One of the biggest bands of the 1990s, Rage Against the Machine earned multiple awards and sold millions of albums in their relatively short time as a group. Formed in 1991 and disbanding in 2000, Rage spent an entire decade shining a light on political injustices, while at the same time popularizing a new genre of music combining rap and rock.
Only eight years prior to the release of The Battle of Los Angeles their third and final album of original songs, Rage Against the Machine had just made their first public performance when they played in the quad at Cal State University in October of 1991. Within a year, they exploded in popularity when they released their debut self-titled album. The album reached triple platinum status due in part to the success of “Killing in the Name,” their explosively explicit first single. But despite early success, rumours of the band’s demise were already circulating.
Rage’s second album Evil Empire debuted at number one in 1996, and the band officially entered the mainstream. After getting banned from SNL for hanging inverted American flags from their amplifiers in protest against republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes, the show’s guest host that night, they embarked on tour opening for U2 during the PopMart tour.
After performing at the infamous Woodstock ’99 concert, Rage Against the Machine released The Battle of Los Angeles, which again debuted at number one and sold 450,000 copies in its first week. Recognized by both Time and Rolling Stone magazines as the best album of 1999, The Battle of Los Angeles is viewed by many as the band’s masterwork.
They teamed with Michael Moore to film a music video for their second single “Sleep Now in the Fire,” in which the band protests wealth inequality by storming Wall Street to perform in front of the New York Stock Exchange. The shoot caused the NYSE doors to be closed as several hundred people descended upon the area. Moore had permission to shoot on the steps of the Federal Hall National Memorial, but not on the surrounding sidewalk or street. He also had neither a loud noise permit nor a parking permit.
Moore’s directorial instructions were “no matter what happens, don’t stop playing.” NYPD officers soon descended upon the band. As Michael Moore was being apprehended, around two hundred people rushed the Stock Exchange, including guitarist Tom Morello, making it through the main entrance before the building’s titanium riot doors came down and sealed the building.
The video was nominated for Best Rock Video at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, but lost to Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff.” Rage bassist Tim Commerford was so appalled that he stormed the stage and climbed to the top of a large piece of the award show set. He tried and failed to topple the set, and was eventually brought down by security before being sent to jail for the night. Frontman Zack de la Rocha reportedly left the awards show immediately after the stunt.
By this point, the cracks in the band were becoming undeniable. Despite being incredibly influential musically, not many of their fellow rock bands were daring to challenge political ideology the way Rage had done for almost a decade. De la Rocha quit the band the following year.
“I feel that it is now necessary to leave Rage because our decision-making process has completely failed,” he stated. “It is no longer meeting the aspirations of all four of us collectively as a band, and from my perspective, has undermined our artistic and political ideal.”
“There was so much squabbling over everything”, Tom Morello explained. “We would even have fist fights over whether our T-shirts should be mauve or camouflaged! It was ridiculous. We were patently political, internally combustible. It was ugly for a long time.”
While they released an album of covers shortly after breaking up, The Battle of Los Angeles stands as the band’s true final musical statement. They reunited in 2007 to perform at Coachella, and continued to perform together on and off until 2009.
They also just announced that they will be reuniting in 2020 for a string of shows in South America and again at Coachella.