Inside Prophets of Rage’s Cleveland Takeover
Hours after Donald Trump became the official nominee at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, hip-hop icon Chuck D. stood in front of a packed room at the Agora Theatre across town to confront the implications of "this fucked-up night." He then issued a musical response in the form of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" (mashed up with the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep Till Brooklyn"), this time performed with Prophets of Rage, his new band of rap and rock superstars.
"What we need is awareness, we can't get careless," Chuck D. rapped, in tandem with Cypress Hill's B-Real. "Let's get down to business!"
The rappers were powered by a storm of noise and attitude from turntablist DJ Lord and three members of the revolution rockers Rage Against the Machine: guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk. The concert this week was the final act in two days of action and purpose in Cleveland for the new band, whose unexpected formation in 2016 was timed in part to confront a presidential election year.
"The RNC is the culmination of a whole bunch of storms that all converged in one spot," Chuck D. told Rolling Stone of the Republican gathering before Tuesday's concert. "There is no allegiance to one party, but the GOP is turning into some kind of nightmare."
The band might have followed up with a trip to the Democratic Convention next week in Philadelphia, if it wasn't for standing commitments made prior to the new band's creation. Their coming tour, beginning August 19th in Fairfax, Virginia, will donate a portion of all proceeds to local charities.
Their mission, said B-Real, is "to incite people to get involved" and "not just leave it up to the politicians who make empty promises for your votes."
On Monday, Prophets of Rage appeared onstage in a small park two miles from downtown Cleveland to perform a free concert in support of End Hunger Now! for a gathering of activists and fans. Ahead of their set was a full roster of speakers and performers, beginning with a young girl reciting Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise." Young volunteers handed out small plastic baggies with supplies: earplugs, candy, googly eyes, a pamphlet titled "The People's Guide to Occupying the 2016 RNC," and a handmade cloth patch. (One patch had the image of Hillary Clinton and the words "Witch of Wall Street.")
A group in matching black T-shirts reading "Revolution – Nothing Less" marched across the lot. Another group carried a banner with the faces of people killed in recent police shootings. At the beginning of the Prophets set, B-Real took the mic and said, "We're going to play you some strong shit right now."
"In the nation and across the world, there have been some events that have lined up that boggle the mind. and it's been concentrated into a one-year period in a strange type of way," Chuck D. said in an interview, noting the confounding presidential primary season just ended and the ever-increasing urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement. "Even the coming together of Prophets of Rage, which is the antithesis of … these events, an answer to it. It's more like, 'Why not? Why not Cleveland?'"
Of the ongoing series of police confrontations captured on video, the Public Enemy leader pointed to this month's shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. "I couldn't even compare a two-day period when I saw the shooting on the young man in Baton Rouge," the MC says. "It was like a horror show. And then the young woman who had the wherewithal to cover the dying moment of her boyfriend with her child in the backseat, and the officer screaming with a gun in the window. I mean, television and movies couldn't give you more drama than that ever. The only thing that comes close to that level of intense drama is probably seeing the World Trade Center collapse."
A few days earlier, Prophets of Rage appeared unannounced for a full set on Skid Row in Los Angeles, performing career-defining songs from Rage, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill. At Goodrich-Kirtland Park in a working-class Cleveland neighborhood, the new band erupted with a free nine-song set that began with the chanted title of anthemic new song "The Party's Over," accented by a stuttering, confrontational guitar spams from Morello. The band then joined the crowd for a march downtown.
"One of the things we've been raging against for some time is the grotesque economic disparity," said Morello afterwards. "In Cleveland you see a pretty stark contrast: what's going on inside the RNC and just outside the ring of development here. There are billions of people on the planet who suffer in abject poverty, without adequate health care, education. There's unemployment, there's not adequate drinking water; they don't have a candidate in this race. They do, however, have a musical advocate – the Prophets of Rage."
The members of Rage and Cypress Hill had been longtime friends and occasional collaborators since the Nineties, joining together at protest events in support of immigrant rights and pressing issues of the moment. RATM recorded a Rage-ified version of Cypress Hill's "How I Could Just Kill a Man" on their last studio album, 2000's Renegades. B-Real had seen the intense eruptions of fans at Rage shows for years, and now gets to see it from center stage.
In the new group, the two master MCs are stepping into the vocal position left empty by singer-lyricist Zack de la Rocha. "This is a dream for me," B-Real said, comparing it to one a rocker might have to jam with Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. "On that end, it's amazing. But the importance of what it's meant for transcends that."
He's also rapping in tandem with "my childhood idol Chuck D." As leader of Public Enemy, one of the most essential acts in hip-hop's rise in the 1980s, Chuck D. brings decades of history to the group, but calls his role in the rock-rap supergroup "the joy of being the weakest link out of the six."
"When B-Real decided, 'Hey, let's do this,' that's when it came to fruition for me, like, 'This thing is real,'" he added. "It's not me going into the seat of Zack. This is something else … including everything we've ever done before and almost double that with things we're about to do."
He referred to a special "alchemy" of the combined RATM members, who also had a long run in Audioslave in the years following Rage's initial 2000 breakup. "Tim and Tom and I have had a long history, and we have a unique chemistry that I don't take for granted," said Wilk. "So anytime that we can get together and do something is a good thing. When we were in Rage Against the Machine going to our first rehearsals, the things we were listening to were Cypress Hill and Public Enemy on the hip-hop side of things. Their influence was huge on our band."
At the front of the stage, Chuck D. shares the mic with B-Real, who he calls "a stellar MC," performing both explosive Rage songs and their own classic hip-hop tracks.
"He's charismatic and he's a great leader, and for the first time in my life – whenever I can play a second foil to a guy that has that charisma on stage as the lead, I'm going to be a hell of a second guy," he says. "Whenever a guy like Tom Morello can speak to the media and really convey sensibilities for what's going on in the public, and also whats going on in the dynamics of authority and mix them into a cohesive statement for a group of musicians — me playing second and third to that is fantastic. Get in the car, let's ride. I don't always have to be behind the wheel."
At the Prophets of Rage shows that have unfolded since the band's May 31st debut at the Whisky in Los Angeles, fans have reacted to the old Rage songs as always: with fire and frenzy, with middle fingers raised and fists pumping the air, swirling in pits and crawling and grasping during crowd-surfing sessions. In Cleveland, it was much the same during "Bombtrack," "Killing in the Name" and "Bulls on Parade," songs originally released two decades ago.
"To see the frenzy that happens with those songs, it's amazing," said B-Real, who closed Tuesday night's show by returning to the stage to light up a spliff and blow a stream of smoke into the humid air. "To be up there doing the songs with them, and seeing that same reaction in today's generation, a mixture of the young and people our age in there raging out together, it's incredible."
Find out five things we learned from Prophets of Rage.