Raging Against the Machine

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Even if left-wing activism
was necessarily righteous, and God knows it isn’t even if shameful yuppies
don’t, Rage’s claims of musical and ethical superiority would be suspect.
For starters, The Battle of Los Angeles is blatantly pro-war–don’t
any of the old hippies at the Voice or Rolling Stone have something
to say about that? The band’s approach to sparking a youth movement hinges
on a top-down, celebrity-led model that has never worked for any leftist cause,
ever. It’s entirely possible that the message Rage conveys to its audience
is essentially the same as Limp Bizkit’s: that violent tantrums are whiteboys’
best means of achieving the rebellious credibility of hiphop. Lacking the bold
eloquence and rhythmic raw-power of quality rap (or, for that matter, quality
metal), mediocre Rage’s loudest statement is, to my ears, one of weakness.

It’ll be great if
they help free Peltier, but as far as I’m concerned Rage answered their
highest calling when they usurped rock’s throne from the porcine Bizkit.
Better music is a political good regardless of the musicians’ politics,
because art encourages people to think beyond boundaries, for themselves. Rage
represents a baby step up the ladder, but that’s as lofty as they’re
likely to get, given the meager talents at their disposal. Beyond that, they
can best improve the culture by putting their kingly business power behind more
able artists–people who can show and not just timorously tell kids about
truth, justice and beauty. They’re doing this. Rage hired Gang
to open for them on the Battle tour (which stops Dec. 3 at
Nassau Coliseum), and the last time they played here Public Enemy had
the honor. All they have to do is give a real metal band a spot on the bill
(why not mighty Nebula, who play CBGB this Saturday, 11/20–see
the interview with them up in the music section–and are too heavy for airplay?)
and they’ll go down in history as great and important social engineers.

A rock star’s greatest
power on the macro level lies in the opportunity to turn entire populations
of kids on to mind-expanding music. Regardless of whether or not a musician
makes art that moves people, and no matter what he claims, the passion and skill
with which he wields this weapon against mass ignorance is the true indicator
of commitment and faith. Kurt Cobain, for example, brandished a sword of discriminating
wisdom. He told reporters "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a Pixies tribute,
lauded Sonic Youth, the Jesus Lizard, the Melvins and Mudhoney, advertised Flipper,
the Stooges and Sabbath at photo shoots, hired Albini, covered the Meat Puppets
and the Vaselines on MTV and so on. Perry Farrell was another talent with a
sharp blade. Chuck D, Ice T and DJ Shadow always make clear that they stand
on the shoulders of giants. Even foul Bizkit saw fit to bring Redman and Method
Man–the Ramones of hiphop–out on tour.

The most visible counterexample
is Beck. His new album, Midnite Vultures (release date: Tues.,
Nov. 23) is great, probably his best yet. Beck does 60s soul and r&b, 70s
electro, 80s Prince and 90s G-funk, pulling all of them off in a coherent, slicker-than-ever
package. Now, Beck is the other popular act the master’s-degree-holding
mainstream critics can stomach, so like Rage he gets a bye on his shortcomings.
But if I read one more interview with him in which he claims there’s no
good music out there besides him (as he did yet again in the December Spin),
I swear I will find him and push a CD down his throat. Mobb Deep, Mos Def, EPMD,
Meth and Red, the Roots, ODB, Prince Paul, Inspectah Deck, Kool Keith, Pharoahe
Monch, Godfather Don, Public Enemy, Mary J. fuckin’ Blige–all put
out fine albums this year–all Beck does on his new album is black music–and
he can’t find a nice thing to say about anyone? Funny how all the
critics who overlook Rage’s mediocrity in deference to their commitment
judge Beck too much of an artiste to be held accountable for his egotism. He’s
a major talent and a genuinely successful artist, but for his willful misleading
of children Beck is proving to be a tremendous failure as a rock star.

Please don’t take
my word for it. This is not the column that Tells You What To Do–just my
opinions and some information. Do your own research. In H-town, paths to enlightenment
are manifold. Intellectual socialists: Know that author Marshall Berman
will be reading from his new Verso book on the consequences of capitalism, Adventures
in Marxism
it’s called, Thursday at Labyrinth Books. (11/18,
7 p.m., 536 W. 112th St., betw. B’way & Amsterdam Ave., 865-1588, free.)
Antiauthoritarian rebels: you might want to check out "Witness: Perspectives
on Police Violence
," a public artwork featuring sound recordings of
citizens’ testimonies, up through Dec. 20 with a performance event featuring
Patricia williams, Oliver Lake, Mike Ladd and Jessica Moore on Thursday,
11/18 at 6 p.m., at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. (Amsterdam
Ave. at 112th St., 316-7540 for info.) Environmentalists and devotees of extreme-longshot
activism: The next meeting of Auto-Free New York! will be held Tuesday
at Transportation Alternatives. (11/23, 6 p.m., 115 W. 30th St., rm.
1207, betw. 6th & 7th Aves., 475-3394.) And for the faithful, Sunday is
the start of National Bible Week, billed as seven days of "Encouraging
everyone to read the all-time best seller…" (info at nationalbible.org).

Oh yeah, there actually
is one thing I want to tell you to do, freedom fighters. Call Sen. Charles
’s office (486-4430) and refute his opposition to the
proposed reformation of the violently unconstitutional drug-crime property-forfeiture
laws currently in place (see Alexander Cockburn’s column in last week’s
NYPress). If one sixteenth of the liberal voters who bitch about "Giuliani’s
police state" enact this tiny demonstration of rage against undue state
power, their combined effort will bring about more justice than a thousand anti-KKK
rallies and a billion milquetoast record reviews.

Then there’s the
Spitfire Tour, which I guess comes in somewhere in between. Some stops
on this celebrity spoken-word, political-consciousness-raising tour will feature
all-time bestsellers like Rage’s Zack de la Rocha on human rights and Chuck
D on racism–New York gets Perry Farrell on cancellation of Third
World debt. (Monday, 11/22 at Wetlands, 161 Hudson St. at Laight St.,
386-3600, $20.) Also on the bill are Woody Harrelson on hemp and Rosie Perez
on AIDS. My favorite celebrity spoken-word activist remains Fiona Apple, who
advised her fans not to take celebrities seriously.

New Yorkers who take rock
seriously are looking in one of two directions this week, depending on their
age and inclinations. For those who follow the white-indie-soul thread there’s
the big 30th-Anniversary NRBQ show, featuring the earthshaking return
of the Shaggs–almost guaranteed to disappoint, but no members of
the Shaggs cult will dare miss it. On the second night, the Sun Ra Arkestra
plays as well. You think Yo La Tengo will be in the audience? (11/20-21 at Bowery
, 6 Delancey St. at Bowery, 533-2111, $30.) Also notable is Quintron
and Miss Pussycat opening for Andre Williams, Monday at the Knitting
. If you’re going to see Williams, be sure to check out Quintron–he’s
one of a kind. (11/22, 74 Leonard St., betw. Church St. & B’way, 219-3006,
$10/$8 adv.)

Younger rockers, including
wise Beck fans, are looking to record stores, where two hotly anticipated hardcore
hiphop sophomore efforts–Kurupt’s Tha Streetz Iz a Mutha
and Raekwon’s Immobilarity–will be on sale as of Tuesday,
Nov. 16. I’ve only had a quick preview of each of these, but can vouch
for both. Kurupt’s delivering a full-on West Coast blowout, with production
from erstwhile Dogg Pound partner Daz Dillinger and OutKast architects Organized
Noize that’s beyond humongous–two trunks’ worth and more–but
he’s still not mature. Streetz has tracks that recall the N.W.A.
and Death Row glory days, but it also bogs down periodically in radio-friendly,
r&b-chorus overload and, as if to make up for that, soulless bitch-bashing.

Raekwon’s new one,
though, is the shit. It made no sense to expect anything less from the man who
merged abstract rhyme poetry with thug narrative into a new rap tradition, but
on Immobilarity Rae’s flow sounds even looser, his slanguage even
more tightly wound and hair-trigger sprung. He’s stepped it up again musically
as well, coming with a sound that acknowledges the advances made by Organized,
Mobb Deep and Cash Money without jacking ’em. The beats further the cause
of the rhymes and vice versa, symbiotically, like on every Wu-Tang album (now
without any help from RZA), but to what end this time I have no idea, yet. Something
about Immobilarity, it seems. Interesting because Raekwon’s other
masterpiece, 1995’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… (neophytes should
start with that one; the rest of the world is just now catching up to it, while
Immobilarity is another four years ahead) was largely about transportation.

A major influence on Raekwon
is filmmaker John Woo, and I notice that a double feature by the Hong
Kong action master–Bullet in the Head at 7:45 p.m. and Once a
at 10 p.m.–is showing Wednesday and Thursday at Cinema Classics.
(3/17-3/18, 332 E. 11th St., betw. 1st & 2nd Aves., 971-1015, $ 5.)

And complementing Raekwon’s
masterful and futuristic New York storytelling this week is the new work by
a master of historical storytelling. Ric BurnsNew York: A Documentary
is a four-episode series currently being broadcast on Channel 13–the
last part airs Thursday night. Then at noon on Sunday, Burns will discuss and
sign the program’s companion book at WNET’s Store of Knowledge.
(11/21, 12-2 p.m., 1091 3rd Ave. at 64th St., 223-0018.)

Another reading by an
accomplished New York storyteller will take place Wednesday night at Rocky
bar. As part of the series there hosted by NYPress
contributor C.J. Sullivan, Brooklyn writer Sam Sifton will read from
a new collection. He’s no Raekwon, but former NYPress managing editor
Sifton remains a witty writer, and he’s a good friend to Heimytown no matter
which shitty magazine he works for. (11/17, 8 p.m., 129 Lexington Ave., betw.
28th & 29th Sts., 725-3871.)