When musicphiles begin to get on in their years, it can be easy for decades of audio-obsession to blend into a haze of sound, and it becomes difficult to discern where and when pivotal shifts in taste and inclination occurred. You get older and simply assume that you were born listening to and loving the Beatles, or Snoop Dogg, or Nine Inch Nails, or whatnot. But for me, the memory of being fundamentally changed by one band and one album stands out clearly.
It was 1998, I was in the eighth grade, and I’d driven with my mom to the mall about a half hour north of my hometown. There she accompanied me to the Sam Goody where her presence was required if I was to purchase the album I sought due to its Parental Advisory warning.
I was completely ignorant as to the content of the CD. It
had been recommended to me by some older kids who I of course wanted to
impress, so I bought it sound-unheard and went into it totally ear-blind.
By the first chorus of the third track—“Turn on the radio, naw, fuck it—turn it off”—I was a faithful convert.
Once we started the ride home I popped the CD into my
Discman and—holding it as still as possible lest it skip—I pressed play.
The opening guitar riff for “People of the Sun” skittered
through my headphones, and after a moment the drums dropped in. Then the bass
licked its way into the mix followed abruptly by Zack de la Rocha’s mushy
vocals. A chill ran up my spine as I sat there ridged and unseeing in my seat.
If I was captivated by the first track, the opening blasts of “Bulls On Parade”
shook me to my core. By the first chorus of the third track—“Turn on the
radio, naw, fuck it—turn it off”—I was a faithful convert.
Rage Against the Machine and the album Evil Empire not
only disrupted my entire conception of music, but fundamentally altered me as a
person. Suddenly the “edgy” music of Blink-182 or Green Day seemed trite. From
then on silly songs about masturbation gave way to calls for revolution.
As it turned out, that impact went far beyond a single, angsty
The Return of Rage
In the early 1990s, the ethos of music and culture in
general was perhaps best summed up by the “screw it—let’s watch TV” attitude
of Beavis and Butthead. Gen-X slackerdom was in full-swing, and then along
comes the hyper-political rock of Rage Against the Machine.
RATM produced three solid albums during their relatively
brief tenure, over the course of which they became one of the biggest groups in
the world. For nearly two decades it seemed like that was all we were going to
get, until the band reformed sans de la Rocha with Public Enemy frontman
Chuck D and Cypress Hill member B-Real. And then out of nowhere just a few
weeks ago, it was announced that the original Rage lineup would be reuniting in
Now with the return of Rage deep in the era of Trump, we’re certain
to hear a renewed call for revolution.
The Roots of Rage
Rage Against the Machine drew influence from a wide range of
Central to the RATM sound are big riffs and big banging
drums, along with dynamic shifts in volume. It isn’t hard to hear influences
like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and the MC5.
This is layered with obvious hip-hop influences from Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and Run DMC’s King of Rock. It’s no wonder that PE’s Chuck D ended up working with the band in recent years. Even a cursory listen to the discographies of both groups makes it clear that there likely wouldn’t have been Rage without PE.
On top of all this, it’s impossible to ignore influences
from the punk polemics and sensibilities of the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Minor Threat,
Fugazi, the Dead Kennedys, and Bad Brains. These are groups that put politics and
social commentary at the forefront of everything they produced.
Two outliers aesthetically that are nonetheless spiritual forerunners
to RATM are the Bobs Dylan and Marley. While Dylan’s sound is certainly nothing
like that of Rage, listen carefully to the lyrics of the former’s “Hurricane” or
“Masters of War” and the parallels are clear. Ditto with Marley songs like “War,”
“Get Up Stand Up,” and “Burnin and Lootin.”
The Results of Rage
Rage Against the Machine left an indelible mark on the
musical landscape. While the late-1990s/early-2000s were thick with bands attempting
to live up to RATM’s bold, groin-kicking, rap-rock sound, perhaps the most obvious
example of their impact involves how they helped to push politically charged
lyrics to the forefront.
Rage stands alongside Ice Cube and Public Enemy when it
comes to sorting out the primary influences of acts like Cannibal Ox, Run the
Jewels, Kendrick Lamar, and even M.I.A. The politics of these performers are
inseparable from the music they create.
But I would argue that no contemporary group upholds the
RATM torch more than Death Grips. With politically charged lyrics that are sung/rapped/shouted/screamed
over some of the most abrasive, in-your-face music to edge its way into the
mainstream, Death Grips is like Rage Against the Machine on PCP.
The timing for the return of Rage Against the Machine is no
coincidence, nor a money-grab. The musicians who make up the band are more than
performers—they’re activists, and it isn’t hard to see why they would look at
the current state of the world and decide that it’s time to remobilize.
If you thought 2020 was going to be a big and potentially worrisome
year politically—what with Trump, the election, Brexit, et al—take heart.
Rage Against the Machine is going to help us take the power back, and if you’re
anything like me, the angry fourteen-year-old in you is ready to wake up and
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.