Until his departure in October 2000, RATM stood its revolutionary ground behind onetime Orange County straight-edge vocalist Zack de la Rocha (previously of New York’s Inside Out and California’s Farside) and his incendiary lyrics. Blasting away at cultural imperialism, the politics of greed, Eurocentricism and injustice, the multi-ethnic thrash/rap group based in Southern California unleashes an inspired and inspirational clamor that raises awareness as well as neck hairs. (The group practices what it preaches, battling censorship and protesting on behalf of Native American prisoner Leonard Peltier. In 1995, de la Rocha helped organize relief missions to Chiapas, Mexico, to aid indigenous rebels in their struggle with the government.)
Musically, Rage Against the Machine creates an awesome pastiche of hardcore’s fury, hip-hop’s journalistic lyricism, metal’s rhythmic crunch and reggae’s righteousness. Guitarist Tom Morello plays an innovative mix of crunching distortion and sirening feedback. (New York City native and Harvard honors graduate Morello was in LA’s Lock Up, which made an album entitled Something Bitchin’ This Way Comes for Geffen in 1990.)
The blueprint for the group’s major-label album was laid on the twelve-song self-released cassette, the cover image of which is stock-market indices with a single match taped to the inlay card. While the tape’s version of “Bullet in the Head” was transferred intact to the subsequent album, the potent “Darkness of Greed” wasn’t; others (“Auto Logic,” “The Narrows,” the perfunctory raga-rock of “Mindset’s a Threat”) were more understandably left behind. And while “Clear the Lane” showcases Morello’s def(t) instrumental gifts, the song doesn’t pack much lyrical weight.
On its full-fledged debut (with an even more provocative image, of a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation), the band turns the revolutionary power up full blast, as bassist Timmy C. and drummer Brad Wilk anchor the proceedings with belligerent rhythms. Juxtaposing South Central LA and South Africa on “Township Rebellion,” de la Rocha looms metaphysically large, especially backed by the ferocity of the band’s musical attack. When he whispers, “Anger is a gift” on “Freedom,” his seething is entirely believable. De la Rocha may turn to hooky sloganeering on his choruses, but he backs it up with substantial verses. Lines like “If we don’t take action now/We settle for nothing later” (“Settle for Nothing”) and “We gotta take the power back” (“Take the Power Back”) signal urgency while the surrounding verses detail why. And though the group is too traditionally macho to include feminism in its radical platform, Rage Against the Machine is still one of the most empowering records of the ’90s.
Rage constructs another savage soundtrack on Evil Empire — Morello’s guitar yields an array of aggressive sounds, and Wilk and Timmy (renamed Tim Bob) are even more forceful. Still inflammatory but more subtle, de la Rocha pursues his political involvement with references to Mexico and persons of color (“Without a Face,” “People of the Sun,” “Wind Below,” among others). Barking his revenge fantasies at the privileged in “Down Rodeo,” de la Rocha also makes an attempt to bring women into the fold with “Year of tha Boomerang” and “Revolver,” a tale of domestic violence. While just as furious as its predecessor, Evil Empire lacks the immediacy that made it so explosive.
Following de la Rocha’s de-la-parture, the remaining threesome began working with former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, although not to the extent of inviting him to join the group.