There was a time once when tuning into the MTV VMAs wasn’t guaranteed to give you a totally predictable awards show. There was a time when there was a little bit of mystery and danger about what would unfold that night, given the nature of celebrity and ego back in the ’90s. This danger came to a real head at the VMAs on Sept. 7, 2000, which saw Rage Against the Machine‘s Tim Commerford climb up the show’s set to protest Limp Bizkit beating them out for Best Rock Video.
The year 2000 represented a kind of turning point in popular rock music, fully representative of the shift in trends and ideals for the genre. Back in the early ’90s, politics and sincerity were at the forefront of the genre. Hip-hop would mesh with rock music to become a form of protest, allowing for acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, Living Colour to set a stage for Rage Against the Machine to conquer. Rage’s message gave listeners the tools to adopt politics into their daily lives, making big ideas easily digestible. It transmitted a level of anti-authoritarianism usually reserved for hardcore punk bands into the mainstream, allowing them to become one of the most relevant acts of the ’90s.
For many, nu-metal marked a noted shift in message, keeping the anger but losing its politics. Limp Bizkit were the poster children of the genre, with frontman Fred Durst as the perfect target for criticism. Despite there being a level of satire of ultra-male bravado in Limp Bizkit’s work, Durst would ultimately blur the lines between parody and reality, becoming a character.
Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine hence were two sides of rock music’s coin when the 2000 VMAs rolled around. Rage’s video for “Sleep Now in the Fire” was directed by documentarian Michael Moore, and showed the band performing outside of the New York Stock Exchange, while police officers attempt to get them to stop, the excitement forcing the building to shut down. The live performance shots were inter-spliced with a parody of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, adding darkly humorous facts about inequality in the world. The highly political video faced Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff,” which featured a number of Limp Bizkit fans mouthing the words to the song, along with cameos from celebrities.
In an interview years later, Commerford spoke on the event, saying, “We were up against Limp Bizkit, one of the dumbest bands in the history of music. We’re up against them and their singer made the video. So it was Limp Bizkit vs. Rage, Fred Durst-directed video vs. Michael Moore. And I’m sitting there with Michael and I’m like, ‘Hey man, if that camera doesn’t come over here, I’m climbing up that structure and I’m gonna sit there like a f—ing gargoyle and throw a wrench in this show.’ And he’s like, ‘Tim, follow your heart.’”
The climb visibly shocked everybody in attendance. Onstage, Fred Durst was confused, jokingly yelling at him to jump, and turning around saying, “Anyways, this is pretty phat,” pointing at Tim saying, “This guy is rock n’ roll. He should be winning the award.” And then in typical Durst fashion says, “This guy’s a p–sy cause he won’t jump.” MTV cut quickly to the next award to try and calm things down, hosts Marlon and Shawn Wayans cracking up at the whole thing. Commerford would eventually get down, and was arrested by police, having to spend a night in jail afterwards.
Rage members Zach De La Rocha and Tom Morello urged Commerford not to do it, and were disappointed in his actions. A month after the events, De La Rocha announced his departure from the band, saying in a statement, “I feel that it is now necessary to leave Rage because our decision-making process has completely failed. It is no longer meeting the aspirations of all four of us collectively as a band, and from my perspective, has undermined our artistic and political ideal.” It marked the end of Rage Against the Machine for a long time, with the band reuniting in 2007 and performing sporadically through 2011.
Commerford moved on to playing in Prophets of Rage with Morello, Rage drummer Brad Wilk, Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Cypress Hill’s B-Real before reuniting with Rage again at the end of 2019. Limp Bizkit are still active.. Commerford still has no love for the Bizkit, saying, “I do apologize for Limp Bizkit. I really do. I feel really bad that we inspired such bulls–t.”