[18 November 2009]
“Yeah people come up.”
—Rage Against the Machine, “People of the Sun”
It’s an unlikely invitation from an unlikely source.
In 1992, Rage Against the Machine had stormed onto the music scene with the finesse of a class five hurricane. Their self-titled debut album played like a musical version of blunt head trauma, and displayed so much honest anger in its fusion of rap and metal that it clearly wasn’t the work of an average rock band. Rage Against the Machine was the work of true Masters of the Form. This mastery continued with the 1996 release of their amazing follow-up, Evil Empire.
Throughout their debut, Rage Against the Machine grabbed listeners by the throat, refusing to let go, with music that was vital and stirring, but rarely inviting. Often, the lesson the band was trying to teach was lost in the midst of the bludgeoning volume they used to ensure it would be heard. By 1996, people were already listening, and in its new volume of lessons, the band displayed how much they themselves had learned. The opening notes of Evil Empire’s first track, “People of the Sun”, were easily the most subtle the band had ever recorded. Rage Against the Machine had chased listeners down; Evil Empire invited them in to learn about things like the Mexican Zapatista Movement and “face the funk now blastin’ out ya’ speaker…”. It was an easy invitation to accept.
“Turn on tha radio, nah fuck it turn it off…”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Vietnow”
Once you accepted the album’s initial invitation, it was difficult to turn Evil Empire off. The album is an improvement over the group’s debut in virtually every respect. The songs are more tightly structured, each one rooted just as firmly in hip-hop as heavy metal, each finding an explosive groove and sticking to it like audio napalm. The rhymes are more compact, and Zach de la Rocha never sounds as though he’s trying feverishly to squeeze in more words than the songs have room for. More than anything, though, Evil Empire is the first great “rap-metal” album, even more so than its predecessor, because it is a much better hip-hop album than Rage Against the Machine.
Evil Empire sounds forceful without ever sounding forced. Zach de la Rocha is a vastly improved MC, an angry, booming-voiced rapper rather than a metal screamer trying to rap. Tom Morello is a far more musical DJ, routinely transforming his guitar into a six-stringed turntable that scratches as often as it solos. In fact, the “Guilty Parties”, as the band is once again credited in the album’s liner notes, perform explosive hip-hop throughout, and that’s what sets Rage apart from the bands that tried to follow in their “rap-metal” footsteps, and Evil Empire apart from the albums that such bands released. At their core, Rage Against the Machine are a hip-hop band playing metal, not a metal band fronted by a rapper that has somebody scratch a record a couple of times on each track. Even a quick listen to Evil Empire reveals a legit MC, a fantastic DJ (who was aware that if you need to scratch a record on a metallic song, you should figure out a way to play it on guitar), and a tight, funky rhythm section—the foundation of all good hip-hop. And, of course, it brought the Rage. After all, Evil Empire was more than an album, it was an invitation to . . .
“Rally round tha’ family with a pocket full of shells.”
– Rage Against the Machine, “Bulls on Parade”
“Bulls on Parade” is a snarling beast of a rap song, coaxing listeners to slither back and forth with the rhythm that snakes its way through the verses, as it criticizes America for having a greater love for the military than education. “Down Rodeo” is a scathing indictment of racial and class politics that boldly proclaims, “So now I’m rolling down Rodeo with a shotgun / These people ain’t seen a brown skin man since their grandparents bought one”, over some of the most infectious riffs the album offers, while Morello’s guitar whistles like rapidly fired shots. “Vietnow” is blatant finger-pointing at the fear mongering of right-wing radio. de la Rocha raps, “Well I’m a truth addict, oh shit I gotta head rush”. “Rush”? Limbaugh, perhaps? The audio texture continues in “Roll Right”, which uses volume as an additional instrument and displays more than a little irony when the album’s loudest scream bellows, “Now we’re alright, we’re all calm”.
“And now it’s upon you.”
– Rage Against the Machine, “Year of tha Boomerang”
Evil Empire is a masterwork that challenges its listeners to act upon what they hear—words that are just as topical today as they were in 1996, over music that is so far beyond what is being released today it sounds as though it hasn’t even been written yet. And Rage Against the Machine? They were Masters of the Form who conquered the Evil Empire and then charged head first into The Battle of Los Angeles.