“It’s my job to weave my conviction into my vocation.”
Rage Against the Machine is perhaps the most influential political band since the 90s. Weaving together their vast knowledge of social science and endless sonic innovation, they have carved out a truly distinct stamp in music. They’re also known for their high-energy performances. As they’ve said before, their performances aren’t an entertainment stunt or a “show” that they put up. They’re expressing what they truly believe in, and they exhibit just the same levels of energy, whether on stage, or in rehearsal.
What exactly is the machine that they’re raging against? According to guitarist Tom Morello, 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 from it, to the overall international state capitalist machine that turns you into a mindless cog, into not having to think critically and never to confront the system — To just kind of behave and look forward to the weekend in the next six-pack of beer.”
Thanks to Grand Theft Auto : San Andreas and Guitar Hero 3 (in which we had to beat Tom Morello in a guitar battle), I have pretty much been a fan since early primary school. Though as a kid, I was more hooked to their instrumentals. After all, it still baffles me how Morello could create brilliant hip-hop and robotic sounds with his guitar and a few effect pedals. But once I paid more attention to the lyrics, it changed my outlook on music, as well as on creating art.
So here are a few lessons I’ve learned over the years as a Rage Against the Machine fan.
Especially with an “aggressive” or “radical” band (as people like to say) such as Rage Against the Machine, one could easily have the preconception that they don’t they don’t know what they’re talking about — When the very opposite is true. Tom Morello got his honors degree in social studies from Harvard, with the sole purpose of fueling his musical ambitions — When most of his other friends went on to become doctors or investment bankers. Other than that, they’re avid fans of Noam Chomsky’s books, whom they once interviewed. In the liner notes of their 1996 album Evil Empire, they even included a list of books that highly influenced them, from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck to Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo.
They’ve even quoted literature in their lyrics. In their song Testify, they quoted George Orwell’s 1984, singing, “Who controls the past now, controls the future. Who controls the present now, controls the past” — Meaning that the people in power could alter our future by controlling how history is taught. And in Vietnow, they quoted James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain : “Is all the world jails and churches?” — Condemning how the media typically portrays people and situations in black and white.
If you ever think their music is baseless, listen to their anthem Killing in the Name.
Killing in the name of what? They purposely kept the title open-ended, to criticize all the reasons that people would kill for. Some would kill in the name of money, some in the name of religion. The band especially takes their anger out on people who kill in the name of white supremacy, addressing the then-recent police brutality case of Rodney King by comparing the racist police officers to members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Even in a simple line such as “F— you I won’t do what you tell me”, their anger isn’t without knowledge or purpose. In an interview, Tom Morello explained that in that line, they actually meant it in a way that relates to Frederick Douglass, a famous former slave and abolitionist who remarked that he became free not from the moment when his shackles were physically removed, but when he was finally brave enough to say “No” to his master’s oppression.
Mind-blowing, isn’t it? So nerd out, and be highly educated in what you do.
Educate Your Fans
Rage Against the Machine makes it a point to educate their fans on issues that are not discussed often enough. While there have been a myriad of issues such as poverty, corruption, and cutting back on military funding, that they have commented on in their songs, there is one that particularly stands out to me.
Like a lot of other people, I used to think that the Mayan civilization just suddenly disappeared after Mexico was conquered by the Spanish conquistadors. Needless to say, I was very wrong. There are still indigenous Mayan people living as minorities in southern Mexico, braving poverty, having been trampled on and dismissed to the lowest rungs of the Mexican socioeconomic ladder for hundreds of years.
There’s a guerilla group called the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) that has been fighting for the rights of these people and have boldly resisted neoliberalism in Mexico. Rage Against the Machine, and their vocalist Zack de la Rocha, especially, who is of Mexican descent, have openly voiced out their support for the Zapatistas in songs such as People of the Sun and Without a Face, and have also conducted interviews with them. Not only that, Rage has even adopted EZLN’s logo as their own — A bright red star on a black background.
If it weren’t for Rage, there’s a good chance that I’d still be oblivious about what happened to the Mayans and where they are now today. It’s quite a wake-up call to realize that there are endless conflicts such as this that are going on in the world, while most of us are able to live a relatively stable life.
As de la Rocha sings in Settle for Nothing, “If ignorance is bliss, then knock the smile off my face.”
Give Your Secrets Away
Would you think I’m joking if I tell you that Tom Morello could play a guitar solo without a guitar? Because that really is true. For his solo in Testify, he would unplug his cable from his guitar, and jab it against his palm while stepping on a wah-wah pedal to create futuristic, alien-like sounds.
Tom Morello is easily one of the most unique and recognizable guitarists out there — You probably wouldn’t hear any other guitarist cite rapper Dr. Dre as his musical influence. Together with his band members, they continuously find the unconventional in the conventional, as their music revolves around their philosophy of “All sounds are made by guitar, drums, bass, and vocals”. No synthesizers, no autotune, no computer effects. Just boundless creativity and ingenuity.
For Morello, especially, having discovered new ways to play the guitar, he could simply stay out of the press, live in an air of mystery and keep his bag of tricks for himself. But that’s never been the case. Morello has always been generous in teaching his techniques and uncovering his gear, even conducting his Masterclass.
A lot of people think giving your secrets away, or teaching your fans about how you work might be a bad thing — Because they’re afraid that they won’t be as respected, or that they’re going to have to face a lot more competition, since their strengths are exposed. But that’s really just a scarcity mindset holding them down. What really happens is that when you become generous, your fans will respect you even more, because they could see that you’re interested in not only making yourself successful, but in fostering the same success for other people and for future generations.
Art is not a competition. Rather, it’s a common goal. It’s not about who’s more successful than the other, but how we can all change the world together. The sooner you realize that, the better.
Be So Good that Your Fans Do the Marketing For You
When you own a brand, word-of-mouth is utterly the most valuable thing you can cultivate. It’s when your product is really good, that your fans can’t help but recommend it to their contacts. Because we’re more likely to trust the opinion of someone we know well, than any ad that we might see or hear.
As you harness the power of word-of-mouth and time, it could really grow your brand and audience base, far larger than you could do with your own push-strategies. It’s your fans who are doing the marketing.
In 2009, an English DJ named Jon Morter was sick of Simon Cowell’s X-Factor singers dominating the UK Christmas charts year after year. To dethrone them from potentially attaining the number 1 spot again that year, Morter created a campaign on Facebook, writing, “Fed up with Simon Cowell’s latest karaoke act being Christmas No. 1? Me too…So who’s up for a mass-purchase of the track ‘KILLING IN THE NAME’ from December 13th (DON’T BUY IT YET!) as a protest to the X Factor monotony?”
The campaign garnered more than 750,000 members and attention continued to spread like wildfire after Cowell supposedly called the campaign “stupid” and “cynical”. Rage Against the Machine announced their support for the campaign and that they would donate the proceeds to charity. Other artists such as Paul McCartney, Muse, Foo Fighters, and even some X-Factor contestants were among the many who also backed the campaign.
Rage Against the Machine stoked controversy, thus helped to generate even more attention and awareness for the campaign in their performance of Killing in the Name at BBC Radio, as they refused to comply with their instructions to keep the lyrics clean — Dropping f-bombs as per the song’s original lyrics.
The campaign was a success, as the song attained its no. 1 spot in the UK Christmas charts and sold over 500,000 copies. Rage Against the Machine did as announced, donating the proceeds to charity, and even playing a free “thank you” show in Finsbury Park the following year.
As they ended their set with Killing in the Name, a message was displayed on the screens, saying, “You Made History.”
So to wrap this up, I’d like to say that while reading this article about Rage Against the Machine is one thing, it can never be as good as actually listening to their music. To quote Brandon Flowers from The Killers, “Writing about music is like dancing to architecture. You just got to hear it to know.”
So ladies and gentlemen,
Here’s Testify, live at Finsbury Park.