The world is probably going to end soon – nuclear Christmas, and all – but in the meantime, at least we have some top notch political fusion-metal to jam out to. Matt Doria catches up with axe-slinging icon Tom Morello to unlock the prophecy (of rage).
Despite being firm staples of the ‘90s political punk scene, the cogent, take-no-bullshit angst of acts like Rage Against The Machine and Public Enemy has never rung more true. It seems absolutely ridiculous that societal stains like racism, sexism and queerphobia could have such a prevalent and vehement uprising in our ever‑so‑seemingly ‘progressive’ communities, but here we are. And here – nostalgic edge delightfully intact – are Prophets Of Rage, armed and ready to dismantle the system riff by riff.
Self‑described as an “elite task force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of bullshit head-on with Marshall stacks blazing,” the supergroup – fusing most of Rage Against The Machine (guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk) with a chunk of Public Enemy (DJ Lord and rapper Chuck D) and Cypress Hill’s B-Real (vocals) – have posited themselves as a permanent institution in the new generation of protest music. With their polarising self-titled debut making waves across both the music and political scenes, we sought to dig a little deeper into its venomous, unforgiving roots.
Especially going up against the current sociopolitical climate, what’s the response to Prophets Of Rage been like on your end? Have you had any clashes with ‘alt-right’ f***lords since you kicked this project off?
Having conflict in the political realm is, frankly, what we’re aiming for. If you’re making music that everyone can agree on, both artistically and politically, you’re probably making some pretty shitty music. This record is our audition to be the soundtrack to the resistance: we want to fuel our fans to fight back against all forms of injustice across the globe, from impending environmental disasters to the rise of racism and anti-immigration sentiments, to grotesque economic inequality. Injustice is rampant, but resistance to injustice is also rampant, and that resistance needs some songs to blast from the rooftops. Prophets Of Rage is here for you – you must only ask!
This project started as a protest against Trump’s media campaign at the start of 2016, and at the time, we thought there’d just be a few shows here and there – maybe a single or two as well. Was it always your intention to wind up with an album and a world tour, or did it just sort of snowball from those initial few shows?
We formed this band in the midst of a political hurricane, and we thought it was imperative to do something more than just tweet about the ascendency of a Trump/Pence regime. But then we found that we actually loved playing together and that we have a great musical chemistry, and we want to make a lot of records. This is just the beginning for Prophets Of Rage. When we got into the studio and found that we could write and record together – that we could make music that we loved and then take that music out into the world – it was a game-changer. It’s insane to be playing “Unf*** The World” back-to-back with “Bullet In The Head”, “Fight The Power” and “(Rock) Superstar”. And y’know, we’re musicians first and foremost: our message lives in the mosh pit, so it’s our job to drive people absolutely f***ing crazy from the stage. Hopefully, that will then open their views up to the message contained in the music.
What makes Prophets Of Rage more than just a plain ol’ supergroup, then?
When we first got together, it looked great on paper but it didn’t sound great in the rehearsal studio. It took months of us secretly practising in the San Bernardino Valley to hone our sound and answer the question of, “How do we six musicians be an impactful band?” [Rage Against The Machine] had never played with a DJ before, but now some of the most devastating parts of the show are the mini hip-hop set in the middle of the show, the turntable scratch battle that I have with DJ Lord, the interplay between B-Real and Chuck D on the Rage Against The Machine songs and the Rage-ification of the Public Enemy and Cypress Hill songs. There’s a lot of different arrows in the quiver when we’re up there onstage.
Since those early setlists were dominated by Rage Against The Machine songs, and the lineup includes all of you bar Zack, we’re a little curious – did this project initially start off as a shot at reuniting the old band?
[Laughs] No. No, it was never that. It was about those songs, though – we felt as though it would be foolish to have them be dormant during a time when they were most needed. Y’know, they were written during the Bill Clinton administration. With Trump in power, those songs are much, much more needed now than they were when they were written.
So what did you want to do with Prophets Of Rage that you couldn’t with Rage Against The Machine?
I think all of us have taken our combined musical heritage and turned it into something completely new. I hear some of Chris Cornell’s influence on this record – there’s a melodicism in some parts of [the Prophets Of Rage] record that we first moulded in the Audioslave years. I hear some Rage Against The Machine in it, too – there are those big, bulldozing riffs. I try, from the standpoint of a guitarist, to play stuff that nobody’s ever heard before. I try to do that on every record I make, and on this record, I brought all of that together. I used everything from the very first guitar I ever owned – a little $50 axe that’s been sitting in a closet for 30 or so years – to Brendan [O’Brien, producer]’s fancy Stratocaster from the 1950s. Using all of our own strengths, we just fearlessly approached this record as a chance to make music that was going to be meaningful in 2017.
After 30-plus years behind the axe, do you think it’s important to keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone just to stay on your toes?
Yeah, but I mean, that’s what I’ve done for my entire career! I was out of my comfort zone in 1991 when Rage Against The Machine formed: there wasn’t any other band made up of a Mexican‑American, a half-black guy, a Jewish guy and a white guy playing a neo-Marxist mashup of punk, metal, rap and funk. For me, at least, it’s so crucial to keep exploring and keep expanding, and to keep finding inspiration in new places.
How are you still finding that inspiration after so many years of constantly jumping between those extremes?
Well, there’s a number of elements to the creative process, and there’s a craftsmanship to it where, y’know, you practise the guitar, you make sure you know all the notes, the band practises the song, you record in a studio, and you try to get the song right. But my favourite part in that is what sort of evidences itself in both the songwriting and the solos – it’s what inspires you as a musician, and that’s what really makes a song. I have no idea where that comes from, and that’s why I’m in this business. It’s that moment of having a blank sheet of paper, and then all of a sudden, there’s some noises and sounds and grooves and riffs that never existed before. It’s that original moment of creative insurgency that has pushed me as a musician for a quarter of a century.
With things like the Eagles Of Death Metal shooting, the festival shooting in Vegas and the Ariana Grande bomb incident, do you have any worries that your message might be a target for something to go down at one of your own shows?
In this day and age, I think there’s a level of anxiety about your personal safety that didn’t exist in the past, whether you’re playing a show or walking into an office building. But what are we going to do? Just stay home and not play a concert? [Laughs]. I mean, we take every possible precaution at every show to keep our fans, the bands and crew safe, and that’s really all you can do… Well, other than retire prematurely, which we don’t intend to do. What’s going on with those terrorist attacks is, in some ways, tethered to US foreign policy, which is, in some ways, tethered to international tensions… It’s all part and parcel, and it shows that our lead single, “Unf*** The World”, is an important song right now. While it’s a very catchy sort of slogan, it’s also a meaningful plan of action.
It’s a call to arms, basically – the people listening to “Unf*** The World” are the people that can go out and do exactly that.
Right. That’s how the world changes, and that’s how it’s always changed. People who have no greater degree of intelligence, courage or ability than the people reading this article were the same people that overthrew Apartheid and made the Berlin Wall come down – they’re the people who got women the right to vote and ended slavery. In this day and age, people get so locked into their devices and their hashtags, they forget that they’re agents of history. History isn’t something that just happens overnight – history is something that you make. So get the f*** out there and make it!