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Basslines and Protest Signs

Basslines and Protest Signs Part 20: The Same That Burn Crosses

It’s been 27 years since the release of Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut album. A full twenty-seven years. To put that into perspective, when it was released in 1992, albums that were twenty-seven years old (released in 1965) included The Beatles’ Help and Rubber Soul, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing it All Back Home, and The Who’s My Generation

So much has already been written about this album, one of the best that the wider rock world has ever given us, but it can’t ever be overstated that the messages on the record still hold true today. Disturbingly so, and perhaps more so under this administration.

The famous refrain of “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses” repeated so perfectly forcefully by Zack de la Rocha on “Killing in the Name” hit home like a sledgehammer in 2019, in the wake of a president deliberately stoking the flames of white supremacy. 

Back in 1992, RATM were bringing our attention to institutionalized racism. For some of the sheltered suburban white kids, sitting at home watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, this might have been news. From their vantage, it looked like things were getting better BUT Rage told us that things were still terrible for a large percentage of the population, and it was news we needed to hear. Now, in 2019, we don’t need to be told because the president reminds us on a weekly basis. 

It’s easy to let your head drop. But Tom Morello recently told this writer to imagine what things would be like today if RATM hadn’t ever existed:

“There are two constants,” the guitarist said. “Rage formed in the Bill Clinton era and we were fired up about shit that was going down then. The two constants are that there’s going to be injustice, people who will put profit before sanity or the health of the planet. The other constant is that there’s going to be resistance to injustice. In music, there are a lot of links in that chain. I’ve endeavored to forge another link through my career with Rage, Axis of Justice [the political group Morello founded with System of a Down’s Serj Tankian], Prophets of Rage, my work with Bruce Springsteen and The Atlas Underground record. The way I’ve always looked at it is, I didn’t choose to be a guitar player. That chose me. It was a calling I had at 19 years old, so I’m stuck for better or worse. And now, it’s my job to weave my convictions into my vocation. That’s the role that I play in this battle.”

Chuck D (photo credit: Kim Metso)

He’s continually done it so well too, including his recent involvement in the Prophets of Rage project, which also features Chuck D in the ranks. Public Enemy and RATM have so much in common — pretty much everything but the consistent use of live instruments. But like de la Rocha, Chuck D is a fired up frontman with a real message and a gift for articulating it. He wrote the liner notes for 2012’s twenty year XX reissue of the debut.

“What was said between these beats, grooves, riffs, and shrapnel was entirely something else,” D wrote of the record. “Something you don’t get right away, where the music crossed all borders and barriers. The message hammering down all the parts head to nail. This is where RATM sticks it to the planet. They challenge the audacity of greed that has tainted civilization. Greedy side effects of prejudice, racism, environmental neglect, abuse and propaganda.”

D goes on to point out that what RATM were doing was far different to what was going on in rock at the time, and god knows he’s right. In 1992, and particularly in Rage’s hometown of Los Angeles, the era of hair metal was coming to a stuttering end, but it wasn’t quite ready to give up the ghost for another couple of years. Nirvana’s Nevermind was released the previous year, as was Pearl Jam’s Ten. The writing was on the wall, in the sense that the overblown big rock show was done, and something more “real” was desired by rock fans worldwide. 

Rage Against the Machine (photo credit: Scott Penner)

But even those Seattle bands, and Cali art/alt rock and metal bands such as Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More were not tackling political issues in the way that Rage did — in a way that was necessary. And, again, it all rings true today.

Try this one from opening track “Bombtrack”, in an America where gentrification is ruining lives:

“With the thoughts from a militant mind

Hardline, hardline after hardline

Landlords and power whores on my people, they took turns

Dispute the suits, I ignite, and then watch ’em burn.”

Or in the face of police brutality, this from “Bullet in the Head”:

“This time the bullet cold rocked ya

A yellow ribbon instead of a swastika

Nothin’ proper about ya propaganda

Fools follow rules when the set commands ya

Said it was blue, when ya blood was red

That’s how ya got a bullet blasted through ya head.”

And finally, this ever relevant verse from “Wake Up”:

“Movements come and movements go

Leaders speak movements cease when their heads are flown

Cause all these punks got bullets in their heads

Departments of police, (what!) the judges (what!), the feds

Networks at work, keeping people calm

You know they went after King, when he spoke out on Vietnam

He turned the power to the have-nots

And then came the shot.”

That’s the tragic thing about Rage Against the Machine. We love it because it doesn’t sound dated…but wouldn’t it be great if it did? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it stood as a relic of a different age, when things were so different for people? And then, like a book about the Holocaust, we could turn to it as a horrid reminder of how things were and how we don’t want things to ever be again. But that’s not the case. We’re here in 2019, and every word de la Rocha raps is still as relevant as ever. It’s an album that is still as fresh because things are still as fucked up.

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