The Making of Rage Against the Machine’s Self-Titled Album

The Making of Rage Against the Machine's Self-Titled Album
Hearing an artist or band created an album to advance radical ideas or push for some kind of long overdue change is almost a cliche in music. It happens at least once every generation, and sometimes it’s genuine — like when David Bowie made Ziggy Stardust — while sometimes it’s just noise. Nonetheless, it’s rare that you’ll find an album that conveys how deeply the band (and its members) that had this desire for radical change built into it. Yet that’s exactly what happened with Rage Against the Machine's self-titled debut alum, and it’s exactly why the band never stood a chance at staying together. Though all four Rage Against the Machine band members have often professed a desire for some kind of radical change — such as ending cultural imperialism or reforming the wage system — it was guitarist Tom Morello and lead vocalist Zack de la Rocha who created the band’s core outlook and shaped its direction. Morello once told Louder that both of his parents (Mary Morello and Ngethe Njoroge) had an extensive history of fighting for freedoms of various kinds. His father was a freedom fighter in Kenya (where he met Mary) and ended up being the country’s first U.N representative, while Morello’s uncle Jomo Kenyatta was Kenya’s first democratically-elected president. On the other side of his family tree, Morello's mother formed Parents for Rock and Rap, an organization dedicated to fighting censorship in music while also dedicating much of her life to activism.
The Making of Rage Against the Machine's Self-Titled Album

Morello himself quickly found out what it meant to be marginalized and up against unfair systems (or machines, if you will) that one could do very little about. Raised by his mother in Libertyville, IL through the late '60s and '70s, Morello jokingly says he integrated the public school system. He was the only non-white student there, which he said basically meant he was constantly on the outside.

“I was the only black kid in the town as well, which made things kinda weird for me," Morello said. "This was a very conservative small town, and I was always arguing with teachers about their entrenched views on life because they were wrong!”

School was also where Morello first learned how to organize with likeminded people and push for change. He and a few other students operated what he called an “underground paper” covering controversial topics like apartheid. Being intentionally subversive ended up becoming a habit Morello would carry on, forming a punk “bad-boy” band in school and being maybe the only rocker in the political science program at Harvard University in the first half of the 1980s.

But Morello’s wasn’t about to walk the usual path of the Ivy League student. He moved to Los Angeles to find whatever work was available because (despite choosing a major that interested him) he had absolutely no desire to pursue any career typically available for Harvard grads.

After trying telemarketing and other jobs he described as soulless, Morello eventually concluded that the entire wage system was designed entirely to chain the working class to miserable jobs they cared nothing about just so a small number of people could have wealth and power. Eventually, he found a job working with Senator Alan Cranston — the same politician who inspired the name of Megadeth — though was quickly disillusioned with even far left politicians because (as he told Louder) they still compromised to please the wealthy,

In short, Morello was experiencing everything that would eventually make up a significant part of Rage Against the Machine.

The Making of Rage Against the Machine's Self-Titled Album
Zack de la Rocha experienced a similar level of personal outrage over corrupt systems during his youth according to biographer Kieran McCarthy. Like Morello, de la Rocha was raised in a predominantly white area — this one being Irvine, CA. But unlike Morello, his background didn’t include as many outlets for his advocacy. De la Rocha’s mother, Olivia, was a PhD candidate studying anthropology and his father, Beto de la Rocha, was a well-known muralist who frequently depicted the struggles of Mexico’s Zapatistas. Zack’s parents divorced when he was young, and he lived with both of them equally for a time. His father eventually suffered a mental breakdown and imposed a fanatical religious regime on his son, so the singer lived with his mother from then on. McCarthy says Zack was angry, but it wasn’t just about the divorce and his father’s behavior. Speaking to Rolling Stone, Zack said his experiences growing up made it very clear he was not like the people around him, and it instilled him with anger. “[A teacher] was describing one of the areas between San Diego and Oceanside, and as a reference to this particular area of the coastline, he said, ‘You know, that wetback station there,’" de la Rocha recalls. "Everyone around me laughed. They thought it was the funniest thing that they ever heard. I remember sitting there, about to explode. I realized that I was not of these people. They were not my friends. And I remember internalizing it, how silent I was. I remember how afraid I was to say anything.” After telling his mother — who was disgusted but needed to remain in the area so she could finish her doctoral program — Zack made a decision.
The Making of Rage Against the Machine's Self-Titled Album
“I told myself that I would never be silent again," de la Rocha said. "I would never allow myself to not respond to that type of situation – in any form, anywhere.” Morello had his own band in the late 1980s, but was introduced to the L.A. band Lock Up by his roommate, Adam Jones. Lock Up wanted a new guitarist, so Morello auditioned and landed the position. In 1989, Lock Up secured a contract with Geffen — the same label Nirvana would sign with 2 years later — for their debut album Something Bitchin’ This Way Comes (though Morello mistakenly says it was Atlantic in the linked interview). The deal didn’t last. Morello said the whole band realized the deal was not to their benefit, and Lock Up started to dissolve. Despite that, the band still hired a new drummer, Brad Wilk. Morello was determined to carry on in music, so he and Wilk advertised for a lead singer/frontman. Meanwhile, de la Rocha got involved in local bands as well, like Farside and Inside Out. Inside Out also released only one album (called Spiritual Surrender in 1991) before falling apart, although their brief stint was with the significantly smaller Revelation Records and Kent McClard. However, the band's initial planned sophomore effort was tentatively called Rage Against the Machine after a term McClard coined for a magazine he wrote called No Answers. Despite neither venture producing fantastic commercial results for Morello and de la Rocha, McIver says it provided valuable experience, especially when it came to making it through a tour alive with other bandmates. In other words, their early failures served as valuable experience they both would need to keep Rage Against the Machine together.
The Making of Rage Against the Machine's Self-Titled Album
De la Rocha and his friend Tim Commerford answered Morello’s call for band members, and Morello later said he instantly knew it was a perfect fit. He mentioned the chemistry just felt right, and that feeling strengthened when he learned about de la Rocha’s strong political views and determination to make a difference through his music. He told Rolling Stone he was “blown away” by de la Rocha’s sound and his poetry, eventually seeing in him an “ideological brother.” Despite feeling good about the band’s formation, no one expected it to go anywhere beyond performing music with a message that very few people might hear. Aside from infusing every song with biting political commentary, Rage Against the Machine was also one of the only multi-racial rock bands around at the time — which meant they were not an act that many venues would book. “Our expectations were very humble," Morello said to Louder. "When we were writing the songs for the first record we really didn’t even think we’d be able to book a club gig. We never dreamed of a record deal or a tour, we just thought the music was so beyond what was acceptable.” But their live shows garnered devoted crowds thanks to the band’s unique sound and attitude. Whether it was because the L.A. scene was primed for a new sound in the wake of hair metal’s collapse or because the music scene needed uncompromising sound for uncompromising lyrics, Rage Against the Machine left an impact. A big part of that was the signature blend of sounds the band developed, a combination of Morello’s metal and classic rock guitar with Commerford’s heavy bass and Wilk’s groove-oriented drumming.
The Making of Rage Against the Machine's Self-Titled Album

Of course, having a unique sound and cult following doesn’t lead to commercial success, which is why they got in the habit of bootlegging their music and selling cassettes for $5 each at each of their gigs. One of those 12-track demo tapes made its way to Epic Records in 1991 after Rage’s third gig — pretty much exactly as Morello intended — and earned them a deal with the label even when the band didn’t expect much success.

And then of course, their debut self-titled album was much more successful than anyone ever thought it would be, even if it was a bit of an accident at first. The album’s first single, the now iconic "Killing in the Name," was played on U.K. radio stations, and Radio One accidentally (or so it’s said) played the uncensored version full of f-bombs. The obscene catalyst gained Rage Against the Machine a ton of attention overseas, but the U.S. was a bit of a slower growth because of the censored versions and a lack of inclusion in the MTV rotation.

How much of this success was down to Rage Against the Machine’s sound and the album’s actual message is up for debate. It’s true that crowds responded to the lyrics and intent behind the songs, but there’s some question over how much fans — and even some band members — just embraced the loud and aggressive sound. In 2020, fans even started commenting negatively on the perceived inclusion of “politics” in the reunited Rage Against the Machine.

It’s hard to imagine fans not realizing a band that commented on wage slavery and used a controversial image of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quáng Đúc  in protest of the South Vietnamese government could be anything but political. Yet it raises the question of how much fans were actually listening to what the band said, rather than how they said it — which was a problem that reared its head a number of times during the band’s career.

It was an issue that never sat well with de la Rocha in particular. He believed his and the band’s success was measured solely based on what action it prompted others to take. He was content taking years planning a new album, while Morello was happy to crank out songs one after the other as fast as possible. On the other hand, Wilk later said he was perfectly happy rocking out regardless and wasn’t nearly as interested in politics as the rest of the band.

Essentially, the angry chemistry that made both Rage Against the Machine and Rage Against the Machine great was all the band had going for it at that moment. The underlying issues, along with an overall lack of communication off the stage, were already present during and after the album's launch, as none of the four band members could ever really agree on anything or create a shared vision. Though Rage Against the Machine would create two more albums before breaking up in 2000 (and release another one shortly thereafter), it’s safe to say that their debut album was also the start of their long dissolution.

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