Music

The Prophecy of “Prophets of Rage”

“Run-DMC ROCKED me!” Tom Morello excitedly tells me at The History of Hip-Hop Concert, Madison Square Garden, NY, 1997.  Although legends KRS-One and Public Enemy had also killed on the bill; the Kings of Rock that inspired them had closed and destroyed the stage as if they were a Metal band.  On my way out I had seen Tom in the audience in a regular seat like a regular fan.  And while I’m not one to bother with celebrities; I had to tell him how much I loved his band; Rage Against the Machine. After politicking on other topics, our shared takeaway of the night was how the intensity of Run-DMC’s live show had blown us away.

Five years later in Strong Island, NY, at a fan conference; I first met Public Enemy’s leader Chuck D. After getting over the shock of meeting a living legend, we eventually get to the topic of vocalist Zack De La Rocha’s then recent departure from Rage Against the Machine. Chuck comments that Zack could have continued to spread his message and reached more people by staying in the band.

RIP Magazine - Public Enemy No.1 - Chuck D interviews Rage Against the Machine
RIP Magazine – Chuck D interviews Rage Against the Machine

I mention the above encounters to underscore that RATM and PE are my two favorite bands, so much so that fate had made it so I’d meet key members of both groups. I became a part of the PE website’s proto-Reddit bulletin board community (salute to the mighty Enemy Board) by dropping by to share RATM news I’d compiled for Lance Bucci’s The complete RATM site — back then THE place for RATM news. I did so because I’d always seen Rage as a natural extension of Public Enemy, PE’s song “Prophets of Rage” could almost be taken literally.  I remember my quest to find the imported Live and Rare RATM CD where Chuck joined them on stage at Pinkpop ’96 to cover “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”.  Chuck was there to interview the band for Rip magazine, an issue I still have. Over the years I have seen both PE and RATM live, front row, 10+ times each, twice on the same bill.

So when Rage’s instrumentalists merged with Chuck D and Cypress Hill’s B-Real to form the supergroup Prophets of Rage, I was specially in the PE logo target fan base of that union. It wasn’t so much a shock as something that just made sense.  I mean, Zack’s cadences on “Bulls On Parade” and “Guerrilla Radio” for example, ARE Chuck D’s.  Tom Morello’s revolutionary guitar sonics were admittedly influenced by PE’s DJs Terminator X, Johnny “Juice” Rosado, as well as PE’s production team the Bomb Squad.  And without the Bomb Squad would “Bombtrack” be RATM’s first song on their first album?

As for the mighty Cypress Hill; as any Latino hip-hop fan in the early 90’s, I wore the fuck out of their self-titled debut. And so did De La Rocha and bassist Tim Commerford on their way to rehearsals — the latter going so far as to say the bass line for “Bullet in the Head” comes from Cypress’ “How I Could Just Kill a Man“. Titles too; “Hole in the Head” begat “Bullet in the Head”.

And what of the political implications of Prophets of Rage? After all they contain the most politically outspoken music groups of the 80’s and 90’s.  As this article by The Atlantic asks “Where Is the Heir to Rage Against the Machine?” and answers; the new generation of musicians with a conscience who exist in this social media landscape protest in subtler more nuanced ways (with notable exceptions like Kendrick Lamar and Run The Jewels). But there is less of that blunt, in your face dialogue a lot of the protest music from the end of the 20th century had now that we’re all so interconnected.

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Prophets of Rage pay tribute to Colin Kaepernick at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View (Chris Tuite)

And in terms of the election; while Trump’s xenophobic fear-mongering rallied those who fear change, Millennials crushed on Sanders and Boomers backed Clinton for the historical significance of a woman president — I often wondered; where the fuck is Gen X’s voice in all this?  More to the point, where is the voice of those of us who always agreed that “Neither party is mine, not the jackass or the elephant”? Especially now that we get to choose between a racist joke and a lying opportunist. So it was satisfying to see folks closer to my generation Boom Bapping on a stance different than Coke or Pepsi.

Now I know they’ve made political statements in promotion of the Make America Rage Again tour; but the historic significance of their joint catalog speaks volumes louder than any new proclamations.  To hear the mighty voice of Public Enemy rap RATM’s “Take The Power Back” or “Testify” makes the songs sound more righteous.  And “Killing in the Name”, an anti-racism, anti-police brutality anthem originally written for the LAPD after Rodney King; is as relevant now as ever. But to now have those lyrics shouted by the biggest Latino rapper of all and the most powerful black voice in hip-hop history; takes on an especially poignant tone during the era of Black Lives Matter.  That portions of ticket sales also go towards local homeless shelters sweetens the pot.

But politics notwithstanding, here I am again front row at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY about to experience the existential sum of all of the above.  Words can’t communicate like an earth shattering rhythm section can.  Bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk look like athletes; muscular and sinewy from all their playing, and sounding as good as I’ve ever seen them.  De La Rocha’s existential hardcore punk explosiveness and Morello’s guitar wizardry always got the most press (and Morello certainly killed as his riffs usually do); but any musician will tell you RATM’s rhythm section has always been their secret weapon.  As a drummer I could only stand in awe of Commerford’s bass rattling my organs through the speakers; the brutal immensity of the sound involuntarily making me smile.

The set list included satisfyingly retro covers and mashups of classics. Naturally they opened with their Beastie Boys/PE mashup of “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn”/“Fight The Power” before jumping into their cover of “Prophets of Rage”; the PE song that both prophesied and gave the band its name. While I still think the original PE recording bangs harder, LIVE is a totally different (rhyme) animal that transcends both.  “The Party’s Over” is the main guitar riff from the unreleased track “Revolutionary” that RATM and Tool did together for the seminal Judgment Night rap metal soundtrack.  The best part however was when PE’s DJ Lord got on his turntables and battled Tom Morello DJ-scratching on his guitar (just like Tom battled Jam Master Jay on the Run-DMC track “Big Willie”).  “Shut ‘em Down” is actually a Cypress Hill track from their 2010 album Rise Up; but now Chuck also adds verses from PE’s classic and Tom opens with Eddie Van Halen’s “Cathedral”.  In the middle of the set RATM’s members took a break while Chuck and B-Real jumped into the audience to fulfill our Golden Age Hip-Hop wishes with straight Rap performances from the Public Enemy and Cypress Hill crates.

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Prophets of Rage bring members of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill on the Make America Rage Again Tour. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty)

As for the Rage catalog, when Chuck Rapped “Guerrilla Radio” and “Bulls On Parade” it sounded as natural as I figured.  When Chicano B-Real raps Mexican anthem “People of the Sun” it makes sense as does his version of “Bullet in the Head” and of course the cover of “How I Could Just Kill a Man”, bringing the Cypress Hill connection back around again.  But nothing exploded the audience and the pit to the levels of a 90’s RATM show until “Killing in the Name” closed it all out with both Rappers in tow.

Rage’s turbine of sound is so loud and heavy, that while De La Rocha’s higher pitch cut through it, it feels like only Chuck D’s boomin’ voice can really stand next to it.  With so many modern day rock bands oh so gently twinkling their guitars on streaming playlists; it’s great to see a band that can still bludgeon you in the face. Yes, the concept of Prophets of Rage sounds great on paper but to truly and fully understand why this union is so perfect — you have to experience the band LIVE. Prophets of Rage ROCKED me!

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