30 Years Ago: Rage Against the Machine Delivers Dynamic Debut
It’s appropriate that Rage Against the Machine released their debut album on Election Day in 1992. After all, the powerful group soon became the political-minded voice to a generation of rock fans – not that they ever expected to succeed.
“We knew the band’s politics were radical,” Tom Morello told Metal Hammer in 2020, “and that the band’s music was a radical combination of styles. But we didn’t think it was going to matter, ’cause no one was ever going to hear it.”
Morello’s background was as unprecedented as his band’s explosive fusion of punk, metal and hip-hop. Born to a Kenyan diplomat father and a social activist mother, he was a Harvard graduate. He didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 17 and seemed more poised for a career in politics than melting faces on stage.
His Harvard education “certainly didn’t enhance my guitar playing, except for giving me a little more angst,” Morello told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “It helped to intellectually arm me to understand the society and the world in which I live and to help tackle the problems that I see there.”
Along similar lines, Rage singer Zack de la Rocha had a fascinating upbringing. His father Beto was a muralist and part of the Chicano activist artist collective Los Four. He was raised by his mother in Irvine, a predominantly white neighborhood in Southern California, where he continually felt like an outcast due to his race. "If you were a Mexican in Irvine, you were there because you had a broom or a hammer in your hand," de la Rocha told George magazine in 1999, describing the town as "one of the most racist cities imaginable."
Listen to Rage Against the Machine's 'Bullet in the Head'
Bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk rounded out the lineup that came together to form Rage Against the Machine in 1991. Despite their varying backgrounds, things clicked musically at their first rehearsal. “More than anything, I remember this connection and movement and momentum that was happening in the room,” Wilk told Metal Hammer.
“I played so well with Tim and Tom – and then we had Zack, who was a bolt of lightning, flying off my kick drum and was in it for real. There was something really special about what we were doing. We weren’t analyzing it or putting our fingers on it yet. It was just an intense moment for us all. We saw the very beginning of the potential we could have.”
Of course, the potential is nothing if it goes unfulfilled. Even as Rage Against the Machine was winning fans throughout the Los Angeles live music scene, the band felt it was unlikely that they’d sign a record deal based on the subject matter alone.
“We began with zero commercial ambition,” Morello told Metal Hammer. “I didn’t think we’d be able to book a gig in a club, let alone get a record deal. There was no market for multi-racial, neo-Marxist rap-metal punk rock bands. That didn’t exist. So we made this music that was just 100% authentic; it was 100% what we felt like playing. We had no expectations.”
Listen to Rage Against the Machine's 'Bombtrack'
This authenticity caught the ear of Michael Goldstone, the A&R executive at Epic who had signed Pearl Jam less than two years prior. Goldstone believed in Rage Against the Machine’s brand of fiery rock and penned the group to a deal. The label was even surprisingly willing to be hands-off on their debut album, save for a few instances.
One example: A note from the label suggested the band remove the line “Now you’re under control” from the song “Killing in the Name.” “There was a big conversation about that,” Garth Richardson, who co-produced the album, told Metal Hammer. “And the band just said, ‘Fuck you, that part stays.’”
Like their unwavering attitude toward their art, Rage Against the Machine was relentless on their debut LP. The songs were loud, aggressive and unapologetic. The opening song “Bombtrack” initially lulled listeners into a false sense of safety, beginning with a measured bass part before exploding 25 seconds into the piece. “Bullet in the Head” tackled such heady issues as government control of media and propaganda, but did so over funk rhythms and otherworldly guitar sounds.
Meanwhile, “Wake Up” delivered some of the album’s heaviest riffs, as de la Rocha’s blistering vocals criticized racism within the American power structure.
Watch Rage Against the Machine's 'Killing in the Name' Video
Still, it was “Killing in the Name” that proved to be the breakout track. The emphatic commentary on police racism – including the famous line “Some of those who work forces are the same who burn crosses” – took on further weight following the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles earlier that year.
“In some ways, the record was prescient, in that it saw this maelstrom of racial strife and imperialist war on the horizon,” Morello told Metal Hammer, noting that all of these songs were written before the unrest. “When the record hit, it was a fertile field for us to have the ear of audiences around the world.”
Released Nov. 3, 1992, Rage Against the Machine was a critical and commercial success, eventually going on to sell more than three million copies. A band that had never intended to be a mainstream success suddenly became one of the era’s defining acts, boasting fans across the globe.
Asked at the time about the group's allure, de la Rocha suggested several factors.
“Maybe sometimes [fans] just get off on the riffs. Sometimes the riffs seduce them into the politics; sometimes they maybe just get off on the lyrics and they tolerate the riffs," de la Rocha told the Times back then. "Overall, from reading mail people send us and talking to people, it seems like it is something that has impact on a lot of people – and it seems there’s definitely a void that this band is filling.”