Rage Against the Machine were supposed to be on tour this summer, but instead, their music is coming alive on American streets. In Portland, Oregon, protesters have been chanting the “fuck you/I won’t do what tell me” chorus of 1991’s “Killing in the Name,” Rage’s most enduring anthem.
In the new episode of IndieLand Music Now, Rage guitarist Tom Morello — who has a new book due in the fall called Whatever It Takes, along with a retrospective Audible release, Tom Morello at the Minetta Lane — looks back on his life and career. Among other many other subjects, he recalls the making of “Killing in the Name” in detail.
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“Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” is a universal sentiment. While it’s a simple lyric, I think it’s one of [Zack de la Rocha’s] most brilliant. And to me, it relates to Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass said, the moment he became free was not the moment that he was physically loosed from his bonds. It was the moment when master said, “Yes.” And he said, “No.” And that’s the essence of “Fuck you, I will not do what you tell me.” And that’s why it’s encouraging to hear it shouted at the Fed goons who are shooting tear gas at American citizens.
I was teaching guitar lesson to an accomplished local scenester musician and was showing them how to play drop-D [tuning]. Maynard Keenan of Tool had taught me how to do drop-D. I was actually playing bass at the time, a crappy Ibanez bass. And I was like, “When you play drop-D tuning, it just sort of suggests different patterns to your fingers.” And the first pattern I played was that riff. I said, hold on one sec, and got my little Radio Shack recorder and recorded that.
And then it was originally an instrumental. There’s a Rage Against the Machine video from Cal State Northridge – which is our first public performance – where we open the show with an instrumental version of “Killing in the Name” and Timmy [Commerford], I think, came up with hat really cool [bass riff]. [Brad Wilk’s] crowd-bouncing beat is there from the very, very beginning. And then Zack laced it with the historic lyrics. We actually left the lyrics off of the lyric sheet of the first record, because it’s I think it’s two lines, 16 “fuck yous”, and one “motherfucker.” And we’re like, in the midst of all this grand political poetry, let’s just that one stand for itself.
The dunna-dunt [before de la Rocha raps, “and now you do what they told ya”] that was an important part! I remember our A&R guy, Michael Goldstone, who’s a genius. He’s got Pearl Jam. He was really the fifth Beatle early on. He was a great help, but he wanted us to take that part out of the song. I think he heard “hit single, as long as he doesn’t have that crazy part where it just stops a lot!” That was a bit of a lift from Zeppelin’s “Good times, Bad Times,” that part. We’ve felt pretty confident that needs to stay in the song, and I think history has borne that out.
Download and subscribe to our weekly podcast, IndieLand Music Now, hosted by Brian Hiatt, on iTunes or Spotify (or wherever you get your podcasts), and check out two years’ worth of episodes in the archive, including in-depth, career-spanning interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Halsey, Neil Young, the National, Questlove, Julian Casablancas, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Marr, Scott Weiland, Alice Cooper, Fleetwood Mac, Elvis Costello, Donald Fagen, Phil Collins, Alicia Keys, Stephen Malkmus, Sebastian Bach, Tom Petty, Kelly Clarkson, Pete Townshend, Bob Seger, the Zombies, Gary Clark Jr., and many more — plus dozens of episodes featuring genre-spanning discussions, debates, and explainers with IndieLand’s critics and reporters. Tune in every Friday at 1 p.m. ET to hear IndieLand Music Now broadcast live from SiriusXM’s studios on Volume, channel 106.