Rage Against The Machine

For a period of a few months when he was in sixth grade, my little brother did the same exact thing every day after school: He rode his bike a couple of miles to the record store near our house, the one with the listening stations, and he listened to the self-titled debut album from Rage Against The Machine. Every day. And when he was listening to that album, he didn’t do anything else; he just stared off into space and absorbed it. He never bought the album. Eventually, the clerks at the store started asking him if he wanted to buy it or what, but that didn’t stop him. I think he might have kept doing it even after I bought the album, and I would’ve been happy to lend him the thing. Years later, a friend of mind married one of the former clerks at that long-shuttered record store, and my brother’s routine somehow came up in conversation at one point: “Wait, your brother was that kid? We never knew what was going on with that kid.” Obviously, this was an absolutely insane thing for an 11-year-old kid to do everyday, but I sort of got it then, and I think I sort of get it now.

Over the years, Rage Against The Machine have achieved early-Metallica-esque mythic-rock-brutalist status in the popular imagination, but their critical reputation has suffered for some obvious and understandable reasons. Rage themselves didn’t invent rap-rock, but their crushingly efficient take on it was probably the single greatest factor in paving the way for the god-awful nu-metal takeover that started six or seven years later. Their own fired-up lefty stance, already somewhat overbearing on that first album, progressively became more of a hectoring presence as the years went on. (If I remember right, they weren’t blameless in that whole Nader 2000 fiasco.) And their whole standpoint — ferociously championing the marginalized underclass at every turn — jibed weirdly with their major-label rock-star reality. They did, after all, spend most of their days playing these smash-the-state anthems at notoriously violent shows for huge masses of sociopathic fratboys, one of whom grew up to become Paul Ryan. Tom Morello still cuts an annoyingly aggrandizing presence every time he shows up to support a noble cause. I could keep listing reasons why it’s OK to write this band off, but you absolutely shouldn’t. That first self-titled album, which turns 20 tomorrow, is an absolutely magical piece of recorded music. And listening to it today, my brother’s daily anger-trance makes more sense, and so do bands like P.O.D. After all, if you had the slightest inkling that you could sound like this, wouldn’t you?

Rage Against The Machine doesn’t let up once in 52 minutes. It has quiet moments, but they’re there to build tension for the inevitable fiery anthemic drop, not to give respite. There’s dynamic fluidity in its attack, but the sense of steely-eyed purpose never abates. They were a new band when they made it, but they were already firmly and furiously locked-in, cranking out dinosaur-stomp riffs like clockwork. Years later, they became one of the all-time great Guitar Hero/Rock Band bands, partly because all their songs were so rhythmically focused and partly because the experience of recreating these songs on plastic guitar-controllers brought home how often they switched up those gargantuan riffs, packing four or five into a song, just like Black Sabbath before them, when one would’ve done just fine. For pure smash-face-into-wall rock music, you’re rarely going to hear its equal. But what’s most interesting about the album is the way they achieved that level of rock-monolith.

Earlier in 1992, Pantera had released Vulgar Display Of Power, which showed just how hard a focused and controlled groove could pummel. But Rage did them one better by injecting the lockstep mechanical intensity of rap music, somehow making that fusion less clumsy than any of the bands that would follow them. Morello has plenty of triumphant, blazing solos on the album, but throughout, he’s just as likely to use his instrument to imitate Bomb Squad siren-blare or DJ Premier scratch-solo. He shows off a lot, but he’s the rare showoff guitarist who never loses sight of the song’s all-important beat. Bassist Tim Commerford could descend into Flea-type Seinfeldian slappery every so often, but more often his basslines brought a supple, insinuating implied-funk minimalism that recalled what Joe Lally was doing with Fugazi at the time. Zach De La Rocha wasn’t exactly a great rapper; it was weird, a few years later, when he made tentative steps toward launching an actual rap career. But he was an all-time great screamer, and with this band, when that screaming took the form of rapping, it worked.

Quick detour: It’s worth noting that the album wasn’t an immediate success by any stretch. By the time they joined the Lollapalooza tour six months later, they were opening the main stage, playing before Tool, Babes In Toyland, Front 242, Arrested Development, Fishbone, Dinosaur Jr., Alice In Chains, and headliners Primus. The early ’90s! Without Lolla, Rage might’ve never blown up.

By the time they released sophomore album Evil Empire, Rage already had icon status, and they sounded like they knew it. But for all its fire-eyed discipline, there’s still a sense of fun on that first album, of young musicians figuring out a lane for themselves. Bands like Downset and Biohazard were already playing a vaguely similar hybrid, but Rage had more focus and more innate songwriting skill than any of their peers. And even though political fervor was already the band’s main driving force, the album still has a ton of dorky affected rap-swagger that now sounds just painfully endearing. “Steppin’ into the jam and I’m slammin’ like Shaquille” — that could’ve been a Kriss Kross lyric. Other parts just read straight-up unashamedly silly: “Hoover! He was a body remover!,” “The present curriculum, I put my fist in ’em!” And the band also knew how to build to tempestuous climaxes, rather than just going full-bore all time time. The album’s greatest moments are all the ones where they finally rise up to drop the hammer: “FUCK YOU I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME,” “A BULLET IN YOUR FUCKIN’ HEEEEAAAAD,” “ALL OF WHICH ARE AMERICAN DREAMS,” “NO MORE LIES, UNH,” “I’ve got a nine, a sign, a set, AND NOW I’VE GOT A NAME.” Just typing those phrases out, I feel ready to rip oak trees out of the ground one-handed. And even if their point got lost as often as not, that adrenaline-burst feeling hasn’t abated in two decades. That’s a thing worthy of awe.

You guys! How does the album hold up for you? Favorite song from it? Favorite memory attached? Did you have its lyrics echoing through your head when you were throwing bricks at riot cops during the Seattle WTO protests? Did you learn to hate it when the resident alpha-male shithead on your freshman-dorm hallway wouldn’t stop blasting it? Take it to the comments section. And now let’s watch some videos.

Comments (57)
  1. I used to listen to “Know Your Enemy” constantly.

  2. Oh man. Maybe its my inner Tool fanboy, but my favorite song off this one will always be Know Your Enemy.

    I wish modern rock was still this catchy and this angry, and had rhythm sections this tight.

  3. I remember in high school when the self titled first came out everyone started getting really fired up…lots of fights at parties…

    ..anyways over may long weekend I was at an out of control bush party with about 150 people and one cop tried to break it up…

    people started chanting FUCK YOU I WONT DO WHAT YOU TELL ME and pelting his car with large rocks.

    it was mob mentality at its best….rather terrifying tho

  4. “…for huge masses of sociopathic fratboys, one of whom grew up to become Paul Ryan.”

    I guess with the election over he can go back to liking the lyrics.

    I first heard RATM with “Bulls On Parade” so I missed this album completely. I do recall asking for “Evil Empire” for Christmas and got nixxed by my parents. Love the story about your little brother, makes sense to me why he’d do that.

    • Same, they wouldn’t let me buy Evil Empire without my parents and my my listened to one track in the store (The Wall chain used to have a listening station) and I believe her exact response was, “Oh hell no”. Wasn’t until I got my hands on BMG’s infamous $14 CD’s for a dollar until I was able to get my hands on it. Eventually came back around to S/T in high school but the magic was gone. Evil Empire will always have a special place on the shelf though.

  5. …Like I was going to listen to anything my parents told me to do after I got this album at age 13.

  6. I bought this in high school from a Sam Goody. Found it in the dollar bin mislabeled as a Craig David single. Best (and oddest) mislabeling error I’ve come across.

    • I got Weird Al’s four cd box set, Permanent Record, for $10 when my local K-Mart had it tagged as a Joe Jackson album. Being an honest nerd, I tried to explain the mix up, but the clerk just scanned it and said that’s what it was “in the system.” So here’s to that high school dropout that worked at a Wisconsin K-Mart in 1994!

  7. I came late to the RATM party. I was too metal before, and too into electronic and dance music at the time, to give them a fair chance. Then I had a roommate who basically worshiped them and I finally “got it”. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much of their fan base ever truly understood the seriousness of a lot of what they were saying. It was “angry” music and kids will always get off on that. But how many of them took anything from those lyrics that was put into practice in their real, adult lives? Not nearly enough, IMO.

    And man, the Coachella they headlined was frighteningly violent. It wasn’t fun at all, and it was hard as hell to get out of the way with any kind of alacrity.

  8. Oh, the band from the Harvey Danger song! I remember hearing that they were Tom Morello’s first band before Audioslave.

    • Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

      • it was a bad joke.

        • Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

          • Nah nah nah mang. People click the downvote cause your bad joke isn’t worth the energy to respond to. Step up.

          • There was actually some substance to my joke, which was steeped in irony. Whether you want to believe it or not, those words I typed really are what a lot of the public thinks. It was a comment on the insanity of what becomes pop culture. Paul Ryan liking Rage was never much of an issue because despite the fact that critics praise the band and their songs have been and continue to be played on the radio, there are a lot of people who have no idea who they are or what they were/are about. The upvote/downvote option is seriously flawed because it allows people to leap to judgment without analyzing or questioning the remark on which they are passing judgment. Improving communication ought to be one of the internet’s great aims, but upvote/downvote is an excellent example of how the internet facilitates apathy and detachment. On a sidenote, going around and saying “mang” makes you sound like a moron.

    • Who the fuck downvotes this? Are we that touchy?

  9. I remember being at a Harry Connick Jr. concert in ’92, and after a few songs, he mentioned to the audience about this “new” band RATM that people should check out. He mentioned something about their thought-provoking lyrics and speaking out against the “machine”… I was intrigued. Picked up their CD a few days later and was hooked. Keep it next to my Soundgarden, Nirvana, Megadeth collection.

    • no one has mentioned how Rage was formed VIA sony VIA tom morello..THESE GUYS NEVER KNEW EACH OTHER BUT WROTE SONGS ABOUT THEIR OPPRESSORs…tom morello never knew zac de la rocha just like he never knew the injustice he sang about…i grew up with it and loved it but you stupid hipsters have nothing better to do than suck the Fleet Foxes dicks.

      • Yeah, that’s not true. They got a deal relatively quickly, but “formed via sony”? That doesn’t even make sense. As for the injustice thing, how do you know?, you don’t seem to know a lot about the band either.

  10. I still like “The Battle of Los Angeles” more than the self-titled…

    • Yea, I think “Battle of Los Angeles Turns 20″ will hit a lot harder. By then, maybe I’ll have the guitar solo in Mic Check figured out on my mandolin.

      • I loved this record because Tom Morello actually plays some rippin solos. Nowadays, whenever there’s a guitar break in a song, he usually just goes “Alright, guess I’ll step on the whammy pedal and flip the toggle switch back and forth a bit while palm muting some open notes.”

    • No way, Joses. Self titled is where it’s at.

  11. I remember being 9 years old and the most alternative music I listened to was probably something along the lines of Prozzak, maybe Our Lady Peace if I’ve got my timeline straight.That is of course until The Matrix came out. It was not only the first 14A movie my parents ever let me watch, it was also my first encounter with RATM. When that Wake Up groove kicked in at the end as Neo put his glasses on and looked up to the sky, then the camera snapped back into the clouds and suddenly Morello’s siren-esque guitar came screaming into the forefront and Neo came flying right at your screen and that fantastic “COME ON!” courtesy of De La Rocha… Blew my mind up. Got my parents to buy me the OST for my 10th birthday a month later (god I bet they regret it), and I just listened to that one song over and over again. Once in a while, I’d let the opener (Marilyn Manson’s “Rock Is Dead”) run, but every time, without fail, I’d immediately go back to blasting Wake Up right after. Even a year or two later once I’d bought the actual Rage album, I found myself often being able to listen to no more than 3 songs before Wake Up would get a play.

    However, although Wake Up will forever hold a very special place in my heart, Settle For Nothing can not be beat by anything in Rage’s catalogue (or most catalogues for that matter)

  12. Evil Empire will always be their best imo. But the self-titled has some moments of pure joy. I can remember my mom seeing the front cover and actually being intrigued by it enough to research what it was about. From that point on, she encouraged me to listen to this band because of how potent their lyrics were and topical.

    For me, Freedom is the best representation of what this band is all about. There really isn’t a bad song on here though.

  13. i remember being in 3rd grade and seeing the video for “Freedom” on MTV late one night. It seriously turned my world upside down.

  14. I kept waiting throughout all eight painful years of the Bush administration for RATM to make a glorious return and fulfill all of my teenage revolutionary fantasies. Thanks for taking the entire Bush Administration off and giving us Audioslave instead, you fucking fucks.

  15. i had a similar experience to michael danahar a couple replies prior to mine..i think i was in second grade though. i was nervous that my mom would catch me watching the video for “Freedom.” they were so organized and precise but they sounded so chaotic. and the video was so powerful to me at that age. i had never experienced rock music that had such a big message, or at least, had gone to such measures to get a message across. i thought to myself “how are they allowed to air this?!?! this is so obviously against mtv and the government(which i assume regulates mtv)!” rage laid the foundation for me to eventually develop an interest for bands like crass and subhumans and also hip hop groups like public enemy and dead prez. i grew up as an only-child in a redneck town in south florida and there was not much for a young introverted white kid to latch onto that was unique and powerful so i feel justified in being thankful for the impact RATM’s first album. thanks for the article.

  16. One vote for “Take The Power Back”. I miss slap bass. More people need to slap bass. Where’s all my indie slap bass?

  17. What is this “Bombtrack” video you’re pointing to? It seems “official” but that is not the song from the album…album version is way better. Weird…

  18. I really love this band. This album is one of the best producted albums there have been, impressive sound quality.
    For me it’s a tie between this album and The Battle of Los Angeles.

  19. I bet if you look really hard, you can see Paul Ryan in the background of one of those videos. Rockin’ a backwards baseball cap and pumpin’ iron.

  20. Got into the album when I first got my license at around 15, cause that’s when I finally was able to buy cassettes and CD’s that would not be played in the house and didn’t need my parents inspection (They ran a TIGHT ship). Combining the new-found freedom of driving with this album was a perfect match. And I think I got into my first accident while JAMMING to Freedom super hard and not paying attention to the road.

    But I also like to think that it is the perfect going-through-puberty soundtrack… the energy and messaging just carried me right through that time in my life….

  21. I saw them open for House of Pain in Seattle right after this album came out. Yes, Rage opened for Jump Around. Yikes!

  22. As a pissed off little shit I was initially drawn to RATM’s anger, but I eventually started researching what they were talking about. And even though some of it has to be taken with a grain of salt, the band’s leftist message definitely redirected and reorientated a lot of my perspectives as a young teenager, for which I’ll always be thankful.

  23. I absolutely loved this album as a teenager. Know Your Enemy, Township Rebellion, and Wake Up (especially after hearing it rip through the ending credits of the Matrix). But I have to admit it hasn’t aged well to me. Still love Morello’s riffage, but Zach’s rapping is a little too humorously overkill as I listen to it now. Probably my least favorite of their albums, actually.

    Having said that, Evil Empire is up there in my top 15 albums of all time, and the band will always be one of my favorites.

  24. I got this album as one of those “Get 8 albums for 1 cent and the join a club” rackets. I never paid the fees I had to. I’d like to think they’d be proud of that. Also, Killing In The Name Of is a PERFECT song, I won’t tolerate any dissenters.

  25. Maynard crooning “I got no patience now…”. Best moment.

  26. Remember when Michael Moore directed one of their videos? Good times…

  27. i bought this album for a friend’s bday in high school, then kept it for myself and didnt go to his birthday party. this album also made me believe there was no reason to learn any other scales besides the pentatonic. i had 5 rage shirts, one of each day of the school week. my fondest memory of it tho was screaming fuck you i wont do what you tell me with my rage cover band and having my father approach a rather embarressed/nervous 14 year old me afterwards and say “you know what… without all the fucks that song would lose its meaning and prolly suck” fav band ever. fav guitarist ever. still one of my fav albums ever.

  28. I was working in the local CD store and had got to know the local Sony rep. He had previously hooked me up with Pearl Jam tickets a month after “Ten” came out(a good year before Vedder became Jim Morrison in his mind). Anyway, the Alternative Rock guy for Sony in Atlanta told me in a conversation that Rage were one of the best live bands he had ever seen. He also said that they had just got added to Lollapalooza. So shortly after that they had a date opening for the incredibly horrible House Of Pain in Charlotte.
    Thankfully HOP passed on the show so we found out it was just going to be RATM. In my mind I thought this was going to be one of those shows where you just show up to help the local rep not look like a total loser because no one was going to be at this show. They had no airplay and the album had been out for 6 months. I invited a couple of friends to come by(Sony had plenty of free tickets to offer) and at least have a drink.
    That night was a cold, rainy night in early May. We got to the venue and there was only about 20 people there. We watched Wool perform a very respectable set and we were expecting pretty much the same from RATM. Just a few minutes after Wool left the stage the band walked out unceremoniously. Then they went into “Bombtrack” and the whole atmosphere in the room changed. We were all standing there with our mouth open and giving each other high fives everytime Morello would do one of his insane solos. Two of the friends that were with us had only planned to stay for a couple of songs, but they wound up staying for the entire set and even stuck around for the meet & greet.
    As far as the M & G went, Tom came out first and was as personable then as he is now. Zack surprisingly came out as well(no Tim or Brad), although he wasn’t very talkative, he was very cordial. We told Tom we heard that they were going to be on the Lolla tour and we kidded him about the fact that we knew they would never have to play a dump like the one they just played after that. He kind of laughed, but he knew it.

  29. The writer is an idiot for saying ‘the ralph nader fiasco’ in 2000. It’s more like the al gore fiasco – he was a terrible candidate and didn’t allow his extremely popular incumbent president to campaign for him. To blame Nader for actually trying to inject some leftist discourse in the corporatist two party system is pathetic. THe writer is a buffoon.

  30. I knew Zack a bit from Irvine, and always rooted for them because he such a nice, friendly and intelligent guy. When the album came out, my sister and I went to see the Dead in Vegas, and I’ll never forget blaring this album driving down the Strip, knowing it was going to be the biggest fucking thing in the known universe.

  31. Saw a girl strip to “Killing In The Name”. Also, love this album and think it’s their best.

  32. i’m excited for their 20th anniversary boxset coming out on the 27th!

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