Zack DeLaRocha, left, and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine headline… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Twenty years ago this month, Rage Against the Machine released its self-titled debut album, a searing collision of hip-hop, funk and hard rock mixed with a pointed political invective. In a bit of timing that was maybe part coincidence and part destiny, it arrived in the wake of the L.A. riots.
But even before Florence and Normandie erupted in April 1992, the local band was warning of the conditions that would give birth to the riots, not unlike the socially minded hip-hop of the time. The Rodney King verdict may have been the spark, but it was years of frustration among the economic underclass of South Central Los Angeles that fueled the uprising.
Now, for better or for worse, Rage Against the Machine's legacy is intertwined with that of the riots.
It's a connection that's evident across a sprawling, four-disc special edition of that debut album released Tuesday. The collection is full of live footage and rarities as well as the demos that became the band's debut.
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But to back up a bit, before Rage Against the Machine exploded across alternative music, there was a telling moment that underscored the band's connection with the riots.
It was in early May 1992, when Pearl Jam played a sold-out show at the Hollywood Palladium that helped feed the Seattle band's meteoric rise to arena rock prominance. Although the cathartic night of music was memorable, the show remains colored by the fragile state of the city at the time, just weeks after the riots. Though the venue didn't go up in flames, there was a question as to whether there'd still be a show that night, considering that a number of other businesses on Sunset Boulevard were closed, their windows boarded up.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, the crowd around the stage was restless and already aggressively knotting against one another to the music over the PA when Rage Against the Machine took the stage before the headliner. Though some in attendance may have been familiar with the L.A. band, most of Pearl Jam's KROQ- and MTV-informed audience likely never saw Rage Against the Machine coming.
The band tore into a ferocious set, guitarist Tom Morello unleashing an unholy racket that recalled both Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" and the Bomb Squad's apocalyptic soundscapes for Public Enemy. Frontman Zack de la Rocha — wild-eyed, wriggling and intense — roared as he exhorted the crowd to wake up, question authority and know your enemy. The mosh pit, that era's volatile measuring stick of audience response, consumed most of the Palladium's floor in delirious chaos.
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In that moment, Rage Against the Machine sounded less like a rising local band than a raw manifestation of the city, a cathartic blend of sound and fury that needed to be heard.
Among the reissued album's extras is a grainy, VHS-quality document of the band's first performance at Cal State Northridge in 1991, and although the crowd is an amusing time capsule of the era's antifashion, the video feels strangely prescient as De La Rocha introduces an early version of "Township Rebellion" with references to social inequality in South Central L.A.
The boxed set's demos reveal many of the songs from that first album as close to fully formed, and although some of the bonus tracks are interesting, others, such as the gruff reggae of "Mindset's a Threat," make for odd curios. With its mashup of sound and styles, the group has been blamed for hatching the odious rap-rock subgenre and its Woodstock '99-born legacy of destruction for destruction's sake, but Rage shouldn't be any more discounted for that legacy than Led Zeppelin can for the hair metal era.
Still, for all the magic the group harnessed, its timing wasn't always so perfect. After two additional albums of righteous, polemical funk-rock and a covers collection (were you expecting a love song?), the group disbanded in 2000, arguably right as its opposition politics could've risen to even greater heights in the post-9/11 era.
On the surface, the group's '90s heyday was marked by comparative prosperity, but as the war on terror and issues of human rights and privacy grew in prominence after that, Rage Against the Machine had dissolved into the ploddingly apolitical Audioslave (which featured three-quarters of the band, fronted by Chris Cornell in place of De La Rocha) and Morello's folk-tilted Nightwatchman project. Looking back, the band's Michael Moore-directed video for "Sleep Now in the Fire" from 2000 again seems prophetic, featuring the group performing amid a tight police presence in New York's financial district and protesting income inequality years before Occupy Wall Street.
The group reunited for an electric and heavily secured set at the 2007 Coachella festival; that performance underscored that no group of the last 20 years had tapped the sound of unrest and rebellion quite like Rage Against the Machine. However, although the band has since played a variety of festival dates along with its own L.A. Rising festival last year, there remain no plans for new music.
Still, what began 20 years ago with a lightning rod connection between a band and history has become something indelible. Could Rage Against the Machine ever bring about the changes it so furiously demanded? Maybe not, but even now, listening to the band's impassioned music, it sounds possible.
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