Joe Knows: The Birth Of Rage Against The Machine
It was the Summer of 1991.
At the time, I was working a part-time job as a Toys “R” Us stock boy, sort of attending community college at Orange Coast College, and “singing” for a local post-hardcore band called Triggerman. I didn’t take any of it too seriously, but Triggerman seemed to take priority at that moment. We hadn’t played live in a while, and it fell on my shoulders to change that. Like all underground bands of the time, one had to hustle to make anything happen. Playing live meant finding a venue that would take you, booking the lineup yourself, and then promoting the whole thing, which in pre-Internet land meant dropping off flyers all around town.
I had found the venue and was now trying to round out the lineup. As the case may be with any show, finding openers was always the easiest part but finding a headliner who could draw at least 300 people was not. The band I had in my mind to headline this time around was a Bad Brains meets Minor Threat powerhouse who went by the name Inside Out. They had been around for a few years now, releasing a 7″ record on the perineal hardcore label, Revelation Records. Every song on that thing was a classic, and some of the newer songs now being sprinkled into their live set looked as if their anticipated full-length would be another. The band had gone through many lineup changes, and I wasn’t even quite sure if they currently had a complete band. However, the only thing that really mattered was their singer.
On stage, he was a crazed animal that was freshly sprung from a cage. He was passionate and poetic. Politically speaking, he was pushing boundaries in the same manner Chuck D was doing with Public Enemy. His speeches during Inside Out sets were becoming as important to the audience as the songs themselves. At a recent show, a homeless man had wandered into the venue while the band was playing. The crowd begins clowning the man, trying to get him to mosh with them. It was full-blown mockery. Inside Out stopped their set and the singer laid into the crowd, admonishing and educating them on the fly on why there even was homelessness in the United States of America. It was Chomsky-esque. The band then busted into their standard closer, No Spiritual Surrender, with the vocalist screaming the words as tears streamed down his face in unbridled rage. It was a translucent experience for those there. It was also why Inside Out could pull the 300 people needed.
I called up the band’s singer. We had been friends for about five or six years, meeting when he played guitar for his high school era band, Hard Stance.
“Hey man it’s Joe. Trying to book a show at Toe Jam, and was hoping Inside Out would headline”
“Awww man. I would, but I’m not really doing Inside Out anymore. I started a new band, which I’m singing for.
“What’s it called,” I asked.
“Rage Against the Machine.”
A few months later the singer, Zach De La Rocha’s new band Rage Against the Machine, made their world debut at some random house party in Huntington Beach, CA. I went with skepticism in my eyes. I left with not a shred of doubt they would become gigantic. The band’s set that night featured some of the newer Inside Out songs like “Darkness of Greed.” Only the song was now reworked into a hypnotic soul jam, which then busted into the most vicious KRS-One vocal attack yet, laid over a crunchy Jimmy Page inspired riff. It was mind-blowing to watch. They played a version of The Clash’s classic “Clampdown,” which sounded as if N.W.A. and the Cro-Mags wrote it. Every song that night sounded better than the next, and the first one dropped jaws. They were songs called “Township Rebellion” and “Bullet in the Head.” Another was “Killing in the Name,” a frantic tune that ended with Zack screaming over and over, “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me,” until I thought he would pass out from exhaustion.
The rhythm section was tight, yet chaotic. Layered over them was this mad scientist posing as a guitar player, Tom Morello. At one point, he unplugged the guitar from its chord and then used a pedal and the tip of the chord itself to make a hip-hop groove, which Zack rapped over. In another song, he used his treble switch and the strings to mimic the scratching of a vinyl record. Nobody there had ever witnessed anything like this guy. If he had revealed later that he was a space alien and then disappeared into the ether, the majority of us would have said, “Oh, okay. Well, that makes sense.”
Then, there was De La Rocha now in full bloom and coming at you as if it was his very last night on the planet. All the things, which made him great fronting Inside Out, seemed to have now been refocused into razor-sharp precision. Where Inside Out lyrics had ambiguity to them, it was quite clear to everyone that Zack’s new band was on a no bullshit mission. It was part Malcolm X, and it was part MC Ren. It was stone age brutal, yet crystalline pure. It was authentic, original and life-changing. When they finally ended, all standing in some suburban living room drenched in sweat and drained to their core, I turned to my friend and said, “Well… I guess Inside Out is never playing again.”
Within six months from that night, Rage Against the Machine signed with Epic Records to record their debut album. That album was released on November 2, 1992, and would go on to sell over three million copies.
Photos by Aaron Silberman