The 1990s Story Behind ‘Killing In The Name’

This is the 4th and final week of the Nostalgic Music Mini Series ‘Behind These Political Songs That Defined Their Decade‘. But stay tuned for next week’s article focused on sexism in the Scottish Music Scene and Wednesday 28th July’s article; ‘The Instagram Subculture Centred on Living in the Past‘.

After an evening of drinking, two black men proceeded to drive through two different states in the USA before being tracked down by police for breaking the law. Both men were maltreated by officers attending the scene. One man had an officer kneeling on his neck whilst another was beaten with a police baton over 50 times. At both locations, a bystander began to record. These recordings sent shockwaves through the world. You see, one man was Rodney King, the other George Floyd, and one year was 1991, the other 2020, yet the most hard-hitting difference; only one walked out alive…and that was 29 years earlier.

King reportedly suffered brain damage, skull fractures, broken bones, kidney failure and emotional trauma, all of which had been recorded on tape from a salesman across the road. This later aired on a local TV Station. Inevitably sparking worldwide outrage, there was none more so than in the year that followed, where three officers involved were acquitted of assault. Riots flooded the nation, particularly in King’s city of LA and became known as the ‘LA riots’. 

In 1992, as the streets of LA blazed in horror and fury, a Los Angeles band were cooking up a storm for their self-titled debut album ‘Rage Against The Machine’. At this point the band’s lead guitarist, Tom Morello, took a strong riff that he had discovered while teaching one of his students a drop D tuning to his band. This, combined with the cathartic passion from frontman Zack de la Rocha, ‘Killing in the Name’ was birthed, taking inspiration from King’s systemic sufferings. 

At this time, Zack thrust his fascination with the power of speech into action, further motivated by his admiration for activists such as Malcolm X. It seemed there was no time more critical to vocalise his beliefs than during one of LA’s most profound moments. From this came arguably the most poignant repeated lines of an epic rock song: “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.” Here, he alludes to the brutal, institutional corruption and racism that went hand in hand throughout the USA and, more importantly—still does. 

Rage Against The Machine are the first band on this list whose sole musical purpose and existence can be credited to being radical. It’s still equally as important to note that their musical talent is not weakened by this but instead strengthened, working in almost a symbiotic relationship with each other. The band has a whole catalogue not shy of rap infused metal consisting of bellows of social injustices. All in the dirtiest, most raw and furious fashion you could only expect from a band with ‘rage’ in their title. 

There’s a sort of ironic hypocrisy in the fact that the song never charted in its home country, the origin place of the societal issues that inspired the song, but instead earning a spot at number 25 in the UK in 1993 after a live appearance on a tv show called Yoof. From then on, RATM performed notoriously temper-filled concerts worldwide, most often ending in riot cops and the burning of an American flag. A bold statement that resulted in complete and utter musical and political mayhem— but it gave them sort of an edge. 

“A little dose of anarchy for the Christmas Holidays is good for the soul,” Morello told BBC Radio 6 Music in 2009. This statement was in response to a campaign started that year by Jon Morter, an English Dj, to get RATM’s Killing in the Name to the Christmas number one spot against X-Factor winner Joe McElderry. This campaign’s motivation was to make a point that commercial and cheesy pop singles are not what the nation wants, and, spoiler, he was right as the campaign was successful. RATM had achieved UK Christmas Number One. 

In the run-up, the members spoke in a BBC interview in response to how they’d feel if they achieved the number one spot, frontman De la Rocha said: “It would be kind of a wonderful statement. I think that it says something about the real tensions that people are experiencing all over the UK and the United States as well,” through a fuzzy mic in a studio, he continued, “I think that people would love to hear a song that reflects some of the tensions that they’re experiencing in their daily lives.”

When asked if RATM felt that this was a rage against the manufactured pop business, Morello took hold of the mic and said: “I think it’s tapped into the silent majority of the people in the UK that are tired of being spoon-fed one schmaltzy ballad after another and they want to take back their own charts,” it was here that his voice started to raise with a heightened passion that confirmed the honesty in his speech, “and we are honoured that they’ve chosen our song to be the rebel anthem to try and topple the X-factor monopoly.” 

There was a humble yet heartfelt passion in the band’s interview. Unlike many artists in the industry, there seemed to be no sign of hypocrisy due to the campaign’s proceeds going toward help for homeless shelters.

Morello finally turns to Jon and says: “It’s a real liberating musical revolution that people are on. I think that it’s an excellent lesson for people that whether it’s in a small matter like who’s at the top of the charts or bigger matters like war and peace and economic inequality — when people band together and make their voices heard, they can completely overturn the system as it is.” 

Like U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, this 1992 essential moment-capturing epic has continued relevancy, probably today more than ever. The YouTube comment sections of this song are flooded with statements from 2020 like “This band is so needed right now,” and “I get the message now,” and this is 29 years on from the song’s initial incident for political inspiration. RATM didn’t just speak to their nation, but to multiple — especially the UK, holding a strong affinity with the politically charged punk scene over a decade before them. Morello told BBC Radio 6 Music: “Your country has a great, rich history of cutting-edge, exciting rebel music— whether that’s early Stones and The Who, or The Clash and the Sex Pistols, or Prodigy and Muse.” 

Two black men broke the law one night. One lay battered senseless on the road, the other begged for air, the one organic source that should not be deprived of us from anything but time itself and almost 30 years after the first, one didn’t make it out alive. Institutional racism is more than a sign of its times. In fact, it only seems to have worsened with it. Having more artists like Rage Against The Machine today are the voices for the changes that can be made tomorrow. 

Image Source “Rage Against the Machine @ Christiania 1993” by pellesten is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Ailsa Gillies

23 Years Old. MSc International Journalism. BA (Hons) Film, Media and Journalism. Freelance Journalist and Content Creator for BBC Scotland's 'The Social'. Former Columnist and Music Feature Writer for The Weekender.

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