It’s been over a year since Prophets of Rage played their “surprise” 1 concert at the storied Agora Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio. After that event, the band played coy, suggesting that the show was a one-off specifically to protest the RNC, and that no one would ever hear anything from the band again.
They probably should have stuck with that idea.
Prophets of Rage is composed of former Rage Against the Machine members Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk, this time joined by Public Enemy’s turntablist DJ Lord, and legendary 2 rappers Chuck D and B Real. Clearly the non-Zach de la Rocha members of RATM are interested in being a backing band.
To hear the band tell it, they decided to create Prophets of Rage as a new thing 3, out of the sheer, overwhelming demand by the people themselves that they come out of hiding and start another band where they play Rage Against the Machine songs. And then, of course, that they write new ones. But we’re not at that part yet.
At this point they’re still just posting things on their website like “dangerous times demand dangerous music” and giving interviews where their guitarist claimed to have 20,000 hours of practice at rocking crowds with his guitar, and that it is a service that he must provide to go out there with the Rage Against the Machine material that made him famous and Give the People What They Want.
And at this point, the band has my attention. As explained in FN2, I have a fairly long, deeply appreciative relationship with Public Enemy 4. I have a slightly longer, also deeply appreciative relationship with Cypress Hill. Concurrent to my appreciative relationships with these two rap collectives, I was also super into Rage Against the Machine.
Whatever else there may be to say about Rage Against the Machine 5, they were unquestionably a band. They were four people that learned how to play in conjunction with each other, and possessed – for whatever value you want to grant it – an alchemy that, frankly, three-quarters of them spent their entire second band 6 proving that they didn’t have without all four of them there. I still like those Rage Against the Machine records, and I always end up liking them a bit more after the non-rapping part of the band releases something else.
Of course, Rage Against the Machine was also an early lesson in figuring out where to believe the message, and where to believe the reality. The band wrote songs about smashing the system and not being a part of systems that are harmful and all that, but they recorded for a corporation (Sony), they appeared on heavily-branded package tours, they sold their music to a Gap ad 7, they did an ad for a denim company (I don’t remember which one) that ran in an issue of Spin that caused even your young correspondent to say “hey wait, that’s not very rage-y”.
A more cynical person would look at this behavior and say “gosh, maybe they just figured out a way to commodify an attitude that turned out to be really profitable for them and they aren’t actually acolytes of it at all.” The passion of the music would seem to be otherwise, and so I will take the following position: I believe that the members of Rage Against the Machine thought that the power of their music did more good than the harm of making a bunch of money for a bunch of corporations whose intentions were worse than theirs. I believe that to the point where I do not feel a need to reconcile the two ideas, because it is all simply part of the same disagreement.
I still think it’s silly, but I get it.
So when Tom Morello came back out talking about how the people needed him, and how much he believed in this new incarnation of this band, and how they were on a mission, and how he, specifically, was devoted to using this music not just to edutain, but also to rock people’s faces off, I believed him.
When someone who makes music believes they have made the best music, I am more interested in it. If you started out with a vision, and succeeded in realizing that vision, then I am happy to hear what that vision communicates to me, knowing that you’ve done as good a job as you can communicating it 8. Tom Morello has proven that he knows how to make good records – he made them as a guitar player for Rage Against the Machine – and if he thinks he’s got some sort of second wind, well, why not come along for the ride? Especially since he’s hooked up with two other guys who also know what a good record is.
Then they released an EP. It’s called The Party’s Over. It’s two Public Enemy songs, a Rage Against the Machine song, a terrible original, and a cover of “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” that they’ve renamed “No Sleep Til Cleveland” in a nod to their origins. It is not good! But it’s a covers EP by a band that’s pretty geared toward the nostalgia circuit, so there really wasn’t any reason to believe that it would be.
The band continued to exist, planning a tour, and eventually making a record. They released some songs in advance of the record, and they were…not as bad as the covers on the EP, but definitely not anything you’d want to spend any time with. All in all it seemed like this had all the rhythms of a bog-standard disappointing reunion, without actually being a disappointing reunion.
Which brings us to the actual release of the record, which happened a couple of weeks ago. Look, the shortest version of this is: it ain’t good. The band itself has spent more years not being Rage Against the Machine than they spent as Rage Against the Machine, and it kind of shows. The most glaring problem is that Chuck D is a very specific vocalist, and clearly has spent many years molding his musical approach around his own delivery 9, and the RATM members don’t really change their approach to accommodate that. So, having constructed a vehicle that was built for the specific, spidery agitprop shoutings of Zach de la Rocha, they put Chuck D behind the wheel to shout the same kinds of slogans 10 and he, of course, crashes it into a tree.
He still comes out a little better than B Real, whose role in the group is never very well-defined. B Real is a rapper who is more like Zach de la Rocha in approach and delivery, but he’s definitely not a sloganeer, and he’s also not much of a yeller either. He occasionally seems like he’s taking the Flavor Flav role 11, which doesn’t really suit him very well, but mostly he just kind of pops in and out of the record. I will say this: it’s a surprise every time, and on a record that needs its surprise, it isn’t unwelcome I guess. I mean, I’d rather that not be a high point in and of itself, but we can only play the cards we are dealt.
The rest of the band doesn’t come off much better. DJ Lord was brought in to do some genuine turntabling, which he’s pretty good at, even if it seems like they absolutely did not need him to do any of it. It actually, as it goes on, contributes to the album’s extremely-dated qualities 12. The rhythm section – which is genuinely a great rhythm section, and is one I would classify as criminally underrated – goes through the motions, mechanically talented but not really doing anything they haven’t done several dozen times before.
And that brings us to the band’s spokesman/lightning rod/guitarist. Tom Morello made his name using his guitar and his pedals 13 to ape the sounds that other rap outfits would get out of turntables/samplers. It’s sort of the secret to why Rage Against the Machine were better able to hybridize heavy metal and rap – they weren’t relying on rap instruments to rock, they were making use of a guitar player with a highly-inventive mind and a willingness to lay aside most of his traditional technique to make the sounds necessary to swtich back and forth 14.
The problem, then, with Morello’s guitar playing is that willingness to abandon himself. It’s partly understandable – he’s had nearly thirty years of being praised for his guitar playing, and he does possess considerable technique, even traditionally-speaking 15. But even at his least rockin’ (“Bulls on Parade,” “Ashes in the Fall,” “Fistfull of Steel”), his parts still evoked something less like, say DJ Muggs or the West Coast hip-hop they were surrounded by at the time, and something more like, well, there’s no other way to say it, the Bomb Squad.
And that brings us full circle to why this doesn’t work. It’s sort of an alchemical storm of everyone being somewhat out of their element. The ex-RATM members are trying to recapture the spirit of a band that they haven’t been in in a very long time. The guitar player, specifically, is trying to re-enter a role that he left a long time ago and probably doesn’t have the mental wherewithall to re-enter 16. Hearing Chuck D stomp around in this lukewarm cover-version of RATM is double-heartbreaking – you want to remember this valliant, all-time-great, heroic figure as someone who could’ve done anything, someone whose voice is necessary, and instead you get Chuck D, a man who in his prime could’ve eaten every single Beastie Boy for breakfast and still had room for a couple of dudes in dumb hats, a man whose vocal delivery is set to “bellow” and who doesn’t even sound like he’s trying. Instead of B Real, the kind of scary, definitely-crazy sounding lyrical serpent, you get B Real, stoner with a megaphone.
Whatever the band’s intentions, whatever revolution they thought they were bringing to the table with this material, it’s awfully hard to hear over the sheer amount of nineties-leftover effluvium that they’re covering themselves with.
So who the fuck listens to this? Well, this is kind of a special case, because the question isn’t necessarily “who listens to this” as much as it is “who listens to this twice.” Anybody that was curious about Tom Morello’s stated enthusiasm, and the nigh-irresistable lineup would probably give it a shot. But I can’t imagine enjoying it. Even the high points – the B Real parts of “Strength in Numbers”, the breakdown in “Smashit” 17, the part where Chuck D just about wakes up in “Who Owns Who” 18, and “Living on the 101” generally 19.
It’s “Living on the 101” that honestly makes the album seem even worse – they were so close with that one. B Real has the lead, it grounds its lyrical approach in things that are actually happening rather than just broad, base-titillating sloganeering, it doesn’t even have a particularly bad guitar solo. It makes more sense than most of the record, and everyone’s role is pretty well-defined. It’s still not good, mind you, but if it had represented the starting point for the record, rather than “the other B Real showcase” it might’ve all turned out a little better.
But of course, that’s also the song that is the least reminiscent of Rage Against the Machine, and in addition to being a political force, it is clear that this is also meant to be a profitable one. A profitable force….of rage. As it were.
- it was a “surprise” because once the band announced their existence, there were immediately rumors that they were going to do something at the Republican National Convention, which the band insisted was not going to happen. I think they insisted it was not going to happen all the way through the entire promotion process – which process was heavy and highly-visible – thus making it a surprise to literally no one. ↩
- I mean, this record, and therefore this write-up, is not kind to Chuck D as a vocalist, but I am not going to deny that the part of Public Enemy’s career where they existed constantly – rather than intermittently – and made records is one of those things that manages to be simultaneously constantly-feted and equally deserving of every single piece of praise it has ever received. Cypress Hill’s legacy is a little bit less decorated, but I’ll put their first two albums up against anyone’s – even Public Enemy’s – any day, and B Real has, in the time since, proven that he’s still capable – albeit not as often as he was in the early days – of genuine greatness (even as recently as Dr Greenthumb’s The Prescription), which was released maybe a year before this fiasco got started. ↩
- while it is true that the name of two of their bands contain the word “rage,” it is a more interesting question to me whether they asked Chuck D to be in the band before or after they named it after a Public Enemy song. ↩
- I mean, I’m also a 34 year old white dude who’s into hip hop, so I’m pretty sure that just comes with the demographic. Doesn’t make it less true, however. ↩
- some of which I’m going to say here in a minute ↩
- the blandly forgettable Audioslave, with the late Chris Cornell ↩
- more likely, Sony sold their music to a Gap ad. This still would not have been possible if they hadn’t sold their music to Sony in the first place. This is where the stuff in the nineties about the difference between major labels and independent labels came into play. For more on that, ask me about it twenty years ago. I think I was just starting to get really into it then. Still liked Rage Against the Machine tho. ↩
- this is not to say that everyone who believes that they’ve fulfilled their vision is correct – the members of Kiss, for just one of a possible thousands of examples, have an extremely high opinion of their output, which is almost entirely music to drool into a bucket to. ↩
- as every great vocalist inevitably does – this is not something he shouldn’t have been doing. ↩
- this is maybe one of the biggest affronts to Chuck D – Chuck D wasn’t really a sloganeer, and to hear him try for the sorts of things that de la Rocha was good at and fail is just a reminder that he should be given a little bit more space and a little bit more time (like, within the music, I have no idea how much time had in the songwriting process) to be allowed to do what he does. ↩
- actually, there are occasional spots on the record where B Real is taking the lead and Chuck D does his best job of being Sen Dog that almost make you believe that if they had just stuck with one lead vocalist – and that lead vocalist had been B Real – they would’ve been alright. ↩
- it has been, conservatively, fifteen years since there were a bunch of rock bands with turntablists in them as a matter of course, and when it pops up it sounds immediately like 1999. ↩
- and not even really that many of them. There’s like maybe eight of them – lists vary – and they haven’t changed much in a long, long time. ↩
- Zach de la Rocha’s vocals do something similar – his ability to oscillate effortlessly between a hardcore-style scream and actual rapping is the band’s other secret weapon. ↩
- we saw a bit more of this in Audioslave, and it’s easy to wonder if time spent in a band with Chris Cornell, who never made any bones about the amount of classic-rock traditionalism in his DNA, didn’t nudge him in the direction of showing that off a bit more. ↩
- This is, personally, one of the things that’s so frustrating about the whole thing: I want Tom Morello to be seized by the desire to make music that he feels is necessary to the world’s survival, and to push the audience to their furthest corners, and to come up with a whole new way to enable people to yell “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me.” I had hopes, is what I’m saying here. I wanted to believe. ↩
- even though it makes me think of Maserati, which makes it the best solo on the album, because I quite like Maserati. I would listen to this solo for several minutes, which I know, because it sounds like Maserati, and I have several Maserati albums. ↩
- even though Chuck D hollering “WE FUCKING MATTER” just makes me think of Kathy Bates now. There are no YouTube links to the relevant scene in American Horror Story to explain this reference, so godspeed to all of you who can hear it as it is. ↩
- even though when they namecheck Calabasas I now just think of Mallory Ortberg. ↩