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|Rage Against The Machine
The Battle of Los Angeles (Epic)
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
“ALL SOUNDS MADE BY GUITAR, BASS, DRUMS
The disclaimer on the back of the album, by now a
staple on their records, revealed more beneath its
words. It was proclaimation that what lay within was a
truly organic statement. There were no outside voices
infiltrating the lyrics, no money-driven agendas fueling
the vicious breaks. This record was a living, breathing
testament to a cause.
A cause in music; there aren’t too many of those
anymore, and certainly, there weren’t many in 1999, a
year remembered for the breakthroughs of Brittany
Spears, the Backstreet Boys and Limp Bizkit.
In 1999, Rage Against The Machine — Zach de la Rocha, Tom Morello, Tim Commoford and Brad Wilk — had
weathered fame, MTV and their own tenuous relationships with each other. They had been a band nearly a
decade, yet were on the cusp of only their third album, The Battle of Los Angeles. Shows were relatively few for a
band of their stature. But few bands have had their sense of urgency, either. Rage Against The Machine believed
that they had the power to change the world, but it never came off preachy, a la Bono nowadays.
It came off as pure aggression, restlessness at the direction of a tainted world. Rage believed they could spin
the planet in another direction. And anyone who listened to The Battle of Los Angeles couldn’t help but feel at
least a slight ping of revolution in the air.
Rage reached an apex in battle
To understand the point Rage was trying to make requires a bit of homework. Frontman de la Rocha was the
son of Mexican parents who felt the sting of racism and discrimination at an early age. His rap-tinged lyrics,
coupled with the riffs of Harvard-graduate and self-described socialist Morello and the pounding rhythm of Tim
C. and Wilk created a totally original sound. The infusion of a Public Enemy-like voice into some drastic hard
rock unfortunately led to scores of imitators, but more importantly created a vehicle for social change.
Their self-titled debut featured a photo of a Vietnamese monk lighting himself on fire in protest. Their second
album, Evil Empire, featured an inlay that amounted to required reading for the young freedom fighter. Both
records were solid with extreme highs, but Los Angeles was to be their landmark statement. The graffiti image of
a black panther on the cover set the destructive mood.
Everything about this record worked at a new level for the band. The lyrics of de la Rocha were biting on a new
level, with his voice achieving a maturity that balanced the spitting rhymes with brutal screams. On “Testify,” one
of the more brutal opening tracks there ever was, he screamed against the numbing of the global society by rich
powers, mocking them with taunts of “With precision, you feed me / My witness, I’m hungry / Your temple it calms
me / so I can carry on / My slaving sweating the skin right off my bones / On a bed of fire I’m choking on the
smoke that fills my home.”
de la Rocha reached a sophistication here that is truly impressive. On “Sleep Now In The Fire,” he took on the
voice of the oppressor: “Crawl with me into tomorrow / Or I’ll drag you to your grave / I’m deep inside your
children / They’ll betray you in my name.” On “Voice of the Voiceless,” he told the story of the one who would not
back down, saying “You see tha powerful got nervous / Cause he refused to be the servant / ‘Cause he spit the
truth / That shook heads.”
All the while, the music crafted by Morello, Commoford and Wilk had a new maturity and toughness. Morello’s
guitar noodling was toned down some while still harnessed with power; Commoford and Wilk were as abrasive
and bashing as ever. Paired with de la Rocha’s lyrics, the album turned into one of the most uncompromising
ever, ranking with the MC5’s debut and Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet” as one of the best calls for social
unrest set to plastic.
The record closed with a fury and Rage’s masterpiece, “War Within A Breath.” While the three musicians bashed
away, de la Rocha screamed, “A war from the depth of time / Who shot four puppet governors in a line / Who
shook all the world bankers / Who think they can rhyme / Shot the landlords who knew it was mine / Yes a war
from tha depth of time.”
Rage didn’t last very long after this album. Infighting and frustration that their message wasn’t being carried out
finally tore the band in two — de la Rocha started a solo career that has yet to see his debut album, while the
other three teamed up with ex-Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell to form Audioslave. Their debut was solid
but not fantastic, and they haven’t really lived up to their respective pasts since. Then again, how could they?
The band is splintered, but the image of Los Angeles, the battle-torn city sitting directly on a fault line, lives on.
Ice T once said that Los Angeles, the city, is a microcosm of the rest of the country. As L.A. goes, so does the
nation. There are racial and ethnic divides, there’s corruption, poverty, extreme wealth, fame, anonymity … nearly
every conflict present on a national scale is represented in the city. Rage new this, and in their finest hour, they
expressed that with unmatched sophistication and restlessness.
In Los Angeles, the riot really is the rhyme of the unheard.