In terms of game-changers in music, they don’t come much more incendiary than Rage Against The Machine. Their 1992 self-titled debut was a molotov cocktail straight to the heart of the music industry, the kickstart of an entire genre of admirers and copycats, and, most importantly, a radical political manifesto made tangible through an explosive mixture of hip-hop, funk, metal, and a handful of other styles. In short, these four men were trailblazers way before some of us were even born, myself included.
So why aren’t we running our episode of A Scene In Retrospect on that album, then? Because a few of us here at the EIN headquarters (totally not a thing, but let’s just roll with the imagery) are of the opinion that while yes, Rage Against The Machine is an outstanding record, its follow-up Evil Empire is a one-up in (almost) every regard. Here to share their views on why that’s the case are my dear colleagues David and Dan, whom I will now be yielding the proverbial stage to.
Rage Against The Machine are a fucking rap band, and Evil Empire is a fucking hip-hop album. Everytime I say this I get a mix of reactions. The initial one is typically of disgust. All the suburban kids that grew up listening to RATM and understand their influence in simplistic terms decry how wrong I could be, since we should all know they’re *ahem* rap metal. The peacekeepers take a different approach. Positioning themselves in the center of debate, pleading with me to acknowledge how indefinable RATM are. They’re the glue of anger that connects all the missing links between rap, metal, and rock. It’s cute, partially accurate, but not a serviceable hypothesis. The minority are the folks that get it, almost always acknowledge it as a given. Zack De La Rocha has always been a rapper that does sing sometimes, but most of the times he’s dropping earnest truth bombs to smack the ingorance out of you in an attempt to wake you the fuck up. He’s literally one of the greatest MC’s of the 90s.
Evil Empire is a shining example of my position. The backing three piece of Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, and Brad Wilk dedicate a lot of their songwriting structure establishing a beat for Zack to lyrically fucking annihilate, rather than a melody to sing along to. The buzzsaw guitar work on “People of the Sun” mimics a hip-hop sample almost too perfectly, while the coupled bass and drum give Zack the rugged environment to deliver such lyrical haymakers like: ‘Since fifteen hundred and sixteen, Mayans attacked and overseen’. “Vietnow” has a fucking hype man in it, and “Down Rodeo” cultivates imagery more inline with Dead Prez than Red Hot Chili Peppers. No rock band does this. No rock band sounds like this. Not even anything that followed in the coming years of the nu-metal era, with its earnest (although corny at times) rap influences, sounds like this. Korn, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, and countless other nameless bands dedicate a lot of their energy to typical rock composition, with occasional rap verses here or there (the more ambitious might produce a full-on rap track). RATM does it in reverse, though. Their commitment to hip-hop is at the forefront, with glints of rock influence boiling over on occasion.
The first song that I ever heard off this album was “Bulls on Parade”. The imagery of RATM absolutely hyping a crowd to hysteria coupled with the violent anti-authoritarian, red and black imagery struck a nerve so deep inside me that I knew I was watching something so special unfold on the screen. It was too effective, and, without being hyperbolic, set me down a path towards a political ideology I still adhere to this day. Morello’s guitar work is wizardry on this track as well. I had never heard anything like it, and it is such a unique approach to a structure that no one’s ever been able to replicate it since. The influence behind it is equally awesome. When asked what inspired it, Tom claims it’s ‘sort of a Geto Boys sound, menacing‘. Why would the Geto Boys be an influence for RATM, you ask? Oh, because they’re a fucking rap band.
I’m grateful to have experienced it all that time ago. It was my first taste of knowledge I was unaware of. A truth and history that the mainstream U.S. has tried to cover up so much, as if it was some intrinsic archaic truth (which, if you ask me, it is). I had never heard of the military-industrial complex, never knew of the bloodlust the U.S. was born in, never understood the detrimental effects of colonialism, and for sure had never heard of the Zapatistas. That video was a pinpoint for my descent into all things leftist, and I was immediately hooked. Shit, I still have an unwavering admiration for the Zapatistas to this day, and it all started with this album. It’s an indebtedness to RATM that I couldn’t ever repay.
Some fans tend to overlook Evil Empire for one reason or another. They typically look to RATM’s eponymous debut as their best, and that’s a fair assessment. “Killing In The Name”, “Bombtrack”, “Wake Up”, and “Take the Power Back” are instant classics. Couple those with the iconic self-immolation anti-capitalist imagery on the album cover, and it’s easy to proclaim that as a strong fucking statement. But what I hear throughout that album and see in the presentation is the laying of groundwork. It’s an introduction to the sound and intent of Rage Against The Machine. I appreciate it for that, but Evil Empire is phase two: a development of that groundwork, and an evolution of iconoclast, and a propaganda initiative to disseminate leftist ideology.
The whitewashing of RATM will always be hilarious to me. ZDLR doesn’t mince words with his lyrics, nor does he leave much to the imagination for the listener to define in their own terms. Hell, Evil Empire came with a fucking suggested reading list of leftist inspiration, yet too many folks seem to misunderstand what the ‘machine’ is. Liberals think its the conservatives, the conservatives think… I actually don’t know what the fuck they think, so I’ll just leave it up to Tom Morello to tweet at them for education. However, anyone paying attention intently would acknowledge it clear as day: the entirety of Evil Empire is a leftist anthem and call to action. Every single track RATM created is a rallying cry to wake the fuck up, look around, and fucking do something about it. The Zapatista admiration is strong, the red and black is heavily prevalent, and the vibe is angry. There are so many truths in this album that still stand as currently relevant to this day. The line ‘they don’t gotta burn a book, they just remove them’ from “Bulls on Parade” has a direct correlation to the current conservative agenda unfolding in the American south. And while these culture wars recycle in an infinite loop, and folks stay confused on what RATM actually is, I’ll continue to rage against that machine, and keep up the good work correcting them where I can: no, they’re not liberal. Yes, they’re anarcho-communists, No, they’re not rap metal. They are a fucking rap band, and Evil Empire is and always will be a hip-hop record.
30 years ago was a big deal for music, particularly the merging of genres. 1992, almost to this day, saw the release of Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head and, later in the year, Rage Against The Machine’s self-titled debut. These two albums were somewhat far-flung from each other, but they both had something fundamental in common: the marriage of hip-hop and rock. You gotta remember, this was before the big nu metal/rap rock craze of the late ‘90s and early 2000s that gave us Limp Bizkit, Korn, and… Kid Rock. This subgenre had a very reputable standing once upon a time, and, more importantly as we’ll go over today, used to be revolutionary.
Evil Empire is Rage’s second album, showing some measured growth and more nuanced sound, even if I favor their self-titled album’s more amateurish and no-nonsense attitude (and better mix). Not that Evil Empire has nonsense – it’s a matter of preference for Rage fans what their favorite is, and it’s almost always one or the other. Shout out to my minority fans who like The Battle of Los Angeles, or even their Renegades cover album, more. Somebody’s gotta do it, and it ain’t gonna be me (still good albums, though).
When I think about it, it makes sense for Rage to come when they did. Not only were they way ahead of their time, but they weren’t far removed at all from hip-hop’s growing sociopolitical relevance. I think of Public Enemy and how, somewhat unfortunately, their best work had been released by then (just to spell it out, I think their 1991 album, Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black, was their last truly great album). NWA had also come and gone with undiluted street-smart fury by this time, though Rage was kind enough to pay tribute and keep their message going.
Rage Against The Machine are a hip-hop band, in spirit and execution. Zack de la Rocha doesn’t really sing much aside from a few covers on Renegades, more delivers spoken word and raps with a very distinctive lisp. Tom Morello’s guitar is wildly multifaceted, able to deliver your standard riffage that really blends those lines between rock and metal, but he also contorts his instrument to mimic the turntablism you’d find all over hip-hop of the time. The rhythm section of Brad Wilk (drums) and Tim Commerford (bass) can really, really catch and hang onto a groove with a funk-inspired approach that’s meaty and, most of all, audible in the case of the bass. Love it.
Rage made a big deal out of letting everyone know that all sounds on their albums were done with vocals, drums, guitar, and bass. You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, especially when you hear things like the guitar solo of “Bulls on Parade”, which just sounds like a DJ scratching a record on a turntable. Naysayers will be eating crow when you realize that Neversoft mapped that solo as a guitar part in Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, which is the ultimate source of truth on the matter – Tom: 1, everyone else: 0. Morello deserves a lot of credit for pushing the boundaries of what a guitar can do.
Evil Empire is thematically and lyrically some of the most politically charged and incendiary shit I’ve ever heard in my life, at least if you’re the patriotic type that was raised to unquestionably accept imperialistic countries’ horseshit laws, behavior, social structure, and history. Hearing it from a young age I’m sure at least unconsciously influenced me to be the radical Leftist I am today, for better or worse.
Right from the jump, “People of the Sun” is more of a riotous start to the album than you’ll see on most rock-based projects of the time. A biting tribute to Mesoamerican culture, new and old, it’s a song that laments the genocidal fate of the Maya people as much as it’s a rallying cry for those who remain to stand, fight, and resist the colonial menace:
‘Since 1516, Mayans attacked and overseen
Now crawl amidst the ruins of this empty dream
With their borders and boots on top of us
Pullin’ knobs on the floor of their toxic metropolis
But how you gonna get what you need to get?
The gut eaters, blood drenched, get offensive like Tet
The fifth sun sets, get back, reclaim
The spirit of Cuauhtémoc, alive and untamed
Now face the funk now blastin’ out your speaker
On the one – Maya, Mexica
That vulture came to try and steal your name, but now you got a gun
Yeah, this is for the people of the sun’
The chorus is a hellraiser with real sturdy guitars and bass, the drums are massive and splashy – I’ve never been to a Rage show (and given current prices, probably never will), but I imagine this would be a peak mosh moment.
From “Vietnow”, which compares right-wing AM radio broadcasts to the Operation Wandering Soul psyop in the Vietnam War (‘Shut down the devil sound/The program of Vietnow’), to “Without a Face”, which details the life-or-death plight of Mexican migrants crossing into the US only to face further discrimination and hardship (‘Got no card, so I got not soul/Life is prison, no parole, no control/The jura got my number on a wire tap/’Cause I jack for Similac, fuck a Cadillac’), every song has a point. Their MO is viewing the world from a lens of anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, anti-racism, anti-government, and very pro-people, pro-worker, and pro-indigenous resistance. It’s absolutely no secret that they have Socialist/Marxist views, the band being very open about their support of movements and groups like the Zapatistas.
One song that really embodies a lot of their politics though also happens to be one of the best and hardest songs I’ve ever heard in my life, and that’s “Down Rodeo”. Though I wouldn’t know it at the time from hearing it on the radio as a kid, the song is a masterclass in hard-hitting lyricism, acerbic writing, and rousing instrumentation that you literally can’t sit still while listening to. Zack’s rapping is on fucking point, flows like water, and his message on class war is unignorable. Some choice quotables:
‘I‘m rollin’ down Rodeo with a shotgun
These people ain’t seen a brown-skinned man
Since their grandparents bought one’
‘Bangin’ this bolo tight, on this solo flight can’t fight alone
Funk the track, my verbs sly like the Family Stone
Them pen devils set the stage for the war at home
Locked without a wage, you’re standing in the drop zone’
‘Can’t waste a day when the night brings a hearse
So make a move and plead the fifth ’cause ya can’t plead the first’
‘A ballot’s dead, so a bullet’s what I get
A thousand years they had the tools, we should be takin’ ’em
Fuck the G-ride, I want the machines that are makin’ ’em’
Rage Against the Machine’s power has always been in being a Trojan horse for radical thought that challenges Western ideology. We’re all so indoctrinated from a young age with whitewashed history about America’s colonial past (and present to be completely fair), all slanted and spun to build saviors out of white men and heroes out of the countries they come from. It’s wild to me that there’s center-right clown shoes out there enjoying Rage music when their music is adamantly and unapologetically against what they stand for. Not listening close enough? Separating the art from the artists isn’t even a viable excuse really since each member of Rage seems to be about that life on and off the stage. Even better when those same ‘machines’ the band rages against call out the so-called hypocrisy for being signed to a major label to disseminate their anti-capitalist message. Curious, yes, but a weak argument, and one Morello’s had a very measured response to in the past:
‘When you live in a capitalistic society, the currency of the dissemination of information goes through capitalistic channels. Would Noam Chomsky object to his works being sold at Barnes & Noble? No, because that’s where people buy their books. We’re not interested in preaching to just the converted. It’s great to play abandoned squats run by anarchists, but it’s also great to be able to reach people with a revolutionary message, people from Granada Hills to Stuttgart.’
This is the reason why you hear Rage songs on the radio. You think the stations and media conglomerates like Viacom who run MTV, which prominently featured Rage music, are down with their message? Hell no. But the LA quartet have made such an expansive name for themselves by exploiting the very channels that neoliberalist and capitalist hiveminds use with near-impunity, no matter how extreme the message. Free market, am I right? Now Rage are one of the biggest bands in the world from the ‘90s, and the specter of their impact still haunts to this day and paves the way for like-minded bands to provide their own twist on the sound. Hell, one of my favorite modern rappers Your Old Droog has a whole song waxing poetic about growing up with them and buying their albums and getting smart off the Rage Against The Machine reading list that was featured in the booklet of this album. They’re even reunited and trying their damnedest to tour with Run The Jewels, another boat-rocking, revolutionary-minded rap institution that rock a stage harder than most of their peers.
No matter what your favorite Rage Against The Machine album is, it’s reassuring that there’s always a will and a way to change minds and stoke the fires of activism and other work required to make life more tenable, even by using the official channels of distribution for shlock meant to indoctrinate and fuel culture wars. Being politically and socially aware is a boon and a curse – you should know what’s going on in your country, your state, your city; you should know what’s happening to your neighbors and how you can help fix it. Learn about systems and institutions that wish you, your friends, and family great ill. You never know when you’re gonna hear the next Rage pop up when you turn on the radio (nah, fuck it – turn it off), but for now, the original’s message is just as relevant as ever and I implore everyone that ever liked a Rage song to listen closer and read the lyrics. Research what the hell the Plan de Ayala was, who Fred Hampton was, or even where the title Evil Empire comes from. Unless you’re a fascist, you’re not gonna like what you read, but you’ll understand why people are so mad, and what makes Rage Against The Machine a rare strike of lightning in the world of rock and hip-hop alike.