Cal Poly’s Taste of Metal and Political Hip-Hop

The last Rage Against the Machine Reunion tour ended in 2011, so in honor of their “Public Service Announcement” tour, it’s time to take a look back into their epic history as a legendary political band. Here are some of my favorite moments of Rage Against The Machine:

Morello explaining the band’s name origin

Thomas Baptist Morello is an American guitarist and has toured with groups Audioslave, Prophets of Rage, Street Sweeper Social Club, Lock Up and Axis of Justice; though he is mainly known for being the lead guitarist of the band Rage Against the Machine.

The guitarist and political activist told interviewers that Zack De La Rocha came up with the name and the band all agreed that it seemed appropriate to the attitude and politics they were coming across.

As Morello put in an interview,

“the machine can be anything from the police on the streets of Los Angeles who can pull motorists from their cars and beat them to a pulp and get away with it; to the overall international state-capitalist machinery that tries to make you just a mindless cog and to, you know, not to think critically and never to confront the system but to just kind of behave and look forward to the weekend and the next six-pack of beer.” 

Rage in San Luis Obispo

Like Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy—an American hip hop group formed in the 80s—rose in popularity for their political messages about subjects like American racism and media.

So it was not surprising when Public Enemy discovered RATM and asked them to play some gigs with them only three months after the band formed. Rage quickly took over the California music scene and sold three million copies of their self-titled debut album. Drummer of RATM, Brad Wilk says in an interview about Public Enemy, “for them to be supportive of us meant a lot to me.”

The part which I find super cool is that in 1992, Rage opened for Public Enemy at the Cal Poly Rec Center in San Luis Obispo. There isn’t much information on the concert but here’s the video I came across while I was trying to see if their current tour was playing around SLO.

1993 Protest Against the PRMC

The band arrived at Lollapalooza ‘93 to play their 15–minute set. The only problem was that the lead singer, Zack de la Rocha, had completely blown out his voice during a previous performance. Instead of canceling their set, they stood on stage naked for 15 minutes with duct tape over their mouths and a painted letter on each chest to spell out “PMRC.” 

This was a time when Tipper Gore (Al Gore’s wife) had just started the Parents Music Resources Center and Rage Against the Machine wanted to protest the Parental Advisory stickers they put on explicit records.

American Flag on SNL

In 1996, Rage Against The Machine dropped their album, Evil Empire which ended up selling over 249,000 copies and reached number one on the US Billboard 200 chart.

One of their most famous songs on that album is the song “Bulls on Parade,” which is a social commentary on the US military and their aggressive tactics. The chorus goes, 

Rally ’round the family with a pocket full of shells.They rally ’round the family with a pocket full of shells,” pointing out the irony of the government officials who claim to be “pro-family” while being “pro-war.”

The success of this album got them invited to perform on Saturday Night Live with ex-republican presidential candidate and billionaire Steve Forbes scheduled to host the same show. Considering everything the band stands for, it didn’t come as a surprise that the band attempted to hang American flags upside down on their amps in protest of Forbes. 

While Forbes was introducing the band, SNL staff removed the flags and told the Rage to leave the building after they performed “Bulls on Parade.” Meanwhile, the band already had to watch several Steve Forbes skits when he promoted his flat tax agenda, yet the flags will “offend our corporate sponsors.”  

In response, bass player Tim Commerford responded by leaving a torn-up flag in Forbes dressing room which flooded the backstage area with secret service and the band was kicked out and permanently banned from performing on SNL.

1997 Zack De La Rocha Interview 

From an interview with Zach De La Rocha after Rage’s performance at the Akasaka Blitz on July 25, 1997, this particular quote from the live footage stood out to me:

Living in the States, you’re living in one of the most frugal societies in the history of the world, you know? 

A country who inherited the genocide of the Native American people.

A country which participated in chattel slavery, you know? 

The only country in the world to use and drop an atomic bomb on another country’s society. 

The country which murdered and enslaved millions in Southeast Asia as a result of the Vietnam War.

 And we drew from the people who resisted. We were inspired because we feel that any society or any government or any system is set up solely to profit a wealthy class, while the majority of the people toil and suffer and sell their labor power. 

So long as that system’s only true motive is profit interest and not the maintenance and embedment of the population to meet human needs, then that society should not stand. It should be challenged and questioned and overthrown.” 

New York Stock Exchange Shut Down

It’s January in 2000 and Rage Against The Machine and filmmaker Michael Moore show up on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange to film their music video for “Sleep Now In The Fire.”

“Sleep Now in the Fire ” is the fifth track from their 1999 album, The Battle of Los Angeles. This song and music video is filled with anti-capitalism messages including sarcasm towards the greed of the wealthiest people in America to footage of Indonesian riot police.

So it’s only fitting that they would try and film their music video in front of the New York Stock Exchange, where Wall Street employs some of the richest in America.

Before filming, Moore told the band to continue playing no matter what because they had a permit to film on the steps. Even as Moore was getting arrested and the police were screaming at the band, they continued to play and the cameras continued to roll. 

As he’s being detained, Moore yells back to the band, “Take the New York Stock Exchange,” and that causes a security guard to press a panic button, shutting down the building in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon.

2000 DNC Riot

The Democrats’ hope to have a quiet, peaceful convention became less of a possibility when Rage decided to throw a free concert on the street. This was the 2000 Democratic National Convention at the Staples Center in Los Angeles that nominated Vice President Al Gore. 

In protest of the two-party system, Rage played a 40-minute set that attracted over 8,000 people. The Los Angeles police department put around 2,000 officers in riot gear and surrounded them with a 12-foot-high fence.

  After their set that included some of their most popular songs like, “Sleep Now in the Fire,” “Guerrilla Radio,” “Testify,” a mini-riot broke out. Police responded with arrest and violence by pepper spray and rubber bullets.

Closing Words:

Unfortunately, the August and September 2022 U.K. and European leg of the reunion tour had to be canceled due to an injury Zack got due the Chicago concert in July. 

They finished their run at Madison Square Garden on August 11, 12 and 14 and then Zack returned home for rest and rehabilitation. The band will resume touring in Feb. 2023, with confirmed dates across the U.S. and Canada through April.

Emily Schiffenhaus writes for .WAV’s Content Team. She wrote the article. Toby Darci-Maher is on .WAV’s Art Team. They made the graphic.