How ‘Evil Empire’ Nearly Ended Rage Against the Machine
Released on April 16, 1996, Rage Against the Machine’s sophomore album, Evil Empire, cemented the band as one of the most important acts of the era. It also nearly broke the group apart.
The band was riding high after the success of its debut album, 1992’s self-titled LP. Sparked by the popular tracks “Killing in the Name” and “Freedom,” Rage Against the Machine became an unexpected commercial success. The band toured hard in support of the album, earning its reputation as an incendiary live act.
“The first record came out, and we went on the road for three years straight, living together on a bus,” drummer Brad Wilk recalled to the Los Angeles Times in 1996. “When you do that, it’s pretty easy to kind of get sick of each other, and we needed a break.”
Instead, Rage decided they wanted to strike while the iron was hot. Without taking so much as a breath to relax, the group dove headfirst into its second album, assembling with producer Brendan O’Brien in Atlanta. Tensions ran high during the tumultuous sessions. According to MTV, the band “fought so violently among themselves that they briefly broke up.”
“We go into rehearsal to make a second record, and all the personal differences that we had swept under the rug when we were touring suddenly came up, and we had to deal with them,” Wilk admitted. “I felt like the band could have fallen apart then.”
Listen to Rage Against the Machine's 'Down Rodeo'
Rage Against the Machine’s greatest asset was also its greatest hindrance. Namely, each member was strongly opinionated and rarely willing to bend regarding his musical and political ambitions. Complicating things further was the fact that each one came from wildly different backgrounds. Harvard-educated guitarist Tom Morello was the son of an activist mother and a Kenyan diplomat. Singer Zack De la Rocha was a Mexican-American raised in the predominantly white community of Irvine, Calif. Bassist Tim Commerford’s childhood had been rocked by his mother’s diagnosis and eventual death due to brain cancer. Wilk was born in Portland, Ore., only to be moved to Chicago before relocating to Southern California.
“We’re like a microcosm of Los Angeles in some ways,” Wilk remarked. “We come from different backgrounds, different cultures.”
With their differences and irritations with one another out in the open following the disastrous Atlanta sessions, Rage Against the Machine decided to take a break. The group spent a few months apart before reconvening, this time on home turf.
“Why spend $2,000 a day in some fancy recording studio trying to recreate the great vibe that we have right here,” Morello pondered to MTV while explaining the band’s decision to record Evil Empire in its Los Angeles rehearsal space. “We literally knocked a hole in the wall, rented the room across the hall and ran the wires over the hallway.”
“We weren't going to go in and play in a studio that just had no environment whatsoever,” added De la Rocha. “You get in some of those places, and it's like you're walking into a dentist's office. I've had my teeth cleaned, thanks a lot. I don't want to do that.”
With cooler heads - and absent of the baggage that sent the Atlanta sessions spiraling out of control - the band was able to find common ground. They did so without sacrificing any of the fire and aggression that made Rage Against the Machine great. As a result, the LP offered the soundtrack to a revolution.
Watch Rage Against the Machine's 'Bulls on Parade' Video
“Bulls on Parade” criticized America’s military spending and the government's willingness to invest in war rather than the survival of its own lower-class citizens. “People of the Sun” was inspired by the Zapatistas political and militant group in Mexico. On “Down Rodeo,” the band placed a spotlight on economic inequality in the U.S., using Beverly Hills’ famous Rodeo Drive as its backdrop. Through every track, Morello’s otherworldly guitar work and de la Rocha’s firebrand vocals sounded a call to action.
The band named their album Evil Empire, “taken from what Rage Against the Machine see as Ronald Reagan's slander of the Soviet Union in the '80s,” de la Rocha explained, “which the band feels could just as easily apply to the United States.”
Evil Empire debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. Critics praised the album as “consistently inspired” and “undeniably potent.” Rolling Stone called it a “declaration of war.”
Watch Rage Against the Machine's 'People of the Sun' Video
In less than four months, Evil Empire would sell more than a million copies. It eventually eclipsed the 3 million mark in the U.S., certified triple platinum. Along the way, the band also picked up its first Grammy award, winning Best Metal Performance for the song "Tire Me."
“I never thought that we would sell a record,” Morello admitted. “I thought the politics would be too alienating, too extreme. But I’m proud the music is extreme, the politics are extreme. When you open your eyes to what is going on in this world, you realize that a sort of moderate medicine is no good to cure an extreme illness.”
By overcoming their near-destruction, Rage Against the Machine crafted one of the ‘90s' seminal rock albums. Wilk believed the triumph was a direct result of the turbulence.
“There’s always going to be tension between the four of us, which I think is normal,” the drummer confessed. “We come from different backgrounds, different cultures. We also have different tastes in music, and it’s a battle in the studio to come up with something we all agree on, and you can feel that battle on the record. There’s nothing easy about what we do.”