Disposable Heroes of Hypocrisy

Rage Against the Machine, Roots, Atari Teenage Riot
Shoreline Amphitheater
Monday, Sept. 15

The members of Rage Against the Machine are hypocrites. But claiming that hypocrisy invalidates Rage's message or success with the kiddies (U.S. 3.6 million sold) would be sophomoric. Rage don't suck because they slurp off the same corporate nipple they want to impale upon the needles of their agitprop. No, as they proved at the Shoreline Amphitheater, Rage suck because they play dull, repetitive monster rock that's politically ineffective and, at this point, stylistically backward.

The show's original bill, which meant to match L.A.-based Rage Against the Machine's rap-metal hybrid with Wu-Tang Clan's East Coast hip hop, promised inherent political contradictions. Rage -- still touring a year-old record -- concern themselves with communism, international atrocities, and fighting mainstream corporate media for control of personal space and collective information. Their machine is nothing less than capitalism itself.

Wu-Tang re-emerged this year with the double LP Wu-Tang Forever, and what appears the savviest culture franchising ideas since Ray Kroc put Mc on a burger. In the liner notes, Staten Island rappers Rza, Gza, and Method Man pose in fashion spreads for the group's own Wu Wear clothing line; also included in the artistic vision are opportunities to "join the Wu-Tang Clan" ($24.95, plus $4.95 shipping), buy official Wu Wear merchandise (sweat shirts and "hoodies," $50), and call eight 900 numbers, including a date line ($1.95 a minute with parental consent).

On the other hand, there's last year's Rage album, Evil Empire, which offers lyrics, addresses for political organizations (Committee to Support the Revolution in Peru, Refuse and Resist, etc.), and a bookshelf collage of two dozen political tomes (Dalton Trumbo's anti-war Johnny Got His Gun, Black Panther George Jackson's Soledad Brother, and so on).

The point: In the four years between the debut Enter the Wu-Tang and Forever, Wu-Tang's politics widened from the personal ("C.R.E.A.M.") to a larger community ("A Better Tomorrow" is "for all my peoples incarcerated, for those who ain't make it"), but their foes are still principally those in front of them. The Clan don't care who buys their records, as long as they're sold. In contrast, Rage rant against huge multinational corporations, but huge multinational Sony gets a hefty cut of every record sale.

Before the six-week tour, Rage frontman Zack de la Rocha sanctimoniously announced they were taking Wu-Tang along on a ride through Middle America. He said promoters wouldn't book the Clan because they are racists -- a simplistic accusation, since promoters are usually blind to all colors save green.

De la Rocha said he expected -- even hoped for -- controversy along the tour. He got it. Finally canceling in the first week of September, the nine members of Wu-Tang couldn't make it to shows on time. And in Chicago, four Wu-Tangers allegedly bloodied up their own record representative. Alas, Wu-Tang couldn't rage with the well-oiled (concert) machine, and was replaced by Philadelphia's Roots. Their absence might have explained the 5,000 empty seats at the 20,000 capacity Mountain View venue.

Out in the Shoreline's vast dirt lot, teen-agers guzzled bottles of beer in raucous allegiance to the tailgate party ritual. At exactly 7:30 p.m., Atari Teenage Riot bludgeoned a sparse, scattered audience. In small clubs, the intricacies of the German outfit's nihilism-laced digital hardcore ("Destroy 2,000 Years of Culture") get lost in muddy house systems. At Shoreline, where the Roland 808 drum machine's bass kick thumped at excruciating volume, Atari Teenage Riot sounded closer to the good-idea-gone-wrong heard on the band's most recent Burn, Berlin, Burn!

That idea -- to fuse punk's nihilism, techno's drive, and samples of rock's distorted guitars -- makes Atari Teenage Riot the most unlistenable band since Ice-T's Body Count. The sound was so deafening that the group's slogans ("Everybody start a riot") barely made it through the mix. If the levels dropped a tic or two, lyrics might have been discernible. But it's not clear that the band wants to do anything but confront audiences with aggressive emotion and image.

Sure, Atari Teenage Riot are good for a few things -- namely, amping yourself up for steroid injections and offending anyone who appreciates melody or songcraft. But as the three MCs flailed around amid the stage's half-dozen strobe lights like out-of-control teens whose parents just left for a long weekend, it became obvious that Atari Teenage Riot's appeal ends there.

Then came the Roots. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are not the Wu-Tang Clan," announced MC Black Thought from the front of the stage. "We are the Roots clan, coming to you live from Philly." The Roots immediately eased into "Proceed," one of the highlights off 1995's jazz-rap fusion Do You Want More?!!??! It's often hard to believe the Roots create such perfectly synthetic hip-hop sounds out of only traditional (guitar, bass, drum, organ) instrumentation. In fact, for several medium-simmer cuts, my pal and I repeatedly heard what sounded like help from the soundboard: samples, unreal low-end beats, and scratching.

But then the band broke down its sound into digestible components. After drummer Brother ?uestlove, organist Kamal, and bassist Leonard Hubbard proved themselves phenomenal musicians during spotlighted solos, Rahzel the Godfather of Noyze simply stumped the crowd with nothing but a microphone, a tad of reverb, and utterly inhuman sounds. He could imitate helicopters, mimic the scratches and breaks of a DJ, drop beats, and sing melody over the top. At one point he earned cheers from the crowd for perfectly re-creating the kung fu fighting samples heavily used on Wu-Tang records.

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