Prophets of Rage, Libertyville's Tom Morello make it political
When it comes to protest music, there's the subtle stuff and the really angry stuff. The all-star band Prophets of Rage takes the latter to a whole new grab-you-by-the-throat level.
Their volcanic self-titled debut album tackles racism, poverty, drones, homelessness, police injustice, marijuana legalization, capitalism, national borders, the wealth gap and gun violence.
"In this day and age, there is no other band doing what we're doing musically, no other band doing what we're doing politically. That lane is open," said guitarist and leader Tom Morello.
That the Prophets of Rage mix social consciousness with a fusion of rap, metal and punk shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, the band is composed of Chuck D and his Public Enemy bandmate DJ Lord, B-Real of Cypress Hill and the backbone of Rage Against the Machine -- bassist Tim Commerford, drummer Brad Wilk and Morello, who grew up in Libertyville.
It's a combustible cocktail, combining the guys who created the anthem "Fight the Power" with the makers of "Calm Like a Bomb." It's also a blend of long-time friends and collaborators who look a lot like America.
"It's a band that preaches solidarity and we exhibit it among ourselves. It's a band that preaches racial harmony and we exhibit it among ourselves," Morello said.
The band was formed in secret, practicing deep in the San Fernando Valley ahead of a summer 2016 tour. They played their first show on May 21, 2016, at the famed Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles and acknowledge the cement hadn't hardened yet even four days before that show.
"We knew we had something probably in the last few weeks of our rehearsal," said B-Real. "We knew it looked great on paper, it sounded even better when you say it, but we knew we had to put some work in."
They mostly played songs from the three bands' back catalogs until returning from their tour. Then they decided to see if they could come up with new stuff, hoping to create two songs a day. In a week they had five or six, and even more the next week.
"Chuck was like, 'I respond to this one.' And I was like, 'This riff might make a better chorus here.' And then, all of a sudden, we were in the midst of writing a record," Morello said.
While the arrival of the Trump administration has offered a rich, lyrical target, band members insist their concerns aren't who is in power but the structural underpinnings that divide Americans. In fact, Trump isn't mentioned on the album, even though Wilk sees him as a "blessing in disguise."
"With Trump, I feel we have a nation that's starting to wake up and now more than ever, I feel like people are getting into the streets. Young people are questioning things more. And I feel like we're a band that can be a spark plug for that," he said. Bandmate DJ Lord agreed: "We're providing that soundtrack for the resistance."
The band practices what it preaches, including inviting a social justice nonprofit to spread its message at every concert (also getting a percentage of the ticket price) and performing at homeless shelters, political protests -- and once outside a prison in Norco, California, after their invitation to play inside was abruptly rescinded.
"This isn't one of those things where we're doing this to show," said Chuck D. "No, no. You've got to want to do it. We actually want to do these things."
Morello and his band -- known to wear Colin Kaepernick jerseys onstage -- are as politically engaged as rock stars can be, but he doesn't believe all other musicians must follow suit. Instead, they have to be real.
"I think, as a person, you should weave your convictions into your vocation. So if you are rock 'n' roll musician and your convictions are sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, then by all means have that be your art. Don't, for the sake of Chuck D and Tom Morello, start writing political songs that you don't care about or know anything about," he says.
"On the other hand, if you do have those convictions, and you deny them in your art for the sake of commercial gain or to curry favor in certain circles, then there's an extra hot place on the ninth level for you."
They're having so much fun, no one wants to think of returning to their old bands. "Get comfortable seeing us. We're going to be here," said DJ Lord. B-Real agrees: "What we have is very special and there's no expiration date."