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POP MUSIC

Up Against the Wall : You want raw, unfiltered extremism? You got it. Rage Against the Machine is back, with all pistons firing. The band members once thought they'd be too political for anyone to care. They were wrong.

April 14, 1996|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Step back, I know who I am. . . .

The present curriculums,

I put my fist in 'em.

Eurocentric every last one of 'em,

See right through the red, white and blue disguise.

*

Thanks to its compelling performances, Rage saw its album sales, which had only been at the 75,000 level before Lollapalooza, jump to 400,000 by the end of the year.

Michael Goldstone, the Epic Records vice president for artists and repertoire who signed Rage, wasn't surprised by the band's explosive breakthrough. He had been overwhelmed himself the first time he saw the group perform in a San Fernando Valley rehearsal studio in 1991.

"The things you are looking for in every band is substance, charisma, passion, commitment--and Rage had them all," says Goldstone, who also signed Pearl Jam, one of the other great bands of the '90s.

"A lot of times when you see a band rehearsing, it's a very sterile environment, but these guys had so much intensity. They couldn't have thrown themselves into the music any more if they were playing in front of 60,000 people. I had never seen anything like it."

Still, Rage represented a gamble for Goldstone and Epic. Many in the '90s rock generation have appeared disdainful of mixing politics and music--disillusioned perhaps by the way they see their parents' generation failing to live up to the lofty ideals of '60s rock.

From the band members' standpoint, the question was whether they could maintain creative freedom with a major label.

"A lot of labels contacted us, and lots of them just didn't seem to understand what we wanted to do," Morello says during the interview at Epic Records.

"They kept talking about the message of the music as a gimmick. They were interested in us just because there was a buzz. . . . They saw us as the latest local rock band to be hyped. But Epic agreed to everything we asked--and they've followed through."

By signing with a major label, however, Rage left itself open to barbs from cynics who ask why the group would align itself with an international conglomerate. Why not release its albums independently?

Morello nods at the question.

"We get asked about that all the time, but we never saw a conflict as long as we maintained creative control. When you live in a capitalistic society, the currency of the dissemination of information goes through capitalistic channels.

"Would Noam Chomsky object to his works being sold at Barnes & Noble? No, because that's where people buy their books. We're not interested in preaching to just the converted. It's great to play abandoned squats run by anarchists, but it's also great to be able to reach people with a revolutionary message, people from Granada Hills to Stuttgart."

*

Morello and De la Rocha were both in bands before Rage (Morello's group Lock Up even had an album in 1990 on Geffen Records), but both found Rage to be the ideal vehicle to express the social frustration that had been building up inside them for years.

The 26-year-old De La Rocha grew up in two different worlds after his parents separated in the early '70s. He lived in Irvine with his mother, who was studying at UC Irvine for her doctorate in anthropology. But he often spent weekends in Lincoln Heights with his father, Roberto de la Rocha, a founding member of Los Four, a pioneering group in the Chicano art movement.

"I felt that every day was a kind of war for my own identity," De la Rocha said during an interview last week, after his return from the Mexican state of Chiapas, where he spent several days with the Zapatista rebels who are fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples.

"Two factors contributed to how lonely and desolate I felt in Irvine," he continues, recalling his adolescence. "We didn't have any money in a community where your whole worth was determined by how much money you had, and I was a Chicano in a town where you are the exception to the rule if you are Mexican and you don't have a broom or a hammer in your hand."

At the same time, De la Rocha didn't feel at home in East Los Angeles, because he was considered "too Anglo" in his speech patterns and background (his mother is of Irish, German and Mexican descent).

"It wasn't until I was in my early teens and heard punk rock that I found a solace--a place where I felt I belonged," he says, recalling his early love for such bands as Bad Religion and Social Distortion.

But punk wasn't his only musical influence. He was moved by the social commentary of rap group Public Enemy and reggae legend Bob Marley.

About Marley, he says: "There was a revolutionary spirit about him that helped show me the potential of music in terms . . . of political action. When I heard that the guerrillas in Zimbabwe listened to Marley's music as a source of inspiration, it was like a milestone for me."

*

You also don't have to speak to Morello long to pinpoint where much of the anger and alienation in his music are rooted.

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