by P.J. Sauerteig
1992. Los Angeles. Four fairly greasy, rough-and-tumble-looking guys put out Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut album. With ten volcanic songs, Rage offered up the heads of corporate monsters, backdoor politicians, corrupt cops, and complacent everymen – all of them on a silver platter. But whether or not Rage knew it at the time, their heads would end up on that same platter…
Rage’s debut is packed almost entirely with political revolt: They don’t bother with soppy love songs, sodden breakup songs, shoulder-shrug sad songs, drunk songs, or high songs (vocalist Zach de la Rocha was straight edge at the time). Instead, Rage used almost every inch of the album to launch a massive, and massively well-considered, attack on systems of American power and greed: corporations, the criminal justice system, mass media inoculation, politicians, public education. Instead of bulky clubs, de la Rocha reached for scalpels, digging into issues as relevant then as they are now: Eurocentric public education, racialized agendas in policing, cultural conformity and assimilation. In “Wake Up,” de la Rocha even implies that the US government had a hand in assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
The genre ultimately slapped onto Rage — “rap metal” — doesn’t sound very intellectual. What with the mosh pits, the obstreperous sound, the disrespect, the snarl, it was probably easy to assume that Rage wasn’t music for Valedictorians. Here we arrive at one of Rage’s great paradoxes. These were very, very, very intelligent songwriters. Sweaty, angry, poorly-dressed, but intelligent. Tom Morello, Rage’s guitar player, moved to LA after graduating from Harvard. His mom worked with the NAACP, and his father fought in Kenya’s revolution against the British, before becoming Kenya’s first UN representative.
In Rage, Morello used distortion, whammy bars, and other effects to produce incredible guitar tones — searing, whining, and at times, molten. His guitar work was loud and sometimes abrasive, but it was ingenious – what better way to depict the “Machine” the band was raging against? Long before dubstep, Morello manipulated sound into machine-like screeching and roaring, somewhere between a Transformer robot weeping and a tank rolling into battle. These sound effects allowed Morello to depict the frightful inhumanity of the “Machine” – the American systems of oppression which seek to force us into compliance. With walls of sound, Morello hammered down like the iron footsteps of American power.
But Morello’s metaphor cuts the opposite way, too. Not only is the “Machine” inhuman; it also works to dehumanize the same people it tramples underfoot. In “Take the Power Back,” de la Rocha raps, “I’m inferior? Who’s inferior?/ Yeah we need to check the interior / Of the system that cares about only one culture.” As a half-Mexican kid growing up in Irvine, California, this was all too clear to de la Rocha: “If you were a Mexican in Irvine, you were there because you had a broom or a hammer in your left hand.” Crushed by powerful masters, and spoon-fed by the media, Rage’s world is both dystopian and familiar – how can one retain their humanity? Morello’s guitar work, then, depicts the inhumanity of both oppressor and oppressed.
Years later, De la Rocha gave a curious answer in a Rolling Stone interview: “Every song that I’ve written, it is because of my desire to use music as a way to empower and re-humanize people… Every song that I’ve ever written is a love song.” Here, we see Rage in a new light, and it’s hard not to admire their conviction. This Rage Against the Machine appears noble — thoughtful without being pretentious — angry, but righteously so.
Oddly, screaming “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” over and over (in “Killing in the Name”) hurt their chances of being recognized as the well-read, ingenious activists that they actually were. Rage fell into a booby trap of their own making: the media would go on to smatter them as “pro-terror” and “anti-family.” Can you blame them? Can you blame the concerned mothers, and the teachers wondering what loud hell-storm was coming out of the radio? If Rage is as smart as we say they are, they were smart enough to realize that they invited this misunderstanding. Smart enough to realize that in screaming so loud – with such vitriol – they might be mistaken for the bad guy. At the end of the album, de la Rocha whispers, “Anger is a gift.” But anger is also what made Rage’s message so unstable, and so easily misinterpreted. This paradox is part of what makes Rage so fascinating. Theirs was a sort of suicide mission: spreading love through middle fingers, wisdom through anger. They kicked and screamed, but undeniably, they cared.
This sincerity permeates every song on Rage’s debut – and it’s one of the band’s most endearing traits. Take “Wake Up,” for example: de la Rocha makes his case for the government’s illicit hand in assassinations, but he ends the song on a far less intricate note: he simply screams “Wake Up!” over and over and over again. By the last repetition, his vocal cords are strained, and you can almost see the veins popping out of his forehead. It feels almost as if de la Rocha is in the room with you, holding both your shoulders, and shaking you as he screams. His vocals go beyond convincing or genuinely concerned – they become unnerving, and unhinged. An NME reviewer said it best: “what makes RATM more than just another bunch of prodigiously capable genre-benders is their total lack of pretension or contrivance … the results burn with an undeniable conviction.”
The album is a sprawling battleground, and yet each lyric – and each riff – is tightly engineered. There is an astounding economy of language, and Rage’s walls of distortion cut with strange precision. The band went on to release a few more albums as part of a very successful career; but their debut stands out as first blood – white-hot and impossibly rich. Very few records achieve this unity of message and sound, form and function. Here, Rage reminded us what sublime songwriting looks like: lyrics and music working perfectly in tandem.
PJ Sauerteig runs the boutique label Massif Records, and has published poetry and criticism in various magazines. He releases dumb music as Slow Dakota, and is currently enrolled at NYU Law. Tweet him @PJ_Sauerteig.