One would think that being a popular, major-label band would be incompatible with holding extreme left-wing political views. The Los Angeles-based hip-hop/thrash quartet Rage Against the Machine does both -- in RATM's world, big money and radical politics are not necessarily exclusive.
Rage Against the Machine was formed in 1991 by four established musicians from throughout the United States who met on the L.A. music scene: vocalist Zach de la Rocha, a native of wealthy Irvine, Calif., who once fronted the punk group Inside Out; dreadlocked guitarist Tom Morello, a Harvard graduate from suburban Libertyville, Ill.; bassist Tim Commerford, also from Irvine; and drummer Brad Wilk, originally from Portland, Ore.
With a unique sound that combined rap, heavy metal, punk rock, and dance music, extreme stage energy, and outspoken lyrics about politics (often taboo in modern music), RATM quickly won over fans throughout southern California, selling more than 5,000 copies of a self-produced cassette tape.
Signing to Epic Records, RATM released their eponymous major-label debut album in 1992. Initially marketed as a rap group, RATM toured extensively with House of Pain and Cypress Hill, pushing Rage Against the Machine into the Billboard Top 50. Frequent MTV play of the video "Freedom" in early 1994 put sales of the album into platinum territory, securing Rage Against the Machine's position as one of the more popular alternative rock bands of the mid-1990s, and establishing rap-core as a genre unto itself.
In preparation for the April 1996 of their long-awaited follow-up album Evil Empire, Rage Against the Machine appeared on "Saturday Night Live," where they fabricated controversy by hanging upside-down American flags on their amplifiers. Evil Empire debuted at No. 1 and quickly went platinum, spawning the hit single "Bulls on Parade." Though their records have sold millions of copies, Rage Against the Machine has stayed true to their socialist views, speaking out in favor of the EZLN uprising in Chiapas, Mexico and against the jailing of African-American journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal and Native American activist Leonard Peltier. Though they crossed union picket lines to perform at a 1996 U2 concert in Oregon, members of Rage Against the Machine have appeared on picket lines, protesting the exploitation of workers by several garment manufacturers. RATM is living proof that wealth and privilege can facilitate activism rather than serve as a force against change.
In early November 1999, Rage released their third album, The Battle of Los Angeles, on Epic Records.