Rage Against the Machine, the world's loudest, most loudly political rock band, chose to release its new album, "The Battle of Los Angeles," on Election Day 1999. And it chose to celebrate the release in the very belly of the beast, Washington, D.C.
Symbolism? Or just the date the album was ready to ship?
"There are no coincidences or accidents in this business," said Rage guitarist Tom Morello ominously the morning after Rage rocked the 9:30 club with its mind-rattling brew of metal, rap, funk and singer Zack de la Rocha's fractious stream-of-political-consciousness lyrics.
"We chose it for what I think are obvious reasons," he says, to give a true alternative on Nov. 2 between politics as usual and "The Battle of Los Angeles."
Morello chuckled at the commercial conceit: "Beyond that, it's absolutely business as usual."
Indeed, "Battle" rages with familiar vehemence against political oppression, media manipulation and economic injustice here and abroad, lobbing what Spin magazine once described as "Molotov cocktails of hip-hop, hardcore and extreme politics."
Still, "The Battle of Los Angeles" did very well in the popular vote, selling 430,000 copies in its first week and entering the Billboard album charts at No. 1.
A few weeks before, things were more tense in another nation's capital--Mexico City--where the band performed in a government-owned building. Rage and especially de la Rocha have long been vocal supporters of the Zapatista rebels active in the southern state of Chiapas. The band's performance in the jam-packed facility--dutifully recorded for subsequent broadcast on MTV--was preceded by a warm video welcome from Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatista rebel leader in hiding. And Rage performed a number of songs supporting that movement, including "People of the Sun" and "War Within a Breath," a vision in which "Southern fish/ Rise through tha jungle mist/ Clenched to smash power so cancerous."
"I was waiting for the tanks to roll in!" Morello says. They didn't, but Rage was forced to cancel a news conference and otherwise button its lips as long as the band was in Mexico, which has laws about foreigners getting involved in internal affairs.
"I learned a great deal about the lack of a First Amendment during that trip," says Morello.
Rage Against the Machine has been keeping the dust off the First Amendment since the band formed eight years ago, using its popularity to call attention to issues ranging from worker exploitation to the cases of Native American activist Leonard Peltier and former Black Panther and radio reporter Mumia Abu-Jamal, both convicted of murdering law enforcement officers.
The band's activism has many faces. In May, for instance, a conservatively dressed de la Rocha addressed the International Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations on the Abu-Jamal case as well as the racially disproportionate application of the death penalty in the United States. The band's album liner notes and Web site (www.ratm.com) offer socialist and generally left-leaning reading lists, news updates and links with such organizations as Rock for Choice, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Refuse and Resist, and the defense committees for Peltier and Abu-Jamal.
And, Morello points out, those are real Los Angeles sweatshop workers in the band's new video for "Guerrilla Radio," already one of MTV's most requested.
"Since their CD came out, we've been inundated with e-mails from young people interested in making sure the clothes they're buying are sweatshop-free and wanting to know how they can get involved in the Stop Sweatshops campaign," says Jo-Ann Mort, director of communications for the Union of Needletrades Industrial and Textile Employees. "What a band as well known as Rage Against the Machine can do, and is doing, is alert a younger generation, and probably the prime consumer generation, to this issue. In our case, the link between consumers and workers is very important."
Rage Against the Machine--which also includes drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford--started in Orange County, Calif., in 1991, around the same time Rock the Vote did. But while that music industry media group focused on increasing voter registration, the band had another agenda: Rock the Boat.
The band's rebellious ideas were fueled by Morello's hurricane guitar meld of huge rock riffs and kaleidoscopic tonal effects, and almost immediately Rage found itself pumping out a new sound. It was an overpowering sonic blast yet to be equaled by any of the metal-rap bands following in its wake. And the hyperkinetic de la Rocha, whose frenetic delivery is equal parts rapping, ranting and raving, proved as explosive a performer in those first rehearsals as he is today.
"Obviously, there were some precedents--Run-DMC, the Public Enemy/Anthrax collaboration," Morello says. "But there was never a band that did it, a rock band without a deejay."
And while there were precedents for politically focused bands--MC5, the Clash, Gang of Four, Public Enemy, KRS-One--none approached Rage's single-minded focus. Says Morello, "Resistance and struggle and solidarity are a crucial part of human experience that have been, for the most part, left out of the pop continuum."
In early 1992, Rage Against the Machine released a self-produced, 12-song tape that sold a few thousand copies. Screeds like "Bullet in the Head," "Know Your Enemy" and "Killin in the Name" caught the attention of several major labels, not all of which were ready to deal with Rage's political material. Some passed, some insisted the band's future was overseas. Eventually, the band signed to Epic, home of the Clash, as well as a division of entertainment behemoth Sony.
A year later, Rage began to build its reputation with extensive touring, including a spot in that year's Lollapalooza festival. One of its first major political stands came that year in Philadelphia. The band protested renewed efforts at music censorship by standing naked onstage for 15 minutes, with duct tape across their mouths and a single letter scrawled on each member's chest--P M R C (for the Parents Music Resource Center, the foremost critics of explicit rock lyrics).
That year the band also embraced the cause of Leonard Peltier, an Indian activist who has been imprisoned since 1977 for the shooting deaths of two FBI agents on a South Dakota reservation. Defenders of Peltier, who is serving two life sentences, have charged massive judicial and FBI misconduct. Rage focused on the case in its "Freedom" video, which featured concert footage mixed with scenes from the documentary "Incident at Oglala" and text from Peter Matthiessen's "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse." When MTV put it into heavy rotation, it went into tens of millions of households. At one point, "Freedom" was the No. 1 video in the country.
"It helped to let an entire new generation know about Leonard Peltier," Morello says. "Most of his supporters were not of the rock-rap-metal demographic."
Rage Against the Machine "brings energy and awareness to the case that's really needed," says Gina Chiala of the Peltier Defense Fund. According to Chiala, 40 percent of the letters and e-mails supporting Peltier now come from people who heard about him because of Rage. The band members have also performed dozens of benefit concerts for the causes they espouse.
There are doubters and naysayers, of course, eager to point out the irony of a revolutionary band allied with a corporate giant. After the band's second album, 1996's "Evil Empire," sold 5 million copies within the borders of said Evil Empire, one alternative paper blasted Rage as "Sony's best-selling anti-capitalist act."
Morello has developed a fairly thick skin about such criticism.
"Leonard Peltier and the garment workers' union don't care whether we're on an independent label or major label," he responds.
There have been suggestions that most of the band's fans couldn't care less about--or worse, are oblivious to--the content of the music. Morello allows that "they come to it for different reasons--whether it's the aggression or the funk or the guitar--and they leave with something to think about."
As to the content, "it's not very well hidden," Morello points out. "It's on every Rage T-shirt, on every backdrop, in every song and every video, on the front of the amplifiers. I don't think you can get with Rage Against the Machine without at least being aware of what it's about."
Do fans here and abroad react to the surface power of the music or to its deeper ambitions?
"Either way we're successful," Morello insists, "because if all someone draws out of our lyrical catalogue is '[Expletive] you, I won't do what you tell me to' "--from "Bullet to the Head"--"I believe that to be a success. In the introduction to Frederick Douglass's autobiography, he says that before he became physically liberated, he was free from slavery the day that he decided when Master said yes, he would say no, and when Master said no, he would say yes.
"That is absolutely the core of all healthy rebellion, that negating illegitimate authority," adds Morello. "And that particular sentiment translates into just about any language."
In any event, Morello recognizes the process because 20 years ago, he was at the other end of it.
"I was fairly bright . . . alone in Libertyville, Illinois, and I liked heavy metal music," he explains. "I liked metal's musical content but I just couldn't relate to the demons-and-wizards lyrics. Then I got the Clash's 'London Calling' and here was a band that was telling the truth and it rocked me. It made connections. It made me feel a part of something bigger. And it helped steel me in both my politics and my rock."
For Rage, music and politics were intertwined from the start. Two members of the band grew up in activist families. De la Rocha's mother was an anthropologist, his father part of the politically charged Chicano painting collective Los Four; Zack was the only Mexican American in his Irvine, Calif., high school.
Morello is the son of an activist Italian American mother and a Kenyan diplomat who fought in the Mau Mau independence movement. They divorced a year after he was born. When mother and son moved to the Chicago suburbs, Morello became one of the first African American residents in a stifling hamlet called Libertyville.
"The irony is not lost on me," says Morello.
Which made the son stand out in Libertyville.
"Tom grew up as a black kid in a white suburb and as a left-wing kid in a Republican suburb," says Jim Naureckas, a classmate at Libertyville High School who is now editor of Extra, a bimonthly published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, one of several media watchdog groups supported by Rage.
"His mother always made sure that Tom would not be a stranger to the black half of his culture, that he would be aware of the struggles for civil rights and so on," Naureckas says. "The lessons that she gave Tom from an early age made it clear there was a world beyond Libertyville."
Morello says his mother, now a retired teacher, was always involved with civil rights and anti-censorship issues. She founded Parents for Rock and Rap before Rage formed. In fact, she helped shape her son's first political action before he started grade school after an older white girl spewed racial taunts at him on the playground.
"I'd come home crying about the latest incident and my mom would talk to me about Malcolm X, and how I could respond to it," Morello recalls. "My mom said, 'Whenever somebody says that N-word'--and she gave me a list of some others--'never let them get away with it. When she does that tomorrow, I want you to make a little fist and slug her.'
"And I went: 'Slug her?' "
"She said: 'Slug her.'
"The next day I went to the playground, and I was very nervous because I figured it was coming. This kid was mean. I got name-called, and I slugged her, and a little riot ensued in the day-care center. But her mother came, and I stood there, with arms crossed beaming from ear to ear as I watched her mom wash her mouth out with soap. And that was the last time that I had an incident."
By the time Morello was in high school, his political passions were being forged by learning about the Black Panthers, IRA hunger strikers and civil wars in Central America. It was also a period of musical empowerment: the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Gang of Four--which Naureckas suggests was a model for Rage. It was not just for their thick, furious sound, "but also in the sense of a group with a mission, a band as political project."
Morello was in bands throughout high school but later, though he continued to practice, he put public performance aside to attend Harvard, where he graduated in 1986 with an honors degree in social studies. "The justification for not pursuing rock was to intellectually arm myself for what I saw, and see, as the coming struggle," says the 35-year-old guitarist.
After graduating, Morello moved to Los Angeles and spent two years as a scheduling secretary for Sen. Alan Cranston, but the cycles of fund-raising and favoritism soon soured him on mainstream politics. Rage Against the Machine would offer a much more effective platform for change.
Morello says that as long as there's The Machine, there will be a rage against it. Things may change, radically or not, but there will never be a shortage of material, or a sense of frustration about the slow process of change, he argues.
"Five years before the Berlin Wall fell, there was no indication that that was going to happen," Morello says. "Five years before apartheid ended, there was no indication that was going to happen. So I agree with my favorite band, the Clash, when they say the future is unwritten.
"For me, the only thing that is important, the guiding light, is you weave your convictions into your life, and my vocation happens to be that of a guitar player. In the same way that Woody Guthrie or Joe Hill or Joe Strummer have, you, as best you can, effect the change that you can. And whether it's adding new flavors to the general mores of society or telling kids at clubs not to buy Guess jeans, or whether it's throwing up barricades across Sunset Boulevard, weaving your convictions into your life's work is your only responsibility."