The 1990s music scene was unique in that the two genres that dominated the charts--alternative rock and rap--seemed to have little in common. But that perception would change in 1991 when a Los Angeles Chicano named Zack de la Rocha melded the two art forms together in the rap-rock outfit Rage Against the Machine. Influenced by punk bands such as Minor Threat and militant rap groups such as Public Enemy, de la Rocha delivered angry rhymes about social injustice over heavy metal riffs as front-man of the group. His biography reveals how personal experiences with discrimination led de la Rocha to pen raps that challenged racism and inequality.
Zack de la Rocha was born Jan. 12, 1970, in Long Beach, Calif., to parents Roberto and Olivia. Because his parents parted ways when he was very small, de la Rocha initially split his time between his Mexican-American father, a muralist in the group “Los Four,” and his German-Irish mother, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine. After his father began to exhibit signs of mental illness, destroying artwork and praying and fasting nonstop, Zack de la Rocha lived exclusively with his mother in Irvine. In the 1970s the Orange County suburb was nearly all white.
Irvine was the polar opposite of Lincoln Heights, the predominantly Mexican-American community of Los Angeles that de la Rocha’s father called home. Because of his Hispanic heritage, de la Rocha felt racially alienated in Orange County. He told Rolling Stone magazine in 1999 how humiliated he felt when his teacher used the racially offensive term “wetback” and his classmates erupted in laughter.
“I remember sitting there, about to explode,” he said. “I realized that I was not of these people. They were not my friends. And I remember internalizing it, how silent I was. I remember how afraid I was to say anything.”
From that day forward, de la Rocha vowed never again to remain silent in the face of ignorance.
After reportedly dabbling in drugs for a spell, de la Rocha became a fixture in the straight-edge punk scene. In high school he formed the band Hard Stance, serving as vocalist and guitarist for the group. After that, de la Rocha launched the band Inside Out in 1988. Signed to the Revelation Records label, the group came out with an EP called No Spiritual Surrender. Despite some industry success, the group’s guitarist decided to leave and Inside Out disbanded in 1991.
Rage Against the Machine
After Inside Out broke up, de la Rocha began to explore hip-hop, rapping and break-dancing in clubs. When Harvard-educated guitarist Tom Morello spotted de la Rocha performing a freestyle rap in a club, he approached the budding MC afterward. The two men found that they both espoused radical political ideologies and decided to share their viewpoints with the world through song. In Fall 1991, they formed rap-rock band Rage Against the Machine, named after an Inside Out song. In addition to de la Rocha on vocals and Morello on guitar, the band included Brad Wilk on drums and Tim Commerford, a childhood friend of de la Rocha, on bass.
The band soon developed a following in L.A.’s music scene. Just a year after RATM formed, the band released a self-titled album on influential label Epic Records. While promoting the album in 1992, de la Rocha explained to the Los Angeles Times his mission for the group.
“I wanted to think of something metaphorically that would describe my frustrations toward America, toward this capitalist system and how it has enslaved and exploited and created a very unjust situation for a lot of people,” he said.
The message resonated with the public. The album went triple platinum. It included references to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, South African apartheid, a Eurocentric educational curriculum and other social issues. The band’s sophomore album Evil Empire, a reference to a Ronald Reagan speech on the Cold War, touched on de la Rocha’s Hispanic heritage with songs such as “People of the Sun,” “Down Rodeo” and “Without a Face.” Evil Empire also achieved triple platinum status. The band’s last two albums the Battle of Los Angeles (1999) and Renegades (2000), went double platinum and platinum, respectively.
Although Rage Against the Machine was undoubtedly one of the most influential bands of the 1990s, de la Rocha decided to leave the band in October 2000. He cited creative differences but stressed that he was pleased with what the band had accomplished.
"I am extremely proud of our work, both as activists and musicians, as well as indebted and grateful to every person who has expressed solidarity and shared this incredible experience with us," he said in a statement.
A New Chapter
Almost seven years after the breakup, Rage Against the Machine fans received some long awaited news: the band was reuniting. The group performed at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., in April 2007. The reason for the reunion? The band said it felt compelled to speak out in light of Bush administration policies they found intolerable.
Since the reunion, the band has yet to release more albums. The members are involved in independent projects. De la Rocha, for one, performs in the group One Day as a Lion with former Mars Volta member Jon Theodore. The band released a self-titled EP in 2008 and performed at Coachella in 2011.
Musician-activist de la Rocha also launched an organization called Sound Strike in 2010. The organization encourages musicians to boycott Arizona in light of the state’s controversial legislation targeting undocumented immigrants. In a Huffington Post piece, de la Rocha and Salvador Reza said of the strike:
“The human impact of what is happening to immigrants and their families in Arizona calls into question the same moral and ethical imperatives that the civil rights movement did. Are we all equal before the law? To what extent can states and local law enforcement officers engage in human and civil rights violations against an ethnic group that has been completely vilified in the eyes of the white political majority?”