Behind the Meaning of Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 Hit “Killing in the Name”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Even the name Rage Against the Machine evokes the band’s political stance, a pushback against socio-political injustices, and inequalities. The band’s 1992 self-titled album was a doctrine of the struggles against the establishment, which was predominantly captured in RATM hit “Killing in the Name.” 

Tom Morello’s Accidental Riff

Tom Morello started playing the “Killing In The Name” riff while teaching a student how to play in “Drop D” tuning. “I stopped the lesson, got out my little cassette recorder, and recorded it,” said Morello. “It felt like a good one right from the beginning.” The band started working on the song the next day.

Rodney King

Released as the first single off Rage Against the Machine on Nov. 2, 1992, “Killing in the Name” was a rap-metal song of protest against the abuses of power. Initially, the lyrics—written by singer Zach de la Rocha, along with Morello, bassist Timothy Robert Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk— were inspired by the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police in 1991, resulting in riots across the city in 1992 after the officers involved in King’s beating were acquitted.

Those who died are justified, for wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites
You justify those that died by wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites

“We wrote that song before we even had a gig,” said Morello, “so when we started clobbering people with those riffs and the ‘fuck you’– it was exciting from the very beginning.” In the song, the verse Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me is repeated 16 times.

“When we turn the lights on the crowd and that last chorus comes in,” said Morello, I think if you look under the dictionary for the definition of the word ‘apeshit’ there’d have to be a picture of people losing their mind to this song.”

International Status

Though “Killing In The Name” didn’t get much radio play in the U.S. because of its explicit lyrics, an edited version was getting airplay in the U.K. and Europe breaking the band into the international market.

The LAPD and the KKK

Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses, sings De la Rocha, linking the LAPD to the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan, and continues in the song refrain You justify those that died by wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites.

1992-2022 

Now 30 years after the release of “Killing in the Name,” the song continues to be as relevant as it was in 1992. Most recently, the song made a resurgence with the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in 2020.

Photo: Legacy Recordings

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