You Do What They Told Ya: "Killing in the Name" 25 Years Later
October 24, 2017 | by C.M. Crockford
There’s a longstanding story about Rage Against the Machine, that they had a plan: If their music didn't start a revolution within five years they would break up. Now obviously this is just goofy bullshit, but the fact that people could tell the story, and believe it, is what's important about Rage as a band. Their agitprop was never anything but sincere. From 1991 to 2000 they made four records of angry, blood-churning rap rock. Zach De La Rocha spat rhymes with the fury of Jackson's Ezekiel speech in Pulp Fiction, Tom Morello created as many lurching, aggressive sounds out of his guitar as he could, and the rhythm section of Cummerford and Wilk locked them all in a tight, controlled groove. In a less committed state of mind the band could be seen as silly, but at their best, like 1999's The Battle of Los Angeles, Rage was blindingly intense.
Their first single is now 25 years old, but 1992's “Killing in the Name” is still a powerhouse of a rock song. The second track on their self-titled album is an anthem of blistering, well, rage towards the racism of the cops, the military industrial complex, and American authority itself. In structure and scope it feels like the band's attempt at an ultimate protest song — the final word. It's only five minutes long, but “Killing in the Name” is an epic divided into four distinct sequences, the opening riffs towering over everything before the band hones into that headbanging drop D hook. Each piece builds into each other naturally with no sense of cookie-cutter songwriting. Thus the legendary climax as Zach screams Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me! is truly awesome, a deep catharsis, the band unleashed and righteous until they circle back to the beginning riff and sputter to a halt.
More than two decades later the legacy of “Killing in the Name” and the band itself is oddly muddled. Rage Against the Machine inadvertently kickstarted a wave of horrible rap rock bands with none of the talent or intelligence they had, making “rap rock” a laughable idea, while the band members either in Audioslave or on their own could never pull off the same alchemy they had before. As time went on, the Catch-22 of “Killing in the Name” emerged: The lyrics were much less concrete and specific compared to “Take the Power Back,” for example, but that's also what made the track so wildly popular. The listener could shrug off the left-wing sentiment and hear only a badass nonconformist statement to mosh to. It's exactly why, to Morello's horror, the U.K. uber-right-wing party UKIP played it at rallies, and Guantanamo prisoners were psychologically tortured with repeated high-volume plays of the song. Rage Against the Machine, like other popular protest singers and bands before them, found that the more widespread a song is, the more listeners exist who haven’t absorbed a word you've said.
Nevertheless, “Killing in the Name” has endured through the years to the point that it’s trickled into classic rock radio and is ranked in several Greatest Songs Ever lists. But chillingly, the message of the song, that cops and law enforcement have been tied to white supremacy over and over, still reverberates in the 21st century. In January 2017, The Intercept reported that FBI policy had started to take into account how white supremacist hate groups and their members have heavily infiltrated law enforcement agencies. In fact, there's no central standard for filtering them out of these organizations at all. Twenty-five years later the “chosen whites” of the song continue to hold office and act as representatives of the law, often killing people of color with little to no consequences. At least “Killing in the Name” will get played and heard long after these men are in the ground.