The highest-profile Rage Against the Machine fan this decade was almost inarguably Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan—currently, and with any justice permanently, stuck between Trump and a hard place. But the 2012 election cycle, when he ran for veep and played up his incongruous love for RATM, already seems like a lifetime ago. He eventually denounced Rage's lyrics—a step he has yet to take with his party's 2016 presidential candidate, by the way. Guitar hero Tom Morello, meanwhile, denounced Ryan in a Rolling Stone op-ed.
Four years later, Morello credits the current cycle's constantly aggravating references to upstart White House hopefuls on both ends of the spectrum "raging against the machine" for spurring him toward his new supposedly-not-a-supergroup Prophets of Rage. His partners in protest are RATM rhythm section Tim Commerford (bass) and Brad Wilk (drums), Public Enemy bellower Chuck D and turntablist-since-1999 DJ Lord, and Latin linguist B-Real from Cypress Hill.
It's not hard to imagine this lineup figuring their time had come: After Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Bernie Sanders and—in the case of B-Real, at least—sporadic legal weed, no doubt it seemed history had finally caught up with all their time-worn radical slogans battling imperialism, oligarchy, racial injustice, and whatnot.
So they set off on the Make America Rage Again tour (Sat. Sept. 10 at White River Amphitheatre, 7pm.), fighting the obvious neo-fascist foe while "not necessarily" (Chuck told the New York Times) backing Hillary Clinton per se. Morello suggested to Billboard that their one recorded original so far, "The Party's Over," might well refer to both parties, and he was sure to toss a "no political litmus test" and "lesser of two evils" in there. Still, July's Republican Convention in Cleveland is the one they brought the noise at (probably preaching to more converted there than did noted 1990s revolutionaries Third Eye Blind), and it seems fairly clear who they're raging against most.
Rage Against the Machine had played a political convention or two in the past, too. Hey, somebody's gotta be the MC5, right? Tom Morello and Chuck D have long walked it like they talk it, carrying activism beyond the sonic realm—no doubt their hearts are in the right place. Decades ago, they both helped turn supposedly frivolous genres serious. They were loud men making music meant to be important, as loud men frequently do.
Prophets of Rage have kept up with the biz to the extent that their profits-of-age plan at this point involves storming the road at theoretically affordable prices and peddling merch (yes, their website has Trumpish red baseball caps) more than writing actual songs or releasing any music beyond a brief, mostly live, mostly covers EP. But middle-aged rap-metal is middle-aged rap-metal—that "fuck you I won't do what you tell me" tantrum at the end of their rendition of RATM's "Killing in the Name" mainly serves these days to remind you where mooks like Limp Bizkit learned their trade.
And it's not like they're even the most rampagingly Republican-baiting rock-rap out there now. That would more likely be DJ Shadow featuring Run the Jewels' "Nobody Speak," complete with an obscene Trump accusation and a lip-synched video involving grizzled white congressmen having a melee.
There's anti-Trump metal this year ("Viva Presidente Trump!" from border-crossing, decapitation-happy grind-death drug-smuggle parodists Brujeria, who bark that they want him to win so Mexico can beat him in a war), and there's anti-Trump hiphop ("FDT" from brazy LA rappers YG and Nipsey Hussle, threatening to join the Black Panthers and insisting Mexican Americans already help make America great).
Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts's The Race for the White House EP opens with "Making America Great Again (All by Myself)," and Sugarland pop-country thrush Jennifer Nettles finished up her 2016 album dueting bilingually with Jennifer Lopez, suggesting "instead of building walls, let's tear them to the ground."
Plus in metal, especially, apocalyptic politics just plain go with the territory like they most always have: Thrash grandpas Anthrax and Megadeth, whose thoughts on the election are out there if you want them, both opened the year roaring about terror attacks. Whether Prophets of Rage have something to say about political upheaval in 2016 that nobody else in music is saying remains to be seen.
Anthrax, incidentally, also covered Public Enemy once—"Bring the Noise," in 1991, with Chuck D's help. A quarter century later, Chuck D is still remaking his own oldies with heavy rock dudes. Three of the five tracks on Prophets' The Party's Over EP are PE updates, if you count on-stage closer "No Sleep Til Cleveland," which is really just "Fight the Power" with a Beasties chorus that doesn't shift from Brooklyn to northern Ohio until the end, and which may well lead you to wonder why anybody in 2016 would fret about Bobby McFerrin having topped the pop chart 28 years ago.
"Prophets of Rage" is now a band theme song with Zeppish riffs but devoid of references to Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela, Denmark Vesey, or a brother's chromosomes; the revamped "Shut 'Em Down" is most notable for the proggish guitar hoedown Morello kicks it off with. Terminator X and the Bomb Squad once upon a time gave these songs harmolodic space and turntable shocks for Chuck to dance around in—now they sound somewhat congested.
New tune "The Party's Over" gets conspiratorial about "Illuminati rehearsals" and "government green" over sub-Sabbath stoner stomping, and the revived-from-RATM "Killing in the Name" conjures cross-burners in Congress. Morello starts that one with a pinch of Middle Eastern atmosphere and then gets off more insanely squealing licks in the middle.
And speaking of squealing, insane-in-the-membrane B-Real's high nasal register makes for a decent Zack de la Rocha facsimile. Actually, though few Rage fans would admit it, de la Rocha was sort of that band's weak link; Chuck D and B-Real are both less klutzy on the microphone. So there's that.
Live, Prophets of Rage occasionally segue "Cochise," from the three Rage guys' trudging Chris Cornell collaboration Audioslave, into Public Enemy's not-exactly-feminist "She Watch Channel Zero?!" which initially took its metal from Slayer. Hey, at least they don't do "Sophisticated Bitch."
But set-list selections do tend to come from members' main gigs' earlier and better albums. Public Enemy and Cypress Hill allegedly still exist, RATM have been on hiatus for a while, and in 2012 Public Enemy put out an album with Evil Empire in its title, just like Rage in 1996. Back at the turn of the '10s, Morello hosted a similar agitprop rap-metal side project called Street Sweeper Social Club, with Boots Riley of the Coup. How many remember them?
Though the Prophets naturally deny nostalgia is a factor, the fact remains that Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, and Rage were all late-20th-century entities whose commercial visibility was winding down by 1994, 1998, and 2000, respectively. Yet they are the exact kind of musicians the original Lollapalooza generation has always had a hard time letting go of. The comrades gathered here are all between 41 and 56 years old—while not near Trump or Clinton, most are older than Paul Ryan. None of that negates what they're doing, of course—and again, more (fight the) power to them.
But as somebody just a few months younger than the other Chuck myself, I hope they're not really serious about all that "No Sleep" stuff. At this age, trust me, they need all they can get.