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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: When Rage Against the Machine Brought the Revolution to the Suburbs

Talking “Killing in the Name” and mainstream rock’s great socialist rap-rockers with help from Sage Francis

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. In Episode 57, we’re breaking down Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” with help from legendary indie rapper Sage Francis.

Rage Against the Machine formed in Los Angeles in 1991. You got rapper Zack de la Rocha on lead vocals, you got ’90s Guitar God Tom Morello on guitars, you got Tim Commerford (Tim Bob!) on bass, and you got Brad Wilk on drums. They put out three monster albums: Rage Against the Machine in ’92, Evil Empire in ’96, and The Battle of Los Angeles in ’99, and then they broke up, imploded, dissolved, whatever, after an odd and not entirely satisfying covers album, called Renegades, released in 2000. (Rage Against the Machine’s best cover song is “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” by Bruce Springsteen, but not the version on Renegades. The best version of Rage Against the Machine’s version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is on a compilation called No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar Refugees. I wouldn’t tell you this if it weren’t important.) Anyway, then they broke up in a weird vague huff, though they grit their teeth and hit the reunion tour every so often; they were all set to headline Coachella 2020, for all the good that did anybody.

You know who else did that? Three full-length albums, one covers album, then collapse, then eventual grudging reformation? Guns N’ Roses. If you ignore GN’R Lies and Chinese Democracy. Close enough. All right? It’s actually quite challenging, even now, to articulate the appeal of Rage Against the Machine. No it isn’t. Look out: Top-Five Greatest Air Bass Moments in the Rage Against the Machine catalog. Air bass is like air guitar except you’re playing bass. No. 5: “Down Rodeo” from Evil Empire.

It ain’t necessarily about how many notes Tim Commerford’s playing, yeah? It’s about how rad you feel thwacking your thumb in the air and leaning into the boom bahm, boom bahm. Bonus points if you’re wearing that Che Guevara T-shirt, or, I suppose, bonus points if you’re not. No. 4: “No Shelter” from the Godzilla soundtrack.

Yes, the 1998 Godzilla soundtrack that starts with the Wallflowers covering David Bowie’s “Heroes.” Which coulda gone worse, all things considered. But yeah other than Rage, the only other truly great moment on this record is the “Godzilla Remix” of Green Day’s “Brain Stew,” which is a remix in the sense that they basically just added arbitrary Godzilla roars. Just absolutely fantastic.

There is no song from the ’90s, or for that matter from any other decade, that cannot be improved by the addition of arbitrary Godzilla roars. And yes, that includes No. 3: “Freedom.”

“Freedom” is the last song on the first Rage Against the Machine record; its video, ubiquitous on MTV for a time, is an explicit plea for the release of Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of aiding and abetting the murder of two FBI agents during a shootout at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975. Peltier has been imprisoned since 1977 despite widespread outcry that he is innocent, that key evidence was withheld at the trial, and that the eyewitnesses who testified at the trial were coerced by the FBI. Leonard Peltier is still in prison. The “Freedom” video ends with the statement WE DEMAND AND SUPPORT THE REQUEST THAT LEONARD PELTIER BE GRANTED EXECUTIVE CLEMENCY AND BE RELEASED; JUSTICE HAS NOT BEEN DONE, broken up a few words at a time in giant white letters on screen while the band thrashes through the loudest and screamiest and raddest part of the song.

The eternal Rage Against the Machine conundrum being, if you consider their fans—often stereotyped, at least, as primarily white and suburban and oblivious—what percentage of Rage Against the Machine’s fans got this message, and what percentage ignored the message entirely and just dug all the thrashing and screaming. Reject that false binary. No. 2: “Roll Right.”

So this intrigues me: This song’s also from Evil Empire, that bass line kicks ass, but in fact that bass line kicks so much ass that I had no idea what the lyrics to this song were until just now: Shock ya like Ellison, Gaza, Tiananmen, the basement I’m dwellin’ in, cock back the sling to stone a settler, call me the upsetter … there’s a lot going on here. Quite the multimedia travelogue. Does the rad bass line enhance or obscure whatever you regard as Zack de la Rocha’s message here? Ooh, I’m intrigued. And finally, the All-Time Greatest Air Bass Moment in the Rage Against the Machine catalog: “Know Your Enemy”

Enough frivolity. Rage Against the Machine did not do frivolity. They did not write frivolous songs, party songs, love songs. Or love songs in any conventional sense. Rage made the cover of Rolling Stone in November 1999, and the cover of Spin magazine in March 2000, both to promote The Battle of Los Angeles. The Rolling Stone story ends with Zack de La Rocha stating the following:

“A lot of people who are cynics”—the writer, David Fricke, notes that Zack spits out the word cynics—“have completely abandoned the idea that music can effect political change, abandoned it entirely as a product of cultural cynicism. That’s completely defeatist. Music will always be able to engage people. KRS-One, Public Enemy—they had as much of an effect on me and the way I saw the world as viewing my father’s art or growing up poor in a white suburb. You know, I think every revolutionary act is an act of love. Every song that I’ve written, it is because of my desire to use music as a way to empower and re-humanize people who are living in a dehumanizing setting. The song is in order to better the human condition. Every song that I’ve ever written is a love song.”

So let’s go back to one of the first love songs he ever wrote.

That is “Bombtrack,” Track 1 on Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut album, from 1992. The band actually made a “Freedom”-style video for “Bombtrack” as well, touting the Peruvian Communist Party organization known as the Shining Path, a far less sympathetic cause than Leonard Peltier, let’s put it that way; I don’t think MTV played the “Bombtrack” video much, and that’s for the best. These guys were not fucking around, from the jump. The cover of Rage Against the Machine’s debut album features the famous photograph of a Vietnamese monk burning himself to death on a street in Saigon in 1963 to protest the government’s treatment of Buddhists. Consequently, if you’re of a certain age, like, half the dudes on your high school football team owned a copy of that photograph. Picture them all in the weight room, pumping iron to “Bullet in the Head.”

“A yellow ribbon instead of a swastika” is an awfully incendiary line for a song about how you should watch less TV; “Nothin’ proper about ya propaganda” is a pretty good line no matter what your song’s about. Zack de la Rocha’s mother got a PhD in anthropology at the Irvine campus of the University of California; his father was an influential activist and visual artist in mid-’70s L.A., part of a group of Chicano painters called Los Four who got famous after exhibiting their work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1974. But his father grew disillusioned with the compromises that came with commercial fame, and refused to sell his work, and divorced his wife, and burned a bunch of his work in front of his son Zack, and only returned to the art scene in the mid-’90s after his son Zack’s band got famous.

The way Zack summarized all this to Charles Aaron in Spin magazine was, ​​“I admired my father’s twisted resilience, in a way. He struggled to break down the barriers between politics and art, which we struggle with. All the things he did with farm workers, with the anti–Vietnam War movement in East L.A., desegregating the art world, not letting his work be touched by commercialism. But at a certain point you have to face the gun of reality that’s pointing at you.” Any joke, any insult anybody’s ever flung at Rage Against the Machine for advocating for communism via albums released by Sony Records—just keep in mind that Zack’s given that paradox more thought than anybody. Going back to this first record now, I’m gravitating for the first time toward the quietest moments. The song “Settle for Nothing” is a very slow, very grim character study about a jailed gang member; the chorus ends with Zack screaming the word suicide. But I don’t think I ever gave the first line enough attention

A jail cell is freedom from the pain in my home. I shoulda listened a little harder earlier. Same deal with the last lines in the verses, before he starts screaming. Oh, to be an oblivious 14-year-old suburban herb again, and not fully grasp the import of all that.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.