Rage Against the Machine - The Battle of Los Angeles Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the third album from the radical rap-rock band, their sharpest revolutionary screed dropped into the dead zone of 1999.

Golden hour took over Los Angeles as Rage Against the Machine marched onto a small stage in a sanctioned protest zone across from the Staples Center, where President Clinton was about to deliver the keynote address at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. Thousands of young Angelenos packed into the area to scream along to the quartet’s final live performance before a seven-year hiatus. From the stage, guitarist Tom Morello could see a big screen outside the coliseum showing Hillary and Bill giving their speeches while their guests sipped champagne and dunked shrimp into ramekins of cocktail sauce. In his strident call to action, Zack de la Rocha introduced the concert from the stage: “Brothers and sisters, our democracy has been hijacked!”
Not only did the ad-hoc concert fit neatly into Rage’s political animus, but it was also a microcosm for American activism writ large in the 1990s: a multiracial group of pro-revolutionary leftists vs. the white figurehead of elite neoliberalism. The two sides flexed and preened for their respective crowds, separated by a tall barbed-wire fence and a phalanx of riot police armed with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. For concerned parents asking their teenagers exactly whom this band was raging against—Know what enemy? Fuck who I won’t do what who tells me?—on this afternoon in August, the answer was right there, standing at a podium, speaking to his delegates, with silver hair and an Arkansas drawl.

Backstage, Morello gave an interview about why this ostensibly liberal band had shown up to protest the coronation of the ostensibly liberal Democratic nominee, Al Gore. “He’s practically indistinguishable from a President George Bush,” Morello said with unequivocal bravado. “They’re both pro-death penalty, both pro-NAFTA, both pro-big business...I don’t feel represented by either one.” When the band kicked into “Guerilla Radio,” the lead single from their third album, 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles, de la Rocha said as much—including a line about the Republican nominee, branding Bush as the offspring of the corrupt former head of the CIA: “More for Gore or the son of a drug lord/None of the above, fuck it, cut the cord!” A film crew’s birds-eye camera view revealed five mosh pits going off simultaneously.

On The Battle of Los Angeles, Rage made clear the aim and origin of their anger, especially for those who didn’t surf to ratm.com in the ’90s to learn the word “praxis” from an animated gif. Here they cast their gaze back through history to reel in half a millennia of theft, enslavement, and slaughter at the hands of the colonial state in the Americas. The gravity of hip-hop and the thick brow of metal met the sincere gaze of radical politics, creating an album that upended the prevailing critical idea of what good rock music should be doing. It was obvious, didactic, heavy-handed, bluntly delivered to the thick of the nation, because you don’t overthrow a racist police state with weepy songs about feeling alienated by technology. What better place than here, what better time than now to empty the missile silos at the so-called New Democrats and crypto-fascist Republicans, to give the opposition contour and dimension, to even embody it themselves, to show the world what an autonomous, dignified life could possibly look like.

“There was this interesting thing that was happening during the Clinton administration,” de la Rocha would later tell the Los Angeles Times. “People were looking inward and not outward, and not addressing what was going on.” The malaise of the ’90s—a tone set by the self-defeatist laconism of Gen X—settled in during eight years of relative peace and economic prosperity under Clinton. While the bull market lined the pockets of the growing professional class, Clinton’s legislative victories broke from traditional liberal values and ballooned inequality in America. His disastrous welfare reform gutted the core tenet of the New Deal; his administration deregulated banking, allowing the most powerful financial institutions to amass unseen amounts of capital until they were “too big to fail” in the crash of 2008; they passed the abhorrent 1994 crime bill, the most sweeping in American history, a steroid injection to the carceral state that put thousands of disproportionately Black men into newly constructed prisons and increased the number of federal death penalty cases from three to 60.

Most egregiously, and perhaps most important to Rage lore, was the North American Free Trade Agreement. The treaty sought to accelerate the economy by opening borders between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. In doing so, it moved profit away from workers and their communities toward business owners and shareholders, all while crippling unions and the American labor force, who could now be replaced by unconscionably cheap labor. For Mexico, free trade was seen as—and has proven to be—economically devastating: Some two million Mexican farmers have lost their land in the age of NAFTA. Indigenous workers, like those in the southernmost state of Chiapas who faced the importation of corporate American agribusiness, predicted correctly that “free trade” would decimate their heritage and livelihood.

And so on January 1st, 1994—the day NAFTA went into effect—hundreds of men, women, and children emerged from the Lacandon jungle and the canyons of Chiapas as a guerilla army and demanded autonomy from the Mexican government. Marking 500 years of genocide against indigenous peoples by colonial rule, the workers wanted control of their Mayan land and their food; they wanted democracy, peace, and justice on their own terms. They called themselves the Zapatistas (the armed faction is known as the Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN) and carried a flag bearing a single red star centered against a black background—the same insignia that peppers Rage iconography and stage shows. The Zapatistas’ bandoliers and rifles (some real, many fake) were a theatrical show of military might, but their real power lay in their philosophy, called Zapatismo, and the writings and speeches of the group’s de facto leader, Subcomandante Marcos.

Quixotic, pseudonymous, and filmed wearing a balaclava smoking a pipe, Marcos spoke in winding allegory and professorial verse about the revolution of the Zapatistas. The Zapatista revolution was not for them, but for the greater world. “Para todos todo, para nosotros nada,” goes the most famous Zapatismo maxim, “For everyone everything, for us nothing.” As Alex Khasnabish, a professor and researcher of radical collectives, explained in one of Rage’s unauthorized biographies, Know Your Enemy, the cornerstone of Zapatismo is this: “Rather than insisting that you support [the Zapatistas], they want you to struggle in your own way, in your own place, with your own commitment to dignity in a revolution that makes sense to you and the people around you.” The grandiloquent ideas of the Zapatistas and Subcomandante Marcos took on the hue of surrealism and romance, a way of sounding a revolution through the tones and rhythms of language.

At heart, the music of Rage Against the Machine is a direct extension of Zapatismo: paradoxical, militaristic, generous, a conduit for power, not a concentration of it. De la Rocha visited Chiapas four times between 1995 and 1996, working closely with the Zapatistas and strengthening his connection to his Mexican heritage (his Sinaloan grandfather fought in the Mexican Revolution). These trips helped shape the idea of revolutionary bridge-building, of connecting the struggle of one to the many. “I think every revolutionary act is an act of love,” de la Rocha told Rolling Stone in 1999. “Every song that I’ve written, it is because of my desire to use music as a way to empower and re-humanize people who are living in a dehumanizing setting.”

On its surface, it was easy to classify Rage as music for teenagers staging a leafy suburban rebellion against their parents or doing curls in the squat rack. But by The Battle of Los Angeles, Rage had ascended to something far more personal, spiritual, and bohemian. If 1996’s Evil Empire came with a leftist library starter pack, Battle came with a politics of emotion, music that was nimble and serious. In her book Hope in the Dark, the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit describes the words of Subcomandante Marcos as “the language of the vast, nameless, current movement that globalization has drawn together, a movement...driven by imaginations as supple as art rather than as stiff as dogma.” It is from this delicate branch of politics that Zack de la Rocha’s words were formed.

In 1999, however, the context in which most people engaged with The Battle of Los Angeles was not through the insurrectionary poetry of Subcomandante Marcos or a readily accessible anti-globalization platform. The album was released in the last gasp of the monoculture, dropped into the scum pond of rock’s commercial nadir. Korn led the nu-metal charge on radio, while Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock were rap-rocking without cause on TRL. There were only a few American anti-war protests against Clinton bombing a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan or the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (in the press throughout the late-’90s, Morello would often parry a journalist’s question about, say, the violence at Woodstock ’99 with an indictment of Clinton’s warmongering, like his “Tomahawk missile [that] destroyed the children’s hospital outside Belgrade.”) There were no wars predicated on a lie about weapons of mass destruction, no social media to disseminate revolutionary tweets to the masses, just pockets of left-wing activism fighting against the WTO in Seattle and the IMF in D.C. as Creed’s Human Clay sat atop the charts.

The benefit of Rage reentering the mainstream during this odd musical and socio-political dead zone was that they sounded both nostalgic and of-the-moment. They had cleared the way for nu-metal and rap-rock with their first two albums, 1992’s groundbreaking self-titled debut and 1996’s angsty and downtrodden Evil Empire, both of which eventually went triple platinum. When they swung back in with The Battle of Los Angeles, it was like a reminder of the prophecy they foretold at the beginning of the decade. Once iconoclastic rap-rock alchemists, Rage now sounded pretty much like what was on the radio. Moreover, they sounded like the same band they always were but more lethal, more agile, able to fully disarm with a verse and a hook. “What I did a lot on [Evil Empire] was, ‘This is what I think. This is my comment,’” de la Rocha told Rolling Stone. “I’ve had to change. I want people to see reflections of themselves in the songs.” His personal accountability fit squarely with the Zapatismo ethos of wanting people to create a revolution in their own way, now bolstered with songs that moved quicker, had bigger hooks, and carried more weight than anything Rage had ever written.

It took nearly a year for de la Rocha to complete all the vocals on Battle, during which he gravitated to another plane of rapping. He is exacting and dynamic, the generalissimo’s preacher. On “Calm Like a Bomb,” he loops himself around the band in long ribbons of verse: “I be walkin’ God like a dog/My narrative fearless/My word war returns to burn like Baldwin home from Paris.” Then on the pre-chorus, as the band lurches into their signature mosh-rock cadence, de la Rocha hugs the turn on two wheels to deliver this slinky triplet: “What ya say, what ya say, what ya say, what!” When the chorus hits, it does exactly what he says: “Ignite!” The chameleonic ease with which de la Rocha slides between rap, funk, and rock on “Calm Like a Bomb” is indicative of the band’s full symbiosis of all those genres on Battle; a chemical compound perfected, a longshot theory finally proved.

With Brad Wilk on the drums and Tim Commerford on the bass, Rage cut deep into the groove. The verse of “Sleep Now in the Fire” is the rhythm section at its best: the feel has that crab-creep shuffle with Wilk and Commerford laying down an “Amen break” while Morello makes his guitar sound like a British dial tone. The formula of Rage’s rhythm section can be largely predictable—hushed intro, blues riffs, experimental sound-bed under the verse, more blues riffs, wacky guitar solo, breakdown with blues riffs—but there’s just enough variety and mobility to let de la Rocha be the star. He’ll blow a word out of his mouth in a huff with big pockets of air in his cheeks, or he’ll wrap his throat around a word like a snake, sucking the air out of it. The space he leaves between the names of Columbus’ ships, the trilled “r” on “Maria,” the oddly swung rhythm of a line dripping with sarcasm—“So raise your fist and march around just don’t take what you need”—sometimes there are more ideas in the rhythm of his raps than the raps themselves.

When the band was tour with Gang Starr, DJ Premier told Spin that he’d try to get a remix of a new Rage song onto rap radio, but that it might not be as easy as it was with Fred Durst. “Zack is trying to penetrate the whole soul… he’s speaking the real, and that takes longer to sink in.” One of the band’s longest-running causes célèbres was the fight for the freedom of Black Panther and radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal—who, it is widely believed, was unfairly convicted of killing a New York police officer in 1981. “Long as the rope is tight around Mumia’s neck/Let there be no rich white life we bound to respect,” de la Rocha stage-whispers on “Voice of the Voiceless,” a short ode to Mumia’s struggle. While the phrase “Free Mumia” became something of an activist meme in the ’90s, Rage never took his sham trial or his then-impending death sentence for granted (Mumia’s execution case was dropped in 2011 and he is now serving life without parole). In January 1999, Rage threw an infamous benefit concert in New Jersey that raised $80,000 for Mumia and sparked a media war between a right-wing cop union and the band. And in April of the same year, de la Rocha flew to Geneva, Switzerland to speak on Mumia’s behalf at the International Commission of Human Rights.

Each song on Battle comes from an outgrowth of personal political conviction. Rage weren’t fretting from afar and hoping for change like Live Aid; de la Rocha was writing about the abject horror of immigrant sweatshop labor on “Maria” after Morello was arrested demonstrating against sweatshops in Santa Monica in 1997. De la Rocha wrote of the wealth inequality he saw in his hometown of L.A. (“Born as Ghosts”) and a final salvo about the Zapatistas’ struggle on “War Within a Breath,” the last in a series of songs about the Zapatistas stretching back to Evil Empire. Hidden in that track is a brief line that could be the album’s subheadline: “It’s a war from the depth of time.”

Perhaps most striking is “Born of a Broken Man,” a slow dirge cut from the cloth of Black Sabbath about de la Rocha’s father, the artist and muralist Beto de la Rocha. Beto was a member of the landmark Chicano painting collective Los Four; in 1974, he was one of the first Chicano artists to be exhibited at the L.A. County Museum of Art. After suffering a nervous breakdown in 1981, Beto fell into a destructive spiral of religious fanaticism. He would fast for weekends, sometimes making a young Zack fast beside him. One night, in a fit of anger and guilt, Beto destroyed over half of his paintings in front of his son. “Born of a broken man, but not a broken man,” Zack screams of complicated pride on the hook.

The anomaly of “Born of a Broken Man,” the only Rage song that ever pulled directly from de la Rocha’s personal life, lends emotional credence to the political screeds around it—“harangue’n’roll” as Rolling Stone once derisively tagged the band. Few bands have been given more purity tests than Rage Against the Machine over the years, but the question inevitably arises with any group that stakes their identity on revolutionary thought and leftist causes: Do you buy it? You know these avowed socialists are signed to Epic, a multinational major label, right? They made millions of dollars from record sales, and Battle debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, just as Evil Empire did in 1996. Are they redistributing their wealth? When de la Rocha left the band in October of 2000, he hinted at his own discomfort, saying that the group’s decision-making process had “undermined our artistic and political ideal.” How do you square the band’s leftist ideology with the defanged arena rock of Audioslave in the ensuing years?

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for buying into Rage Against the Machine is simply their name. All these years later, it has curdled into something sophomoric, trite, somehow too specific and too vague at the same time. If it is an albatross around the band’s neck, it’s created a tautology that has forced them to stay true to themselves: The immutable law of a Rage Against the Machine album is that it must, by nature, rage against the machine. And so inherent in their silly band name lies the uncynical, righteous, and repetitious work of activism and fighting for justice, the search for the will to continue even when it seems like the battle is lost.

“I’m not buying this bullshit line that says the situation in Chiapas or with Mumia or with the garment workers somehow has nothing to do with middle-class white kids at our shows,” de la Rocha told Spin in 2000. “All this alienation has roots; it’s not just TV or boredom or bad parents.” This was the great ambition of The Battle of Los Angeles, and perhaps Rage itself: to draw a line between their millions of Gen X and Millennial fans and the causes they fought for, from conquistadors to Clinton, from the Intifada to the Zapatistas, from Francis Fukuyama’s claim that the end of the Cold War was the “end of history” to the spark of the anti-globalization movement around the world. Battle revealed the extent—chronologically and geographically—to which none of us live with dignity. They showed us this is a war we can’t win but it’s a war we don’t deserve to lose.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Rage Against the Machine - The Battle of Los Angeles Music Album Reviews Rage Against the Machine - The Battle of Los Angeles Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Sunday, August 09, 2020 Rating:

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