The Return of Rage: The Influences and Influence of Rage Against the Machine
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 fourteen-year-old.
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 2020.
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 musical acts.
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 testify. Bombtrack.