Very early in the morning of March 3, 1991, a Black man named Rodney King drunkenly sped down one of Los Angeles’ many freeways and was pursued by the police all over the city. King was a convicted felon who was out on parole, and he fled the police because he was afraid of getting a DUI. (His blood alcohol concentration was estimated to be close to .02.) When the police finally chased him down and got him out of his car, four cops proceeded to beat the living crap out of him until he was near death. An onlooker caught the vicious beating on tape, and that video was played on an infinite loop on television, causing an uproar across America. The four — three white, one Hispanic — police officers faced a trial for using excessive force that became a national event, and when a shocking not guilty verdict was delivered on April 29, 1992, all hell broke loose.
The news traveled quickly, and for three and a half hours after the verdict was read, the hornet’s nest stirred in South Central Los Angeles. There has long been a contentious relationship between the LAPD and the black community of Los Angeles, with frequent allegations of brutality and abuse of power. The riots officially began at 6:45 PM, when a white truck driver named Reginald Denny was pulled out of his truck at the corner of Florence and Normandie and was horribly beaten by black gang members. (He survived thanks to the help of a black guy who drove him to the hospital, it should be noted.) The police had fled the area earlier in the afternoon because it had become too dangerous, and they didn’t return until after 10:00 PM, leaving the city in total anarchy for hours. The city burned for the next six days as law enforcement was unable to stop widespread looting, and eventually president George H.W. Bush sent in the Army and National Guard to restore order.
Meanwhile, at the same time Los Angeles burned, Rage Against the Machine recorded their debut album in the San Fernando Valley north of the Hollywood ridge. (That’s north of most of the rioting, for those unfamiliar with LA geography.) Most people don’t get their music and don’t understand what they’re so angry about, but if they knew that their music was born of the same rage that caused the LA riots, they might appreciate that they channeled their energy into making an album instead of senselessly setting fire to every building in sight. Rage is a multiracial band, with a half-Kenyan guitarist in Tom Morello, a half-Mexican vocalist in Zack de la Rocha, and a white drummer and bassist in Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford, respectively. It appropriately reflects the melting pot of the most diverse city in America, even to the point of pitting the white rhythm section against the challenging non-white guitarist and vocalist.
Rage Against the Machine debuted a sound nobody had ever heard before, successfully fusing hard rock and rap. Tom Morello effortlessly creates Led Zeppelin-worthy guitar riffs and acts as the band’s DJ through crazy effects, and Zack de la Rocha slings fiercely political lyrics that are startlingly direct. Rage Against the Machine struck a chord with the Alternative Nation, who were more than happy to accept an LA band into a movement dominated by Seattle grunge groups. This may come as a surprise to many, but the production on Rage Against the Machine might be the best of the entire CD era. If you’re an audiophile with a great stereo system, you need to look into spending ten bucks on Rage Against the Machine, because it’s one of the most well-produced albums ever. The lows, mids and highs are all balanced perfectly, and everything sounds amazingly crisp and clear. It, like Nirvana‘s Nevermind, was primarily recorded at Sound City Studios (known for its legendary drum sound) in Van Nuys, California.
And unlike hip-hop or hip-hop-esque albums of its time, there aren’t any samples, since Morello is able to create all the sounds he wants on his guitar. As for the mastering, it’s not a loud album at all, which is surprising, given the nature of the music. There’s a huge difference in dynamic range compression between Rage Against the Machine and, say, Alice in Chains‘ Dirt, which is a noticeably loud album from the same year. Nowadays Rage Against the Machine are thought of more for their music’s appearance at the end of The Matrix (“Wake Up”) and The Matrix Reloaded (“Calm Like a Bomb” from 1999‘s The Battle of Los Angeles), and their connection to the LA riots has been all but forgotten. I think Rage Against the Machine, along with Dr. Dre‘s The Chronic, are important cultural artifacts that captured what a lot of people were feeling at that particular place and time. (The Chronic had a song called “The Day the Niggaz Took Over,” for crying out loud.)
As for Rage, Zack de la Rocha told Rolling Stone this in 1999:
You know, I think every revolutionary act is an act of love. Every song that I’ve written, it is because of my desire to use music to empower and re-humanize people who are livin’ in a dehumanizing setting. The song is in order to better the human condition. Every song that I’ve ever written is a love song.