“Killing In The Name” is one of Rage Against The Machine’s biggest hits and most enduring tracks. Now, guitarist Tom Morello has given the world a bit of insight into the creation of the song.
In a new interview with Rolling Stone’s ‘Music Now’ podcast, Morello first mentions how some of the track’s iconic lyrics came to be and how he relates them to freedom from slavery. Said Morello,
“‘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.
He then goes on to talk about how his guitar part came about:
“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.”
Morello also reveals that “Killing In The Name” one of the band’s earliest songs and started out life as an instrumental track, saying,
“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 that 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.”
He then mentions that if the band’s A&R person had his way, one of the track’s most iconic parts would have hit the cutting room floor. Said Morello,
“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.”
“Killing In The Name” was the lead single from Rage Against The Machine’s 1992 debut self-titled album. The song was also the band’s first big hit, charting in the UK, Australia and New Zealand upon release. It also led the band’s debut album to the top of the US Heatseekers Chart upon release and multi-platinum sales status within the decade. In 2009, the song found its way to the top of the UK charts after a successful push to make it the country’s Christmas number one.
Over the last few months, the song has had a resurgence in popularity as widespread protests for racial justice have been taking hold across the US. A few weeks ago, protesters in Portland, OR even chanted the song’s words at federal agents who were sent in to quell the uprising (this is the incident Morello refers to during the interview).
Morello’s full interview with Rolling Stone can be found here, as well as on iTunes and Spotify.
Rage Against The Machine were slated to reunite this year for a US tour. Those dates had to be rescheduled due to the pandemic. A full list of the new tour dates can be found here.