Between Justin Timberlake, the Gorillaz and the return of music to MTV, the levels of '90s nostalgia currently coursing through my veins was already reaching overdose territory. And now, with Rage Against The Machine back in the headlines, I'm feeling a deep need to visit a Hot Topic and talk about Monica Lewinsky again.
This week we learned that three-quarters of the storied band - guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk - are joining forces with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Cypress Hill’s B-Real to form a supergroup called Prophets of Rage (referencing a Public Enemy song of the same name) which will perform songs by all three bands. Sadly, Rage vocalist Zack de la Rocha is not involved, but even though the group won't be reuniting, just seeing the name Rage Against the Machine again was enough to reignite one of my musical life's greatest passions.
Before my days of chill samples and cushy beats, I was heavy into aggressive, hostile, melt-your-face-off rock. And nobody melted more faces than Rage Against The Machine. Admittedly, it’s been a long time since I listened, but when I went back to their music, it made me react as viscerally as ever. Their energy was unreal. Think a Travis Scott show is lit? That’s cute. Rage shows were the original ragers. Just look at this crowd.
While poorly recorded concert footage is not typically the place to start when introducing a new audience to an artist, it’s perfect for Rage Against The Machine. Though innovative and immensely powerful (and we’ll get to that), Rage’s music was never pretty, never polished, and that was the appeal. Even their recorded stuff had an the unrivaled energy and attitude of a live show. Songs like “Settle For Nothing” may be too much for the unprepared hip-hop head (after years without listening it’s almost too much for me), but it’s songs like “Killing In The Name Of” or “Bulls On Parade” where you might be able to both appreciate the energy and aggression without your brain completely leaking out of your ears.
In fact, “Bulls On Parade” might actually be the place to start if you are new to Rage because it really highlights all they have to offer. Although the unbridled aggression is shoved in your face, the artistry and technical execution is flawless. It’s some of the most innovative blending of hip-hop and rock you will ever find. Front man Zack de la Rocha has the energy of a metal or punk singer but the voice and flow of your favorite rapper. I always marveled at his delivery, his ability to attack every line with ferocity and accuracy and get swallowed whole by the huge instrumentals. His recent work with Run The Jewels is another perfect example. I rarely think of him as an emcee, but the way he fits in with Killer Mike and El-P really showcases how talented a rapper he is.
And how about their lead guitarist, Tom Morello, creating a DJ scratching effect using only his guitar? (Hopefully you made it through enough of "Bulls on Parade" to catch that.) It’s also the best single example of how they seamlessly blended hip-hop and rock that I can think of. Politically charged music often never gets mainstream love - ask Immortal Technique, KRS-One or Dead Prez - but Rage managed to deliver content that would make any of those artists proud and a lot of their appeal had to do with that unique fusion of rock and hip-hop. It was loud, it was aggressive, but it was also masterfully compiled and in its own weird way really catchy. I challenge you not to feel “Sleep Now In The Fire”:
In his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, Ice Cube said, “Rock 'n' roll is not an instrument. Rock 'n' roll is not even a style of music. Rock 'n' roll is a spirit.” I’d argue the same for hip-hop. While some may see a crossing of genre lines in the formation of their new group, Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine are cut from the same cloth, kindred spirits. The hip-hop spirit is about shaking things up, doing something completely different and innovative without giving a single fuck who it angers. It’s in Zack’s flow, and Morello’s genius technical innovations, but more than any one aspect, it's the spirit of making music that matters in content and sound that makes Rage one of the most dynamic groups of all-time.
Now if we could only get them to truly reunite...