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"Zack and Tim were both heavily into hardcore, especially the Sex Pistols," says fellow University High alum Tim Connoly, who plays drums in the Angoras. "Zack could play Sex Pistols songs at an early age. He wasn't really political back then, not really a supersocial guy. But Tim always excelled in bass, even in high school. He was always involved in music, always jamming around with friends."
And what does Connoly think of Rage? "I like their music; I like their grooves," he says. "They're a band that can do almost anything now, like Metallica. I sometimes wish they'd do something different—I think Zack could actually sing if he wanted to."
Paula Spas, the Angoras' lead singer, says she knew Zack pretty well. "He had really short, cropped hair back then. He was really into the straight-edge scene at the time, around 1989, 1990—the black X's on the hands, the whole bit." (Reality claims another straight-edger: in the current issue of Rolling Stone, de la Rocha reveals that he's taken up smoking, an aftereffect of his trips to Chiapas.) "He wasn't a talker, more like a listener," continues Spas. "Really quiet, much more interested in emulating someone with strong ideas, much more of a follower then, gleaning ideas to use later."
De la Rocha's Irvine life wasn't a terribly cheery one, if you believe what he's said about his old hometown in the few interviews he's given. He lived in student housing at UC Irvine, where his mother was pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology. With his slightly Chicano features, de la Rocha stood out at mostly white University High School, and he has often repeated the story of how one day in geology class, the teacher made reference to the California border checkpoint on the I-5 near San Onofre as "the wetback station." De la Rocha has explained how incensed he was—not just over this lame-ass teacher's comment, but how white kids in class laughed at it. He didn't speak up about it, though, and instead internalized his anger—but he vowed never to keep silent again about such slights and injustices.
Years later, de la Rocha still hasn't gotten over his Irvine days. In an interview in George, he calls Irvine "one of the most racist cities imaginable. If you were a Mexican in Irvine, you were there because you had a broom or a hammer in your hand."
He found a way to channel his bottled-up energy through the glorious power of punk rock, joining various hardcore and straight-edge bands, playing guitar in Hardstance and serving a stint in Farside (who, by the way, are still together and playing Saturday at Koo's Art Cafe). But by several accounts, it was de la Rocha's time as the front man of Inside Out when he really began moving along the path that would lead to Rage Against the Machine. Inside Out, in fact, just may have been one of the biggest underground OC bands ever.
"Inside Out were pretty popular in OC back in 1990 and '91," says Jordan Cooper, who owns Huntington Beach-based indie label Revelation Records. "They were great, one of the best bands of that time period. And Zack was one of the funniest people I've ever met. I was really surprised that he got into politics and activism. He always seemed to be more into making people laugh."
They released a single EP on Revelation, No Spiritual Surrender, on which de la Rocha sang about decidedly more personal topics than he's noted for now: communication, separation, sacrifice and redemption. Musically, their sound was typical screamadelic hardcore, nothing too distinguishable from what you'd hear from your average hard band these days. Then again, maybe bands today are stealing from Inside Out. Mike Rosas of Smile was Inside Out's guitarist for six months, one of several the band employed during its brief life. He joined right before they were scheduled to record the follow-up to their EP—an album that was to have been titled Rage Against the Machine, after one of de la Rocha's songs. But in 1991, the band split up, and de la Rocha took the title and used it as the name of his new band. "The band was pretty well-established by the time I stepped in," Rosas remembers. "But Inside Out was really Zack's band. At the time, I think he was one of the most focused, articulate and driven people I knew. I could always tell he had a vision. He wanted to accomplish something. Then, I had no idea you could start a band like he's in now and get as popular as he has. Nirvana wasn't even on the radio back then; there was nothing. He was just a very nice, very spiritual person, someone I really respected a lot. He was never the boob; he was someone who always had something interesting to say.
"Especially at a time when a lot of people didn't want to hear a lot of talk from the stage," continues Rosas. "I guess it's kind of the same thing now, but he had a lot of great things to say. When we would play shows, he would take a lot of time to explain what the songs were about and really try to get the message across. I think a lot of times, it was a big challenge because people just wanted to slam dance. But at the same time, it made a difference—a lot of people paid attention to him and went on to start other bands. A lot of bands you see nowadays are definitely influenced by Inside Out and other bands that existed in the early '90s."
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