In 1909, Westerville, Ohio became the national headquarters of the Anti-Saloon League, an organization dedicated to outlawing the sale of alcoholic beverages across the United States. Later known as the National Temperance League and the American Council on Alcohol Problems, the group’s legacy lingered in the Columbus suburb long after prohibition had come and gone from the US Constitution — so much so that the town was still dry when I was growing up there in the ’80s, ’90s, and into the early ’00s. I remember Westerville as a bastion of conservatism. It’s John Kasich’s hometown. George H.W. Bush won my third-grade class election in a landslide, and Ross Perot got more votes than Bill Clinton. So it’s remarkable that in 1999, the Westerville North High School girls cross country team chose the following phrase to be printed on the back of their T-shirts:
It has to start somewhere
It has to start sometime
What better place than here?
What better time than now?
Such was the reach of Rage Against The Machine in that moment. Over the course of the 1990s, they had built up a massive following via two momentous albums, 1992’s self-titled debut and 1996’s Evil Empire. By raging within the machine — all three of their albums were released on Epic with widespread support from rock radio — RATM were able to broadcast Zack De La Rocha’s revolutionary rhetoric all the way into the heart of suburban America.
Some criticized the compromise, this quartet of supposed communists profiting richly off a deal with a multinational corporation. But if nothing else, the arrangement successfully got their message to the masses. I remember being in awe of Tom Morello’s wah-wah power chords on Saturday Night Live, but once the initial shock wore off, I also spent time trying to understand what a “fistagon” was, what Zack De La Rocha meant by “Rally ’round the family with a pocket full of shells,” what it must be like to have your local library reduced to a pile of rubble. I didn’t fully grasp the injustice he was so worked up about, but if not for De La Rocha I might not have even been aware of it. For me, and I suspect for many, he offered the first glimpse of radical politics.
Rage’s music was a powerful delivery system for such revolutionary rhetoric. No one had previously combined rock and rap with such thunderous force. As a rapper, De La Rocha was fierce and evocative and charismatic, the spark that lit the fuse on these explosive songs. Morello was a new kind of guitar hero, wringing all manner of weird and wild sounds from his instrument, often turning his solos into something more like DJ scratching. Yet the band’s music was shockingly simple for the most part, just Morello plus bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk vamping hard and heavy on the kind of pentatonic blues riffs that had ruled rock from the beginning. That stuff could have sounded played-out, but in this band’s hands it always hit hard.
Twenty years ago this Saturday, RATM released their third album, The Battle Of Los Angeles, which for now stands as their final full-length statement. (To give a sense of the cultural context, it was the first album I remember downloading on Napster.) By that point Rage were wielding a profound influence on modern rock music. Unfortunately, that influence was almost entirely on the musical axis. Not many of their peers in pre-Y2K modern rock were spouting off leftist-insurgent talking points, but a whole lot of them were combining rock and rap. Reigning superstars like Korn and Limp Bizkit owed a huge aesthetic debt to RATM, but where De La Rocha burned with righteous fury, Jonathan Davis and Fred Durst’s anger was strictly juvenile, more on the wavelength of “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me, Dad!“
Into this Family Values Tour milieu swung “Guerrilla Radio,” the song quoted on those cross-country T-shirts. At its core, the lead single from The Battle Of Los Angeles was a straight-ahead Rage Against The Machine song, an unshakeable rallying cry (“Lights out! Guerrilla radio! Turn that shit up!”) built around a battering-ram guitar riff and a bashed-out drumbeat that swaggered like John Bonham despite its urgent speed. But it also demonstrated Rage’s compositional savvy, slotting militaristic snare rolls into the intro of a song steeped in guerrilla imagery. And it continued the move into more overtly hip-hop sounds begun on Evil Empire tracks like “People Of The Sun,” segments where De La Rocha’s bars were given space to blare across funky, wide-open beats. It’s probably not the gold-standard Rage Against The Machine song, but it became their only Hot 100 hit for good reason.
Similarly, The Battle Of Los Angeles seems to be the least-loved Rage Against The Machine LP — it’s the only one not categorized as an Essential Album on Apple Music, for instance — but man, does it hold up. The band’s formula was well established by that point, and on these songs they just plugged in and blasted off. Deep-groove verses gave way to harried, volatile choruses. Morello littered the canvass with so many different squalls of noise it’s remarkable they’re coming from the same instrument, then cut loose into monster riffs like the spiraling chaos in “Maria” or the power-chord crunch of “Born Of A Broken Man.” They found fascinating ways to alter the formula: the squelching, lurching “Mic Check,” the squealing, flickering “Ashes In The Fall,” the high-speed blues of “Sleep Now In The Fire.”
All the while, De La Rocha barked angrily about wage slavery and oil money and the hollowness of American iconography and the supposed homogeny between Republicans and Democrats, shouting out people like Emiliano Zapata and Mumia Abu-Jamal along the way. Pulling from a seemingly infinite well of injustices, his fury never subsided and his conviction never seemed to waver. Some of his lines could be corny — “I be the anti-myth rhythm rock shocker,” wut — but the fiery preacher intensity he brought to every lyric ensured his exhortations rarely fell flat. Who among us can resist getting swept up in the frenzy when the album’s exhilarating, noise-swirled opening track breaks open and he commands you, “Now testify!“
De La Rocha left Rage Against The Machine the year after this album dropped, around the time the band’s career was punctuated by the covers compilation Renegades. Ever since then he’s mostly kept a low profile, despite frequent rumors of a solo album that has yet to materialize. His bandmates formed Audioslave with the late Chris Cornell and continued to be rock radio mainstays, and more recently they’ve teamed with likeminded MCs Chuck D and B-Real as Prophets Of Rage, performing classic RATM songs plus Public Enemy and Cypress Hill material and some new stuff that isn’t in the same league.
Rage reunited for some shows in 2007 and 2008, including a dangerously rowdy Lollapalooza performance that remains one of my most treasured and terrifying concert experiences. Moments before I was about to publish this retrospective, news broke that they seem to be joining forces again for next year’s Coachella and shows along the US-Mexico border. Maybe this time the reunion will yield new music. As it stands, The Battle Of Los Angeles is their last will and testament, and what a way to go out: completing a trilogy of albums that perfectly embody an aesthetic and philosophical ideal.
Did Rage make a difference? It’s hard to say. A lot of us who were imbibing their music back then weren’t necessarily aligning ourselves with their worldview, just using their songs as a shot of adrenaline. Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan famously claimed RATM as his favorite band, even though his Republican political platform was diametrically opposed to what they stood for. Still, in many ways they were before their time, woke at a time when most people were sleeping on the horrors they described. Some of their causes have since gone mainstream, like the villainization of Christopher Columbus. Some of the seeds they sowed are only just now sprouting. Hell, just weeks ago Westerville, Ohio hosted a Democratic presidential debate amidst reports that the longtime red stronghold was in the process of turning blue. It had to start somewhere; it had to start sometime.