25 Years Ago: Rage Against the Machine’s Debut Shakes the System
As 1992 drew to a close with the musical landscape having gone under a complete overhaul, there was one more album left in the alternative rock canon that year which would be credited with changing the game. Nov. 3, 1992, the day Bill Clinton became President-elect of the United States, Rage Against the Machine dropped an incendiary self-titled debut.
Before even cracking open the album, the shocking cover photo featuring the 1963 self-immolation of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức indicated this wasn’t going to be an ordinary record. Not since the 1968 album art of Led Zeppelin I, featuring an image of the Hindenburg airship going down in flames, had the inaugural effort of a band been hinted at in such foreboding terms.
Opening almost unassumingly with bassist Tim Commerford’s bass line, “Bombtrack” takes just over 20 seconds from things to morph into a funk-fused, hip-hop explosion. It would be the second track though, which would create a seismic shift for a new generation set to protest social injustice, rebel against authority and piss off their parents.
Much like Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” “Straight to Hell” by the Clash and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” before it, “Killing in the Name” is a rallying cry for the youth to strike out at inequities heaped onto the weak by the powerful. In this case it’s those who “work forces” or who wear a badge – be it military or police – and are, like the Ku Klux Klan, “the same who burn crosses.” Concluding with Zack de la Rocha’s slow-build into a frenzied, mantra-like intensity with a dozen-plus repetitions of the line “F--- you, I won’t do what you tell me,” it remains the most popular Rage song to date.
“I was actually shocked,” said album producer Garth Richardson of when he first heard the track. “I thought it was an anthem. From way back then until now, every kid still feels the actual same way.”
“Freedom,” “Wake Up” and “Know Your Enemy,” the latter featuring a vocal contribution from Tool singer Maynard James Keenan, continue the assault of free thought, reconstituted political ideas and tightly wound heaviness that dominates the record.
Yet Rage Against the Machine is by no means an incessant beating over the head of pounding sonics and a wound-up de la Rocha wailing. There’s a good degree of light/heavy balance in many of the songs. “Settle for Nothing” has Tom Morello playing a surprisingly delicate guitar solo, a contrast to the storm of sound and lyrics which bookend it. Then there’s “Township Rebellion,” one of the more underrated pieces on the album. It lumbers along at a steady pace, before shifting into an almost tribal beat before returning with barely controllable bombast and a devastating Morello riff.
Though many will point to the guitarist basically reinventing the sound of the instrument as a highlight of Rage, it’s also the impassioned de la Rocha putting himself out there completely, be it vocally or via his ideals - something the group as a whole subscribed to - making it a perfect musical and activist encouraging storm.
"The people in this band are really intelligent and issue-oriented, and it's a band with a purpose," the Ivy League-educated Morello said in a 1993 interview. "The emphasis on confrontation and protest I studied at Harvard can be put to practical use by motivating the people who come to our shows.”
And while Faith No More and the touchstone union of Anthrax and Public Enemy may have originated or flirted with the genre, Rage Against the Machine were the first to fully commit to rap-metal, and they did it flawlessly.