Zack de la Rocha and the rest of Rage Against the Machine moved
across a stage outside Staples Center on Monday with the confidence and
authority of a band that was born for the drama of this moment on the
streets of Los Angeles.
On the evening when President Clinton addressed the Democratic
National Convention inside the downtown arena, the group unleashed the
mix of radical politics and blistering sonic assault that has made it one
of the most commanding bands of its generation.
"Brothers and sisters, our democracy has been hijacked," De la Rocha
shouted at the start of the group's 40-minute attack on cultural and
The Los Angeles quartet is known for some of the most intense rock
performances ever--and its free concert Monday lived up to that standard.
The fans near the front of the stage moved with such crushing force that
they almost broke through barricades, but there was no hint of violence
during the show.
Some will argue that the post-show disturbances--which started about
an hour after the band left the stage--would not have occurred had the
concert not attracted a crowd larger than expected for protests on the
first day of the convention. But the disturbances seemed no more
connected to the band's music than the violence after the Lakers'
championship victory recently at Staples Center was caused by basketball.
Some of De la Rocha's lyrics may speak of police brutality, but he did
nothing to incite the crowd.
Instead, he and the band delivered rock 'n' roll at its challenging
and self-affirming best.
De la Rocha, who combines the steely resolve and charismatic presence
of the late Bob Marley, frequently pointed to Staples Center,
underscoring the challenge in such songs as "Testify" and "Guerrilla
Radio," which speak about media indifference and using rock as a vehicle
Though many outside the rock world had never heard of Rage before it
stepped into the national spotlight Monday, it is one of the most
acclaimed and influential bands ever to emerge from Southern California.
It's an uncompromisingly political band at a time when the idea of social
consciousness in rock is largely viewed as a relic of the '60s. But
Rage's radical message might have been cheered by the same fans who
embraced Bob Dylan in the '60s, and its distortion-heavy sound would have
fit in nicely with Jimi Hendrix or the Who at Woodstock.
What's remarkable about the group--which also includes guitarist Tom
Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk--is that it has
sold more than 10 million albums worldwide during a decade when pop music
has become increasingly dominated by cartoonish rock anger and teen-pop
Under different circumstances, Morello might even have been a delegate
to the convention on Monday rather than a voice of protest outside.
A Harvard graduate, Morello worked for two years in the late '80s in
Los Angeles as a scheduling secretary for then-U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston
(D-Calif.). But Morello was so disillusioned by the amount of time
lawmakers needed to devote to fund-raising that he left politics and
turned to his other passion--rock 'n' roll.
The idea that fueled Rage was to mix socialist politics with music
that combined the most aggressive elements of hip-hop and punk. The
result was a style so revolutionary--and so far from the commercial
sounds of the early '90s--that few in the music industry thought it had a
chance at success.
The band has no problem being in business with a multinational
conglomerate (it records for Sony's Epic Records), maintaining that the
mass distribution and promotion muscle of the label is a necessary means
of reaching a wide audience.
Backstage after the concert, before the disturbances erupted, Morello
seemed a man vindicated. He may not have been a delegate, but he was
representing the disenfranchised--a role that had originally drawn him to
Not everyone is going to agree with Rage's message, but its art and
conviction are a liberating example of the power of rock 'n' roll to
energize and challenge--a power that has been dormant for too long.