Its my understanding that the band was surprised when Zack [de la Rocha, vocalist] announced his departure, but that you werent 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, thats 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, thats 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 Americas slide into a right-wing purgatory under Bush. But what was it that finally brought you back together after so many years?
Thats 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 thats 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 Rages 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 albums 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 todays environment?
No. First of all, to this day, I cant explain it. How in the world As someone who votes for the Grammys, I cant even imagine how that would get plucked out of the albums worth of songs by Grammy voters. Its crazy. And today, its 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 lets 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.
Thats 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 Zacks lyrics are irreplaceable in that regard and I think he is one of the best lyricists in hip hop and rock for that reason. Hes 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. Thats 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 its something that stood the test of time.
Theres 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 Dylans work is political, and those artists have sold more records than Rage Against the Machine, but theyre 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 didnt 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, its good because of the bands chemistry and everyone pitches in and creates something thats greater than the sum of its parts. When a solo artist is good, its good because of its purity and because its 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 its all me. When that is heard and when that is understood it feels like a kind of connection. Its very different from anything else Ive 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 [Reillys 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 Im 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, Im sure down the line therell be something. I love the Street Sweeper stuff and its 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 Im sure at some point therell be a new Street Sweeper
Your father was Kenyas first ambassador to the UN; your great uncle was the countrys 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 Ive felt from a very early age with regards to the issue of race.
Now that Obamas 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 Ive made it okay for Kenyans to be on top of the hip-hop/metal/punk rock charts is Obama going to start a band?