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Prophets of Rage: Inside New RATM, Public Enemy, Cypress Hill Supergroup

How Rage Against the Machine, Chuck D and B-Real united for one of the most anticipated groups of the year.

“We’re not a supergroup,” says Tom Morello. “We’re an elite task force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bullshit, and confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing.”

He is describing Prophets of Rage, a new band that brings together members of the guitarist’s old band, Rage Against the Machine, with two of the group’s favourite rappers: Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Cypress Hill’s B-Real. Fans first learned about Prophets of Rage when mysterious posters started popping up around Los Angeles, and a countdown clock was posted on Rage Against the Machine’s Twitter account. Some fans wrongly assumed Rage Against the Machine would be reforming for the first time since a one-off show in 2011, but even without Zack de la Rocha, the group will be playing classics like “Bulls On Parade” and “Killing in the Name” along with tunes by Public Enemy and Cypress Hill. As of now, they only have one Los Angeles club show on the books, though the group hopes to set out on more shows this summer. We spoke with Chuck D, B-Real and RATM’s Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford about how it all came together.

The Old Days

Wilk: When [the members of Rage Against the Machine] had just met, Zack got us tickets to a Public Enemy concert that was canceled since they were worried about riots. It was a really exciting time in music and we really connected to it. Zack, at the time, was heavily influenced by hip-hop. The first time I heard Cypress Hill was from Zack. He put in the tape in my car and was like, ‘Check this band out.’ I was like, ‘Holy shit! This is fucking awesome.’ Part of Rage’s DNA was turning each other on to other music.

Commerford: I think the fifth show we played as a band was at a college in San Luis Obispo with Public Enemy. We covered Cypress Hill’s “How Could I Just Kill a Man” on the Renegades album. The first Cypress Hill record and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back were two of the biggest hip-hop influences on Rage Against The Machine.

Chuck D: I remember getting a demo cassette tape of Rage Against The Machine with a match in it. I thought that was interesting. What got me was their combination of rap and hard, aggressive music. It was one of those rare instances when the planets just lined up right and the alchemy of musical magic and history just poured out. I saw them in concert around then and what I remember most is how wiped out the crowd was afterwards. I had never seen a place destroyed; sweat and blood on the walls. The fucking tables were turned over and rafters pulled down. It was crazy. They’re the Led Zeppelin of our time.

B-Real: I was taken to see Rage by a friend. She took me to a place called Club With No Name. When I heard the music I was totally blown away. I was moshing with the fans in the pit and they happened to see me and they brought me up and we did a song that became “Hand on the Glock” on the Black Sunday record. We became friends and we eventually would take them on one of our first big tours. To me, they were this generation’s Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin. At that point I was listening to nothing but hip-hop, but I started off as a rock fan. They rekindled that spirit inside of me that was laying dormant.

Chuck D: They had a different angst than a lot of the other bands of that time. Politics weren’t really heard in the rock world. It was all, “Boo hoo, I didn’t get my lunch money” or “Dad didn’t buy me a car today, so I’m fucking mad at the world.” That’s bullshit. Rage were talking about some clear-cut things that we knew were worth screaming about.

Rage Against The Machine Goes On Hiatus

Rage Against the Machine circa 1992 Mark Baker/Getty

Rage Against The Machine broke up in 2000. Seven years later they reformed and hit the festival circuit, but they didn’t record any new material. They haven’t played since summer 2011.

Morello: Everywhere I go, people ask, “What are you guys going to do?” People are frustrated that this music has not been out in the world to fight for them; music without compromise or apology.

Wilk: Rage Against The Machine was the first band I was in. I will always love it. It will always have a special place for me. Having said that, it’s four different guys with four different outlooks on what Rage Against The Machine means to them. I always want to be part of the band, for the most part. So anytime the four of us want to get together and do something, it’s a good thing. It always feels good to me. Have there been times I’ve been frustrated by the fact we weren’t doing anything? Sure. But that’s not where I’m at right now.

“They were this generation’s Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin” – B-Real on Rage Against the Machine

Commerford: We’re not breaking up. We just do things our own way. Throughout our career, we never did what anyone wanted us to do. We never made the records people wanted us to make. We never played by the rules people wanted us to play by. And here we are, 25 years later, still a band. Clearly that means something. And if we did ever play or make new music or anything, it would be a very big deal. And there’s a lot of bands that I’ve seen come along during that 25-year period that did everything the record companies and the powers-that-be wanted them to do, and they sold millions of records. But where are they now? They’re gone.

Prophets of Rage Come Together

Commerford: I’m gonna credit Tom Morello with the origin of the idea. He asked me if I was into it. He was the spearhead. When he gets his head wrapped around something it’s like a mental python.

Morello: It all happened pretty organically. We’ve been friends for a long time. It’s not like we went on YouTube and auditioned someone who could do a convincing version of “Bullet In The Head.” That wasn’t it at all. We’ve been musical comrades for a very long time. We’ve had a tremendous amount of respect for each other musically and politically. They’re my idols and friends. I called up Chuck D. I think I texted B.

Chuck D: Actually, Tom talked to my wife first. She’s very deep into the politics of Latinos, blacks, inequalities and stuff like that. They had a great conversation. For years I heard the rumour that Zack isn’t going to perform with Rage Against Machine and they’ll need someone to fill in. I talked to Tom and said, ‘Sure.’

B-Real: I got a text from Tom. We’ve always talked about working together. He produced two songs on the Cypress Hill album Rise Up. When he called, I was more than motivated to do it. What he said to me was along the lines of, “The people need a voice right now. People need to hear these songs; a message.” I was all about that. I’m not necessarily known for being in the political realm outside of [marijuana] legalisation and whatnot. But I do have my beliefs. I think he valued that and decided to give me a call. I agreed that people need a voice right now. If we can serve that, I’m all for it.

The Rehearsals

Commeford: We first rehearsed at this little joint called Soundcheck Studio in North Hollywood. The first day it was just us and Chuck. We did a couple of Rage songs like “Killing In The Name” and “Take the Power Back.” We wanted to see how it felt. It felt right. ‘Take the Power Back” was actually the first one we did because I feel like the lyric was inspired by Chuck D. We worked on that song for a while and then we took some Public Enemy songs and did them in the spirit of the Renegade album.

Wilk: B-Real came into the picture a little later only because we were all busy. He was always on our minds and we knew we wanted to work with him. When we got into the room and saw how cool it felt, we said, “Why not ask B to be a part of this?”

Chuck D: I’ve been doing Pilates the past two years. It’s the perfect core workout for any artist/entertainer, especially for anyone that does rap or speed vocals. If you don’t do the songs right, you can die on fucking stage. I don’t know if the Pilates prepared me for rehearsals. It was five hours of relentless speed and energy. Four hours of yelling and loud and bringing the noise for five, six days a week. I don’t think normal people could do this shit. I don’t mean I’m abnormal, though.

“I don’t think normal people could do this shit.” – Chuck D

Morello: It had been a while since I played with Brad and Timmy. There’s nothing that sounds like that rhythm. It’s crazy. I’ve played a on a lot of stages, in every genre. There’s nothing in the world that sounds like playing with those guys. To me, the rehearsals have felt at times like the very beginning of Rage Against The Machine. The level of camaraderie and unity of purpose is very exciting.

Chuck D: People need to know that DJ Lord is one of the six members of the group. He’s been doing turntables for Public Enemy for the last 17 years. You guys should cover him more. He’s not in New York or L.A. circles, but he’ll bust a motherfucker’s ass. There’s no one better.

Assembling The Setlist

Morello: This has been a very organic process. Sometimes B will just say, “I’ll take the second verse of this” and Chuck is very agreeable. A lot of our records, and a lot of Public Enemy and Cypress Hill records, there’s a lot of doubled vocals. Now we’re able to do them in a very exciting way with two of the best voices in hip-hop. We’re able to explore all of our catalogs, but there’s different twists and turns. We’ve taken some Public Enemy tunes and Rage-ified them. The song “Prophets of Rage” is a pretty obvious choice. “She Watch Channel Zero” has become a Rage-[meets]-Black Sabbath bulldozer. “Fight The Power” has morphed into something that you wouldn’t expect. I also want to be able to go deeper into the Rage catalog than we have in the past. Let me tell you, you can put together an insane setlist from these three catalogs. It’s insane.

Commerford: We’re a group, so it’s really great to hear Chuck D doing what Sen Dog might do in Cypress Hill and B-Real doing what Flavor Flav might do in Public Enemy, and to hear them both doing what Zack was doing in Rage. It’s very exciting. I don’t want to give away everything we’re doing, but there’s really interesting ways of doing Cypress Hill, Public Enemy and Rage and killing three birds with one stone. There’s a lot of neat ways that you can play from the catalog.

Wilk: The setlist is pretty evenly split between the three groups. We’re also playing a couple Prophets of Rage songs. We’re doing some writing, but I don’t want to give too much away.

Morello: There’s one new song called “The Party Is Over,” which is an absolutely from-scratch collaboration of all of us. In my view, it’s one of our best songs.

B-Real: We’re going to surprise people with how we put this all down. There are so many Rage songs that I love, but I think everybody’s favorite is “Bulls on Parade.” It just has a tremendous amount of energy. At this point, it’s hard to pinpoint what the setlist will be, what will make the cut and what won’t. We’re having fun in the process.

Morello: So far we’ve played [the Cypress Hill songs] “How Could I Just Kill A Man,” “Rock Superstar” and an intense medley with a bunch of Cypress songs. They have so many great songs that one of the greatest challenges is just whittling it all down. The options are endless. The Public Enemy and Cypress songs both left themselves to Rage-ificaiton.

The Future

Chuck D and musician Tom Morello perform onstage at the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards on February 10, 2013 in Los Angeles Kevork Djansezian/Getty

As of now, there are no official plans for Prophets of Rage outside of the show at Los Angeles’ Whisky a Go Go.

B-Real: We haven’t talked about any of that stuff. We also have our commitments to Public Enemy and Cypress Hill. Everyone is working on their own projects. We just want to focus on the [Whisky] show and make sure we give them 110%.

“We never made the records people wanted us to make” – RATM bassist Tim Commerford

Chuck D: We’ll see what July and August holds. All I know is rehearsals are taking place and they’re hard. After the rehearsals, the shows are easy. This is like the Chicago Bulls when they’re in practice. By the time you get to the game? Fuck, man. The game is easy. You can beat anybody.

There are rumours the group might play a protest show outside of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Morello: I enjoy rumours as much as anybody else.

Wilk: That is indeed just a rumour.

Commerford: I hope we do it. That would be amazing if we did, but I don’t know if we will.

What’s Up With Zack?

Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine at Coachella 2007 John Shearer/Getty

The Rage Against The Machine frontman has kept a low profile these past five years, popping up onstage at a Run The Jewels concert and in the audience of the occasional tennis match or NBA game.

Morello: I have not spoken to Zack about Prophets or Rage, but I know that Timmy and Brad did. They’d probably be better able to discuss that.

Wilk: I haven’t talked to him recently. I know he’s making a record right now. I have nothing but love and respect for him. I hope he’s doing well and creating the record that I think he’s making.

“You’re never going to replace Zack, and we aren’t trying to do that.” – Tim Commerford

Commerford: I spoke to Zack and got his blessing, and that’s really great. We’re a family and there’s support across the board. I support him and everything he does, and vice versa. I’ve definitely been keeping him in the know. You’re never going to replace Zack, and we aren’t trying to do that. He’s a unique artist and showman. It’s going to take people that I know he looks up to and that he idolizes and that he’s inspired by. We’re going to plug them in and see what they can do with these songs, because at the end of the day it’s all about the songs. The songs are needed right now, they really are. This is gonna be some cool shit.

In Summation

Commerford: There’s nothing quite like playing “Killing In The Name” in front of a live audience. It’s a live wire and it’s a beautiful thing. We’re in troubled times, so we need this. We’ve missed these opportunities in the past, and we’re not going to miss them this time. We’re gonna be here. It’s needed. It’s gonna be scary.

Morello: Prophets of Rage combines the sonic power of Rage, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill. It’s my contention that we can no longer stand on the sidelines of history. Dangerous times demand dangerous songs. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are both constantly referred to in the media as raging against the machine. We’ve come back to remind everyone what raging against the machine really means. It’s a voice that’s been missing too long in the national/international dialogue and it’s back. What better place than here? What better time than now?