The Legacy of Rage Against the Machine, Hip-Hop’s Most Revolutionary Band

If this is 1998 than I’m driving around Boston in my red Pontiac 6000 with the passenger side door that won’t open.

And if I’m driving in my red Pontiac 6000 with the passenger side door that won’t open then there’s a CD booklet on the seat next to me.

And if I reach into the CD book laying next to me, I’m going to pull out a Rage Against the Machine album, and I’m going to play it. Loudly.

Last week Zach de la Rocha, the former frontman for Rage Against the Machine, put out his first new music in over a decade. As is so often the case when anyone of our heroes return, “Digging for Windows” simultaneously served as the opening of a new chapter and a time machine.

Suddenly, I was right there, back in that red Pontiac. And suddenly I was right here, grown and in an office, listening to de la Rocha’s trademark growl, and realizing the entire time that music history doesn’t quite know what to do with Rage Against the Machine’s legacy. Given the band’s habitual, dedicated refusal to go down smooth, perhaps that’s the way it should be.

Every artist is a product of their time, but there really is no 2016 equivalent to Rage Against the Machine. It’s only been 10 or so years since their dissolution, but it’s already almost impossible to imagine any new band filling the space they ripped opened and was then seen shut. 

In 1992, Rage’s “Killing in the Name,” a song that no-so-subtly drew a line between police brutality and the legacy of the Ku Klux Klan, received widespread airplay and became a number one hit in some countries. In 1999, they teamed up with Michael Moore for a video that resulted in them storming the New York Stock exchange, triggering the Exchange's titanium riot doors and briefly shutting down Wall St. in the process (and also predicted the possibility of a Trump presidency). That song, “Sleep Now in the Fire,” was a Top 100 Hit on Billboard.

All told, RATM put out four albums that all went platinum or multi-platinum and routinely sold out shows, all while constantly fighting off police attempts by police to shut them down. It was a convergence of political aggression and commercial success that’s currently unimaginable for a gumbo of reasons, including a post 9/11 radio ban on certain songs and artists that included all of Rage's catalog. 

Usually when we talk about legacy we also talk about influence, but in retrospect the door Rage Against the Machine kicked down and then walked through was so rare, so truly unique, that it’s hard to pinpoint how their work has been carried on after them. Certainly a band comprised of a mix of black, white and Latino members and songs like “Down Rodeo” and “Ashes in the Fall” carry a heavy resonance in the current turmoil; if anything they’re more relevant than at the time of their release. But while there are certainly artists making their own powerful statements, it’s hard to directly connect their music to Rage’s.

And the music. The music….

I think every revolutionary act is an act of love. Every song that I’ve written, it is because of my desire to use music as a way to empower and re-humanize people who are living in a dehumanizing setting. The song is in order to better the human condition.
— Zach de la Rocha

At the time RATM was often lumped in with other nu-metal acts like Korn and Slipknot, or bluntly lumped in with “rap rock” acts like Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit, but with all due respect to the Fred Durst and his borderline obsessive love for backwards hats, including those two bands in the same category is like including a tricycle and a Lamborghini in the same category because they both have wheels. The GRAMMYs may have put RATM in the Hard Rock category, but the GRAMMYs also once gave Jethro Tull a Heavy Metal award, so they’re perhaps not the most reliable genre-definers. They were many things and everything, which in my mind makes them a distinctly hip-hop group.

Was Zack de la Rocha even an emcee? Certainly, and if we’re going to play the legacy game, his nearest counterpart and most obvious forefather on the mic would be Chuck D; both were emcees concerned first and foremost with message. Like lyrical drone strikes, every word was carefully calibrated for maximum impact and then delivered in an aggressively slow shout that made damn sure you heard every syllable.

de la Rocha could flow, just listen to the way he throws jabs, bouncing in and out of the beat on “Roll Right,” but then just seconds later he’s revealing his hardcore rock roots, throttling his voice into a full scream on the chorus. If a hip-hop emcees defining characteristic is its ability to absorb and transform any source material, than de la Rocha belongs among the elite. 

Rage was far more than its frontman. Commerford and Wilk laid down a rhythm section that was often just as funky as it was pounding, and guitarist Morello developed his own trademark method of “scratching” on the guitar, dragging his hand across the strings and metamorphosing his guitar into turntables in the process.  

A good example of the total effect is “Year of tha Boomerang,” a song that serves as a Rosetta Stone into the band’s supremely rare ability to fluidly switch styles and genres. It opens with a guitar scratch once again reminiscent of a Bomb Squad beat, goes into a more straight up live hip-hop section, pauses for a harmonic guitar line and then like a sonic sucker punch explodes into an all-out hardcore mosh pit, stopping just as suddenly to go back to that harmonious guitar line. This is music so genre-defying that it’s embarrassed that I just referred to by such a predictable term like genre-defying.

It’s perhaps inevitable that a group so high-octane, high-minded and steel-willed would break up. The core of the band itself has carried on through other names, first Audiosoave and then most recently reincarnated as Prophets of Rage, fittingly replacing de la Rocha with the aforementioned Chuck D (along with B Real) on vocal duties. And de la Rocha is back with a vengeance, having just dropped off a new single that’s as shattering and bruising as ever and finds him teaming up with El-P, which suddenly strikes me as fitting considering that Run the Jewels is in some ways following the path RATM’s laid down.  

All of these continued efforts are very much needed and deserve our infinite applause, but if it’s cliched to say that it will never be the same as the original, that’s because some cliches are true. Rage Against the Machine arrived at a perfect time in the culture and in my own life, when my brain was in the open position, ready to soak in as possible, the more normal-challenging and cranium-exploding the better. RATM taught me that anger can be a gift if channeled, that in art and in life you can push far beyond your assumptions if you can conquer your fear. I was far from alone.   

Beyond awards and sales and influence, this is the legacy of Rage Against the Machine, and it’s a legacy that’s still beating with a thousand hearts. RATM is over, RATM is now, RATM is forever. 

Mic check, one two one two.

[By Nathan Slavik, @RefinedHype]