Denzel Against The Machine

Denzel Curry’s cover of Rage Against The Machine’s 1996 hit “Bulls On Parade” is striking a chord with listeners. The rapper from Florida may have only been one year old when RATM’s Evil Empire was released, but his performance effortlessly transplants the anger and frustration of the past into a twenty-first century context, proving that for better and worse, history is bound to repeat.

Curry’s debut album TA1300 was a highlight on 2018’s music calendar. It was an ambitious project split across three mini albums. The narrative followed the character arc of a tortured young man at war with the outside world as much as with himself. The album was critically acclaimed, also charting highly in several end of year lists. It proved a standout release amidst a sea of mumble rap and chart-toppers with little substance.

The visceral, manic energy that is Denzel Curry marries perfectly with the indomitable spirit of Zack de la Rocha, RATM’s frontman and lyricist. It is by no coincidence that Curry stylises himself as a “BLACK METAL TERRORIST” — a triple entendre playing with ideas of his skin colour, musical genres and lyrical content, and his ability to terrorise the unsuspecting public.

While TA1300 is by no means a political album, he does give voice to the anxieties and frustrations of living as a young black male in Trump-era United States. He includes the third verse of his song “SIRENS | ZIRENZ” as the replacement for Tom Morello’s iconic guitar solo. The verse includes a reference to Trump as a useless cartoon character, unfit to lead, and even more unfit to unite a nation.

Wise enough, advise the public
Pistol bust, screamin’ “fuck it”
Donald Trump, Donald Duck
What the fuck is the difference?

Regarding the lyrics to “Bulls On Parade”, they are rich with characteristically de la Rocha-layered meaning — the titular ‘bulls’ are a reference to Wall St (having a ‘bull year’ is financially good), the strong-arm of the law (encircling the family unit), and domineering Republican policies that prioritise profit over people (male elephants being bulls).

The single is from their sophomore album Evil Empire. De la Rocha explained the album’s name as a reference to a quote from President Ronald Reagan “slandering” the Soviet Union of the 1980s. The band felt that this title was just as applicable to Clinton’s America in the 1990s, highlighting the hypocrisy of the injustices being perpetrated by the supposed “leaders of the free world”.

1996 would end up being an important year for Bill Clinton. Not only was he re-elected as the incumbent president, but he oversaw the passing of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (colloquially known as IIRIRA). In summary, this Act was designed to make deporting illegal immigrants easier, and make it harder to naturalise as US citizens. The last time major immigration reform on this scale had happened, was in fact by Reagan in 1986. It’s also quoted as being the cornerstone for every major subsequent policy regarding immigration since (x).

RATM comment on this on issue on another track on Evil Empire, “Without A Face”. The song features striking lyrics describing the deaths of people trying to cross the southern border, as well as references to Mexican folk heroes, the Californian governor at the time, and Nazi symbolism.

On their Live & Rare record, de la Rocha introduced the song with this quote:

It seems as soon as the wall of Germany fell, the US government was busy building one between the border between the US and Mexico. Since 1986 as result of a lot of the hate talk and hysteria that the the government of the United States has been speaking, 1500 bodies have been found on the border.

Curry’s choice of song cover, “Bulls On Parade”, is eerily relevant to today. In 2019, the public discourse surrounding illegal immigration and Trump’s wall is beyond fever pitch. It’s near impossible to open a webpage or turn a TV on without some new scandal about either Trump, the alt-right, and bleeding heart liberals screaming at each other.

Condensing that energy and frustration into a 5-minute performance is a powerful act. Protest music has been around as long as humans have been governed. However, some commentators have asked “where is the protest music of the Trump era?”. While we may be used to the John Lennons and Bob Dylans of the past, as Forbes wrote, now the voices are coming primarily from hip-hop.

RATM are credited with popularising the rap metal sound that influenced a lot of the nu-metal sound of the early 2000s. They blended the rhythmic focus and lyricism of hip-hop with the aggression and technical prowess of heavy metal. Fast forward to today, and Curry has brought this musical journey to a closed circle, bringing it back to hip-hop in a thrilling contemporary way.

By performing “Bulls On Parade”, Curry has created a throwback performance worthy of the Big Day Out mainstage. More significantly, he has also created a disturbing portrait of how far we’ve really not come compared to the past. The mentality of xenophobic, anti-immigration attitudes has only intensified in recent years.

Online commenters have said that anyone can ‘cover RATM’, but capturing the true passion of the original is beyond most performers. Denzel Curry has already proved himself as someone capable of exploring the darkness and rage within. It’s that raw energy that resonated with listeners 20 years ago, and it’s that same energy that carries on today.

Watch the cover courtesy of Triple J below:

 


If you like Rage Against The Machine, listen to:

If you like Denzel Curry, listen to:

 

Kevin Loo

Live, laugh, stare into the existential void, love

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