There aren’t any two-part harmonies on the new Rage Against the Machine album, The Battle of Los Angeles. That’s because people who listen to the band want to hearone voice: Zack de la Rocha’s. And that’s the same reason you won’t find any loops, percussion, or drum machines there. Because whether or not they know his name, people who listen to Rage just want to hear one rhythm source: Brad Wilk.
When Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut album was unleashed over the airwaves in 1992, there were two ways you could react: You were either set on fire by the Los Angeles four-piece’s highly aggressive metal-funk minimalism, or you brushed it off as grandiose posturing – distorted protest songs too over-the-top to be taken seriously. But however the music hit you, the fact was that Wilk’s pushy beats, de la Rocha’s spitting politics, Tim Bob’s bottomy bass and Tom Morello’s thin, hard guitar lines added up to something quite different. Amazingly, in the six years and 361 days between the releases of Rage Against the Machine and Battle, the band has only been able to give birth to one other album, 1996’s highly successful Evil Empire. But since then, a lot has happened in the dominating hard-hop scene that Rage helped bring to the mainstream. Now Wilk and his slow-moving buddies re-enter to find that they’ve almost been left behind. The two main groups that have won over the voracious hard-hop (or rapcore, or whatever you want to call the fusion of metal and funk) fans, Korn and Limp Bizkit, have swarmed around Evil Empire, collectively releasing six albums since 1995. No one’s saying that Rage has been forgotten, but they have a lot of catching up to do.
Still, there’s hope for the shredding pioneers. With Limp Bizkit only on their sophomore album, Significant Other, and Korn’s third release, Follow the Leader, Rage had the responsibility of demonstrating that their genre still has room for growth. And with the ferocious funk of Battle, damn if Wilk and his bandmates didn’t do just that.
“Our objective was to [make] a record that was better than our first two,” says Wilk, a decidedly upbeat speaker. “A thought-provoking, pissed-off record – and I think we succeeded. I think Evil Empire was a really dark record, and it made our first record look almost like a pop record, in terms of song structures and choruses that had catchy hooks and whatnot. I just think that [Battle has] better songs and we’ve branched out sound-wise to different types of grooves. The grooves are always changing.”
With the release of Battle, Wilk acknowledges, when prodded, the band's often unrecognized role in hard hop’s evolution. “We started this in ’92,” he points out. “I feel that there’s actually a lot of bands [making this type of music] and not really giving us any influential credit. [That's] fine – I almost take it as a compliment. We’re still actually doing it, and I think that we are continuing the sound and the sound is always changing. I’m not really too concerned with what any other band is doing or how they sound.
“You know what’s interesting, and actually the most frustrating thing about it? It has nothing to do with the bands that are doing it – I think that’s great. That’s what makes us even more viable right now as a band. But I think that most of the frustration comes from only putting out a record every four years. We have a lot of downtime, and when you see other bands doing what you think you should be doing, it’s a little frustrating. But that’s nobody’s fault but our own.”
The successful convergence of metal and hip-hop drumming in the ’90s has given a whole generation of drummers new creative options. Ask Wilk straight up if he thinks he was a major influence in that movement, and he’ll give you an honest answer. “I really want to believe that I was,” he says. “I just want to say it because I don’t think that I have gotten any recognition for that, and I think it’s something I consciously wanted to do.
“There’s bands before us that were kind of doing it in a different way – absolutely. It’s been going on for a long time. Both [metal and hip-hop] are rebellious types of music, so I think they actually do work well together in spirit. When this band first started in ’92, I was listening to alternative, punk and hard rock records, and I was also listening to hip-hop. The three other guys in the band were, too, and I think that [the combining of hip-hop and metal] wasn’t something that was really thought out too much. It was almost like we couldn’t really control our influences or how they came out.”
Before he came to Los Angeles, where he would eventually find his bandmates through a classified ad, Wilk’s biggest influence wasn’t a drummer, but a drum set. “When I was about 13 years old, in Chicago, a friend of mine who lived a couple of doors down had a Ludwig Silver Sparkle drum kit with a big Kiss logo on the front head,” Wilk says. “I was totally infatuated with the drum set – period. So any time I could, I was on his kit, not knowing what the hell I was doing but banging away nonetheless.”
His second biggest inspiration after that Silver Sparkle siren was a band synonymous with high energy: Keith Moon and The Who, which Wilk got into around the release of The Kids Are Alright – the 1979 live-performance documentary and soundtrack. “That record was a huge record for me,” he recalls. “It came with that book inside, with all those amazing pictures, and they also had the movie as well. I was just fascinated by the energy and with The Who in general. The excitement that they were portraying as a band – I think that had a huge effect on me, definitely.”
The next drumming giant to impact Wilk would be one he met personally: David Garibaldi. Sitting in on group classes led by Garibaldi, the then-19-year-old Wilk picked up on essentials covering everything from technique to attitude. “His nickname was ’The General,’” says Wilk. “The guy was so intimidating, you saw it in his eyes: He had ’the confidence’ there. It was great. He had the confidence of knowing what he was doing.
“I love that fact that Keith Moon played with this unbelievable confidence, but he was on the edge of insanity. He was a driving force, but he was always just on the brink of completely losing his mind.”
During those six months of lessons, Wilk developed the self-assurance that can put a player’s skills over the top. “Confidence to me is being able to get on a drum set and look at that drum set and know that you can pretty much play what you’re thinking,” he relates. “You have a good sense musically of what’s going on, and you feel confident as to what your abilities are. I’m not saying I always play like that! I beat myself up more than anybody could possibly do. I worry about just actually feeling good about what I’m doing. Anyone that’s too confident may be selling [themselves] a little short. But if you’re David Garibaldi, it’s kind of like being the God of drumming. He’s allowed.”
In Garibaldi’s group classes, Wilk also picked up the foundation for his own feel – a kind of funk science that he continues to study intently to this day. “[Garibaldi] really taught me to focus on what’s going on between the beats,” Wilk says. “The stuff that’s kind of felt, less heard.” Sure – space, right? “Not necessarily space, but the feel of ghost notes, if you want to call them that. The feel in between the kick and the snare drum and where exactly you put that, really has everything to do with what makes you different from other drummers.”
For Wilk, that means a very special emphasis on the approach he takes to playing – or not playing – the 1 in a measure or phrase. “Heavy on that 1 – coming down on that big time,” explains Wilk. “I think that’s everything. That all goes back to James Brown and George Clinton. If you listen to P-Funk, a song like ’Downstroke,’ and listen to just how heavy and slightly late he’s coming down on that 1. He’s waiting for everybody, so everyone’s going to get it and know where they [are]. That to me is deep in the essence of that style of funk.”
After floating around the Los Angeles scene for a while and then placing an ad looking for a band, Wilk definitely got a return on his investment. Morello responded, then brought Tim Bob and de la Rocha into the picture for a memorable first meeting. “I remember from playing with Zack that he was just like a lighting bolt,” says Wilk. “That’s all I remember, just really feeding off each other. It was just this kind of intense electricity that I hadn’t really felt before. We started playing all this pretty insane punk rock and hip-hop fused with hard rock – it wasn’t just me – everyone in the band was fully on that tip, whether it was Zack rhyming through a verse or just going off an intense punk rock session.”
In Rage, Wilk suddenly had a highly charged outlet for his funk philosophies. “When I put an ad out looking for a guitar player, it basically said I wanted to get together with people who had a lot of different influences [so we could] form our own unique sound,” he says. “It seemed like everyone [in this group] was on that boat, and it felt like what I could bring to [it] was kind of unique at the time. One of my biggest assets is [being able to put] together completely different grooves and making them sound good and interesting together – straight grooves with funky grooves or whatever. With our band, its rare that there’s a song that has just one feel.”
Probably due to the strength of a 12-song cassette that they released right away, Rage Against the Machine found record company A&R geeks lining up for a piece at the band’s very first show. “We were at a point where we were just like, ’The record companies probably won’t like this anyway,’” Wilk recalls. “We were wrong.”
Completely wrong. After coming out on November 6, 1992, their debut on Epic Records stayed on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart for 89 weeks, peaking at a very respectable number 45. Billboard called them “one of the most original and virtuosic new rock bands in the nation.”
But the best was still to come. Evil Empire debuted at number one in April, 1996. The single “Bulls on Parade” was a solid hit, while the single “Tire Me” picked up a Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance the following year. Not a bad run at all. But the strength of the album called for extensive touring, which can make any band come to really dislike each other. Consequently the next album wasn’t released until practically the year 2000.
But maybe Battle was worth the wait. Wilk sounds like he may finally have “the confidence” himself. “I think on this record what I really wanted to do was define my sound,” says Wilk. “So if someone hears me playing drums, they know it’s me.
“I’m really going to lose all the kids with the big drum sets here, but I just wasn’t concerned with elaborate fills for transitions. And as a matter of fact I was more interested in building tension from the lack thereof, and putting the intensity into one or two hits. While I was recording this record, I was listening to a lot of Keith Moon’s playing, and trying to take his excitement and his spirit and then use [it] in one or two beats.”
That’s what led to his new funk notion on Battle, a literal head game that he picked up from eyeing Snoop Dog’s cranium bounce during a recording session. “If you watch him when he’s listening to a song, his head is going up on the 1,” Wilk notes. “And if you look at, like, Beavis and Butthead, their heads are going down on the 1. What I tried to do was to take the essence of those hip-hop, laid back verses, and then taking what I was talking about – the spirit of Keith Moon – and actually leave out a half of a beat.
“So if I’m coming down on that 1, [then] all of a sudden your head is now moving forward to this groove, as opposed to back. There’s a crushing piece of space after the initial fill – like Keith Moon –that adds this excitement. Man, I’m trying to explain this.”
If that lesson seems tough to follow, it’ll be easier to understand just by listening to Battle. Check out “Born as a Ghost” (Ex. 1, see musical examples on page 50), where the verse leans crazily with Wilk playing very far behind the beat, then a hyper two-hit fill on the snare speeds the band into the explosive chorus, where Wilk pushes the action by attacking the pocket to land squarely on the beat. After the bridge, look out for a snare barrage capped off by that big moment of nothingness, then one last crack at the chorus. One flam is all that separates sections in “Voice of the Voiceless” (Ex. 2), and you could drive a truck through the spaces he leaves right before he drops a phat Stephen Perkins part into the tense screamer “Maria” (Ex. 3).
When it came to putting these tunes together, each member of Rage expressed his own confidence by showing that he could listen to the others. “Everyone’s kind of open to suggestions on each of their instruments,” says Wilk, “which is huge, because you get objective opinions, and I think it helps when you’re not married to anything right away. [It] can definitely help the situation in the long run.”
With producer Brendan O’Brien back for Round Two after manning Evil Empire, the band shot through the instrumental tracks, recording 12 songs in 12 days, mostly at A&M Studios in Los Angeles. “When we’re working with Brendan, we don’t really have a lot of time to overthink and stress out, which you can definitely do in the studio,” Wilk says. “I get so over-anal and [soon] nothing [sounds] good to me. Brendan’s just kind of really interested in catching the magic and not worrying about perfection. I think working at that pace helps, although I will say that one day I would like to spend a little bit more time on making a record.”
He’s not kidding. Wilk and O’Brien set new land-speed records while setting up the two kits the drummer used for Battle. “Usually people spend a day or two or a week on getting drum sounds. [For us] it was really just about setting up the kit and making sure the drums sound decent,” Wilk remembers. “[We'd spend about] an hour on it or whatever, and [then just] go.
“I just wanted to find a nice presence for the drums, and then use my own abilities to make those stand out – mostly getting a good, natural room sound, something that was kind of in between being roomy and completely super tight. It’s not necessarily going in and saying, ’Okay, how can we make these drums sound as incredible or as weird as we can right now to tape?’ It was more like, get a decent drum sound that you’re happy with and then rely on yourself for the rest of it.”
Which isn’t to say that they weren’t selective about the drums they used. One of Wilk’s favorite snares he used for the session was a big drum, owned by drum doctor Ross Garfield, which is frequently in use around Los Angeles and is affectionately referred to as The Terminator. “It weighs like 75 pounds or something,” Wilk laughs. “The cool thing about the drum is, depending on how you hit it, it just sounds different. A lot of people have recorded with that drum, but it really just kind of takes on the character of how you play it. It has some really cool overtones.”
After smoothing over the internal friction from the past (at least for the moment) Rage will again have an extended tour planned in support of Battle. “I think, ultimately, Rage is a live band,” says Wilk. “That’s what we do, probably better than anything else. And when you can actually feel a response from what you’re doing right away – that to me is 80 percent of why I do what I do.”
Still, Wilk is going to have to watch it, as details like throne height start growing into major health hassles. “I used to sit as low as I possibly could on the drum set,” he says. “About nine months ago I decided to raise my seat, because I was having really painful experiences just underneath my hamstring and with my butt. I thought changing the seat would be a good idea, and [at first] the pain stopped, [but] then it came back three times worse on the left backside of my back! So [I need] to find a happy medium between that and where I used to be. Right now I’m trying to find that spot.”
It gets worse. You can also bet that he’s going to remember to stretch before each show. “I didn’t stretch for the first two records and I wound up completely throwing my back out,” Wilk reminisces. “At the end of ’Bullet in Your Head’ I ripped the muscles of the right side of my back all the way around my chest. We had to stop the tour for, like, two weeks. I started stretching and it’s just been an unbelievable difference.” Let’s hope so.
As Rage Against the Machine continues their self-paced trip through extra-hard funk, they’ve definitely grown as musicians. But have they changed as people? “Yeah! We’re all stuck-up assholes with huge egos!” Wilk laughs. But seriously. “We’ve been on the verge of breaking up many, many, many, many times. I think that we’re finally growing up and starting to respect one another – and I think that’s really important to be able to focus more on music and the causes that we can help shed light on.
“Playing with [these guys] for that many years I can relate – I almost want to say telepathically – with [them] in a room. I don’t take that feeling for granted, because that’s a pretty special situation to be in.”