Artists to Love: Rage Against the Machine

A band willing to point fingers at any cracks in the narrative…

I couldn’t imagine living in 1992.

It was the year Bill Clinton took office, Hurricane Andrew devastated Miami, and Aladdin was released. It was also a time when Nirvana, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Vanilla Ice, and Rage Against the Machine existed in the same musical sphere.

Kinda weird, right? Franz Ferdinand also got assassinated that year — Feel old yet? #90skids.

Okay, so forget about that last one, but all those artists really are from the same era.

Some of the bands coming out of the ’90s had the oddest names. I’d say it’s comparable to the names rappers are making for themselves right now, but things have changed.

We live in a different era. Bill Clinton isn’t in office anymore. Donald Trump is. Just like I can’t wrap my head around living in ’92, I also can’t even begin to imagine the kind of music Rage Against the Machine would be making now with Donald Trump in charge.

Perhaps it’d be no different than the firebrand material they made in their heyday. The U.S. political climate since the 2016 election has notably been one of the most divisive in its history.

The ’90s may be considered the peak of political congruence, but I would argue that Rage Against the Machine’s existence contradicts that. They were a band that was willing to point fingers at any cracks in the narrative.

They showed you the world through their eyes. They preached a message of a government you shouldn’t trust (“Wake Up”), of a world that was cruel to those of a darker skin tone (“Killing in the Name”), and a consumerist society that hungers for what’s left of your hard-earned money (“Bullet in the Head”).

Though, in order to understand Rage’s lyrical content, one must look deeper into the marginalized backgrounds of vocalist Zach de la Rocha and guitarist Tom Morello.

Zach de la Rocha is of Chicano origin; his father being famed painter of the Los Four art collective, Beto de la Rocha. Tom Morello is of Kenyan origin; his father, Ngethe Njoroge, a diplomat, and his uncle, Jomo Kenyatta was the first elected president of Kenya.

Living in America, they two have been witness to the darker side of human nature just from being mixed race.

Certain songs allude to this, like “Bombtrack” on the topic of social inequality and “Killing in the Name” about police brutality and institutionalized racism, the latter of which was released six months after the L.A. Riots and arguably being the group’s biggest song.

While their unapologetic political expression garnered them their notoriety, Rage Against the Machine’s true value to music lies in their innovation.

The guitar effects and techniques that Tom Morello utilized in the band’s music were unheard of at that point. No band before them had ever attempted anything of its kind.

This was thanks partly to the DigiTech Whammy Pedal. The pedal works as a two-octave extension (either higher or lower) of any note on a guitar. Essentially, it bends the pitch or shifts the harmony depending on the input the guitarist chooses.

The first version of the pedal was put into production in 1989 and was discontinued four years later in 1993, but not before Rage Against the Machine released their self-titled debut album. In it, the pedal was used to create some of the most unique guitar sounds of the ’90s.

Morello loved hip-hop and he loved metal. That he knew was certain. Though, it was through experimenting with the pedal and the guitar’s capabilities that he found a way to fuse the two genres into a whole new sound.

In Rage’s music, Morello’s guitar playing emulated the scratching of a needle on a record similar to Grandmaster Flash and DJ Premier. The Whammy pedal itself is only half of the magic. The other lies is in the technique of kill switching, which has origins as far back as Van Halen (“You Really Got Me”).

Kill switching is when the guitarist uses the toggle switch of an electric guitar to shift the tone from one pickup to another. There are three inputs on the toggle switch for the two to three pickups on a standard electric guitar.

There are also two to three knobs that correspond to the pickups on the guitar, with one being dedicated to total volume. By turning one of them down, the guitarist can toggle with the channel for the pickup that is in use and the one that is not. By doing this in a rhythmic pattern in conjunction with the DigiTech Whammy, Morello was able to able to mimic a DJ scratching a record. From the opening riff and solo of “Know Your Enemy”, to the solos of “Fistful of Steel”, “Bullet in the Head”, and “Wake Up”.

There simply is not a band like Rage. Even if one were to break through with a sound inspired by the group, the circumstances that allowed for the band to see success are not in place. A sound so iconic lives and dies with Rage Against the Machine.

Collage made with Images courtesy of Google Images.

Author: Julian

Julian Balboa, 22, is a writer, undergraduate student, and lover of great music from Miami. My enthusiasm also lies with poetry, vinyl, Disney pins, yo-yos, shoes, tea, and hot sauces. Sometimes you can catch me at your local open mic.

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