Rage Against the Machine turned heads and shocked many with their leftist politics against corporate America, cultural imperialism, and government oppression, all blanketed in polemical music and delivered with a bombastic ferocity. Releasing just three original albums, a covers album, and a live album that captured the group’s final tour, Rage set the world on fire with hard biting, and often uncomfortable, storytelling.
Now, as their self-titled debut turns 20, the group, along with producer Rick Rubin, has compiled a box set honoring the landmark release. Consequence of Sound caught up with Rage’s guitarist Tom Morello to discuss the box set and all the candy within. We also covered a little of the group’s history, the likelihood of any new Rage material in the future, as well as Morello’s thoughts on running for office.
I appreciate anniversary sets but sometimes they just remind me how old I am. Does it feel like it’s been 20 years since the album came out?
[Laughs.] Well, in some ways it feels like it’s been 200 years since the album came out and in other ways, it’s gone by in a flash. I’m still processing it myself.
No doubt. How involved were you and the band in the box set?
Well, Rick Rubin is the executive producer of it and it was ultimately his responsibility to cobble together the bits, but we gave him a pretty clear outline. We wanted it to be very inclusive. We wanted every video. We wanted the most recently filmed, action-packed, Finsbury Park Victory Show to the very first ever public performance at Cal State Northridge of a lunchtime concert. We wanted the original demos to be a part of it. Then he waded through a mountain of videos and stuff like that and put together something that I think is really pretty great.
So did you guys actually record those early performances or did you have to go out and find people who did that on their own?
Well, it depends on which one you’re talking about. Some of it was found. There was actually a friend of the band in 1991, 1992, a 17-year-old kid who was an aspiring piercing artist, who happened to have a camera, a video camera, and was around for a lot of those early performances, you know, when we were playing in front of 15 people. I think we got the very first ever live performance of the song “Wake Up” on there. That Cal State Northridge is literally the first public performance that the band played. And some of those early ones are pretty priceless.
The set includes a copy of the band’s original demo tape. Most of these songs have been re-recorded and released but there are a few songs on the tape that have never been released before.
Yeah, I think there’s three songs from the original demos; a song called “The Narrows”, a song called…I don’t have the list in front of me, but I think there’s three. I think “Darkness of Greed” is a song that we might have re-recorded for a soundtrack at some point, but there’s two or three that have just never been released. And then, for me, one of the gems of the box set is that there is a video, a live video of a song that no one remembers the name to. [Laughs.] It might have been performed only once at this particular show and it showed up in the stuff. It’s a jam too! It’s a real jam. It’s known as “Untitled” in the liner notes but for me that was really one of the highlights. I was “Wow! What is that?!”
One of the highlights I saw was Chuck D penning some of the liner notes. How did he get involved and why did you choose Chuck over someone else who may have been as influential to you?
Chuck’s been a friend of the band for many years. We’ve had a mutual admiration society for some time. He’s a person that when it comes to understanding ‘rebel music’, Chuck D is second-to-none and we wanted his eloquent voice to be the one that did the liner notes.
It’s one thing to play the older songs especially in your more recent performances, but what was it like actually revisiting the original tracks and tapes, especially when remastering the demo tape?
I’ll tell ya, it’s a band that came out of the box pretty hot. We wrote and recorded that demo tape before we started playing shows. While we didn’t have any expectation of ever getting a record deal or even be able to book a club show, we were pretty honed in our rehearsal studio. Listening to those demos, we were pretty damned good. [Laughs.] We rehearsed in a friend’s recording studio and so it was convenient to record the songs there, but I have a very vivid memory of the first couple shows that we played and how people immediately responded in a way that was certainly not the case with any other band that I’ve been in.
Well, now you guys are touring and playing together again, on and off, and you’ve got the box set coming out, are there any plans for new Rage material?
There’s no real plan at all beyond this box set. The reason why we wanted to mark the 20th anniversary with this was to do something that was very clearly and explicitly for the fans. I think Rage Against the Machine fans are probably the most dedicated, intense, and patient fans in the history of rock music. And this will be the first official Rage Against the Machine release in 12 years, so we really wanted to mark the auspicious occasion…the 20 year anniversary of the first record coming out was something that was a real career retrospective.
We wanted to give [the fans] a lot in this and not something to just go, “It’s the 20th anniversary, here’s a remaster of the record,” but to really give them a career’s worth of Rage Against the Machine. Great stuff for them to enjoy because, just speaking for myself, the relationship that I have with Rage Against the Machine fans is one of the most important relationships in my life. They’ve been so great to me and to us; it’s long past due that we really put their needs first and that’s one of the things that this box set does. It says, “Thank you very much. Here ya go.”
Another part that I love about this thing is that it’s got all of the videos in it. Some of those didn’t even get aired. Some of those were too controversial to air — like they were never on MTV. [Laughs.]
It’s wild what MTV wouldn’t air back in the day and what slips by today.
Yeah, like the political causes they espoused or because of the imagery in them that Viacom thought was too hot to handle. It’s pretty cool to see those. A couple of my favorites are the video for “Bombtrack”, which they wouldn’t show, and then the one for “How I Could Just Kill a Man”, which is kind of all 20 years of Rage Against the Machine boiled down into a three-minute clip.
It’s my understanding that the band was surprised when Zack [de la Rocha, vocalist] announced his departure, but that you weren’t necessarily angry at him for leaving. With that in mind, did Rage actually break up or did the band just go on an indefinite hiatus?
No, Rage broke up. [Laughs.] Yeah from 2000-2007 we were broken up, that’s for sure. It was very healing to get back together in 2007 to play shows sporadically. Since then, with a new emphasis on brotherhood and solidarity, that’s one of the reasons why we’re able to get something like this together.
You were offered lots of money many times to reform and you finally did it at Coachella 2007. You said it was done primarily to protest America’s slide into a “right-wing purgatory” under Bush. But what was it that finally brought you back together after so many years?
That’s a good question. I think prior to 2007, everybody, myself certainly, was very gun-shy about getting back together. While Rage had achieved some great musical successes, it had been emotionally devastating. [Laughs.] It was like “Do I really want to re-enter this?” But we found, when we did finally get back in a room, that we had all grown and were able to deal with conflict in a more mature way and appreciate how much we meant to each other both personally and musically. It was cool and so that’s why we played some more shows after that.
What lead to Renegades? Did you do a covers album because of a lack of new material due to the dynamic at the time?
No. We were rehearsing for what would be the Live at the Olympic Auditorium record, which would document Rage’s last show before we broke up, and we wanted to have bonus material for the live record. So the bonus material was going to be some cover songs, some craftily re-worked cover songs. And then we had a blast sort of going down cover song lane and came up with an album’s worth of that material which we judged to be pretty damn rocking and put that out.
One of your songs really surprised me. “Tire Me” was never released as a single, never received official radio play, never had a video, and yet it won a Grammy for best Metal Performance. Can you explain that and do you think something like that, with little to no promotion, could ever succeed in today’s environment?
No. First of all, to this day, I can’t explain it. How in the world… As someone who votes for the Grammys, I can’t even imagine how that would get plucked out of the album’s worth of songs by Grammy voters. It’s crazy. And today, it’s hard to say. The Grammys still remain somewhat of a mystery. But it certainly would be difficult, if not impossible, for a band like Rage Against the Machine to achieve success today. We had a sustained campaign on our behalf. The band initially did very well outside the United States. It took maybe about a year and a half here in the US before there was any traction whatsoever. These days record companies are looking to sell a few ringtones and then let’s get on to the next single, with a handful of pop artists. A band like Rage would never be able to get that kind of support today.
That’s really sad, because a band like Rage can actually write protest songs. There are bands today who try to do it and it comes off heavy-handed and you guys can actually write metaphorically.
Yeah, yep. It speaks to the very unique chemistry of the band. I think that Zack’s lyrics are irreplaceable in that regard and I think he is one of the best lyricists in hip hop and rock for that reason. He’s able to take both local and global issues and set them to rhyme in a way that has set speakers on fire around the world for 20 years. That’s a gift right there. One of the things that this 20th anniversary makes me think is how grateful I am to be acquainted with the other guys in Rage Against the Machine. We created something together that we never could have on our own and it’s something that stood the test of time.
There’s never been a band as popular as Rage Against the Machine with politics that radical. You can look at some bands, there are bands that are political. Bruce Springsteen is a political artist, some of Bob Dylan’s work is political, and those artists have sold more records than Rage Against the Machine, but they’re not as radical as Rage Against the Machine. [Laughs.] And then you look at bands like The Clash and maybe Public Enemy, who certainly have expressed strong radical politics in their work, but they didn’t sell as many records.
With that said, in recent years you have said that The Nightwatchmen will be your principle musical focus for pretty much the rest of your life adding, “It really encapsulates everything I want to do as an artist.” How so?
When a band is good, it’s good because of the band’s chemistry and everyone pitches in and creates something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. When a solo artist is good, it’s good because of its purity and because it’s a singular voice of someone. I certainly feel tremendously proud of my contributions to Rage Against the Machine and the great fortune to work with Zack and Tim [Commerford, bass] and Brad [Wilk, drums] to create a unique, molten, awesome, hip-hop, punk rock, metal political iron fist. With The Nightwatchmen stuff it’s all me. When that is heard and when that is understood it feels like a kind of connection. It’s very different from anything else I’ve been involved in.
Aside from similar political points of view, what led to you and Boots Reilly to team up for Street Sweeper Social Club?
Boots and I became friends. We went on tour together in 2003 and while I was a fan of The Coup [Reilly’s hip-hop group], I got to see him play on a daily basis with only my acoustic guitar as accompaniment and I realized what a brilliant, brilliant lyricist Boots Reilly is. And I definitely wanted to work in some capacity with him, in part because I’m a fan and in part to try and bring his lyrics and point of view to a bigger audience.
You did an album and an EP, will there be anything else?
Yeah, I’m sure down the line there’ll be something. I love the Street Sweeper stuff and it’s fun working with Boots and the band. You know with two small children now the hours of the day I have to split between my various musical, political, and comic book projects has lessened dramatically but I’m sure at some point there’ll be a new Street Sweeper
Your father was Kenya’s first ambassador to the UN; your great uncle was the country’s first president. When did you first start to take politics seriously?
Well, when you grow up the only black kid in an all-white town, politics finds you on the playground pretty early [laughs], would be the honest answer. When I was 16, 17 years old, I started becoming more politically aware on a global scale, but the idea of wrongdoing and injustice was something that I’ve felt from a very early age with regards to the issue of race.
Now that Obama’s made it okay for Kenyans to be president in the US, have you ever considered running for public office?
[Laughs.] I think the better question would be now that I’ve made it okay for Kenyans to be on top of the hip-hop/metal/punk rock charts is Obama going to start a band?