It's understandable to be skeptical of Prophets of Rage, the new supergroup comprised of Public Enemy's Chuck D, Cypress Hill's B-Real and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford, as they prepare for an upcoming tour beginning in August. On paper, the group's three catalogs contain some of the most potent and indelible music of the past 30 years. Yet in the hands of lesser mortals, a show like this could turn into rap-rock karaoke.
"You were supposed to come in skeptical," Chuck D, Public Enemy's iconic frontman, says of Prophets of Rage's first shows, which included intimate gigs at Los Angeles' Whisky a Go Go and Brooklyn's Warsaw. "It should not be easy." Any concerns about the group, however, are blown away a few songs in, as Chuck D and B-Real's vocal dichotomy and obvious chemistry infuse Zack de la Rocha's lyrics with new urgency. Far from a gimmick, the show is loud and angry as fuck, reminding you that Rage Against the Machine songs have lost none of their strident intensity.
Chuck D's own writing style – forceful, direct calls to action mixed with progressive politics – influenced De La Rocha, who opted against touring with his bandmates, so it's a natural fit for the Public Enemy MC to co-front this new group. As he preps for the tour, the rapper explains why he's Prophets of Rage's "sixth man" and reflects on the insanity that is this year's presidential election.
In past interviews, you discussed the band's rigorous rehearsals. Did you feel any added pressure because you were mainly performing another group's material?
I think there's a pressure automatically that makes our rehearsals mandatory on a higher level. It's because a large part of the lyrics are by Zack de la Rocha and we sit back and say, "Hey, look, this is not Rage Against the Machine. This is Prophets of Rage. This is three solid situations coming together." And don't sleep on Cypress Hill or Public Enemy songs. They're Rage-ified and put together and created a frenzy that really befuddles the average person on the behavior politics of the United States of America. Not the politics of behavior, but the behavior of politics.
How did the group decide on the set list?
Well, before we go deeper into the Rage catalogue, we pick the things that would be obvious hits: "Testify," "Bulls on Parade" and "Take the Power Back" sound like a jacket that Zack created that just got slightly tailored for myself and B-Real to do. And there are things that B-Real will take on such as "People of the Sun" and "Bullet in the Head." We keep the seat warm for whenever Zack de la Rocha wants to come in and just hang out and then you got Rage Against the Machine. You don't have Rage Against the Machine with myself and B-Real. This is Prophets of Rage. It's really a unique lining of the planets that fell together on paper and it wasn't like a record company or a management team that's like "Why don't you just take this and that?" It didn't work like that.
"If I'm the weakest link, then everybody else is in fuckin' trouble."
What have been your favorite Rage songs to perform?
"Bulls on Parade" is my favorite and then "Guerrilla Radio," "Take the Power Back" and "Testify." "Testify" is a song that is really a brain twister for me. I'm not great at memorizing lyrics so I have to go over it a lot. Most people can learn song in like 25 or 30 repetitions. It takes me 100 for some weird way; it could be a little bit of rap dyslexia, but once I know it, I sound damn good.
What is it about "Bulls on Parade" that resonates with you?
I can use my own inflections in it because I know deep enough that Zack had learned some inflections from me, so it's like regurgitating an inflection that I've already had or I might have abandoned years ago. A lot of inflections are revisitations of styles I've done a long time ago and it's funny when you talk to people, they are always quick to tell me what I should do. I say, "Well, I abandoned it because I always move forward. Why would I go back to revisit something that I did before? It's great for you as a listener, but I'm a creator and I don't really care what you think."
How did you and B-Real work out who was going to handle lead on each song and who would be hypeman?
He's a true rap-rock superstar and I like to look at myself as playing the second MC to B-Real's lead. I consider myself the weakest one out of the lineup and that's DJ Lord included. I'm truly the sixth man. But if I'm the weakest link, then everybody else is in fuckin' trouble [laughs].
How does playing with Prophets of Rage differ from performing with Public Enemy?
It's like being on an all-star team. Cypress Hill and Public Enemy are not dormant groups – Public Enemy is on its 106th tour in 30 years – but being a lead person and people saying, "You are one of the greatest lead guys of all time," I'm like, "Yeah, but understand the weight that it comes with." Being second mic to B-Real is the greatest luxury I have ever had onstage because he is a pro's pro, a shaman and a star. If I am able to make him stronger, he is able to make me stronger. That's a good thing because it takes both of us to tackle Zack de la Rocha's 20-some-odd-year-old fury in our own particular way. My motto is: If you can't nail a song and bring it up from where it's at, don't even fucking touch it.
Did you speak to Zack before coming on board?
Yeah. Myself, B-Real and Timmy C endlessly get Zack's blessings. I call Zack and he says, "Dude, this is the utmost honor" and I'm tickled brown by that. And if Zack wants to come in, they got Rage Against the Machine; if he doesn't want to do the songs, it's Prophets of Rage. The songs are greater than any of us as individuals. The thing with getting the approval from Zack was like, "Yeah, man, this is what it is. This is not Rage, but we're keeping your seat warm" and he was like, "I'll consider that."
If Zack said he didn't feel comfortable with the project, would you have backed out?
I remember hearing rumors that B-Real or I would be a replacement in Rage Against the Machine and we're like, "Fucking no way! No one's going to step into that hot seat." But when Prophets of Rage came along and Tom Morello came to me, I said, "Fine, we can make something else out of it" and I'll bring DJ Lord. He usually goes around the world and wins cups and battles and doesn't have the big profile and we said, "We have to bring the prominence back to the black turntablist that's somehow getting tucked in the back of a David Guetta or a Skrillex and we don't understand it." I had to introduce this aspect into it and it's slowly easing its way in.
"If you can't nail a song and bring it up from where it's at, don't even fucking touch it."
Was Flavor Flav invited into the group? How did that conversation go?
I told my guys, "I love you. This is regular season and I'm going to the All-Star Game." [Laughs] This is the all-star selection. Chuck D and DJ Lord from Public Enemy will be back during the regular season. Myself and B-Real aren't closing down our groups. This is a wonderful option. We want to play big. Public Enemy plays big. Cypress Hill plays big. But this is huge. These songs are already going to travel. It's about catching up to wherever the songs travel to.
You performed one new song, "The Party's Over," live. Would you want to release a Prophets of Rage album?
I see us making no more than two or three songs at best that round us out because it has to come together organically and naturally. Ten songs, in this day and time, is a little too much of a buffet anyway. We can't go into 1992 analog world and think we all of a sudden have to lock ourselves in the studio and come up with 12 tracks. You're on the other side of journalism. When was the last time you seriously sat down and listened to 10 albums zipped to you in a .zip file and you're going to listen to every single track to review. It's easier saying, "These are two or three songs that they got with their catalogue or performance material. Cool." Not to say less is more, but yes, less is enough.
Switching gears, what do you make of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump as our next president?
Oh, lord, that's the machine [laughs]. Whatever reason but to rage against the machine, no matter who wins. These songs are not just to resonate for the saving grace of the minds of the United States of America. I'm sitting here in Switzerland and everybody's looking at me like, "What the fuck, dude?" [Laughs]. I've been to 106 countries and I go to at least 50 of them on the regular. Friends, associates and family are like, "Dude, what the fuck is going on there, man? Is this shit for real?"
"[Before Trump], people thought the biggest joke was Arnold Schwarzenegger."
They thought the biggest joke before was Arnold Schwarzenegger and before that, I go back far enough to have people shaking their heads and asking questions about [Ronald] Reagan. When I first started touring and performing, Thatcher was running the U.K., Nelson Mandela was in prison and Reagan and [George H.W.] Bush were in the United States and people were like, "What the fuck, dude? He's a cowboy, man."
As a U.S. citizen, how do you answer?
Number one: I am not a citizen of any particular place. You don't travel the world as many times as I did and become a citizen. I'm a citizen of the planet; I'm an earth-izen. So I have a conversation with them saying, "Yes, we're working on it."
What do you think a Trump presidency looks like if he wins?
Uppercase letters: M-E-I-N T-R-U-M-P. There's fear around the planet because he's just uncivil.
I don't want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like you just compared Trump to Adolf Hitler.
You can call it what you want, but ... [pauses] Would it be a far toss to say that if he had a real bad day or 48 hours that he would be the first president to say, "Fuck you, we're gonna come over there, bust your ass and bomb you the fuck out, how about that?"
Are you surprised that he's gotten any support from minorities or women given his past comments?
In a time where gadgets are praised and people are worried that their cell phone screens are cracked, roboticism is at an all-time high and I'm not surprised at any of these areas of human drop-offs. We just have to work really hard on being able to hold up a mission of giving human beings back some logic, rationale and deductive reasoning that make them make great decisions for society, their surrounding communities and the world. When I fly to other places, I don't see letters on the ground below. I see a beautiful planet – whether it be the United States or the Alps – and it has to be taken care of. It's a perfect avenue for the Prophets of Rage to say something in music that sometimes will make more sense than the laws.