On Tuesday night, the walls outside L.A.'s Whisky a Go Go were covered with politically charged posters announcing the arrival of a new band on an urgent mission: Prophets of Rage, gathering former members of Rage Against the Machine with hip-hop superstars Chuck D and B-Real. In the hours before showtime, someone spray-painted an additional scrawl: "#MakeAmericaRageAgain."
It was a potent promise for a chaotic political year, as Prophets of Rage made their live debut to a packed room on the Sunset Strip, unleashing the combined power of RATM's guitarist Tom Morello, drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford, quiet for too long. From their beginnings in 1991, Rage were a politically militant force during the Clinton years, a group fueled equally by hard rock and hip-hop. It was no small irony that after their initial breakup in 2000, the band went silent just as the Bush administration and a long season of foreign wars began.
With RATM silent again (after two brief reunions), Public Enemy's Chuck D and Cypress Hill's B-Real are ably filling the space left by absent RATM singer Zack de la Rocha. Morello arrived for the occasion Tuesday dressed in revolutionary red, slashing at a guitar reading "Arm the homeless," as the group opened with PE's "Prophets of Rage."
On "Guerilla Radio," the rappers shouted together, and Chuck D recited the song's central challenge: "It has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime/What better place than here?/What better time than now?"
The timing of this collaboration was not incidental, with a presidential election coming fast. On his black T-shirt, Chuck D placed a sticker reading: "Vote Rage." Proceeds from the show were to go to the California-based homeless charity PATH.
Both rappers made a point of praising the founding Rage frontman, with B-Real calling De La Rocha "our brother." Chuck D said the band would always "keep a seat warm" for him. Following the confrontational funk of "Bombtrack," the Public Enemy MC smiled and added of De La Rocha's original lyrics, "You can sing it, but you can never change the song."
The set leaned heavily on the RATM catalog, but also included two new songs, "Shut Them Down" and "The Party's Over." There were also hits from both Cypress Hill and Public Enemy, each player and rapper finding spots where the new collaboration could thrive.
During PE's "Miuzi Weighs a Ton," Morello's guitar was largely silent until he suddenly ripped open a molten lead, then followed with another on the RATM classic "People of the Sun." The beat and heavy bass of "Take the Power Back" sent fans moshing and bouncing into the air, while Chuck D roared through the lead vocal like it was written for him.
"It's good to see people stand up," B-Real said to the crowd during a pause. "You missed these songs, right? We did too."
At the beginning of "Testify," Morello raised his left fist in the air while strumming a noisy melody on his guitar with the other. When both rappers dove into the song, the crowd on the floor went berserk.
Midway into the set, the Rage trio of players left the stage to the rappers and DJ Lord, who ripped through a six-song medley of PE and Cypress classics that covered a lot of history, but could never be as satisfying as a full-on reading of any one of the songs alone.
Much different was a fiery mashup of PE's "Fight the Power" and the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn," on which Morello replaced the latter's original Kerry King thrash solo with a wild, stuttering explosion of sound.
The room erupted again when the group played signature RATM anthems "Bulls on Parade" and "Killing in the Name." The crowd bounced hard to the classic "Killing" climax of "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me."
In moments, fans would begin tearing down the band posters designed by Shepard Fairey. The mission would continue Friday at another show in town, at the Palladium. Until then, B-Real said his goodbyes with a final message: "Thank you ... and fuck you, I won't do what you tell me."
"Prophets of Rage" (Public Enemy)
"Guerilla Radio" (Rage Against the Machine)
"Miuzi Weighs a Ton" (PE)
"People of the Sun" (RATM)
"Take the Power Back" (RATM)
"Rock Superstar" (Cypress Hill)
Public Enemy/Cypress Hill medley:
"Shoot Em Up"
"Can't Trust It"
"Insane in the Membrane"
"Bring the Noise"
"I Ain't Going Out Like That"
"Welcome to the Terrordome"
"Sleep Now in the Fire" (RATM)
"Shut Them Down" (Prophets of Rage)
"Know Your Enemy" (RATM)
"The Party's Over" (Prophets of Rage)
"No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn"/"Fight the Power" (Beastie Boys/Public Enemy)
"Bulls on Parade" (RATM)
"Killing in the Name" (RATM)