Taken from the self-titled debut album by Los Angeles legends Rage Against the Machine in 1992, Killing in the Name spliced together rap and metal in a mould-breaking explosion of anger at America's stubborn perpetuation of institutionalised racism, notoriously concluding with a single phrase, repeated 16 times with gradually building intensity, from a mumble to a roar: "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!". This new version by Brooklyn's Brass Against is, to coin a phrase, Rage as you've never heard it before.
Whilst it's clearly a protest song, the lyrics of Killing in the Name aren't obviously inspired by a specific act. But when Zack de la Rocha sardonically spits "by wearing the badge, they're the chosen whites" and when he drawls "some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses" it's clear that he's drawing a line between white police officers and Ku Klux Klan lynch mobs. And in 1992, that connection was as stark and horrifying as ever.
In the spring of that year, thousands of Angelenos took the streets after three white LA police officers were acquitted on charges of police brutality. The world was shocked by these verdicts, because millions had witnessed video footage of those very same men viciously beating a black suspect, Rodney King, following a police chase. The mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, expressed his astonishment, saying "the jury told the world that what we all saw with our own eyes was not a crime". He exhorted the public not to "push back progress by striking back blindly" but it was too late - the "LA riots" had already begun.
Killing in the Name was written in reaction to the assault on Rodney King and the song gained additional potency when the law appeared to prove Zack de la Rocha right by taking the side of the white establishment. Due to its acute timeliness, Rage Against the Machine's record company A&R man, Michael Goldstone, pushed for the song to be the band's debut single, despite the bad language. Guitarist Tom Morello recalls that the decision was a refreshing surprise for the band.
"It was a case of, 'Okay, let’s get this straight: it's the record company who want our first record to be the one that goes, 'Fuck you! I won't do what you tell me!' 16 times, followed by a 'motherfucker'?' Sold! That wouldn’t have been my choice, but that’s how it worked."
The radio-friendly, expletive-free version of Killing in the Name was mostly banned in the USA but was a hit in Europe and was notably revived in 2009 in the UK where it became a Number One hit thanks to a charity-fundraising grassroots campaign to prevent the winner of that year's TV talent show The X Factor from topping the charts at Christmas. Ironically, Brass Against's version of Killing in the Name features vocals by Sophia Urista, who was previously best known as a contestant on the 2016 season of US talent show The Voice, proving that it's possible to dance with the devils of network television and still achieve some degree of redemption.
Formed in 2017 as Brass Against the Machine, the band is a core collective of nine musicians led by Brad Hammonds, featuring trumpets, trombones, saxophone, sousaphone, guitar, vocals and drums. Their novel interpretations of classic 90s and 00s American agit-rock, featuring a healthy dose of RATM in every set, has quickly turned them into the must-see festival tribute act of 2019 with a busy programme of dates across Europe lined up for the summer, as well as a support slot with Lenny Kravitz at London's massive O2 Arena in June and an appearance at Boomtown 2019 alongside the original RATM offshoot Prophets of Rage.
"When Trump started garnering support I felt like we needed Rage Against the Machine more than ever," Brad Hammonds told GigRadar last year. "I wanted to do something with their tunes that was really big – to make a statement."
"I think a large portion of the mainstream bands that we see are more concerned about Instagram followers, product sales and keeping the networks happy," says baritone sax player Andy Gutauskas, quoted in Classic Rock magazine. "I do think bands have a great opportunity to reach many people and help educate and inspire through their songs. When an artist is truly honest with their art, political or not, I think the result has the power to resonate with people and bring them to a higher level."
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About the curator: Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.