Music & Entertainment

From Tom Morello's MasterClass: Case Study: "Killing in the Name"

Written by MasterClass

Apr 23, 2019 • 3 min read

MasterClass Video Lessons

Tom Morello Teaches Electric Guitar

Tom deconstructs one of Rage Against the Machine’s biggest hits, from inception to recording and release.

Topics include: Arranging the Song • Recording the Studio Version


Preview of Case Study: "Killing in the Name"

This is an excerpt from Tom Morello's MasterClass.

So I'm going to take you, beginning to end, through the song "Killing in the Name," from its inception, through its journey as a song that was performed live, to how it was recorded in the studio.

Killing in the name of!

The original riff, the--

--is one that I came up with while giving a student a guitar lesson and teaching them Drop D tuning. Brought it into rehearsal the next day, combined it with a couple of other Drop D riffs, and it was maybe the sixth or fifth to seventh song that Rage against the Machine wrote. But it had no lyrics. It was just an instrumental song.

Early on, when we were approached by record companies, Atlantic Records sent a crew out to our-- we're deep in the valley, in the "Fast and Furious" San Fernando Valley-- like, really, where they do the "Fast and Furious" stuff out there. And in the middle of the night, we were rehearsing. There were no chairs. Record executives were sitting against the wall.

And when we rehearsed, we rehearsed exactly with the same punk theory as if it were a sweaty club show or Reading Festival. So it was super-loud and super-wild in the room. So we play these songs, and they're pinned to the wall and sort of scared, and they think, I don't know, maybe we can make money off this. I'm not sure. It's frightening. And then the last thing we play, we said, this is the song that we're working on now. And it was--

One executive sheepishly said, so is this the direction you're heading? You're like, I don't know, man. I don't care.

Anyway, so the song began with those couple of riffs. But the intro to the song-- Timmy C came up with that.

That was his. And I played off of that by playing a riff that was counterpuntal in a way, which is the--

--while Brad lay down the lilting beats in the song. Now, that was just unex-- to me, it sounded like this jagged kind of elf music. But incredibly, every time that song's ever been played in front of humans, people lose their minds. And so that is a pure example of a band's chemistry creating something greater than the sum of its parts. Then the big riff drops.

Et cetera. For a while, that's all we had of the song. So at our very first public performance-- we did one show in a Huntington Beach living room prior to it, but our first public performance was at Cal State Northridge Lunchtime Concerts. And we began that show with an instrumental version of "Killing in the Name."

Soon after that show, we completed the song with Zack's brilliant minimalist lyrics about police brutality and about standing up to authority. Incredibly, the song was suggested by our record company to be the first single, despite the fact that it contained 16 "fuck you"s and one "motherfucker." We thought, well, things have changed at record companies since my original time. And we were proud to have that be the flagship song to...

Reviews of Tom Morello's MasterClass

So much insight into Tom's world and his psyche. All very inspiring. Even if you're not familiar with his work or a fan there is still so much to be taken from this. Not just a course on guitar but being an artist too. - David R.

This was a great course. It really inspired me to experiment with different sounds and to find my own voice on the guitar. Tom is an inspiring lecturer. Two thumbs up! - Jonathan B.

I'm late to the game, but Tom's words and advice have been inspirational. He's a tremendously likeable, enthusiastic and practical guy who is down-to-earth despite his fame and achievements. There is no better combination for a teacher of any subject, especially the guitar, and in the overhyped world of rock music. Thanks so much. - Robert W.

Most revealing to me is the fact that Tom Morello only cooks with water himself. He explains his complete process without keeping secrets. Really appreciate his class. - Philipp