The Journey of Reclusive Rage Against the Machine Frontman Zack de la Rocha

The iconic frontman and political activist has made a habit of ducking the spotlight

Rage Against the Machine

Outside the Spotlight takes a look at what famous musicians work on while not facing the bright lights of their most famous gigs.

Zack de la Rocha is an icon. He’s one of the most famous (and recognizable) frontmen of the last three decades, and yet, he’s habitually stayed away from the spotlight. When Trump got elected, everyone was positive Rage Against the Machine would come roaring back, because no matter what you believe in politically, hating Trump is pretty much on-brand for the band who once had t-shirts with Che Guevara on them. But, still nothing.

For a while, de la Rocha would pop up on occasion. He released a demo with now-Queens of the Stone Age drummer Jon Theodore as One Day as a Lion and then appeared on the Run the Jewels track “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”, but aside from those two instances, nada. For a while, he was working on a Trent Reznor-produced hip-hop record with every old-school luminary set to appear, but still, no dice.

Every once in a while, Rage Against the Machine would come out of retirement. They’d destroy festivals, only to quickly retreat back into the darkness. Was this at the behest of de la Rocha, considering Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, and Brad Wilk haven’t stopped playing with one another in whatever Rage-related project has been kicking around since the early 2000s?

Trump gets elected. We’ve got to endure Prophets of Rage, which is another case of taking legends and sticking square pegs into round holes for overly mediocre results.

And then somehow it leaked that Rage Against the Machine was back. Dudes in their late thirties lost their shit. de la Rocha came out of his self-imposed cave. He’s going to sing “Calm Like a Bomb” again. The Internet exploded with hope. At the very least, they’d hit the festival circuit. Whatever shape and form we could get the band back, we wanted it.

For a band that have stood the test of time, sold more than 20 million records, and can fill a stadium in any city in the world, it’s hard to understand why de la Rocha continues to walk away every few years. The band haven’t recorded any new music since their middling covers album, Renegades, back in 2000. Since then, every time they get back in the saddle, it’s a greatest hits set. But again, no one’s complaining.

With Zack de la Rocha turning 50 this month and Rage lining up festival dates, there’s so much we still don’t know about the guy, what makes him tick, and why he’s turned down truckloads of money, but the journey has been nothing short of incredible.

Click ahead to learn more about Zack de la Rocha’s strange journey.

Update – February 10th: Rage Against the Machine have announced a 40-date reunion tour.

The Complicated History of Rage Against the Machine

Formed in the ashes of Morello’s band Lock Up, de la Rocha was brought in after splitting with his seminal hardcore band, Inside Out. Rage never slugged it out in the clubs like some bands do for years; instead, the magic of the four members was apparent quickly. They’d formed in 1991, and they were on MTV by 1993. In band time, that’s a fast track to success. At the same time, it’s also a pair of gilded handcuffs to one another, despite their differences. After the S/T dropped, the band was immediately invited to be part of the 1993 Lollapalooza festival.

Rage spent the tour blistering through their 15-minute opening sets and recognized their platform, too. When de la Rocha blew out his voice in Rhode Island, the band decided not to forfeit their slot the next day. Instead, they protested Tipper Gore’s P.R.M.C. (Parents Music Resource Center), which made bands with any kind of substance or who uttered the dreaded “F” word get the black-and-white sticker so ubiquitous in the ’90s. The band walked out on stage naked with their mouths taped shut and P.M.R.C. written on each of their chests, dicks swinging in the wind and everything. The stunt garnered a lot of attention.

The band exploded the minute people saw the “Freedom” video. Its fierce political language and imagery of political prisoner Leonard Peltier wasn’t like anything their contemporaries were doing. The message was strictly political: we aren’t here for the fashion, the cool points, or the scene. It felt like the band’s mantra was, “Shit is fucked up, and we’re going to talk about it.” Rage Against the Machine felt like the logical sons of The Clash and Dead Kennedys more than anyone gave them credit for at the time.

Even the album’s cover is heavy-duty. It features Malcolm Browne’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1963 snapshot of Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk, lighting himself on fire in protest of the Buddhist murders by the US-backed Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm. Warrant’s Cherry Pie cover, this was not.

“Killing in the Name” immediately popped off, prompting the band to sell three million records. (Fun fact: the song has the word “fuck” featured 17 times.) Everyone in 1992 knew the words to that song, including every dork trying to be aggro at his grade school dance.

And yet, from the jump, it was always rumored that Rage would break up, that the members of the band hated one another. Despite the circumstances, in 1996, de la Rocha and company dropped Evil Empire to critical acclaim and once again immediately went triple platinum. The band managed to get one song, “Bulls on Parade”, played on Saturday Night Live but were cut short after hanging upside-down American flags on their amps as a symbol of protest against the night’s host, Steve Forbes.

An Emerging Ideology

It was around this time when Zack de la Rocha began to lean into his political stance, using the band’s multi-platinum status as a platform against atrocities taking place around the world. While they were always a political band, by the time the Evil Empire-era began, no Washington suit was safe from their lens.

Opening for mega-band U2 back in 1997, Rage’s profits went to causes like U.N.I.T.E., Women Alive and the Zapatista Front for National Liberation. de la Rocha went on to interview Noam Chomsky while promoting the words of Howard Zinn along with other politically revolutionary thinkers.

It was also around this time when de la Rocha began to publicly champion the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (E.Z.L.N.), a cause he’d known since childhood thanks to his father being a Los Angeles Chicano artist. The senior de la Rocha’s work spoke of the struggle of his paternal father, Isaac de la Rocha Beltrán, who was a revolutionary, fighting in the Mexican Revolution.

Because he was invested in the struggle of the E.Z.L.N., de la Rocha doubled down on what it was like to be a Mexican in the United States, seeing his people, but also people of color, treated so poorly, in a variety of horrific ways. He was critical in renaming the People’s Resource Center in Highland Park the Centro de Regeneration — a place for young Chicanos to find their musical and creative voice. The space offered youth film festivals, graffiti workshops, and a community center for LA kids who needed an outlet.

de la Rocha’s commitment to the E.Z.L.N. isn’t surface level. The songs “People of the Sun”, “Wind Below”, and “Without a Face” from Evil Empire, and “War Within a Breath” from The Battle of Los Angeles are all dedicated to people fighting for their place in society. de la Rocha even asked his record label, Epic Records, for $30,000 to donate to the E.Z.L.N.

Because of his commitment to political causes, de la Rocha worked with artists whose message he respected, despite the size of his band. The problem with Rage Against the Machine is that while many of their fans learned a lot about political activism (myself included), there are also plenty of bros looking to smash heads to tasty riffs. This drove de la Rocha insane, as the band had always been a weapon to educate people, not sell records. Because of this, he collaborated with luminaries such as Chuck D of Public Enemy and KRS-One.

A Fierce Opposition to an Inward Struggle

The Battle for Los Angeles would be Rage Against the Machine’s final original record. It dropped in 1999, selling almost 500,000 copies in its first week and would soon go double-platinum. The band would take multiple risks with their political license, using the New York Stock Exchange as their backdrop for the video “Sleep Now in the Fire”, directed by Michael Moore. The video shoot brought hundreds of people, which led to a whole clusterfuck of permits and Wall Street cash lords calling the cops. Moore got arrested, the video is punk rock as fuck, and the band made it all the way inside the Stock exchange to the titanium riot doors — one of the only times outside of 9/11 that the doors have ever been used.

The band played before the Democratic National Convention in 2000 in Los Angeles and managed to incite a full-scale riot.

September 7th, 2000, was one of the last straws for de la Rocha and his time with Rage. The band lost to Limp Bizkit at the MTV Video Music Awards. Bassist Tim Commerford climbed one of the stage props out of some “protest” with de la Rocha bailing immediately. Can you blame the guy? It was lame then, and 20 years later, it’s even lamer. The whole show was derailed for 10 minutes, and a bunch of whack pop stars felt uncomfortable.

A month later, de la Rocha bailed on the band, saying, “I feel that it is now necessary to leave Rage because our decision-making process has completely failed. It is no longer meeting the aspirations of all four of us collectively as a band, and from my perspective, has undermined our artistic and political ideal.”

“There was so much squabbling over everything,” Morello later said of the relationship with their former singer, “and I mean everything. We would even have fistfights over whether our T-shirts should be mauve or camouflaged! It was ridiculous. We were patently political, internally combustible. It was ugly for a long time.”

Renegades, the band’s cover album, was most definitely not de la Rocha’s favorite project, acting as a significant reason for leaving. Apparently, he hated it enough that the rest of the band wanted to get separate management to get the record released. Renegades is a weird collection of songs that don’t jive. It sounds like a band that doesn’t know what to do, save for their reinvention of the Bruce Springsteen song “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, which had been in their arsenal years prior. It’s not exactly rocket science to see why de la Rocha hated the project. All you have to do is listen to “Renegades of Funk”.

Click ahead to read about Zach de la Rocha’s life after Rage Against the Machine.

The Post-Rage World

While his former bandmates went on to play dad rock with Audioslave, de la Rocha was working on a hip-hop project with basically the dream team, artists like D.J. Shadow, El-P (long before anyone knew him from Run the Jewels), Dan The Automator, Questlove, and Trent Reznor. But nothing came of the sessions, well, nothing he wanted to release. Reznor, on the other hand, has stated that the project had legs.

When asked about the project, de la Rocha’s feelings were clear: “When I left Rage … first off, I was very heartbroken, and secondly, I became obsessed with completely reinventing my wheel. In an unhealthy way, to a degree. I kind of forgot that old way of allowing yourself to just be a conduit. When I was working with Trent and Shadow, I felt that I was going through the motions. Not that what was produced wasn’t great, but I feel now that I’ve maybe reinvented the base sounds that emanate from the songs.”

Following the recording sessions, de la Rocha popped up a few times, once on Roni Size’s “Centre of the Storm” from his record Blazing Arrow, and then back with D.J. Shadow on his track “March of Death”, which was a direct protest of the Invasion of Iraq. de la Rocha had the following to say: “Lies, sanctions, and cruise missiles have never created a free and just society. Only everyday people can do that, which is why I’m joining the millions worldwide who have stood up to oppose the Bush administration’s attempt to expand the US empire at the expense of human rights at home and abroad. In this spirit, I’m releasing this song for anyone willing to listen. I hope it not only makes us think but also inspires us to act and raise our voices.”

In 2004, the soundtrack Songs and Artists That Inspired Fahrenheit 9/11 featured one of the tracks with Reznor. “We Want It All” is unique in the catalog of both de la Rocha and Reznor. It’s straight-ahead, filthy rock and roll that’s more MC5 than anything like what Trent Reznor typically does. It only makes you wonder what could have been. Ironically, the same record gave us Tom Morello’s debut as The Nightwatchman, with his song “No One Left”.

Around 2005, de la Rocha hit the stage with Son Jarocho band Son de Madera at a benefit concert for the South Central Farmers. He sang and played the jarana with the band and performed a new song, “Sea of Dead Hands”.

Brothers in Arms Reunited

Around 2007, word hit the streets that Rage Against the Machine might play some shows again. And on January 22nd, 2007, it was announced that the band would headline the final day of everyone’s favorite Instagram festival, Coachella. On April 29th, the band took the stage, performing in front of the E.Z.L.N. flag. The show was meant to be a sounding board for what Morello called, “Right Wing Purgatory,” citing that George W. Bush had managed to slip into the White House while the band was on ice. The band went on to play seven more shows in the States, including Lollapalooza, and Reading and Leads over in Europe.

In 2008, de la Rocha had this to say about his relationship with the other members of Rage: “So much has changed. When you get older, you look back on tensions and grievances and have another perspective on it. I think our relationship now is better than it’s ever been. I would even describe it as great. We’re going to keep playing shows — we have a couple of big ones happening in front of both conventions. As far as us recording music in the future, I don’t know where we all fit with that. We’ve all embraced each other’s projects and support them, and that’s great.”

During the 2008 election cycle, Rage Against the Machine headlined the free Tent State Music Festival to End the War, which also happened to be during the Democratic National Convention in Denver. The band marched with uniformed veterans from the Iraq war, including almost 10,000 festival attendees, straight to the D.N.C. After a police standoff with the marchers, the Obama campaign agreed to meet with reps from Iraq Veterans Against the War and hear their demands.

Not to be outdone by their D.N.C. performance, the band hit the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. They tried to play a free show in St. Paul, but the cops shut them down like true narcs. Morello and de la Rocha rapped and sang through a megaphone to the people who gathered around.

Randomly in 2009, a campaign was started to get “Killing in the Name” trending as the Christmas single in the UK. Apparently, the No. 1 spot is held by The X-Factor every Christmas and people were sick of it dominating the charts with its sugary sweetness. People got behind the campaign, and almost a million people got together to make a 21-year-old Rage Against the Machine song No. 1. A whole slew of artists like Paul McCartney and The Prodigy got behind the movement, and lo and behold, the song climbed the charts.

During an interview on the BBC, de la Rocha said, “We’re very, very ecstatic and excited about the song reaching the No. 1 spot. We want to thank everyone that participated in this incredible, organic, grass-roots campaign. It says more about the spontaneous action taken by young people throughout the UK to topple this very sterile pop monopoly. When young people decide to take action, they can make what’s seemingly impossible, possible.”

As a thank you, the band played a free show in Finsbury Park, London, on June 6, 2010. They even came out to a video mocking the capitalist vampire hack Simon Cowell.

There was a rumor that the band had a bunch of material written and were going to hit the studio. Every member of the band had stated it was a possibility. Since then, everything Rage-related has been a zig when someone else zags. Tom Morello says no future music is on the books while de la Rocha said it was happening. And then after the LA Rising show to fight the SB1070 immigration law, which they raised over $300,000 for, and a few Central and South American shows, the band again drifted off into the shadows.

After the run of Rage reunion gigs, de la Rocha went back into hiding until it was announced he had a new project, One Day as a Lion with former Mars Volta and current Queens of the Stone Age drummer Jon Theodore. The duo released an EP and played a handful of shows, but then, like all other projects, vanished into the ether. One Day as a Lion is probably the singer’s best work outside Rage. It’s groovy, violent, and feels like a ’70s Los Angeles car-chase scene.

And then, nothing. For almost 10 years, there was silence. But then in 2014, de la Rocha appeared on the Run the Jewels track “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” and even performed with the duo at Chicago’s Pitchfork Festival in 2015 wearing a beat-up Bad Brains t-shirt. Still buzzing from the performance, the El-P-produced “Digging for Windows” landed on YouTube with people losing it, but then, nothing. No new record, no more songs. And that’s where the solo material trail goes cold.

Back in 2016, when Trump was elected, a countdown website appeared. Everyone held their breath. Was the band back? Were we going to get massive shows with hanging banners with crooked political faces on them? Was the militant poet back? Nope. It turned out to be Prophets of Rage. Cue sad horn. While Public Enemy and Cypress Hill are both incredible legacy acts who changed the hip-hop game, breaking out “Bulls on Parade” didn’t have the same oomph.

But then on November 1st of last year, Rage Against the Machine officially announced their return. We’ve missed a unifying voice, one that doesn’t pander to sides but operates on truth. We’re ready to rage again, Mr. de la Rocha. This place is too quiet without you screaming into a microphone.