Widely regarded as one of rock's leading axe-men, Tom Morello broke new ground in music as co-founder of Rage Against the Machine. The group formed in the early 1990s and featured Morello's hard-hitting guitar riffs along with Zack de la Rocha's commanding vocals. Rage Against the Machine earned critical praise and a legion of fans for its socio-politically-charged lyrics and rap-rock hybrid music that dominated the group's impressive self-titled debut album (1992) and subsequent hit singles such as "Bulls on Parade" and "People of the Sun," both from the 1996 album Evil Empire. After Rage Against the Machine disbanded in 2000, Morello continued to make music with Audioslave, alongside Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, and as a folk rock soloist using the alter ego The Nightwatchman. Morello's activism extended beyond the realm of music, as he was active in everything from the Free Tibet cause to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Unafraid to voice opposition against the government and support the underrepresented minorities, Morello often positioned himself a proponent for change while also making his mark in the music as one of the most influential guitarists of his generation.
Thomas Morello was born on May 30, 1964 in New York City. Morello's Irish-Italian mother, who was a teacher and activist, influenced the future star's political activism and music, as did his Kenyan-born father, a former guerilla soldier who fought against the British for his country's independence. Morello's great-uncle was Jomo Kenyatta, the first Prime Minister and President of Kenya. Raised solely by his mother in a suburb near Chicago, IL after his father left them and returned to Kenya, Morello sang in the choir and joined the speech and drama clubs at his school. A fan of punk and heavy metal music growing up, Morello began playing guitar as a teen. Instead of immediately pursuing a music career, however, he instead focused on his education and enrolled at Harvard University to major in social studies. Morello graduated with honors in 1986.
Following college, Morello moved to Los Angeles, where he landed a job in the office of California Democratic senator Alan Cranston. He served as one of the senator's aides for about a year before deciding a career in politics was not for him. To support himself in the City of Angels, Morello worked several menial jobs, including as an exotic dancer. Upgrading his life, he joined the heavy metal group Lock Up as a guitarist, which lasted for a year before the group disbanded. It was around the band's fallout when Morello met Zack de la Rocha, a California native and aspiring rapper who shared his love of music with a strong political message. Along with de la Rocha's childhood friend, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk (who had previously auditioned for Lock Up), they formed Rage Against the Machine in 1991. The band wasted no time writing and recording music, producing a 12-track demo that eventually caught the attention of Epic Records.
In 1992, Rage Against the Machine signed with Epic, which remarkably gave the group full creative control, and released its self-titled debut album that same year. The album's iconic cover - a photograph of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in 1963 - set the tone for Rage Against the Machine's socio-political and protest-inspired music. The singles "Freedom" and "Killing in the Name" addressed controversial issues involving race, politics, and civil rights, while featuring a blend of rap and hard rock. Rage Against the Machine peaked at No. 45 on the Billboard 200 chart, but the group gained more popularity with alternative music fans after performing at the Lollapalooza music festival. The debut was also critically well received and would years later earn a spot on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" (2003), thanks to Morello's hard-driving guitar solos and de la Rocha's emotional and defiant vocals.
It took four years until Rage Against the Machine released its long-awaited follow-up, 1996's Evil Empire, which debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. albums chart. The group continued its signature rap-rock melodies combined with controversial lyrics on hits such as "Bulls on Parade" and "People of the Sun." Morello and company picked up their first Grammy Award the following year, winning Best Metal Performance for the track "Tire Me" and earning a nomination in the Best Hard Rock Performance category for "Bulls on Parade." Rage Against the Machine's live shows were just as energetic and inspirational as their records, from playing sold-out stadium concerts, to performing free shows outside the Democratic National Convention in L.A. They released one more album of original material, the double platinum-selling The Battle of Los Angeles (1999), before de la Rocha announced he was leaving the group, reportedly due to a lack of communication and opposing views between the members. Shortly after de la Rocha's departure, the covers album Renegades (2000) was released, featuring tracks originally performed by Bob Dylan, Cypress Hill, and The Rolling Stones.
Morello, Commerford, and Wilk teamed up with former Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell to form Audioslave, which had a similar sound to Rage Against the Machine, minus its socio-political context. The group released three Top 10 albums, including Out of Exile (2005), which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200. Morello launched his solo career in 2003, performing under the alias The Nightwatchman. His solo work took on an even more political stance than the music he had made with Audioslave and had an acoustic, folk rock feel. Morello released The Nightwatchman's solo debut One Man Revolution in 2007. Along the way, the handsome musician dabbled in acting throughout his career, landing minor roles in the sci-fi feature "Star Trek: Insurrection" (1998) and the comedy "Made" (2001). Morello also made a cameo in the blockbuster hit "Iron Man" (2008) opposite Robert Downey Jr. Morello's activism earned him featured appearances in several documentaries, including "Free Tibet" (1998) alongside the Beastie Boys and Beck, and "Chevolution" (2008), which focused on Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara.
After much publicized speculation, Rage Against the Machine reunited with a headlining spot at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, CA. The long-awaited reunion was prompted by the band's opposition to the U.S. government under former president George W. Bush's leadership. Even though the group did not release any more albums, they toured throughout North America and Europe. As a solo artist and producer, Morello collaborated with everyone from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, to former Wu-Tang Clan members RZA and Raekwon. His guitar-playing skills were also recognized by several media outlets, including the BBC, which named Morello the fifth greatest guitarist of the past 30 years in a 2010 poll. His non-music projects included co-founding the non-profit political group Axis of Justice and suing the U.S. government over the use of music during interrogations at Guantanamo Bay. In 2011, Morello joined the Occupy Wall Street movement and performed at several Occupy protests throughout the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. That same year, he released the EP Union Town and the album World Wide Rebel Songs as The Nightwatchman.
By Candy Cuenco