The Roots Of… Rage Against The Machine

Rage Against The Machine have announced that they’re reuniting for a slate of shows in 2020. To celebrate the return of one of rock’s most rebellious bands, we dig into the roots of the LA gang…

“I don’t particularly care for [Black] Sabbath,” Rage frontman Zack de la Rocha noted over 20 years ago, “and (guitarist) Tom (Morello) doesn’t particularly care for a lot of the hip-hop riffs I come up with, but the two, when fused together, makes something unique.”

And there, in a nutshell, is the beginning and the end of Rage Against the Machine. A Harvard graduate guitarist raised on metal and a punk-rock vocalist with a burgeoning hip-hop obsession who struggled to get through high school. This was always an explosive, furious combination of characters intent on opening the eyes of a generation to nefarious corporate evil-doings and blatant institutional corruption, not some long-term box-set friendly career option (even if that might be how things ended up). Or, as Tom said some years ago: “If bands choose to sing about migrant labour rather than pussy, that’s OK with me…”


Zack (parentage: a German-Irish American anthropologist and a Mexican American visual artist), met Tom (parentage: an Irish-Italian American schoolteacher and the former Kenyan ambassador to the United Nations) when the latter had split his metal band Lock Up and spotted the former member of hardcore punk band Inside Out freestyling at a Los Angeles club.

On deciding to form a band together, Tom brought drummer Brad Wilk (who’d gone to the same school as Ice Cube and played in Eddie Vedder’s pre-Pearl Jam crew Greta), while Zack brought bass-player Tim Commerford, but RatM were never a gang. Their desire, born in their San Fernando Valley rehearsal room in early 1991, was to agitate and confront. Within a few months they were distributing a 12-song demo at their gigs and were soon being pursued by all the major labels, then fat with the profits of the CD, hip-hop and grunge boom-times. “A bunch of guys in suits just salivating,” Morello recalled. “All offering these exorbitant amounts of money for punk-rock songs…”

The band’s debut album was released in late November 1992, by spring 1993 it had only sold 75,000 copies, but a slot on that summer’s Lollopalooza festival was so massively successful that by autumn 1994 the record had sold in excess of 3m copies, an ascent so vertiginous it placed enormous strain on all four band members. “We all [went] through a series of ego explosions,” Rocha explained in 1996. “And it’s very difficult to resolve them…” That much would soon become evident – but how did they get there in the first place?


In The Beginning

“We’re fortunate to have nosebleed seats in the arena built by the MC5, Bob Marley, and Public Enemy,” Tom said in 2000 and those three artists – with a special place reserved for The Clash – provide much of the band’s psychological framework, a place where the personal and the political are intrinsically linked. So while it’s Kiss’ LP ‘Destroyer’ that first fired Tom’s musical imagination, it’s Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” that he recognises as providing the soundtrack to a moment in history when “revolution in America was possible.”

Punk And Emotional

Rage are nothing if not a broad church, so while there’s room in the story for Tom’s love of U2, Zeppelin, Devo and Living Colour, Brad’s fondness for The Police, Tim’s adoration of Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Brothers Johnson and Zack’s devotion to jazz composer Wayne Shorter’s 1965 classic ‘The All Seeing Eye’, it’s punk – and the Sex Pistols in particular – that Tom has called, “crucially important”. In fact, four days after buying ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ he’d formed his first band. Zack, meanwhile, fell hard for the furious anger of Minor Threat, Teen Idles and, later, Bad Religion.


The core of RatM’s sound. Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Blizzard of Oz’ and Run DMC’s ‘King Of Rock’ (a record that turned Tom’s life, “upside down”), Iron Maiden’s 1983 masterwork ‘Piece Of Mind’ and Public Enemy’s ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ – without these there is no Rage –”simples!”, as Thom Yorke might say (perhaps while wearing a wonderfully colourful headband).

Oh My Word

A playlist of Rage influencers would be sadly lacking – if not completely pointless – without some words from Malcolm X, Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevara (who combined Marxist theory with guerrilla warfare to give birth to a million flat-share posters) and Oakland California’s Black Panthers, a group that, in 1968, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover described as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.” But you should also hold a seat for less well know heroes like Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg and the anarchist political philosopher, Emma Goldman.

More in this series

The Roots Of… My Bloody Valentine
The Roots Of… The Libertines
The Roots Of… Nirvana
The Roots Of… The Smiths
The Roots Of… The Killers