30 years ago: Rage Against the Machine delivers dynamic debut

It is fitting that Rage against the machine released their debut album on Election Day 1992. After all, the powerful group quickly became the politically minded voice of a generation of rock fans—not that they ever expected to succeed.

“We knew the band’s politics were radical,” Tom Morello told Metal hammer in 2020, “and that the band’s music was a radical combination of styles. But we didn’t think it would matter because no one would ever hear it.”

Morello’s background was as unprecedented as his band’s explosive fusion of punk, metal and hip-hop. Born to a Kenyan diplomat father and a social activist mother, he was a Harvard graduate. He didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 17 and seemed more ready for a career in politics than melting faces on stage.

His Harvard education “definitely didn’t enhance my guitar playing, other than it gave me a little more anxiety,” Morello shared. Los Angeles Times in 1992. “It helped equip me intellectually to understand the society and the world I live in and to help tackle the problems I see there.”

Similarly, Rage singer Zack de la Rocha had a fascinating upbringing. His father Beto was a muralist and part of the Chicano activist artist collective Los Four. He was raised by his mother in Irvine, a predominantly white neighborhood in Southern California, where he constantly felt like an outcast because of his race. “If you were Mexican in Irvine, you were there because you had a broom or a hammer in your hand,” de la Rocha told George magazine in 1999, describing the city as “one of the most racist cities imaginable.”

Listen to Rage Against the Machines ‘Bullet in the Head’

Bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk rounded out the lineup that came together to form Rage Against the Machine in 1991. Despite their varying backgrounds, things got going musically at their first rehearsal. “More than anything, I remember this connection and movement and momentum that happened in the room,” Wilk said Metal hammer.

“I played so well with Tim and Tom – and then we got Zack who was a bolt from my kick drum and really into it. There was something very special about what we were doing. We haven’t analyzed it or put our fingers on it yet. It was just an intense moment for all of us. We saw the beginning of the potential that we could have.”

The potential is of course nothing if it goes unfulfilled. Although Rage Against the Machine was gaining fans throughout the Los Angeles live music scene, the band felt that they were unlikely to sign a record deal based on the subject matter alone.

“We started with zero commercial ambitions,” Morello said Metal hammer. “I didn’t think we’d be able to book a gig in a club, let alone get a record deal. There was no market for multi-racial, neo-Marxist rap-metal punk rock bands. It didn’t exist. So we made this music that was just 100% authentic; it was 100% what we wanted to play. We had no expectations.”

Listen to Rage Against the Machines ‘Bombtrack’

This authenticity caught the ear of Michael Goldstone, the A&R director at Epic, who had signed on Pearl Jam less than two years ago. Goldstone believed in Rage Against the Machine’s brand of fiery rock and signed the group to a deal. The label was even surprisingly willing to be hands-off on their debut album, except for a few cases.

An example: A note from the label suggested that the band remove the dash “Now you are under control” from the song “Killing in the Name”. “There was a big conversation about it,” said Garth Richardson, who co-produced the album Metal hammer. “And the band just said, ‘Fuck you, that part’s going on.'”

Like their unwavering attitude to their art, Rage Against the Machine was relentless on their debut LP. The songs were loud, aggressive and unapologetic. Opening track “Bombtrack” lulled listeners into a false sense of security, beginning with a measured bass before exploding 25 seconds into the piece. “Bullet in the Head” tackled such heady issues as government control of media and propaganda, but did so over funk rhythms and otherworldly guitar sounds.

Meanwhile, “Wake Up” delivered some of the album’s heaviest riffs as de la Rocha’s blistering vocals criticized racism within the American power structure.

Watch Rage Against the Machines ‘Killing in the Name’ video

Still, it was “Killing in the Name” that proved to be the breakout track. The emphatic commentary on police racism – including the famous line “Some of those who work are the same ones who burn crosses” – gained further weight after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles earlier that year.

“In some ways, the record was prescient, seeing this maelstrom of racial strife and imperialist war on the horizon,” Morello said. Metal hammer, noting that all of these songs were written before the riots. “When the record hit, it was a fertile field for us to have ears from audiences all over the world.”

Published Nov. 3, 1992, Rage against the machine was a critical and commercial success, eventually selling more than three million copies. A band that never intended to become a mainstream success suddenly became one of the era’s defining acts, boasting fans across the globe.

Asked at the time about the group’s appeal, de la Rocha suggested several factors.

“Maybe sometimes [fans] just get rid of the riffs. Sometimes the riffs seduce them into politics; sometimes they might just get away with the lyrics and they tolerate the riffs,” de la Rocha told Times back then. “Overall, it seems like it’s something that has an impact on a lot of people when they read emails, people send us and talk to people – and it seems like there’s definitely a void that this band fills in.”

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