutes.

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Nearing the end of the final commercial break before Rage Against The Machine are set to perform, it becomes fairly obvious the SNL producers have prepared for the worst. When O’Brien walks onstage with a roll of duct tape and the intention of draping a pair of inverted American flags over the band equipment, an angry stage manager quickly responds with only 20 seconds to spare. 

“Get rid of the flags,” he pleads.

O’Brien cuts a piece of tape off with his teeth, ignoring him.

“I said get rid of the flags, now!” Running onstage, the staffer tears the cloth down to a soundtrack of audience cheers. Before anyone can even rationalize what’s happened, Steve Forbes appears on the opposite stage to make his most ironic announcement yet: “Ladies and gentlemen, Rage Against The Machine!”

Dazed, the band run through an especially disgruntled version of “Bulls On Parade,” the first single from Evil Empire, an album the documents the four-year period since the release of their self-titled debut, and brutally marks their long-awaited return to the world of political activism through music. 

“I was talking to Zack about Plan B before we played,” Morello later explains. “I suggested that somewhere during the song that General Electric—who owns NBC—made weapons that committed war crimes in the Gulf. It’s a general aesthetic of the inverted flag wouldn’t do, then let’s aim for the head. Unfortunately, we decided to wait for the second song.”

But there was no second song. As soon as security found one of the flags torn to pieces inside of Forbes’ dressing room, they made sure of it.

“If they only had a clue about some of the things that we were thinking of doing,” Morello smirks, “they probably would’ve thanked us for only turning flags upside down.”

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Thomas Baptist Morello was born in Harlem, New York, on May 30, 1964. His father was a Kenyan delegate for the United Nations, and his mother was an active voice in the anti-censorship and civil rights movements. After his parents divorced, Morello and his mother moved to Libertyville, Illinois, a small suburb approximately one hour north of Chicago. It was the personal integration of a predominantly white community that, he says, changed his life.

“When you’re black in America,” the guitarist explains, “you are political—like it or not. You have no choice in the matter. When I was six years old, I used to stay at the daycare house when my mom was teaching school. The daughter of the woman who ran the house used to always call me names, ‘n-wording’ me up and down. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I knew it had something to do with the fact that I was different from her.”

After crying to his mother one night, the young Morello came back with a new found knowledge of Malcolm X and an entirely new attitude.

“The girl started calling me names again on the next day, but this time, I fired off with, ‘Shut up, whitey!’ and I clocked her with my little fist! It created enough of a commotion so that the daycare woman came over and scrubbed her daughter’s mouth out.” Even 26 years later, he beams, “It’s not like I felt particularly righteous or anything. I just kind of thought, ‘Hey, that worked!’”

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After high school, Morello became a social studies major at Harvard, graduating in 1986. His desire to play music led him to Los Angeles, where he made an earnest, yet unsuccessful attempt to find like-minded people. At the time, he realized no one really cared about creating an amalgamation of radical politics such as, Led Zeppelin, Run- D.M.C. and the Clash.

“There were two scenes rolling at the time,” Morello recalls. “It seems like everyone I was jamming with either wanted to be in W.A.S.P. or the Time. You’d think that a combination of the two would be cool, but they didn’t want anything to do with each other.”

Giving up the search, Morello joined Lock Up, a  soul-influenced rock outfit in the vein of Living Color that landed a short-lived deal with Geffen in the late ’80s. Morello says when the record label began pitting members against each other and attempting to change the group’s sound in order to fit certain marketing demographics, the band broke up in 1989, barely noticed.

Frustrated with Hollywood’s music scene artifice, Morello put down his guitar and got a job as the scheduling secretary for California Senator Alan Cranston.

“That was sort of a last-gasp effort to work within the system,” he remembers. “Cranston was probably as far left of a senator [that] you’re going to get, but it really didn’t matter. Despite the fact that he had progressive views on the environment or immigration, he spent all day on the phone calling the wealthy and powerful, exchanging favors for campaign money. I realized that once he was elected, who would he owe? Would he owe single mothers of the homeless and the guy working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, or would he owe ITT, GE and other savings and loans tycoons?” Ironically Cranston’s career was killed after a financial scandal went public. 

Without a job and within a year, Morello travelled to Orange County on the advice of a friend. There he met a young poet named Zack.

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Youth Of Today were probably the most influential band to come out of the straight-edge hardcore scene since Minor Threat coined the term in 1981. After officially breaking up in 1989, the New York City quartet splintered into different directions, eventually forming the cores for both Quicksand and Shelter.

Somehow, a band of Southern California sweatshirt punks called Inside Out managed to land a tour with these two bands. It was a major source of exposure for which any self-respecting hardcore band would’ve died.

The tour began on June 15, 1990 at the Anthrax club in Norwalk, Connecticut. In light of Shelter’s blatant affiliation with the Hare Krishna movement, several atheist punks showed up to the first show with protest flyers, ready for debate. Once inside the club, it was impossible to miss Zack de la Rocha. He was the one onstage screaming his head off. Not just during the songs, but in between them, as well. 

“If anyone thinks that this swastika belongs on the same piece of paper as the Krishna symbol,” he bawled at the protesters with a flier in his hand, “you’re all just fucking ignorant.” The crowd cheered, the guitars fed back. Tearing the sheet into shreds, Inside Out tore into the opening track of their only recorded single for Revelation Records, the aptly titled “Burning Fight.” The next half-hour of music and message was equally intense. Many people, including this writer, believe they stole the show.

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Inside Out never made it back to the East Coast. Within months of the tour, guitarist Vic Dicara defected from the band as a result of his homegrown interest in becoming a full-time Hare Krishna monk. And even though de la Rocha attempted to keep the band afloat for a while, the chemistry was lost. The band’s final information, which included half of the original lineup, broke up in 1991.

“Whenever I used to listen to bands like Government Issue, Minor Threat or Scream,” de la Rocha recalls fondly, “it always made me feel like I would just lose it if I had a microphone in my hand. It’s such a healthy thing to get onstage and vent, especially in the hardcore scene. Anyone can just get up there and express themselves.” 

He pauses to enunciate. “Anyone.”

The last time I interviewed de la Rocha was in December 1993. He had developed a callous attitude towards mainstream journalism; it was his first interview in six months. Since then, he’s only done a few interviews for political magazines or community radio stations. His cynicism does not come unfounded.

“I was talking to a journalist in London,” he explained at the time. “He came to do an interview, and I said no. He just wanted to talk about my father. I told him that as long as he didn’t print anything I fucking said about my father that I’d talk to him about it. So he swore to me that he wouldn’t, but he had a wire. He printed everything.” It wasn’t as much as a slight grin when he spoke. “If I see him now,” he fumed, “I’m gonna fucking kill the guy.”

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It didn’t come as much of a surprise when de la Rocha was reluctant to do this interview. Even three years later, it’s still an unresolved problem for him.

“The ‘process’ is me opening up again after that,” he says awkwardly. “The only other interviews I’ve done on a personal level, I’ve done with friends or with people who I know come from a similar background. As far as the rest of them go, well, if they don’t want to strictly talk about the Zapatista movement in Mexico, then I don’t even want to fucking talk to them.”

De la Rocha has lived most of his life torn between two identities. When his parents divorced in 1974, he left the Lincoln Heights area of East Los Angeles for the predominantly white suburb of Irvine. Like Morello, he felt that his presence helped to integrate the community. “The only other Chicanos you’d find in Irvine,” he says, “were there because they had a broom or a hammer in their hand.” 

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His father, Roberto de la Rocha, played an integral part of his son’s cultural upbringing. As an artist, he co-founded Los Four, an early Chicano muralist group whose work can still be seen around L.A. “During that time period, there seemed to be an incredible push for Chicanos to become a self-determined people. We wanted to identify ourselves. That was the thing. Los Four intended on making sure that throughout their artwork, they could make our experiences tangible and also to reestablish a part of our culture that had been lost, pointing out that we were originally an indigenous people. Pointing out that we aren’t a disposable community.”

In 1981, his father suffered a serious mental breakdown, leaving him with enough emotional baggage to trigger a slight drug problem. “It was a very difficult thing for me to see,” he admits. “At the same point in time, your father could become your whole identity, your source and strength. It really devastated me, and because of it, I found ways to periodically escape from that.”

It wasn’t until de la Rocha discovered hardcore punk that he began the effort to stay clean. The straight-edge community, of which he later became a part of, not only discouraged drug use, but distinctly frowned upon it. After a short stint playing guitar for a band called Hard Stance, de la Rocha formed Inside Out. 

It was also around this time that he discovered rap music. A 1989 Ice Cube show in Hollywood reaffirmed his attraction for hip-hop culture, but specifically, for the potential it had to spread the sociopolitical ideas hardcore had already introduced to him.

Three years later, Rage Against The Machine would practice for the first time, naming themselves after the Inside Out album that never surfaced. The 1992 single “Bullet In The Head” would be one of the first songs they’d ever write together.

“Just being able to use the media the way we do, we’re really excited about the potential of it. That’s what ultimately keeps it going, and I’m not afraid to say that it’s the only thing that keeps it going.” Zack de la Rocha

“My car’s been jacked in this neighborhood twice already,” de la Rocha nonchalantly informs me. “These Avenue Boys will jack you without even thinking about it, man.” We’re driving his new Ford Explorer into the East L.A. neighborhood that houses Regeneracion, the Chicano cultural center that de la Rocha is helping to create. Welcome to Highland Park.

“It’s still a work in progress,” he notes about Regeneracion, undoing the locks to the outside gate, “but I certainly consider it to be an official part of the community.”

The center is still in its primitive stages, but the potential is apparent. The walls are covered with original Chicano art from a neighborhood woman. The library is replete with politically oriented literature and a comfortable couch to sit on. De la Rocha seems particularly proud of the film projector that he managed to acquire from Sony, his record label’s parent company. Selling over three million records worldwide and must have its fringe benefits.

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“The only way that Rage Against The Machine could see a substantial change in our lifetime is to ensure that our resources and ideas are integrated into the community,” he explains over lunch at the Mexican restaurant next door. “I have to make sure this band doesn’t become a removed entity from the grass roots. The center is here to provide a space for dialogue. When a person’s sense of political action rests solely on pulling a ballot box every four years, there’s going to be a sense of desperation because it’s been proven to fail in bringing about the changes that the working poor need. Especially in a community like this one. “

A recent visit to the war-torn Mexican state of Chiapas gave de la Rocha first-hand experience of the suffering of peasants. For the residence of Chiapas, the statistics are frightening: In the past 10 years, 150,000 children have died from curable diseases. There are more veterinarians in Chiapas than there are doctors. Even though Chiapas is responsible for producing 63% of all Mexico’s hydroelectric power, only a third of the people have lights in their homes. And for every thousand children, there’s only one teacher.

The urgency of the situation prompted de la Rocha to begin working with the National Commission For Democracy In Mexico, an organization that offers support for the rebel Zapatista Army and intends to educate others about the NAFTA agreement that put an end to land rights for indigenous communities—quite literally robbing many of these people’s only source of livelihood.

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“Being in Chiapas fills you with a sense of what can really happen in the States if we let it,” de la Rocha reasons. “Our work here can really save lives. The more people who find out about the Zapatistas here, the better the chance of preventing a mass of military intervention on behalf of this country. America has a mad amount at stake in Mexico. A fourth of all the oil here comes from Mexico, and they just found oil in Chiapas. What do these communities mean to a government who only serves as a mouthpiece to people like Shell? They mean nothing. These people envision progress through cash flow reports.”

The waiter comes and collects our plates, leaving a check on the table. De la Rocha continues, “Even getting a mention of the Zapatistas in the paper, that in itself can end all of this,” he continues.

The woman behind the cash register recognizes him from the neighborhood. She mentioned that she saw him on TV last week.

“What did you think? “

“It was strange seeing that side of you,” she answers, honestly. “I’ve never really seen you that angry before.”

De la Rocha pays the check in cash, blushing.

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It’s almost 7 p.m. We go back to de la Rocha’s place for a while so he can change clothes and check messages. Rancid are playing in Pomona tonight, and we’re already late. He asks if his apartment—modestly furnished and well lived-in—would be more of a plush reflection of his success, and I deny it. Back in the car, he expands on the subject. 

“There are certain things about playing music that are making me really uncomfortable,” he says frankly. “The root of our fear in the hardcore scene was always the question of how we could live and keep this lifestyle. That was the fundamental rallying cry in our hearts, you know? ‘We’re not going to be wage slaves! We’re not going to work 9 to 5!’ But sometimes that comfort takes away so much of what made this music so vital and what made what we were doing so important. Going to Mexico and feeling like my life is in danger, it makes me feel that again. It makes me feel alive again, and I miss that.”

I ask about the break-up rumors surrounding the recording of Evil Empire, the most outlandish of which had Epic Records executives on a plane to Chiapas, offering de la Rocha a suitcase full of money to come back.

“I was certainly strained by personal tension,” he says, laughing. “But that never happened, no. There were two sources of major tension with this record, though. Number one, I was really trying to ensure that we weren’t writing another Sabbath-meets-rap record. That was really fucking important to me. 

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“Number two was this: We were too busy with what we were doing to address the problems that we had with each other. It was three years of touring and never speaking about any real personal concerns. That’s when we found ourselves in Atlanta, Georgia, living together for two months., [We thought] three years of denial and negligence was going to disappear the second we moved in together, and it didn’t.

“I think there’s a mutual respect for each other in this band, and especially a respect for what’s happened to us. I don’t think there’s a political organization that exists that wouldn’t kill for the opportunities that we now possess. Just being able to use the media the way we do, we’re really excited about the potential of it. That’s what ultimately keeps it going, and I’m not afraid to say that it’s the only thing that keeps it going.”

Rancid play an energetic set, and de la Rocha seems to be enjoying himself. He tells me that they play with a lot of heart, and considering the presence of a Clash tape in his car, I’m assuming that the similarities don’t necessarily hinder his opinion of them, either. “The relationship that we have with our audience is so much different than the one Rancid have,” he observes. “It’s probably because we’re not out there saying, ‘Let’s have a good time!’ or anything like that. That’s not the idea.”

Two-thirds of the remaining members of Inside Out also had business to attend to at the show tonight. Drummer Chris Bratton played with openers Lyme, while bassist Mark Hayworth now works with Rancid’s management company, Rebel Waltz. A family reunion takes place backstage.

After the show, de la Rocha and I briskly walk to the parking lot. A car slows at a stop sign nearby, and the girl inside with bright red hair squints at the singer to make sure it’s really him.

“Inside Out!” she yells.

De la Rocha smiles and feigns a shudder. “God, I really wish I brought a jacket.”

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TOI On Sunset is probably the strangest Thai restaurant I’ve ever been to. Instead of traditional Buddhist decor, the place looks like a pizza joint. The jukebox sits in the corner near the bathroom, and a Sonic Youth poster lies under the glass of our table. I don’t suppose I could expect anything nicer at three in the morning, but I can live with it. A healthy portion of dirt cheap vegetable tempura helps me come to terms with the atmosphere.

“I’m actually pretty surprised KROQ is playing our record,” de la Rocha says, chewing on a mouthful of Pad Thai.  “I’m surprised people are still buying it.”

Why should you be so surprised?

“Because people have a very short attention span with the music they like, and it has a lot to do with the way MTV has definitely damaged the greatness of music. You can trace the ‘Buzz Bin’ directly to the SoundScan charts to see what’s selling. I guess I just figured that with us having waited so long to do a new record, people would lose interest. It’s amazing to me that they haven’t. I guess we must be filling in a void somewhere.”

In its first full week out, Evil Empire has sold almost a quarter of a million copies, knocking the faux-alternative Alanis Morissette from the No. 1 sales position. The void Rage Against The Machine are feeling is a big one. One full of people who care about more than what’s been given to them, a void of people who want more than mid-’80s posturing in a hip ‘’90s package. Perhaps even a few of the same people who sold Jagged Little Pill back to their local used-CD outlet last week belong to this void. Rage Against The Machine are like no other band around right now, and that in and of itself, says a lot.

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We crack open our fortune cookies. My fortune doesn’t seem to make any sense, so I throw it away and ask de la Rocha if I can see his.

“Sure,” he mumbles. “Take it.”

Grinning, I read it aloud. “Do not hide your feelings. Let others know where they stand.”

“I suppose you’re going to want to put that in the story,” he muses. 

For an angry young Chicano aspiring to be a revolutionary, sometimes Zack de la Rocha just makes me want to laugh. Indeed, everyone’s a comedian.

This cover story originally appeared in AltPress issue #96. Check out other issues here.