Profile of Rage Against the Machine

Rage Against the Machine
Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images.

Rage Against the Machine specialize in fiery, provocative protest music, which is ironic since the band members’ relationship has been just as combative as their songs over the years. The Los Angeles group came together in 1991, with singer Zack de la Rocha and guitarist Tom Morello joining up with bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk. Within a year, Rage Against the Machine had self-released a 12-song cassette and started playing shows in the Southern California area.

The Beginning of Rap-Rock

Signing to Epic in 1992, the band released its self-titled debut in November of that year. Incorporating a few songs from their self-released cassette, Rage Against the Machine established the quartet’s sonically aggressive assault, melding de la Rocha’s politically tinged lyrics (which were often rapped) with Morello’s metal-influenced guitar. The album emerged at a time when both hard rock and hip-hop were popular, and the group linked the two genres into a new style soon to be known as rap-rock. Rage Against the Machine proved to be a landmark of the form, going on to sell 3 million copies in the U.S.

Protests and Tensions

Rage Against the Machine wouldn’t release their sophomore album for another four years, but they weren’t inactive in the interim. Touring with groups as diverse as Cypress Hill, Screaming Trees and Beastie Boys, the band appeared at various benefit concerts and Lollapalooza.

Rage also caused controversy by appearing onstage nude on July 18, 1993, with duct tape on their mouths and the letters “PMRC” on their chest to protest the conservative watchdog group. When they finally returned to the studio, there were several reports of friction within the band, including rumors that the group might break up.

Widespread Acceptance

Despite those reports of personality conflicts, Evil Empire emerged in April 1996. Reaching No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, Evil Empire signaled a widespread acceptance of the group’s militant, antiauthoritarian stance. No doubt helping the cause was that the group tailored their protest music to combustive riffs that could easily fit onto rock radio, like the single “Bulls on Parade,” which featured one of Morello’s flashy solos. Evil Empire earned three Grammy nominations, winning for Best Metal Performance for “Tire Me.”

Rage Against the Machine's Last Studio Album

Rage’s last studio album, 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles, further cemented the commercial strength of protest-themed rap-rock. Reaching the top of the album charts and spawning three singles, including “Testify” and “Guerrilla Radio,” The Battle of Los Angeles extended the group’s winning streak, although the fury of de la Rocha’s lyrics lacked the novelty of before. Likewise, the band’s songs too often reprised sonic tricks of the past, although Morello’s fluid guitar work continued to amaze, twisting the instrument’s palette of sounds to include noises that resembled harmonica wails and turntable scratches.

Calling It Quits

In 2000, the band continued to agitate the powers that be, causing a disturbance at the New York Stock Exchange while filming a video for “Sleep Now in the Fire” and playing outside the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. However, the band delivered their biggest shock in October of that year when they announced they were breaking up, citing long-rumored band tensions. In a statement, de la Rocha said, “I am extremely proud of our work, both as activists and musicians, as well as indebted and grateful to every person who has expressed solidarity and shared this incredible experience with us."

Life After Rage Against the Machine

Since Rage Against the Machine’s disbanding, the group members have remained busy with different projects. De la Rocha contributed to the One Day as a Lion project, while the rest of the band joined Chris Cornell, the singer of Soundgarden, to form Audioslave, a supergroup that enjoyed success in the early 21st century.

In addition, Morello has continued his activist pursuits, staging concerts to raise awareness for different nonprofit organizations. The band has continued to reunite for occasional shows, but there has been no formal announcement about any official return to the studio.

Lineup

Tim Commerford - bass
Zack de la Rocha - vocals
Tom Morello - guitar
Brad Wilk - drums

Essential Albums

The sound of a new genre being born, Rage Against the Machine made a very loud and persuasive argument that rap-rock was going to be one of the major pop sounds of the 1990s. As indebted to Public Enemy as it was to metal, the album first caught the interest of the disenfranchised with its angry lyrics decrying the corruption of the powerful, but soon its impact would be felt in acts like Limp Bizkit and the Roots.

Discography

Rage Against the Machine (1992)
Evil Empire (1996)
The Battle of Los Angeles (1999)
Renegades (2000)
Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium (live album) (2003)