As well known for its activism as for its music, Rage Against the Machine nonetheless helped lay the groundwork for the aggression-fueled rock-and-rap genre, which, in the hands of acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit, would come to rival both teen pop and hip-hop on the mainstream charts by the late '90s. Frontman Zack de la Rocha brought the rap with his verbal flow and politically charged lyrics; the rest of the guys brought the rock with an emphasis on Tom Morello’s mix of punk-metal riffs and experimental guitar sounds.
Both de la Rocha and Morello were born into activist families. De la Rocha, who grew up in suburban Irvine, California, and East L.A., is the son of a painter, Beto, who devoted his work to Chicano causes; Harlem-born Morello’s parents were an African rebel-turned-diplomat and a white civil-rights activist. Morello graduated from Harvard with a social studies degree and moved to California, where he found a kindred political spirit in de la Rocha. With drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford (a friend of de la Rocha’s since grade school), they formed Rage Against the Machine in 1991 and released a self-produced 12-song cassette the following year, which quickly won them a deal with Epic. The band did not sign until it was assured full creative control.
Rage Against the Machine (#45, 1993) landed the group a spot on the Lollapalooza Tour and spawned the MTV video “Freedom,” with which the band hoped to raise support for imprisoned American-Indian activist Leonard Peltier. Other causes championed by the band over the course of their career have included death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal’s fight for a new trial, the plight of sweatshop workers, and the Zapatista freedom fighters in Chiapas, Mexico. Critics would often question whether or not the band’s message was getting through to the majority of their fans, but the success of RATM’s second album, Evil Empire (#1, 1996), proved that the music, at least, was connecting with a sizable audience. The audience was still in force three years later, with The Battle of Los Angeles debuting at #1 and the single “Guerilla Radio” reaching #69 in 1999.
The year 2000 proved to be an eventful and tumultuous one for the band. A Rhyme and Reason coheadlining tour with the Beastie Boys (in the tradition of RATM’s 1997 jaunt with the Wu-Tang Clan) was scrapped due to an injury in the Beastie Boys camp, but a free concert outside the Democratic National Convention in L.A. protesting the two-party political system went off without a hitch - until a handful of protesters began a small riot with police, following the band’s set. Less than a month later, Commerford was arrested and charged with assault and resisting arrest after he scaled a stage prop during the MTV Video Music Awards (both charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct). In October, shortly after the recording of the Rick Rubin–produced covers album Renegades (#14, 2000), de la Rocha announced his sudden departure from the group, citing a communication breakdown. He diverted his attention to the recording of his debut solo album, while the remaining members of the group vowed to continue with a new singer.
In April 2007, Rage Against The Machine reunited to headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
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