Up Against the Wall : You want raw, unfiltered extremism? You got it. Rage Against the Machine is back, with all pistons firing. The band members once thought they'd be too political for anyone to care. They were wrong.

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello is one rock 'n' roll guitarist whose chief idol was not Jimi Hendrix and who didn't spend most of his late teens in smoke-filled clubs honing his craft. His early heroes were more along the lines of Che Guevara and Malcolm X, and his apprenticeship, if you will, was four years in Harvard classrooms.

Along with the equally aggressive social agenda of Rage lead singer and rapper Zack de la Rocha, Morello's background gives the Los Angeles quartet an individuality and drive that make it one of the most exciting forces in '90s rock--and one of the most surprising success stories.

"My ambition was to be a revolutionary," the slender Morello says while sitting in a conference room at Epic Records, which will release "Evil Empire," the group's long-awaited second album, on Tuesday. (See review, Page 70.)

"But how do you become a revolutionary, especially when you are living in a sleepy little place like Libertyville, Ill.?" he says. "I thought the best way to arm myself was to get the best education I could."

Instead of following his Harvard roommates into medicine and investment banking, Morello--whose father was active in the struggle for independence in Kenya in the '60s--decided to spread his militant views through his private passion, rock music.

Morello, now 31, moved to Los Angeles after graduating with honors in social studies in 1986 and tried to put together a band by placing ads in local music papers. But it was the era of Guns N' Roses and glam-rock in Los Angeles, so there was little interest in a group dealing with socialist politics.

It wasn't until 1991 that Rage Against the Machine was formed.

From the start, the group--which also includes Tim Bob on bass and Brad Wilk on drums--served up a blistering blend of furious social commentary and funk, metal and hip-hop musical textures that are woven together so aggressively that they seem to virtually explode on record and, especially, onstage.

That force wowed record company talent scouts around town as well as rock audiences. The group's 1992 debut album, "Rage Against the Machine," has sold more than 1 million albums in this country and another 2 million around the world.

The question surrounding Rage is whether its audience was stimulated by the band's politics or simply seduced by the power of its grooves. One test may be the sales reaction to the new album.

Dozens of bands can approximate the intensity of Rage, which means they could have picked up part of the group's audience in the four years since the debut album. But no other major-label attraction infuses its music with such a fervent message. If the band is connecting on both levels, the Rage audience will probably be intact and sales could again be impressive.

Robert Haber, president and publisher of CMJ's New Music Report, a trade journal that tracks alternative and college rock, believes that "Evil Empire" could hit big.

"With the explosion of alternative commercial radio, a lot of bands seem to just be going for a hit sound, but Rage seems to be staying true to their ideals," he says. "I think audiences will respond to that genuineness."

If so, Rage could have a significant influence on rock for the rest of the decade.

Once an artist successfully stakes out new territory, record companies race to find others with similar direction. In this case, Rage's success would be good news for artists that are also in the tradition of the Clash and other passionate political outfits.

Even if you don't agree with the specifics of Rage's themes and the group's tales of social oppression and government corruption, it is healthy for pop music to reassert some of its old sociopolitical relevance.

"I never thought that we would sell a record," Morello says. "I thought the politics would be too alienating, too extreme. But I'm proud the music is extreme, the politics are extreme. When you open your eyes to what is going on in this world, you realize that a sort of moderate medicine is no good to cure an extreme illness.

"There are lots of bands who support some very noble causes, like abortion rights, environmental issues and things like that. But we are talking about a bigger overhauling of society. To me, the reaction to our music is a reason for hope."

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One of the most liberating rock moments in recent memory was Rage Against the Machine's mesmerizing performances as the opening act on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour.

As soon as De la Rocha went into the first number in the midafternoon sun, one could sense that Rage was something special. Combining Chuck D.'s accessibility and power as a rapper with Bob Marley's determination as a performer, De la Rocha didn't just recycle the themes of restless alienation that populate modern rock. This rage was deeper, more specific.

In songs such as "Take the Power Back," De la Rocha, whose dreadlocks make him look like a young Marley, focuses on cultural repression, including the education system:

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Mother [expletive] Uncle Sam

Step back, I know who I am. . . .

The present curriculums,

I put my fist in 'em.

Eurocentric every last one of 'em,

See right through the red, white and blue disguise.

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Thanks to its compelling performances, Rage saw its album sales, which had only been at the 75,000 level before Lollapalooza, jump to 400,000 by the end of the year.

Michael Goldstone, the Epic Records vice president for artists and repertoire who signed Rage, wasn't surprised by the band's explosive breakthrough. He had been overwhelmed himself the first time he saw the group perform in a San Fernando Valley rehearsal studio in 1991.

"The things you are looking for in every band is substance, charisma, passion, commitment--and Rage had them all," says Goldstone, who also signed Pearl Jam, one of the other great bands of the '90s.

"A lot of times when you see a band rehearsing, it's a very sterile environment, but these guys had so much intensity. They couldn't have thrown themselves into the music any more if they were playing in front of 60,000 people. I had never seen anything like it."

Still, Rage represented a gamble for Goldstone and Epic. Many in the '90s rock generation have appeared disdainful of mixing politics and music--disillusioned perhaps by the way they see their parents' generation failing to live up to the lofty ideals of '60s rock.

From the band members' standpoint, the question was whether they could maintain creative freedom with a major label.

"A lot of labels contacted us, and lots of them just didn't seem to understand what we wanted to do," Morello says during the interview at Epic Records.

"They kept talking about the message of the music as a gimmick. They were interested in us just because there was a buzz. . . . They saw us as the latest local rock band to be hyped. But Epic agreed to everything we asked--and they've followed through."

By signing with a major label, however, Rage left itself open to barbs from cynics who ask why the group would align itself with an international conglomerate. Why not release its albums independently?

Morello nods at the question.

"We get asked about that all the time, but we never saw a conflict as long as we maintained creative control. When you live in a capitalistic society, the currency of the dissemination of information goes through capitalistic channels.

"Would Noam Chomsky object to his works being sold at Barnes & Noble? No, because that's where people buy their books. We're not interested in preaching to just the converted. It's great to play abandoned squats run by anarchists, but it's also great to be able to reach people with a revolutionary message, people from Granada Hills to Stuttgart."

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Morello and De la Rocha were both in bands before Rage (Morello's group Lock Up even had an album in 1990 on Geffen Records), but both found Rage to be the ideal vehicle to express the social frustration that had been building up inside them for years.

The 26-year-old De La Rocha grew up in two different worlds after his parents separated in the early '70s. He lived in Irvine with his mother, who was studying at UC Irvine for her doctorate in anthropology. But he often spent weekends in Lincoln Heights with his father, Roberto de la Rocha, a founding member of Los Four, a pioneering group in the Chicano art movement.

"I felt that every day was a kind of war for my own identity," De la Rocha said during an interview last week, after his return from the Mexican state of Chiapas, where he spent several days with the Zapatista rebels who are fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples.

"Two factors contributed to how lonely and desolate I felt in Irvine," he continues, recalling his adolescence. "We didn't have any money in a community where your whole worth was determined by how much money you had, and I was a Chicano in a town where you are the exception to the rule if you are Mexican and you don't have a broom or a hammer in your hand."

At the same time, De la Rocha didn't feel at home in East Los Angeles, because he was considered "too Anglo" in his speech patterns and background (his mother is of Irish, German and Mexican descent).

"It wasn't until I was in my early teens and heard punk rock that I found a solace--a place where I felt I belonged," he says, recalling his early love for such bands as Bad Religion and Social Distortion.

But punk wasn't his only musical influence. He was moved by the social commentary of rap group Public Enemy and reggae legend Bob Marley.

About Marley, he says: "There was a revolutionary spirit about him that helped show me the potential of music in terms . . . of political action. When I heard that the guerrillas in Zimbabwe listened to Marley's music as a source of inspiration, it was like a milestone for me."

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You also don't have to speak to Morello long to pinpoint where much of the anger and alienation in his music are rooted.

Morello's father was a part of Kenya's first United Nations delegation, and his mother was active in civil rights and anti-censorship groups. The couple were married only briefly in the mid-'60s before Morello's father returned from New York to Kenya.

His mother, whose background is Irish and Italian, moved home to Illinois to teach high school government and history. She settled in Libertyville, about an hour's drive from Chicago, because it was the only suburb in which she could both work and live. Other school districts offered her a job, but she couldn't live in the same town because interracial families weren't acceptable, says Morello (who uses his mother's surname).

"The family values in my home were markedly different from the community, which is something you really don't discover until you are in high school and start having history lessons where there are 'controversial' subjects and your understanding of things like the Columbus invasion are different from what they are teaching you," he says.

"I did a lot of reading about the Black Panthers and the Weathermen and how our tax dollars were funding torture and death squads in Central America. There were also some racial incidents in town--a noose on our garage at one point."

Musically speaking, Morello was first excited by the spectacle of theatrical rockers such as KISS and Alice Cooper, but it was the punk ethic of the Sex Pistols and the political urgency of the Clash that made him want to be in a band. At Harvard, he says, he became obsessed with the guitar, often practicing four hours a day.

While trying to assemble a band in the mid-'80s in Los Angeles, a frustrated Morello put his rock dreams on the shelf for two years to work as scheduling secretary for U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, one of the nation's most respected liberal lawmakers. The experience killed any lingering interest that Morello had in trying to work within the political system.

"I realized the degree that politicians are beholden to the wealthy," Morello says. "For the two years I worked for him, he would spend all day when he was in L.A. on the phone raising money for himself or other campaigns. So, who does he owe favors to? It's certainly not the homeless."

Morello and De la Rocha may get the most media attention, but bassist Tim Bob and drummer Brad Wilk play an important part in shaping the sound of Rage Against the Machine and have an equal voice in running the band. Like R.E.M. and U2, Rage Against the Machine requires a unanimous vote on career decisions and shares songwriting royalties equally.

Part of the group's aggressive sound, in fact, is a reflection of the frequent internal clashes of opinions, members say.

"There's always going to be tension between the four of us, which I think is normal," Wilk says late one afternoon at a modest Mexican restaurant on Beverly Boulevard. "We're like a microcosm of Los Angeles in some ways. We come from different backgrounds, different cultures.

"We also have different tastes in music and it's a battle in the studio to come up with something we all agree on, and you can feel that battle on the record. There's nothing easy about what we do."

Tim Bob, 28, was born in Torrance but grew up in middle-class surroundings in Irvine, where he attended University High School with De la Rocha. He lived with the heartbreak of seeing his mother suffer with brain cancer for more than a decade until she died in the late '80s. Music became a comfort.

"It was my escape from the things that were bad in my life, like my mom and stuff," says Tim Bob, who called himself Timmy C. on the first album and plans to change his name on each album. "It still is. I'll just sit by myself sometimes for hours and play bass. It's kind of a lonely instrument."

Wilk, 27, a native of Portland, Ore., has lived since his mid-teens in the Los Angeles area, where he attended Taft High School and fell in love early with rock, especially the drumming of the Who's Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin's John Bonham. Wilk didn't fit in much at school, he says, so drumming became an escape for him.

Besides diverse backgrounds, the band members bring a wide range of competing musical visions to the music--drawing upon everything from hip-hop and punk to jazz and reggae.

It was this collision of personalities and tastes that contributed to the long delay in finishing the new album, a delay that led to rumors that the band was breaking up.

The plan was to go to Atlanta for a month last year and focus on the project by living together in the same house. But things didn't go smoothly. The band's energies were also sidetracked by a sometimes bitter struggle to sever ties with its original management firm.

"What happened, in retrospect," Wilk says of the Atlanta experience, "is the first record came out and we went on the road for three years straight, living together on a bus. When you do that, it's pretty easy to kind of get sick of each other, and we needed a break.

"Instead, we go into rehearsal to make a second record, and all the personal differences that we had swept under the rug when we were touring suddenly came up and we had to deal with them. I felt like the band could have fallen apart then, but it didn't get that far. Deep down inside, I think everyone knows how important the group is to each of us. We took two or three months off, and things were a lot better when we came back."

Despite the strong buzz on the band in rock circles, Rage Against the Machine remains something of an underground sensation. One reason is that the group's early singles and videos contained so many expletives that radio and TV exposure was limited. The band also has done few interviews with mainstream publications.

The new album, however, is far from a softening of position in hopes of luring a wider following. Notes Rolling Stone in a review of the album in its April 18 issue: "If the band's first album was a call to arms, 'Evil Empire' is a declaration of war."

Rage has also been aggressive in its support (including, in some cases, financial) of various causes, from the anti-Nazi campaigns in Europe to anti-censorship efforts in this country. In one flamboyant move, the four band members walked onstage nude during a Lollapalooza concert in Philadelphia with tape over their mouths to underscore their opposition to music censorship.

The band, too, used the 1994 video for its song "Freedom" to urge the release from prison of Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who was convicted on charges resulting from the 1975 deaths of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Rage returns to the road with a series of European shows starting May 1, followed by U.S. dates in July.

De la Rocha pauses when asked if he is proud of Rage's accomplishments so far.

"To me, the reaction to the music and things like the 'Freedom' video are very encouraging," he says. "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. . . . The hopelessness. I think you can see it at the polls. . . . No one is turning out anymore. No one thinks that they can make a difference. What we are trying to show is that people can make a difference . . . that we aren't all powerless."

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