Originally published in The Columbus Edge (Issue 31, December 1993)
Rage Against the Machine has turned quite a few heads with its politically-fueled hardcore hip-hop. The Columbus Edge’s Chip Midnight talks with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello on the eve of a co-headlining show with Cypress Hill in Cleveland.
Rage Against the Machine had to cancel some headlining dates following the CMJ Convention in New York. What happened?
Brad hurt his back, actually, the last time we played in Toronto. He had something I had never heard of before – something like a sprained muscle in his spinal column. We actually played a couple of shows after he hurt it, but he was just aggravating it, exasperating the injury, so every day it was getting worse and worse. We thought rather than risking his health for the next year, we’d take a couple of weeks off.
Someone from the record company informed us that Brad had sprained this chest …
(Laughter) Sprained chest?!? You got to hurt yourself really bad to get a sprained chest. You know that there is something very wrong!
Was the CMJ show the last one you performed prior to the Cypress Hill tour?
Yeah. It was all right. We had played the night before in Philadelphia where we did the free show to make up for the, uh, time in Philadelphia when we didn’t play (chuckles).
(During the Lollapalooza performance in Philadelphia, the members of Rage staged a protest of censorship in the music industry. Wearing only their birthday suits and tape spelling out P.M.R.C., the members stood silent on the stage rather than performing.)
So the people in Philadelphia accepted you back with open arms?
Yeah, we played for free, what were they going to say? (laughter) They didn’t have much to say. Obviously that while Philadelphia anti-censorship protest was something that stirred debate. But some people who had been at the show, who paid a lot for a Lollapalooza ticket, were there to principally see us. I guess they did get to see us (laughter), but they didn’t get to hear us, so we thought we’d make it up to them.
How did you get hooked up with Lollapalooza considering the tour seems to be against everything Rage Against the Machine stands for?
There’s an aspect to Lollapalooza which I think is very progressive, which is that they provide a huge audience for virtually unknown, left-of-center artists like Rage Against the Machine and Tool and Babes in Toyland; bands which, on our own, would only be playing to a couple of hundred people a night. During the Lollapalooza tour, you’re playing to 30,000 people a day. So whatever your ideology is, it’s exposed to that may people, which … is a pretty incredible thing. In addition … they have the political forum tent, which does something very radical for a concert of that size, which is hand the microphone over to people who are there.
On the other hand, it’s still like one part Woodstock, one part Bon Jovi concert because the tickets are still really expensive — the t-shirts were outrageous. We sell our shirts for $10 for the short sleeve shirts, $13 for the long sleeve, because we know exactly how much it costs to make them. Tool didn’t sell t-shirts by the end of the tour, but the other bands did. I don’t know how they can justify that. I can understand why the corporate organization of Lollapalooza would try to get away with it, but all it really takes is for the bands to just say no. On this tour, we didn’t sell shirts for the first few dates because we got them down to $15 and we thought that was still too much. You can kind of romanticize small club tours, but they are capitalist on a smaller scale. That is what capitalist tours are about. I prefer to do every show like the Philadelphia one – for free. I don’t think people should have to have money in order to be able to see art or enjoy music. Why should having $15 be a prerequisite for that? I look forward to the day when, maybe one day, we’d be able to pull off a tour like that on our own – nobody has to pay. Within the realm of capitalist touring, I think Lollapalooza was pretty progressive. I was really happy to do it.
What about CD sales and the skyrocketing costs of purchasing a new CD?
With regards to the manufacturing and with the packaging, we kept everything to the lowest end possible. Once it’s in the hand of the local retailer, you’re subject to their greed. The only other option is to just sell the CDs out of the back of your truck. What we’re trying to do is reach people from Prague to Belfast to Ohio to the ghettos of Los Angeles and New York City in a way that we just can’t do one at a time to have any kind of real substantive impact. Prior to doing this, we got back from a European tour where we worked in close conjunction with the anti-Nazi league; we brought them to all of the shows on the tour. There’s a huge percentage growth in hate crimes in the last few years in Germany and France. And in Britain, the British Nationalist Party, which is a very thinly-veiled British Nazi Party, elected their first member to Parliament. That three-week tour we did there focused all the attention on the October 16 demonstration in Welling to try to oust the British National Party from London. Thousands of people came from all over Europe where we had toured because they had been turned on to the issue by the concerts; that’s something that you just can’t do if you’re selling tapes out of the back of your truck. Sometimes there is a discrepancy between a pure punk rock ethic and a pure activist ethic, and given that choice, I would choose the activist ethic.
Are you in this for the music or for the chance to expose your beliefs?
Well, the music is something that is just sort of a given. Sometimes you choose something, and sometimes, something chooses you. I’m cursed with being a guitar player; that’s just the unfortunate truth. Personally, with that being a given, it’s very fortunate that I found three very like-minded individuals who are committed to effecting some real substantive stirring up of the status quo; and the music is the vehicle for that.
What are some of the political goals of the band?
As far as political goals, I’ll try to be brief. The specifics on this tour, the issues we’re pushing, are the anti-censorship cause. There’s a real backlash against music that is unafraid to tell the truth. I think there is a very negative aspect to some hip hop lyrics. I really hate the whole sexist and misogynist side of it. As far as valid interpretations of the communities where many of those artists come from, I think those voices need to be heard. They certainly shouldn’t be silenced or taken out of the marketplace because certain fundamental organizations disagree with them.
Censorship is an issue that I think is very important because it’s one that can be very politicizing for our audience. You can lecture to 17-year-olds or kids going to their first year of college about the plight of migrant farm workers and they just say “right on” and go back to their Beavis and Butthead. But, when a 17-year-old can’t physically buy the record that he or she wants to buy, it’s a kind of domestic oppression that really hits home. Subsequently, you can use that issue as an issue of empowerment.
What we’re encouraging is a five-point program on how to stir up trouble in your hometown with regards to the issue of censorship, and how to throw record retailers up against the wall who have bowed down to the pressure from the other side because they don’t care about the first amendment, obviously. Over 3,000 record shops in the States right now don’t sell parental advisory-stickered albums to minors. Musicland just passed an edict down to its local affiliates of a blacklist of over 100 records; most of them are rap artists, and that has a racist element to it as well. What they do care about is their profit margin, period. And when we threaten that, that’s when they’re going to start to take notice.
What are the five points?
It’s basically to identify a single shop in your community which is a principal offender, rather than scattering your effort. First of all, make the store manager aware of the fact that they are supporting pro-censorship policies, and that what they are doing is contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment. You ask them to change it. Of course, they are going to ignore you because you are going on 15 or 21. Then you start kicking their ass. Basically, whether it’s high school or college or at rock shows or at dances, wherever record buyers gather, you pass out fliers. “Boycott X record shop: they support censorship.” Take one weekend afternoon during peak record-buying hours, especially now around Christmas time when they count on most of their sales for the whole year, and take a couple of hours, stay on public property and carry placards that say the same thing. Just let people know that all they should do, because this record store supports censorship, is just buy your records somewhere else. It’s that easy.
The second you make a divot, it makes them less competitive with the record shops in the area that are willing to sell music to anybody who wants it. You’ve got their attention. First, I think that they will not succumb easily and then you have to have the courage of your convictions. That’s what political action is, these people are not going to endure it, especially this time of year. They just can’t take it, and it’ll be much easier for them to simply do the right thing: support the First Amendment and put those records on the shelves for sale to allow the freedom of exchange of ideas rather than have to deal with the hassle of these kids gathering out every Saturday afternoon. I promised this would be be brief, and I guess I lied.
The other issue is the Leonard Peltier case. Leonard Peltier was a member of the American Indian Movement who has spent 17 years in jail for allegedly killing two FBI officers on the Oglala Sioux reservation. There’s a movie about it called Incident at Oglala. He’s completely innocent, he’s a prisoner because AIM was so pissed off that the FBI was scared to death of them, and did their best to murder some of them and jail the rest of them to keep them from rubbing the government’s nose in the fact that they’ve shafted indigenous inhabitants of this country for over 500 years. His final appeal has run out and what we’re trying to do is get a million signatures by Christmas time to President Clinton’s office on his behalf and an appeal for presidential clemency.
Those are the two specific ones.
Zack is a very intense performer. Is he like that offstage as well?
Let me assure you, he’s intense and unique offstage as well. He, and all of us, take it very seriously. It’s not about entertainment. The more that we can sever the bands between the music and entertainment, the more we can forge them between music and activism; the more success we’ll feel that we’ve achieved.