Rage Against the Machine - NME
When the Lollapalooza festival opened in Philadelphia in July 1993, it did so to the sight of Rage Against the Machine standing naked on stage, duct tape sealing their mouths and feedback blaring behind them.
Singer Zack De La Rocha had lost his voice the previous night, gifting the young rock band an opportunity to hijack their own performance in the name of a cause worth fighting for: a counter-protest aimed at those campaigning against explicit content in music.
Five months before, the band had also managed to agitate conservative audiences in the UK when, during the Top 40 rundown, BBC radio DJ Bruno Brookes accidentally broadcast an uncensored version of ‘Killing in the Name’ – a raised fist of a song about police brutality that reached number 25 in the UK charts.
“That was a Sex Pistols moment,” says Tom Morello, the band’s guitarist. “It was like the whole country was mad at this band nobody had ever heard of.”
Much has changed since Rage Against the Machine first appeared as a multi-ethnic group channelling leftist politics into bracing battle cries. The sense of righteous indignation harnessed with ‘Killing in the Name’, however, continues to inspire in a new era of activism, providing a soundtrack for dissent 20 years later.
How did ‘Killing In The Name’ come together?
“I was giving a guitar lesson to a guy, teaching him how to do Drop-D tuning, and that big riff in the song just occurred in the middle of it all. I said, ‘Hold on a second!’ and recorded it on my little cassette recorder, then went on with the lesson. The beginning part [mimics the bass line], that was Timmy’s jazz influence. Then Brad concocted those beats that make people want to jump up and down and go absolutely ape-shit. I think Zack’s vocal performance and lyrics, while being the shortest in the Rage Against The Machine catalogue, are certainly one of the most potent.”
You guys had only just formed, so what did it feel like to find that creative momentum so quickly?
“I do remember how the band was courted by record companies very early on. When we had just written ‘Killing In The Name’, these executives from Atlantic records came to our little rehearsal studio in the San Fernando Valley and there were no chairs, so they had to sit on the floor. The way the band rehearsed was exactly the way the band performed: with everything up to 10 and everybody jumping around, rocking wildly. (laughs) We played two or three songs and then said, ‘Hey, this is one we just wrote’. You could see the executives flattened to the wall and just terrified of what was happening. As the last cymbal hit died away, I remember this one guy squeaking, ‘So... uh, is that the direction you guys are headed in?’ (laughs)”
But the label you signed with, Epic, understood what you were about from the beginning?
“The label chose that as the first single! I wish we could take credit as having the foresight to know that was going to be the breakthrough song. It was the suggestion of our A&R person, Michael Goldstone, who was very much the fifth Beatle at the time. I was like, ‘Okay. Let me understand: you want the first single to be the one that has 16 fuck yous and one motherfucker? I’m in, man!’ (laughs)”
That seems quite unusual for a major record label to take that attitude.
“Yeah, but I think it was a unique time where the success of bands like Nirvana, Jane’s Addiction and Soundgarden made record labels much more artist-driven. I think the upper echelons [of the label] submitted to the fact that ‘Well, we may not understand it but if we just let these guys do what they do, that’s more likely to connect than if we try to meddle with it’.”
Soon after, you protested against the protestors of explicit content in music, provoking the fury of Tipper Gore (wife of then-Vice President Al Gore) in the process. How did that happen?
“In 1993 at Lollapalooza in Philadelphia, Rage opened the show and we were playing at one in the afternoon. The performance that day was more, um, performance art than a rock concert. (laughs) We appeared completely naked on stage with the letters P-M-R-C written on our chests, which stood for Parents Music Resource Centre – an organisation of Washington wives who were trying to censor rock and rap music.
We had duct tape across our mouths, we let the guitars feedback and then we left the stage. That was the entire show. The point we were hoping to make was that you can’t take it for granted that you’ll be able to hear music that challenges the status quo. People are trying to rob you of those first amendment rights. But let me tell you, a lot of quarters were thrown at our dicks. (laughs)”
How do you explain the longevity of ‘Killing in the Name’?
“I think it distils the spirit of youthful rebellion and the questioning of illegitimate authority. Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became an abolitionist, said the moment he became free was not when he was physically released from his bonds – it was when master said ‘yes’ and he said ‘no’. And that is exactly what ‘Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me’ entails. So whether it’s rebelling against the ridiculous demands of a parent or a boss or a prime minister, that battle cry is one that will continue to be felt.”
What do you make of the civil unrest in places like Turkey and Syria?
“People are always willing to struggle for a more just planet. There are always people who have the courage of their convictions to stand up against injustice and speak out for a better world. Whether it’s with my comrades in Rage Against The Machine or with my Nightwatchman work, I hope to provide a soundtrack for people who are fighting for their freedom. Everybody comes at it from their own angle, whether it’s digital or musical or actually in the streets. The human impulse to resist injustice is just as strong as any other impulse.”
Given the amount of turmoil and upheaval in the world, why do you think there isn’t more politically minded music?
“Frankly, I spend very little time thinking about that. I’ve been sent YouTube clips from both Turkey and Brazil of people singing ‘Killing In The Name’, ‘Bulls On Parade’ and ‘Guerrilla Radio’ in the streets while they’re confronting the cops. (laughs) At any given point, I’m sure people – whatever their vocation, whether they’re singers or carpenters or students – are expressing themselves in different ways. [‘Killing In The Name’] was a unique moment in time where you had this song that was also connected to a pretty damn good band on the rise. Little did we know it would resonate through the ages as a rebel anthem.”
Where were you when you first heard about the anti-X Factor campaign?
“I was reading emails on my Blackberry from friends in the UK who were like, ‘Do you know what’s going on over here with your song?’ I had no clue but, clearly, it was gaining momentum. I was on my way to the airport to fly to Chicago and I just texted Zack saying, ‘Dude, do you know what’s happening?’ He said we should do something about it. So I turned around, called Tim and Brad, and later that night, at 1am in Los Angeles, we appeared on that BBC morning show [Radio 5 live Breakfast] – the one where they anticipated us censoring the song and it didn’t work out that way.”
So you had already been keeping in touch with each other? The impression I got was that the X Factor campaign brought you together again as a unit.
“Sure. I mean, at the time, we weren’t doing anything. It was a really galvanising event. I look at it like we were ancillary in the whole thing. It was something that was done by the people (laughs) and the band kind of joined in with the mob to help push it over the edge. I’ve got to say, it’s certainly one of the biggest highlights of our musical and personal lives. It was an incredible moment in music.”
When you played at Finsbury Park, did you ever think you’d experience moments like that again?
“That was unique. It really was a victory celebration. You could feel it. The crowd weren’t celebrating us, they weren’t celebrating the song, they weren’t celebrating the defeat of Simon Cowell and X Factor. They were celebrating themselves. On the one hand, it’s a fun middle-finger to the powers that be and all the corporate, commercial crap that gets shoved down your throat by these TV shows. On the other hand, it really shows that anything is possible. For every Goliath, there is a David.”
When you start out and your debut is an instant classic that still stands up decades later, does that alter expectations later on in your career?
“Whether it’s with band mates or on my own, I’ve always just done my best to make music that we love and that sounds great in the room to us. Then you let the chips fall where they may. It’s interesting, though. Very early on, I think it was when ‘Killing In The Name’ had become a single in the UK, we were in Manchester or Birmingham at some ‘rock disco’.
Our tour manager at the time had a Masters degree in philosophy and when they played ‘Killing In The Name’ at the club, he said, ‘You guys may make better songs, you may have bigger chart-toppers, but I’ve got a feeling that years from now people are going to be singing this jam.’ I didn’t anticipate that. I didn’t know if we were going to make a second record! (laughs) It’s funny that we’re having this conversation 20 years later. His philosophy degree did not go to waste.”
Since then, was there a moment where you stopped and thought, ‘This thing is bigger than us’?
“I have witnessed – as a member of Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and the Nightwatchman – how fans react. I’ve been to concerts by Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney and Slipknot where people lose their fuck-ing minds at a particular high point. But whenever ‘Killing In The Name’ has been the Rage Against the Machine show closer... I have never seen or felt anything like how people respond to that song when it’s played by that band. There’s nothing. I challenge you to put up the YouTube clip from Finsbury [Park]. (laughs) Even for Queen at Wembley, I don’t think people went as crazy. In that way, I don’t think it’s something that we can even take credit for. It has this connection that taps into something very primal that people respond to.”
What’s happening in terms of Rage Against the Machine’s future?
(laughs) “It is unchanged. All I can say is that the music we created is so vital and contemporary to what is happening today in Sao Paolo and Istanbul. Those songs are being played over PA systems and sung in the streets wherever people are standing up for their rights. In that regard, the band is alive and well. Whether or not we play any more shows is... unknown.”