By Ryan Wilcox
The first Rage Against the Machine song most of us ever heard was “Killing in the Name.” That sustained opening chord, those thudding bass notes, the cowbell and woodblock hits that lead into an inventive fusion of punk, metal, and rap. Only a few others had ever attempted such a mixture, but never with these results, and certainly not on the FM dial. Turn that shit up, indeed.
Anthrax had collaborated with Public Enemy for “Bring the Noise” a year earlier, and Red Hot Chili Peppers combined elements of punk, funk, and rap on early releases. Neither coincided with much, if any, radio or MTV airplay, though. Theirs were glancing blows, but Rage’s urgent roar hit hard. And nearly three decades later, it still does.
The RATM sound is built on authenticity; the phrase “All Sounds Made by Guitar, Bass, Drums, and Vocals” is touted in the liner notes of each of their four full-lengths. It’s the raucous noise conjured by instrumentalists working together to lay a foundation for the blunt, veracious messages that ushered in a new rebellious energy to the alternative rock world. Punk, metal, and rap artists were influenced by political, social, racial, and economic grievances, but typically only safe, catchy, accessible songs made it onto the airwaves. If you had something weighty to say, there were typically far too many obstacles that prevented exposure.
Commercial interests were primary, advertisers and label influence held too much power, and music was funneled through the radio, onto TV, and into record stores. Without airplay in the ‘90s, it was necessary to rely on a small, devoted following to support the music. Hearing “Killing In The Name” break through these channels, despite minute-long refrain of “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” was incredible for us suburban teen music purveyors on the fringe. It united those who, otherwise, would find themselves listening to obscure punk and metal CDs in friends’ messy bedrooms. Rage birthed a community of those burning to revolt.
Anti-authoritarian, anarchist, and socialist sensibilities had invaded the suburbs, using mainstream radio and music television to disseminate the message. Throngs of rebellious teens escaped their malaise by screaming at the powers that be. Rage’s appeal transcended alt-rock radio and the ennui of America’s cul-de-sacs, however. Their breakthrough LP drove inquiry into new schools of thought and assembled a generation of nonconformists and dissidents who otherwise felt marginalized and unrepresented in society, reintroducing political, socioeconomic, and racial awareness back into pop culture.
In the two decades since anti-war protesters, long-haired hippies, and the Black Panthers helped shape American music and culture, that revolutionary spirit had been somewhat lost. Punk had failed to break through the surface commercially without diluting itself, but Rage Against the Machine found a way to bring many of its core messages to the masses.
Lyrically, Rage directly confronted the corporate influences, governmental corruption, systemic oppression, cultural imperialism and societal conformity that defined the status quo in America. Delivered with a righteous anger and passion and combined with a musical direction influenced by thrash and hardcore, they distilled all this into head-nodding beats, ripping bass lines, innovative guitar textures, and accessibly fiery rap lyrics.
RATM took it to the airways, amassing giant crowds across the country while weathering plenty of controversy along the way. Rage was initially active for the better part of a decade, before disbanding after a Los Angeles concert during the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
Since then, the band has reunited several times for headlining festival appearances and massive world tours. Some controversy surrounds their tours inflated ticket prices, making the band the target of accusations of hypocrisy. Detractors allege that Rage is now in bed with the same multinational corporations responsible for the abuses the band attacks in their music, lining the pockets of those entities and themselves.
Defenders respond that the band has created large-scale visibility for issues that are otherwise marginalized. Whether you think they’ve become The Machine or believe they’re still raging against it, you can’t deny the message or the fucking incredible music that backs it.