I wasn’t sure what this week’s album would be, then for, uh, no reason at all I recalled this 1992 incendiary masterpiece.
Rage Against The Machine (self-titled)
Released November 3, 1992 via Epic Records
My Favorite Tracks – Bombtrack, Bullet In The Head, Killing In The Name
Rage Against The Machine exploded onto the scene in 1992 with a combination of hip-hop and metal that expressed disdain for the political machine. The album and band would become a smash success, spreading their revolutionary message to an entire generation and also shaping the tides of the transforming metal scene in the 1990’s.
The idea of combining rap and metal together was explored in a handful of places before RATM hit. (Anthrax, Ice T with Body Count, etc.). In 1992 the concept would cease being abstract and come to the front lines of music, with Rage leading the charge. The rest of the early 90’s would be filled with this caustic combination of concerned parents’ two least favorite forms of music.
For Rage it was not simply doing rap and doing metal. The band were based in groove were definitely playing metal, but were also using hip-hop elements with Tom Morello’s unconventional guitar stylings and Zack de la Rocha’s vocal delivery. This was truly blending both forms of music together into one thing, not just a mash-up of two styles.
It’s a whole new ballgame from the word go – a distinct bass line leads into the explosive opener and album’s third single. The song depicts revolutionary ideology and the video outlines the struggles of Peru’s Shining Path movement. The music is other worldly, while the message behind it was perhaps a bit obscured to us in the pre-Internet early 90’s. It was much harder to just look up elaborating information on stuff like this way back when.
Killing In The Name
Likely the best-known song from the album, even people who have never sought out RATM are likely familiar with the chant “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me.” The song was written in response to police brutality, specifically the Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles riots that resulted from the not guilty verdicts in the criminal trials. The song continues to be referenced to this day – Tom Morello brought it up after off-duty cops were found to have been among the January 6, 2021 insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol building.
Take The Power Back
Another protest anthem that encourages people to throw off the shackles of Euro-centric, capitalist education and reclaim individual liberty from the corrupt system. Zack de la Rocha is in staccato rap-mode delivery on this one.
Settle For Nothing
A bleak song about the harrowing experience of growing up poor in America and choosing the gang lifestyle for what is usually the only shot at any kind of life. We’ll settle for nothing now and settle for nothing later is this super heavy tune’s ultimate and sadly accurate conclusion.
Bullet In The Head
The album’s second single, this tune outlines the role of hollow consumerism and its place in suppressing the population. Tom Morello provides a host of odd guitar flourishes here to really make the song stand out.
Know Your Enemy
This time the band takes aim at the illusion of the American Dream and the idea that it’s available for everyone. It defines the purveyors of that dream as the actual enemy to be fought, not the people of foreign lands that the country often wound up fighting. The song features a guest vocal shot from Maynard James Keenan, whose outfit Tool was just about to find their own place in the music scene.
This song looks at the American government’s quest to suppress the African-American political movement of the 1960’s. The song references FBI memos from J. Edgar Hoover as well as a speech from Martin Luther King Jr. The idea that the FBI led the way to dismantling the black political movement was once controversial (and probably still is in some circles) but is a generally-accepted matter of fact now.
Fistful Of Steel
No reference to any specific events this time around, this is a generally-worded protest song that encourages action. Zack de la Rocha is fired up and ready to fight, and also to take out anyone who bows down to the regime.
Here we see the band encouraging rebellion through community. As with the rest of the album, it is a visceral attack on the institutions the band sees responsible for the ills of the world (the machine being raged against, of course).
The album closes with its fourth and final single. The song explores the controversial case of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement member who was convicted of murdering two FBI agents in 1975. The case is fraught with massive legal arguments I don’t have space to elaborate on here, Wikipedia of course has a summary of key points. Peltier has been in prison since 1977 and has had many unsuccessful appeals for clemency or pardon on his behalf in the decades since.
Rage Against The Machine was an explosive album that gripped the attention of the music masses in 1992 and beyond, as the “alt-metal” sound filled a vacuum left after 1991 blew everything apart. It was clear that rap and metal were going to get together at some point, and RATM became the true focal point of that marriage. Many more bands would incorporate groove-based elements as well as hip-hop into their music which would eventually lead to the late-90’s nu-metal scene.
But this isn’t about blaming Rage for all of that. Their music put the disparate elements together in a unified focus and showed that such a combination was not only possible but viable. They weren’t the first to do it but they were the ones who got the formula down in a unified manner.
And of course the true legacy of Rage Against The Machine might lie in their politically-charged lyrical content. The band did not hold back any revolutionary thought or spare anything out of fear of reprisal – they went all-out against what they considered the evils of the day.
It is very confrontational and dark content that in some respects was missed or went over some listeners’ heads. The band were everywhere when they broke out and the album sold over three million copies, and they got even bigger with their next record. Yet to this day, people act shocked that the band were “so political.” I don’t see how people missed the true depth of their political leanings but I guess that’s just how things go. But I also have to believe it inspired a new level of hard line activism among others – recalling the 1999 Seattle protests is one such example.
The concepts RATM presented in 1992 seem to be relevant 30 years later, which is probably not a good thing. The more things change, the more they stay the same I guess. I don’t know for myself how much I feel that call to power presented here (or if it would matter if I did). But I do know that Rage Against The Machine recorded a hell of a debut album all those years ago.