For weeks, ROC editor John Woods has been urging me to check out Rage Against The Machine's debut album. "It's the soundtrack to the revolution," he gushed, adding that the record was the best of the year, hands down. I discovered the reason for his eloquence when I finally heard the record. This is a band that's as angry as any in popular music--the lyrics are certainly revolutionary agit-prop--but what really grabs you and shakes you around is the music. It's a kick-ass gumbo of rap, metal and funk, with Tom Morello's live guitar riffs and solos adding spice. For these rockers, Che Guevara and Malcolm X are as important as Zeppelin, Public Enemy, James Brown and the Sex Pistols.
I knew when I made arrangements to interview Tom that he'd have plenty to say on the subject of music censorship ("Something about silence makes me sick" snarls vocalist Zack de la Rocha on "Fistful of Steel"). I caught up with Tom when the Lollapalooza tour hit Ohio. After a fierce, raging set, during which de la Rocha engaged the audience in yelling "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me" over and over at the police officers present, Tom and I talked. My Danish friend Ole also sat in. The 29 year old guitarist was passionate, articulate and knowledgeable. His is also one of the most militant anti-censorship stances in the world of music.
Rage Against the Machine's music makes their fans angry, and it makes them dance. It can also help them grow. From The Who to The Clash, the rock & roll audience has placed its faith in honest bands that are engaged with the world. To the extent that Rage stays linked with the audience and perhaps helps to organize it, they won't just be the soundtrack for the revolution--they'll help it along.
Scott Pfeiffer: First of all, your mother is Mary Morello, the founder of the anti-censorship group Parents for Rock & Rap--somebody that I really admire. How did her anti-censorship stance influence your world view when you were growing up?
Tom Morello: Well, actually, I was the one that turned her on to the anti-censorship thing. I was playing in a band called Lock-Up in Los Angeles, and a friend of mine who was involved in anti-censorship groups in L.A. would always foist their propaganda on me. One time when Mom was out visiting, I just showed it to her, and ever since I was a little kid she was a fan of rock music, whether Hendrix or Led Zeppelin, she was very, like, the atypical Mom in that regard. She's always worked hard for good causes. She was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and worked for the Chicago Urban League for a long time. This was just prior to the latest wave of censorship that she organized Parents for Rock & Rap, and it drew a lot of media attention because immediately afterwards the 2 Live Crew controversy hit. It's been great, she's just done an awesome job with it so far.
SP: Oh yeah, she really has. What are some of the personal experiences that Rage Against the Machine has had with censors?
TM: Well, we have a sticker on our record. And that means in a lot of places, like in the area where I grew up in Illinois, a lot of record stores won't sell stickered albums to minors, so seventeen-year-olds can't buy the Rage Against the Machine record. That is idiotic. Also, the FCC, because they fear the moral decay of society if anyone hears the word "fuck" on the radio, "Ah, how terrifying," you know. We've done two videos, which you will never see, because they're unedited and they have all sorts of cussing going on in 'em. Nine of the ten songs on our records contain the "F" word, so the only time that you'll ever hear our music on the radio is when it's edited by the stations themselves. Which I don't mind, I'm not complaining about it, we knew that was gonna be the case when we were writing these songs, like, "Well whatever, who cares," you know? That's the way it is. Censorship restrictions are much more lax in Europe, you can just speak your mind there in your music or whatever and people just don't care. My theory behind the whole thing is that it's just a big smokescreen. There's a racist element to it as well, and it wasn't until artists like NWA and Public Enemy started becoming popular in white suburban areas. When they were selling a million records in the ghetto, nobody gave a shit what they were saying on their records, but when the Bon Jovi posters started coming down and the Chuck D posters started going up, that became a little more menacing to the powers that be, and I think, that's what provoked the latest wave of censorship. But also, if those people, be it the PMRC or right wing Fundamentalist groups, if they really do care about young people and real problems that are confronting them, the first thing that they would look at is parental abuse and neglect, which is a truly debilitating thing. There's ample scientific evidence to demonstrate that parental abuse and neglect does fuck kids up, whereas there is not one shred of evidence that any lyric from any record has ever at any time adversely affected the behavior of any individual. It's this real straw man to prop up, I think, to bash artists that are anti-establishment.
SP: Yeah, Ole here is from Denmark. Danish radio will play anything. It's completely un-censored, just like you were saying.
Ole: Yeah, I received a tape of a Top 10 in Denmark, played it for Scott. Scott claims that he has never ever before heard Ice-T uncensored on the radio until he heard it recorded from a Danish radio station, a public radio.
TM: Yeah, doesn't come as any surprise.
SP: Fuckin' blew me away. Okay, what do you think Tipper Gore as second "lady," I put that in quotations, means in terms of censorship?
TM: Well, I think that the Clinton administration had enough political savvy, they realized that it was partly MTV's Rock The Vote that helped to put him in office. And so at least officially, you know, she stepped down I believe as the head of the PMRC, and has downplayed her rabid pro-censorship stance since they've been in the White House. But I think that taking a sort of figurehead of the censorship movement like Tipper Gore and isolating them and showering ridicule upon them, that's fun, but I think that the censorship forces are more widespread and more insidious than just--you know, she's an easy target. And so whether or not she's one step closer to the throne, you know, I think that she and the other Washington Wives were stirring up plenty of trouble before she became the vice president, or before she became the second lady.
SP: What would you say to someone who said about Tipper Gore, "Oh, she doesn't really want to censor anything, she's just a concerned parent."?
TM: Well, like I said, I mean if she was really concerned, one thing that many adults in this country don't want to acknowledge is that often parents and guardians are more of a threat to their children than the music than their children listen to. That's what parental abuse and neglect is all about, it's a huge denial. Almost 40% of young people are abused or neglected by their parents or guardians by the time they're 18, and that's real. That's not some kid in Idaho listening to an Ozzy record two weeks before he killed his neighbors dog or something like that. That's real. I think it's a true denial of the problems that are really confronting--whether it's homelessness or whether it's AIDS or whether it is abuse and neglect, that it's real denial. And it's taking these anti-establishment, menacing artists like Ice-T and Chuck D and people like that and pulling them out and going, "This is what the real problem is--forget about the unequal distribution of wealth, forget about our crimes and wars overseas and things like that, this is what the real problem is facing us now." It's a diversion.
SP: Yeah, damn straight. A few months ago our anti-censorship group brought Ice-T to Ohio University to give a speech. I know you're a friend of Ice-T. What did you think about all the shit he went through over "Cop Killer"?
TM: It was a slap in the face for artists like us who ride the bull of major labels in order to disseminate our messages on a wider scale that when you become too threatening they're more than happy to slap you down. You know, the First Amendment doesn't mean jack to Time-Warner when it comes to the ethical dictates of their board of directors. I think Ice-T's an awesome artist, and I was saddened when he took the cut off the record. Even though he still believes firmly, it was like a sign of capitulation. For young people--not even that I think it was, like, selling out, but there's just so few uncompromising--if you have to use the word--role models. There's so few people that you can just go, you know, never have they been tainted in any way and they've always held their ground. My suggestion to Ice, had I been in his shoes, would have been to maybe even released "Cop Killer" as a single and used the proceeds, or at least just the proceeds from that song as an album track, to benefit the families of people who have been killed by police officers. I think that would've really turned the issue around and it would have completely focused attention on the issue of police brutality as opposed to the issue of a song with violent lyrics.
SP: Yeah, that's a good idea, and that's kind of what he wanted to do, 'cause he was saying. "They're changing the issue over to me, instead of the issue of police brutality."
TM: Exactly, exactly. Still, I mean, I really admire the fact that--when's the last time when an album track has focused international attention on police brutality in the U.S.? That's an uncommon occurrence, and for that he deserves all sorts of props.
Ole: Do you feel that musicians today in America speak up enough against censorship?
TM: Do they speak up enough against it? NO!
Ole: You do, of course.
TM: Let me just give you my little--this my latest program here, this'll come out in the next Parents for Rock & Rap newsletter too, but we've been working on, like, concrete ideas to fight censorship because for most young people, they sit around in their living rooms and they see, oh, such and such bill passed in Washington and they just go, "Censorship sucks." Yeah, we all agree on that but what can you physically do? It's my belief that the censorship war can be won at the level of the record shops. While the PMRC and all those right-wing dickheads, they've got all the money and they've got influence and power--they're not the ones who buy records. It's you and me and it's the "Lollapalooza kids and stuff like that. Record retailers are caught in the middle. The only difference between the two sides is that we don't exert any pressure on the retailers like the PMRC and them do. Retailers don't give a shit about the First Amendment, let me just tell you. They don't care. They will not stand up to parental pressure groups who are threatening them. They don't give a shit about the First Amendment. They also don't give a shit about this alleged moral decay of society caused by profanity on records. I firmly believe they don't give a shit about that either. What they do give a shit about is profit margin. Profit margin is something that you and I and the people out there in the crowd today can affect for the record stores. What I would suggest is, in your little town or your big city or whatever, do a little bit of research and just find a record store that promotes censorship. If they keep records behind the counter that have "objectionable" lyrics, if they don't stock certain records because of lyrical content, or if they refuse to sell stickered albums to minors, make an example of 'em. Pick one record retailer and make an example of 'em. In your school, print up, just get a Xerox machine, write "Joe's Records supports censorship. Boycott them. Shop for your records elsewhere." Make up a thousand flyers, just hand 'em out in schools, in clubs, wherever young people are that buy records. Maybe once a week on a Saturday or Sunday during peak record buying hours, just you and a couple, it could be like three people, just get a couple of placards and picket, on public property, in front of the store, saying "Joe's records supports censorship. Boycott them. Buy your records elsewhere." The second that you make a divot in their competitiveness with other local retailers, you're gonna get their attention in a big way. My guess is their first reaction is gonna be to threaten and to maybe buy you off or whatever, but all you gotta do--in this life, you're doing well if you have one thing, and that's courage. All you have to do is stick with it and punish 'em, because as soon as you get one record store to capitulate, that's a foot in the door. And then you go to the next one and say, "Look, for a month, they weren't eating well at night down at--the manager of Music Plus, we nicked their sales by five percent and we're more than happy to do that to you, and all you have to do is put these records on the shelf. It's that simple." That's where I think the censorship war can really be won. Anyway, that's my speech.
SP: Fantastic! Well, just one more question. This is a great interview. Do you think that we need a revolution in this country to permanently end censorship?
TM: (Noticing someone pointing a camera at him over my shoulder): "Who are you and why are you taking my picture?"
Man with camera: (referring to me): I'm taking his picture.
TM: Oh, okay, good.
SP: You're taking my picture? Who are you?
Woman with cameraman: (Referring to my Rock Out Censorship "Who Made Tipper Gore God?" T-shirt): Just the T-shirt.
SP: Okay, okay, cool.
TM: Um, I think that...Oh yeah. Oh yeah, long overdue. I think that once you have a recognition of the gross social and economic inequities that go on, and not just in our country but I think that in countries that have a market economy, once you recognize that and appreciate that that's wrong, you can't (stops to address cameraman) "Go ahead, get it over with, hello (laughs), hi Mom," you can't in good conscience not think that there needs to be some sort of radical change. It's a big problem in the US because we're so indoctrinated throughout our educational system and through the consumer culture that we live in, and people think that they don't have much power, and that it's a huge effort to even vote. You know, just about 50% of the population votes in presidential elections, and there's this belief that with a change in administration things will get better. I think that the first few months of the Clinton presidency are a great example that if there is gonna be any kind of substantive change it's not gonna come from above, it has to come from below. Meaning we can't even get an acknowledgement that there are gays in the military. We can't even get a head of the Civil Rights department that firmly believes in civil rights. It's ridiculous! There can't even be the most mildly liberal concessions once you're setting on the throne because, as you probably know, three quarters of the funding for the presidential campaigns of both parties, come from major corporations. So it's immaterial who the puppet is, because the puppet masters remain the same. And its until we can cut those strings and have the people be the ones who are making the decisions and who are the ones who are controlling the resources, and are the ones who are deciding the course that we take, we have to keep confronting. So yes, the answer would be yes."
Ole: And I hope that's what people listen to when they saw you at Lollapalooza, that there's not only anger, there's also vision. Because there's a lot of anger when you perform, I saw it, but there needs to be vision as well.
TM: Well, anger's a very important first step. It's impossible to cite a historical example when there has been radical change for the better that wasn't fueled by people being pissed-off, to begin with. You have to have that indignation first in order to sort of break the bars of complacency. It has to be tempered with intelligence, otherwise you'll easily be lead astray by the powers that be. Anyway, enough left-wing proselytizing.
SP: What do you think is the relationship between popular music and politics?
TM: I think that there is a very close relationship between all popular music and politics and that while most artists don't recognize it or are in denial about it, that all music is political and that most popular music which encourages escapism or promotes sexism or misogyny or whatever, that's a very political tool to uphold the status quo. It really plays into the whole "leave your troubles behind as long as you make it to the next week end and the next six pack," and to not think too deeply about the fact that your in some sort of dead end job or you're unemployed or the fact that you live in a country where people live in palatial mansions while other people eat out of garbage cans. That central fact there is something that's just wrong, and if you spend a little bit of time examining that, the reasons behind it, you think that maybe there should be something done about it. There should be something done about it!
SP: Tom, we know you have to run, and we thank you so much for this time.