Let me clearly state the bold and likely controversial thesis of this article: I believe nothing Rage Against the Machine created as the definitive socio-politically active band of modernity means anything if they don’t reunite this year. Yes I know, Prophets of Rage (the Rage x Public Enemy x Cypress Hill supergroup) are touring, no Zack isn’t part of it and seemingly has no plans to be. All this will be covered in the following essay, sent straight from my Rage-filled heart through the Interwebs to my musical activist hero.
I was turned on to Rage Against the Machine when I was 11 years old at summer camp. There was a girl, Sarah, who was in my cabin every year, she was from Austin and had older brothers so she always had new music – Cake, No Doubt, Beastie Boys, Weezer, Green Day, all the 1996 fire on CD. When I heard that strange guitar lick come in on “People Of The Sun,” the opening of their Evil Empire album, it set off a bomb in my brain. I’d never wanted to kick someone’s ass or openly defy authority before, but suddenly I had this energy that made me want to do exactly that. It was visceral and liberating and all-consuming, I did not enjoy the feeling.
“That vulture came to try and steal ya name, but now you found a gun, you’re history, this is for the people of the sun.”
– “People Of The Sun”
Almost four years later a boy made me an actual mixtape on cassette that had “Killing In The Name” and “Know Your Enemy” from the debut Rage album on it and I fell in love. Maybe it was the demoralizing drudgery of high school, or maybe I needed to get my period before I could actually feel the Rage, but those songs got me and I was hooked. All my freshmen dude friends had seen RATM live the year before in December of 1999, and they had the “Rhyme & Reason 2000” tour slated for the following year with Beastie Boys and Green Day. My friends talked about that concert like they’d seen God and I never got tired of hearing about it, so naturally I bought “Rhyme & Reason 2000” tickets – it was my angsty, early-adolescent wet dream tour. I waited in line at the mall for hours to be at the head of the line when tickets went on sale (and I swear I’m only 31).
“What? The land of the free? Whoever told you that is your enemy.” – “Know Your Enemy”
And then, a month later, one New York City pothole destroyed everything. Beastie Boy Mike D hit it on his bike coming back from rehearsals, broke his leg, and the tour was cancelled. Singer Zack de la Rocha quit the band in October of 2000 and that was it, I had to accept I’d never see them perform as long as I lived. I was so pissed I stopped listening to them, that sounds ridiculous but I was heartbroken. The rage they stirred up inside my young, impressionable mind was directed back at them, at Zack specifically. When the Renegades cover record came out after he quit I ignored it. By the time their live album came out in 2003 I’d completely stopped paying attention. Flash forward to my last year of college in LA, 2007, when Rage announced a reunion show at a music festival I’d just heard about called Coachella.
“Those who die are justified, by wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites.” – “Killing In The Name”
That reunion show, which I nearly lost my teeth moshing at, his One Day As A Lion project with Jon Theodore formerly of The Mars Volta launched in 2008, and their blip on the radar in 2010 when they played a few shows in protest of Arizona’s Constitution-violating immigration law allowing police to determine the immigration status of anyone they reasonably suspected to be undocumented, gave us hope. Actually, that aspect of the law was finally repealed in September of last year, but it seemed Rage had thrown in the towel long before then. And who can blame Zack? His reason for leaving the band initially clearly stated, “Our decision making process has completely failed…and from my perspective has undermined our artistic and political ideal.” (Read the full statement) It makes perfect sense – the ’90s were a period of perceived socio-political and certainly economic stability in the US, the record industry was booming, and Rage were sold at Walmart like every other band on a major label (they were signed to Epic). How could Rage remain authentic while a corporation like Walmart, whose business practices affronted everything they stood for, were making money off their music? I totally get why he had to bail.
“What does the billboard say? Come and play, come and play. Forget about the movement.” – “Freedom”
Fast forward once again to November 2016 when we elected a new President in America and Vulture published a heartbreaking work of staggering genius about how Rage Against the Machine were commodified by the record industry and shat out the loose rectum of MTV. The article is called “Rage Against The Machine Were 24 Years Early“, a thesis I only agree with if Zack doesn’t reignite “The Movement” he prophecized in 2017. As author Frank Guan points out, Rage’s call for mass social action became diluted the more successful and thus exposed the band became. In the 24 years since they put out their self-titled LP, the Internet became a pretty big deal and as a result of the instant access to the whole of human knowledge, for the first time we’re seeing what kind of fucked up shit is going on out there on a regular basis. The beating of Rodney King in 1991 that sparked the LA Riots and forever changed the conversation in America about police and race was captured by chance in a grainy video. In 2017, we can see that kind of abuse and racial profiling going on in our feeds 24/7 if we want to.
“The rungs torn from the ladder, can’t reach the tumor. One god, one market, one truth, one consumer.” – “Down Rodeo”
Perhaps we’ve become oversaturated and thus immune to the stories of gross injustice and suffering happening every day in our own country. But, for better or worse, everything is different now that a reality TV star has been elected President. America is more ready for mass social action than it has been since the Vietnam War, and we need music to fuel the effort just like the iconic, peace-pushing artists of the late ‘60s (John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Grace Slick to name a few). Yes, Rage Against the Machine were 24 years early, but their message and energy can be right on time if Zack shows back up soon – his collab with Run The Jewels in 2015 on “Close Your Eyes” made it seem like he was gearing up for a return to the spotlight. Prophets of Rage, the Rage x Public Enemy x Cypress Hill supergroup comprised of Rage’s Tom Morello, Brad Wilk, and Tim Commerford plus Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Cypress Hill’s B-Real and DJ Lord, are already playing shows including the Anti-Inaugrual Ball in LA on January 20th and have world tour starting in June. Oh and by the way, Tom Morello has welcomed Zack to join Prophets but it seems that text remains unread.
“Terror’s tha product ya push, well I’m a truth addict – oh shit, I gotta headrush, tha sheep tremble and here come tha votes, thrown from the throat, new cages and scapegoats, one caution, the mic’s a detonator unwound, ta shut down the devil sound, ta shut down the devil sound, check tha heads, bow in vietnow.” – Vietnow
It seems like a pretty plug-and-play situation is already lined up here, Zack – you can start rehearsals next month, make the announcement in time for the Vive Latino Festival in Mexico City March 18-19, and get back to writing and recording end of Q4 this year. Or you guys can just skip that last part because Lord knows y’all have an arsenal full of relevant, socio-political-conscious material at your disposal. Songs like “Freedom,” “Sleep Now In The Fire,” “Guerilla Radio,” and “Take The Power Back” are timeless protest anthems America simply wasn’t ready for when they came out. Prophets of Rage are incredible to watch, from a technical standpoint Zack wouldn’t add much to their performance. From an energetic standpoint however, his contribution is undeniable. He wrote and sang the lyrics that inspired me to call my 7th grade history teacher a fascist when she was being a fascist, anyone else singing them just doesn’t get me even remotely excited. This is a band so powerful they were able to literally shut down Wall Street to film a music video for “Sleep Now In The Fire,” calling out gross injustices perpetuated in the name of profit in the US, meanwhile a mainstream news pundit was literally calling them an “anti-American, anti-family, pro-terrorist band,” as heard in the below video.
“The noose and the rapist, the fields’ overseer, the agents of orange, the priests of Hiroshima, the cost of my desire, sleep now in the fire.”
– Sleep Now In The Fire
And make no mistake, staying excited is critical in maintaining the momentum of progressive America’s fight for sanity in government and society at large. Rage warned us in “Freedom” that the Establishment wants us to forget about revolution and enjoy being entertained, and I deeply respect Zack’s inability to participate in a business he feels turned his activism-inspired works of art into mindless entertainment. But this isn’t the ’90s, the Establishment no longer controls the dominant channels of music distribution and discovery – artists like Macklemore can break FM radio off of one viral music video (for “Thrift Shop,” an independently released song) because We The People’s social media channels are more powerful than TV, mainstream media outlets, or radio. In 1993 when Rage protested Parental Advisory labeling on albums on the Lollapalooza Tour stop in Philly by standing silent, naked onstage, with the letters PMRC painted on their chests (which stands for Parents Music Resource Center, the lobbyist group pushing the measure), that was pretty exciting. The problem was it was 1993 and if it didn’t make local news, a hip music print mag, or MTV, no one ever heard about it. If they did this today billions of people would know about it within 24 hours, #DicksOutForCensorship would be trending, and this is the kind of exciting example we desperately need our cultural icons to set because they have more power over our minds than any politician ever will.
“Yes I know my enemies, they’re the teachers who taught me to fight me, compromise, conforming, assimilation, submission, ignorance, hypocrisy, brutality, the elite, all of which are American dreams.” – “Know Your Enemy”
And yes, Zack, I’m aware of the solo album you’ve been working on since leaving the band in 2000, as verified by drummer Brad Wilk and fellow album collaborator DJ Shadow. It wasn’t until I wrote this piece I found out you finally released one of those songs in September, “Digging For Windows” – it didn’t even hit my radar. He has songs in the can with Trent Reznor, El-P, Questlove, and allegedly many more, and I can’t wait to hear them. If they’re relevant to revolution, which knowing Zack they are, bring ’em out already! I think I speak for most of your fans when I say we need you and the rest of the band together RIGHT NOW. It sucks that the rebellion you guys started got lost in the commercial shuffle, it sucks that your old label controls the priceless masters that contain the RATM DNA sequence of inspired, calculated disobedience, and you can’t stop them from distributing through Walmart. What were you supposed to do though? Before the Internet was ubiquitous, if you didn’t get signed to a major label no one was ever going to hear your music. There were no social media platforms for direct artist to fan communication, Rage’s message almost always came through the filter of press at a time when the music industry was quite literally another world.
“The movie ran through me, the glamour subdue me, the tabloid untie me, I’m empty please fill me.” – Testify
While the revolution may not be televised, it will definitely be live streamed – and this is where you come in, Zack. When you wrote the iconic lyrics that defined your band, your movement, “Rip the mic, rip the stage, rip the system – I was born to rage against ‘em,” did you mean you were born to rage only until the system wore you out? Have you been beaten back? Where the fuck are you right now? Because we need you shutting down Wall Street and doing renegade shows in Planned Parenthood parking lots on Facebook live, we need your words brought to life by you because no one else has the power to do it as boldly and authentically as you. This is the hero’s journey (explained here by Jauz), you’re being called to adventure once again and this time it’s not a drill. Use the technology to rally The People before he-who-must-not-be-named turns the fucking Internet off (hopefully he won’t cause Twitter but still, it’s a valid concern).
“Transmission third world war third round, a decade of the weapon of sound above ground, no shelter if you’re lookin’ for shade, I lick shots at the brutal charade, as the polls close like a casket on truth devoured, a silent play in the shadow of power, a spectacle monopolized.”
– Guerilla Radio
If you give the America of 2017 a chance to pick up the torch of “The Movement” you were leading, if your voice gets back in that leadership position, I guarantee every progressive musician and celebrity will follow. And We The People will follow our heroes. And if what Bernie Sanders said is true in his post-campaign interview with Sarah Silverman, that a million people marching on Capitol Hill with a stated, doable initiative can get exactly what they want out of their elected officials within days, then we have a lot of work to do and it’s going to take time and energy which must be fueled by profound inspiration. Your music paints you as the most authentic, fearless, informed, revolutionary artist to penetrate the mainstream pop culture machine in the last 25 years, so I have to ask, are you still that guy?
“There’s a mass without roofs and a prison to fill, there’s a country’s soul that reads post no bills.” – Calm Like A Bomb
The Movement wasn’t canceled and it’s been taken out of quotation marks because it’s not theoretical anymore. It was re-scheduled for 2017 and I truly don’t believe it can play out the way you imagined it could without your leadership and inspiration. And I don’t believe you have it in you to stay gone. Furthermore, do you really want Rage to go down in history as Paul Ryan’s favorite band? If you have to live with that you may as well throw a concert in his driveway and take it as an opportunity to tell him how you really feel, how WE really feel.
“Bam! Here’s the plan, motherfuck Uncle Sam, step back, I know who I am, raise up your ear, I’ll drop the style and clear
It’s the beats and the lyrics they fear, the rage is relentless, we need a movement with a quickness
You are the witness of change, and to counteract we gotta take the power back.” – “Take The Power Back“