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The 25 Best Rage Against the Machine Songs

From funky, radical bombtracks to incendiary covers, here are the rap-metal masters’ finest moments

Rolling Stone Jul 08, 2022

Ahead of Rage Against the Machine's reunion tour, we count down their 25 greatest songs. Niels van Iperen/Getty Images

By DAN EPSTEIN & ANDY GREENE & KORY GROW & DANIEL KREPS & HANK SHTEAMER

When Rage Against the Machine emerged in the early Nineties, there was no other band even remotely like them. They not only fused rock with rap at a time when there was a stark divide between the two genres, but their radical lyrics called for a political revolution during the supposedly peaceful decade after the Cold War and before 9/11. This was a time when most bands were looking inward toward their own pain, not outward to the struggles of minorities in America and people living under oppressive regimes across the globe.

“It was one of those rare instances when the planets just lined up right and the alchemy of musical magic and history just poured out,” Chuck D recalled of Rage in 2016. “I saw them in concert [early on], and what I remember most is how wiped-out the crowd was afterwards. I had never seen a place destroyed; sweat and blood on the walls. The fucking tables were turned over and rafters pulled down. It was crazy. They’re the Led Zeppelin of our time.”

Rage broke up in 2000 and left behind just three albums of original material, but those songs aged remarkably well during the chaos and tumult of the past two decades. And when they announced a reunion tour, which finally kicks off July 7 after several pandemic-related delays, tickets sold out with remarkable speed. There’s no hint that they’ve recorded any new music, but they really have no need to. They somehow created the soundtrack for our time a quarter-century ago. Here, we count down their 25 greatest songs.

25. “Darkness” (1994)

One of Rage’s earliest and most incisive songs, “Darkness” first showed up on the band’s self-titled 1991 demo tape before it got a major-label makeover — complete with one of Morello’s most chaotic, acrobatic solos — for its inclusion on the soundtrack to 1994 Brandon Lee movie The Crow. Originally titled “Darkness of Greed,” the song, which toggles between mellowed-out jazz funk and steely metallic groove, likened the spread of AIDS in Africa — and the U.S. government’s “procrastination” toward stemming the virus — as genocide. “They say, ‘We’ll kill them off, take their land, and go there for vacation,’” de la Rocha whispers on the track. —D.K.

24. “How I Could Just Kill a Man” (2000)

On “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” Cypress Hill’s first single and first hit, rappers B-Real and Sen Dog traded verses about “takin’ out some putos” with a Magnum and making young punks pay. Their funky tableaus of terror built to the sort of wanton observation that would make any mother shudder: “Here is something you can’t understand — how I could just kill a man.” When Rage Against the Machine covered the track for Renegades, de la Rocha took all the verses for himself while Morello and bassist Tim Commerford (or “tim.com,” as he billed himself on the record) ratcheted up the noise to deafening levels on the chorus. “The first Cypress Hill record and [Public Enemy’s] It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back were two of the biggest hip-hop influences on Rage Against the Machine,” tim.com later told Rolling Stone.Rage might not have killed a man, but they definitely laid a few speakers to rest with their rendition. —K.G.

23. “Maggie’s Farm” (2000)

Bob Dylan was saying goodbye to the folk world when he wrote “Maggie’s Farm” in 1965, and it’s very tempting to read some of the lyrics as an angry kiss-off to folkies who wanted him to remain stuck in the past. “Well, I try my best to be just like I am,” he sneered. “But everybody wants you to be just like them/They sing while you slave and I just get bored.” When Rage tackled the song for their 2000 covers collection, Renegades, they were also at a crossroads of sorts. Communication lines between members were breaking down, and when de la Rocha sang “I ain’t gonna work at Maggie’s Farm no more,” he might as well have been putting in notice that he was done with the band itself. —A.G.

22. “War Within a Breath” (1999)

“War Within a Breath” closes out Rage’s final LP of original material, 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles, and it’s somehow fitting that these are the last notes we’ve heard to date of the band’s unmistakable sound. It’s an extremely on-brand tune that touches on everything from the Zapatismo movement to the Palestinian Intifada. Simply put, it sums up the entire Rage ethos in three and a half minutes. “Every official that comes in, cripples us, leaves us maimed,” de la Rocha roars. “Silent and tamed/And with our flesh and bones, he builds his homes/Southern fist, rise through the jungle mist.” —A.G.

21. “Settle for Nothing” (1992)

Rage’s self-titled debut was more or less a 52-minute onslaught, which is why “Settle for Nothing” — the album’s most understated track and maybe the closest thing the band ever did to a power ballad — stands out so starkly. Over an eerily somber riff with shades of Metallica’s “One,” de la Rocha narrates the inner monologue of a desperate kid who chooses the cold comfort of gang life (“I’ve got a nine, a sign, a set, and now I got a name …”) over the trauma of a broken and abusive home. His voice rises to a livid howl (“Death is on my side … suicide!”) as the band blasts into a sinister Black Flag–meets–Black Sabbath wallop. The delicate filigree of Morello’s clean-toned solo suggests a warped spin on cocktail jazz — a quietly arresting sonic lament for the grim cycle of violence the song portrays. —H.S.

20. “Microphone Fiend” (2000)

Rage kicked off their covers album, Renegades, with an ultra-heavy rendition of Eric B. and Rakim’s hip-hop anthem “Microphone Fiend.” Where the original sampled Average White Band’s funky guitar intro to “School Boy Crush,” Morello summons his own devastating wah-wah fury for Rage’s version, while bassist Commerford does most of the heavy lifting in the riff department. De la Rocha edited the lyrics to give the tune more of a rock chorus, and in a rare show of hip-hop humility, he side-stepped the lines Rakim wrote to shout himself out. The makeover translated to a direct rap-rock hit showing how smooth operators really do operate correctly for a heavy E-F-F-E-C-T. —K.G.

19. “Calm Like a Bomb” (1999)

“Hope lies in the smoldering rubble of empires,” spits de la Rocha on this blistering highlight from The Battle of Los Angeles, perfectly summing up the RATM ethos in a single line before setting his sights on the global plight of the underclass. (“Stroll through the shanties and the cities’ remains/The same bodies buried hungry/But with different last names.”) And speaking of smoldering, “Calm Like a Bomb” finds Morello offering up a veritable master class in the use of the DigiTech Whammy pedal, conjuring impossibly sick and searing waves of undulating noise from his guitar. —D.E.

18. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (2000)

Rage Against the Machine were opening up for U2 on 1997’s PopMart stadium tour when they first played Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” The original recording is a somber tale of urban poverty that Springsteen delivers in a hushed, resigned tone, but Rage present it like a lost song from the Evil Empire sessions — complete with a crushing Morello riff that bears little resemblance to the folky source material, yet still fits perfectly. The version worked so well that Rage kept it in their live set until they split three years later, making it the most-played cover song in their live repertoire by a huge margin. It also appeared on their 2000 covers collection, Renegades. And in 2008, Morello guested with Springsteen and the E Street Band to play a more traditional version of the song. Morello even became a temporary E Street–er in 2014, when Steve Van Zandt had to miss a tour to film his show Lillyhammer. The idea of Morello playing in the E Street Band would have seemed pretty far-fetched circa 1997, but time can make strange things happen. —A.G.

17. “Born of a Broken Man” (1999)

One of the most emotional and evocative songs in the RATM catalog, this standout track from The Battle of Los Angeles finds de la Rocha musing on the mental-health struggles endured by his father, the influential Chicano artist Beto de la Rocha. With Morello’s guitar ringing like a mournful church bell, lyrics like “His thoughts like a hundred moths/Trapped in a lampshade/Somewhere within/Their wings banging and burning/On through the endless night” are unforgettably haunting — but so, too, is the younger de la Rocha’s defiant mantra of refusal to suffer the same fate. “Born of a broken man,” he insists, “Never a broken man.” —D.E.

16. “Wake Up” (1992)

In six funky minutes, Rage Against the Machine unpack decades of institutional racism within the U.S. government on “Wake Up,” a deep cut off their self-titled debut. De la Rocha lambastes former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his policies, condemning the way the government targeted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for protesting Vietnam and claiming it murdered Malcolm X “and tried to blame it on Islam.” “He turned the power to the have-nots,” the singer says, “and then came the shot.” The track ends with de la Rocha screaming “Wake up!” eight times in a row (a climax that, taken out of context, fits perfectly in the final scene of The Matrix) and a quote from King: “How long? Not long, ’cause what you reap is what you sow.” —K.G.

15. “Year of tha Boomerang” (1996)

“Year of tha Boomerang” marked the first preview of the band’s much-anticipated sophomore album, having been featured — as “Year of the Boomerang” — on the soundtrack for John Singleton’s 1994 film, Higher Learning, more than 18 months before Evil Empire’s release. Inspired by a quote from French anti-imperialist Frantz Fanon, the song offered a crash course on the “doctrines of the right” that de la Rocha would further rage against on Evil Empire: imperialism, the oppression of both minorities’ and women’s rights, and genocide, all punctuated by Morello’s screeching riot-siren riff. —D.K.

14. “Sleep Now in the Fire” (1999)

One of Professor de la Rocha’s greatest social-studies dissertations, “Sleep Now in the Fire” traces how American avarice has decimated Third World countries, as well as marginalized people at home. “The party blessed me with its future,” he sings, playing the role of a Washington bigwig, “and I protect it with fire.” When the chorus comes with its elastic Morello riff, de la Rocha sarcastically encourages the oppressed peoples he’s singing about to “sleep now in the fire.” Later, he ominously catalogs the legacy of imperialism, slavery, and deadly force underlying the American myth, vowing, “I am the Niña, the Pinta, the Santa Maria/The noose and the rapist, the fields’ overseer/The agents of orange, the priests of Hiroshima.” In 2000, the band shot the song’s video on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange (without permission) and in one portentous moment, the camera captured someone in the crowd holding a “Donald J. Trump for President 2000” sign. In 2020, Morello joked, “I would say that we are karmically entirely responsible [for Trump running for president], and my apologies.” —K.G.

13. “Maria” (1999)

Marrying one of Morello’s weightiest riffs to one of de la Rocha’s most vividly devastating portraits of injustice, this Battle of Los Angeles deep cut demonstrates how the band just kept sharpening its attack all the way through its original lifespan. De la Rocha tells the story of Maria, a Mexican woman smuggled into the U.S. as “human contraband” and put to work in a sweatshop, where she finds herself at the mercy of an abusive foreman. Eventually she chooses a grisly suicide on the job over being treated “like cattle.” The song frames Maria as a kind of martyr figure, her story a constant reminder of North America’s long cycle of oppression and exploitation: “And through history’s rivers of blood she regenerates/And like the sun disappears only to reappear, Maria, she’s eternally here.” The song makes masterful use of dynamics, dipping down to a hush as de la Rocha recites the prior lines, and then explodes into a full-force stomp, with Morello’s swaggering, irrepressible guitar line symbolizing Maria’s phoenix-like rebirth. —H.S.

12. “Vietnow” (1996)

Before Fox News brainwashed a generation of TV viewers who Alex Jones then pushed down the Q tunnel, Rage Against the Machine took aim at the insidious presence of right-wing talk radio on the Evil Empire cut “Vietnow.” With microphone fixed on Rush Limbaugh and the duplicitous Christian right, de la Rocha throws lyrical barbs like “Let’s capture this AM mayhem, undressed and blessed by the Lord,” “Terror’s the product you push,” “The sheep tremble and here come the votes,” and, on the chorus, “Fear is your only god on the radio/Nah, fuck it, turn it off.” The final single from Evil Empire, “Vietnow” served as an AM/FM foil of sorts to The Battle of Los Angeles’ first single “Guerrilla Radio” three years later, a track that demanded the listener “Turn that shit up.” —D.K.

11. “Bullet in the Head” (1992)

Rage wrote “Bullet in the Head” just as America was declaring victory in the Gulf War, a conflict that Americans watched in real time on CNN and supported in overwhelming numbers. To de la Rocha, the made-for-TV war was a sham designed to benefit the military-industrial complex, and anyone who bought into it was a zombie brainwashed by the media. To put it another way, their brains had been hit with propaganda bullets. “They say jump and ya say how high,” he screams on the song. “Ya gotta fuckin’ bullet in ya head.” When introducing the song at an early concert, he made his point even clearer. “This song is about being an individual, about searching and finding new information,” he said, “and using your strength as an individual to attack systems like America who continue to rob and rape and murder people in the name of freedom.” —A.G.

10. “Down Rodeo” (1996)

This Evil Empire highlight uses Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills’ glitziest shopping district, as a launching pad for de la Rocha’s bitter musings on consumerism, wealth disparity, and socioeconomic segregation: “So now I’m rollin’ down Rodeo with a shotgun,” he raps, before delivering an even harsher follow-up: “These people ain’t seen a brown-skin man since their grandparents bought one.” Filled with bracing couplets like “Can’t waste a day/When the night brings a hearse/So make a move and plead the Fifth/‘Cause you can’t plead the First,” and harnessed to a powerful, swaggering groove, “Down Rodeo” also features some synth-like glitch bursts from Morello’s multi-pronged guitar, which prods the music until it finally gives way to de la Rocha’s anguished whisper. “Just a quiet peaceful dance for the things we’ll never have,” he laments as the track fades out. —D.E.

9. “Freedom” (1992)

With one of the best guitar riffs this side of Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, “Freedom” calls for the release of Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist serving two life sentences for the deaths of two FBI agents in 1975. Peltier has always maintained his innocence. “Freedom, yeah!” de la Rocha screams at the end of the song before sarcastically revising the lyric to, “Freedom, yeah right!” In the song’s video, during the breakdown, the group displayed the words “We demand and support the request that Leonard Peltier … be released. Justice has not been done.” “To me, the reaction to the music and things like the ‘Freedom’ video are very encouraging,” de la Rocha said in 1996. “I know that some people look at us as just rabble-rousing or ranting or whining. But I think a lot of that reflects the cynicism that people have when it comes to dealing with political problems.… What we are trying to show is that people can make a difference … that we aren’t all powerless.” —K.G.

8. “Testify” (1999)

“Testify” was the opening salvo from Rage’s third LP, The Battle of Los Angeles, which Rolling Stone deemed as the Best Album of 1999. Originally titled “Hendrix” when the song debuted live due to its usage of a “Purple Haze” chord — “I recently found out that Jimi Hendrix used to play a song called ‘Testify’ when he was a backing musician for the Isley Brothers. It all comes full circle,” Morello later quipped to Guitar World — “Testify” later transformed into an outlet criticizing the impending 2000 presidential election, a showdown where both candidates — George W. Bush and Al Gore — seemed to spout the same capitalist ideology. The song’s music video, directed by documentarian Michael Moore, reflected this pre-election anxiety; eerily prescient, the clip also concludes with a quote by Ralph Nader, who later played an unfortunately crucial role in the 2000 election, as the presence of the Green Party candidate is often blamed for throwing the presidency to Bush. —D.K.

7. “Take the Power Back” (1992)

This funky blast from Rage Against the Machine went Public Enemy (and the Isley Brothers) one better, not only encouraging us to fight the powers that be, but reminding us that the power was actually ours in the first place. Three decades before the 1619 Project, de la Rocha decried the Eurocentric teachings of U.S. schools — “One-sided stories for years and years and years/I’m inferior?/Who’s inferior?/Yeah, we need to check the interior/Of the system that cares about only one culture” — over the fiery interplay of Brad Wilk’s slamming drums, Tim Commerford’s slinky, slap-driven bass lines, and Tom Morello’s stabbing chords. —D.E.

6. “Bombtrack” (1992)

Rage Against the Machine wasted no time getting down to serious business on their self-titled 1992 debut, opening the proceedings with this confrontational track. Though the official video for “Bombtrack” would salute the guerilla group Sendero Luminoso (or “Shining Path”) for its 13-year fight against Peru’s oppressive U.S.-backed government, the hard-grooving song itself lays out the band’s stance in broader terms, pledging solidarity with all indigenous peoples who have been abused, exploited, and slaughtered on the altar of imperialism. “Enough/I call the bluff/Fuck Manifest Destiny,” Zack de la Rocha cries. “Landlords and power whores/On my people/They took turns/Dispute the suits/I ignite and then watch ‘em burn.” —D.E.

5. “People of the Sun” (1996)

Inspired by the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, “People of the Sun” prophesies a new day for the descendants of the Aztecs, invoking the civilization’s final emperor — “The fifth sun sets/Get back/Reclaim/The spirit of Cuauhtémoc/Alive and untamed” — while serving up angry reminders of both Spain’s 16th-century conquest of Mexico and the racism-driven Zoot Suit Riots of 1940s Los Angeles. Clocking in at only two minutes and 30 seconds, “People of the Sun” is the shortest song in the entire RATM catalog, but its compact burst of furious intensity makes it the perfect opener for 1996’s Evil Empire. —D.E.

4. “Guerilla Radio” (1999)

When guerrilla wars waged throughout the Latin American world in the Eighties, many of the combatants used underground radio stations like Radio Venceremos in El Salvador to communicate and show solidarity with each other. The leadoff single to Rage’s 1999 LP, The Battle of Los Angeles, draws a direct comparison between those guerrilla radio stations and the band’s own efforts to build a fan base when Top 40 radio and other mainstream outlets never went near their work. The song came out just as the 2000 election was beginning to heat up, and it castigates both of the major candidates. “More for Gore or the son of a drug lord,” de la Rocha raps. “None of the above/Fuck it, cut the cord.” The song concludes with a furious call for a revolution. “It has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime/What better place than here, what better time than now?” Had Rage stuck around through the post-9/11 era, things could have gotten really interesting. Sadly, Rage’s guerrilla radio network was silenced not long after this song hit. —A.G.

3. “Know Your Enemy” (1992)

“Know Your Enemy” remains one of the most fiery moments in the whole Rage catalog: a quintessential pairing of a killer, upbeat Morello funk-metal riff with a furious de la Rocha anti-authoritarian manifesto, marked by lines like, “Cause I’ll rip the mic, rip the stage, rip the system/I was born to rage against ‘em.” (In case the object of his ire wasn’t clear, he later adds, “What? The land of the free? Whoever told you that is your enemy.”) Musically it’s one of the most diverse tracks in the band’s early canon, sporting an almost festive-sounding slap-bass-driven intro and a moody bridge featuring a memorable guest shriek from Tool frontman (and old Morello pal) Maynard James Keenan and percussion from Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins. But the song’s brilliant climax comes around four minutes in, when Commerford’s bass grinds out the verse riff, Morello’s guitar comes in blaring out in an uncanny approximation of an emergency siren, and de la Rocha grunts “Come on!” as the band comes slamming back in — the perfect soundtrack to any act of, to quote one memorable line, “D, the E, the F, the I, the A, the N, the C, the E” you could possibly conceive. —H.S.

2. “Killing in the Name” (1992)

In 1991, four white LAPD officers severely beat Rodney King, a Black man, while arresting him; when a jury acquitted those officers of using excessive force, Los Angeles exploded in riots. Zack de la Rocha channeled his outrage into the lyrics for “Killing in the Name,” a funky update of N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police.” “Some of those that work forces/Are the same that burn crosses,” he chants repeatedly, condemning police racism and a cycle of above-the-law violence. He drills down on these themes as the song escalates, shouting “Those who died are justified for wearing the badge/They’re the chosen whites.” The song builds and builds until de la Rocha hollers, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” 16 times in a row, topping one of history’s most incendiary protest songs. “After our second show ever, we had record-company interest in the band,” guitarist Tom Morello later recalled. “So these executives were coming down to our grimy studio in the San Fernando Valley.… I remember one of the executives squeaking after [‘Killing in the Name’] was done, ‘So is that the direction you’re heading in?’” —K.G.

1. “Bulls on Parade” (1996)

Rage Against the Machine called their second LP Evil Empire, and many of the songs focused on American foreign policy. On “Bulls on Parade,” de la Rocha, accompanied by an ingeniously minimal Morello riff, aims his fire at the hypocrisy of D.C. policymakers. “Weapons not food, not homes, not shoes,” he roars. “Not need, just feed the war cannibal animal.” He also calls out politicians who pretend to be pro-family, but actually have a “pocket full of shells.” Near the end, Morello blasts off a career-defining guitar solo in which he replicates the sound of a record scratching. Taken as a whole, the track is perhaps the finest distillation of the the sonic Molotov cocktail that is Rage. Fittingly, one of the all-time great “Bulls” performances took place outside the Democratic National Convention in 2000, months before the group originally broke up. “Brothers and sisters, our electoral freedoms in this country are over so long as it’s controlled by corporations,” de la Rocha said before starting “Bulls on Parade.” “Brothers and sisters, we are not going to allow these streets to be taken over by Democrats or Republicans.” —A.G.

From Rolling Stone US.

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