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.
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.