Prophets of Rage Talk Formation, Politicizing Music, Band Chemistry + More
Tom Morello and Tim Commerford of Prophets of Rage were the guests on Full Metal Jackie’s Los Angeles-based Monday night radio show. The two discussed what it was like launching a campaign teasing the new group, the impetus for starting the band, the chemistry with members of Public Enemy and Cypress Hill and more. Check out the chat below:
Thank you so much for being here.
Tom Morello: Hello, it’s nice to see you. Death to false metal.
Yes! [laughs] First, the lead up to this – you guys getting together was so exciting and the best rollout I’ve seen of any band getting together in a long time. Congrats.
TM: No One is more excited than us. Just the fact that we’re playing, as so many of your listeners who may not know, Prophets of Rage is comprised of three of the members of Rage Against the Machine, myself and Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk. Chuck D and DJ Lord from Public Enemy and B-Real from Cypress Hill. While we’ve been musical comrades for years, we certainly have never been in a band before together. So, it gives us an opportunity to rock some RATM jams and Rage-efy Public Enemy / Cypress Hill jams as well as coming up with some of our own jams as well during these tumultuous times.
Tim Commerford: It’s pretty easy to set things up when you have Rage, Cypress and Public Enemy.
Public Enemy and RATM were predominant bands, sort of generating social and political awareness. Was there ever talk about collaborating any time before now?
TM: We’ve collaborated with both Public Enemy and Cypress Hill before. Public Enemy took Rage out on maybe our first tour. The first thing you’d call a tour, we did this up the West Coast with them in 1991, maybe 1992. Cypress Hill took Rage out in 1994. B-Real actual appears in the “Killing in the Name” video. They’ve been friends and co-conspirators for quite some time. But to be in a band with those guys is a real honor. Cypress and PE were two of the biggest hip-hop influences on Rage.
TC: And every single time we ever played a festival and those guys were there, we always worked some kind of musical arrangement up and let them come up and do their thing for sure.
What made you decide, what was the moment where – this is happening.
TM: It was this election year that really spurred it. They would describe both Trump and Sanders as raging against the machine and we thought that we cornered the market on that and we’re gonna let people know what it really means to rage against the machine. In this era where there is so much idiocy in politics and so much compromise in music, we wanted to really be uncompromised and unfettered in what we said in the music and how we played the music.
Tell us, what is hardest about balancing activism with entertainment?
TM: I started playing guitar when I was 17, around the same time when I started doing political activism. For me, the challenge would be that I didn’t really chose to be a guitar player. It sort of felt like it chose me, like it was a calling. Like I had to do that. So to find a way to weave my thoughts about the world and how I wanted to effect change in the world, in a rock band, which is not a traditional format for doing that has been a challenge. The good news is both with Rage and with Prophets of Rage is that it comes very naturally and the lane is wide open.
TC: For me, I became politicized through Tom Morello and Zack De La Rocha and being in Rage. I grew up in Orange County, peckerwood gangster. Just doing my thing and I never thought that I would care about the things I care about today. I get that question a lot, do you really think music can politicize people? I know first hand that it can.
You guys have had situations where you were told by the police not to play.
That’s how powerful music is.
TC: We’ve seen the police storm the back gate of a show on horseback, shooting the audience with semi-lethal or nonlethal weapons or whatever you want to call them. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen armored cars protecting kids against our music and I’ve seen cops say you can’t go onstage and play your music.
TM: People are afraid of it and for good reason. I remember a few years ago I was playing a solo show somewhere but the rumor was that Rage Against the Machine was gonna play and the cops there didn’t know that I was either the performer or in Rage Against the Machine, I got to overhear their conversation. The fear that they felt that RATM was gonna arrive was like, ‘Oh no! They’re going to come! People are going to start changing the world!’
TC: I have a buddy who is a sheriff and he told me before we did the DNC in 2000 that there was a full on meeting where it was all about discussing how they were going to handle RATM.
How does it feel to have that much power in a band?
TM: I don’t know if it’s so much the power of the band but the power of the — don’t get me wrong, the band is very powerful and we’ve translated that power into Prophets of Rage. The idea was not to just have a new version of RATM, but to amplify both the message and the music with our friends from Cypress Hill and Public Enemy. To me, it’s like, it gives you an opportunity. When we formed RATM, we didn’t have any expectation of making records or of being on a radio station 25 years later. We just made music and lyrics that expressed what the frustrations we felt. That resonated around the globe in a way that now provides us both the opportunity and the responsibility to sort of live up to the promise of those songs.
TC: The power is the audience just as much as the band, for sure. It’s a 50/50 shared deal. We suck if they suck.
I’ve wondered that with bands, of how the crowd reacts to you affects your performance.
TM: Have you ever been to a Rage show? I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s maybe Queen at Live Aid that has something on it, but there’s a real intense connection. It’s not just music for entertainment. People feel that that band, and you can include Public Enemy as well, and with Prophets of Rage with the first few shows we played, we felt the same thing. People feel that that band in a way speaks for them. It gives voice to people. They do not hear their point of view or frustrations. In political candidates, they don’t hear it on TV. There is nowhere where it appears except in the unfiltered world view of our band.
There’s a new song out there. You guys have maybe been working on some additional tunes. Is Prophets of Rage specifically meant as a one time voice of dissent, very much political year or will you carry on after election day?
TM: We have an EP coming out called The Party’s Over. There are two new songs on it, one of them is called “Prophets of Rage” and the other is called “The Party Is Over” and then some roaring live tracks. We have some other new stuff cooking. We’re on tour with the ‘Make America Rage Again Tour’ and I have no doubt we will continue to do more. Timmy has a plan for the band’s recording, which is ambitious.
TC: It’s every six months a new EP with new songs. That’s what I’m gonna do. I’ll make sure that happens.
I wouldn’t want to say no to that guy. [laughs]
TM: The Clash did that, a single every month.
TC: We can do it, it’s a nice ambition.
Tell us what was the final straw that prompted forming Prophets of Rage and how quickly did the band come together?
TM: The first step was, I spoke with Tim and Brad and they were down. But getting Chuck D to say yes, he was a reluctant bride at the beginning. Chuck D is one of the busiest men in show business. He’s got radio stations, Public Enemy, he’s got a whole hip-hop empire and to get him to pause for a minute to get in a room and let him hear and feel what it is to hear Tom, Tim and Brad play Rage songs and to play PE songs, as soon as he got in the room he became more agreeable to the idea. The secret weapon, in my view, of Prophets of Rage is B-Real because it was his – the chemistry that he helped the band develop. Both as co-lead vocalist with Chuck and opening up the sort of “La Raza” part of the catalog in a way where there’s an authenticity to that guy that is unmatched.
TC: We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for those guys. That’s the truth. I say it all the time and it’s so true. I would be working in a cabinet shop in Orange County if it weren’t for Chuck D and B-Real. No doubt.
How did it feel, before it was fully announced, you guys had these posters around Los Angeles with the countdown clock when you started to see the reaction that people were having? How did that feel knowing that whatever it is, we’re really excited about it?
TM: It felt like we better be good! [laughs] I remember the posters went up kind of early and I was like, we need to maybe rehearse. We worked really hard at this because we didn’t just find some singers on YouTube that can do a convincing version of “Bullet in the Head.” We wanted this band to not just stand shoulder to shoulder with the work of our previous three bands but to be something that really matters now and is great now and the legend of the live performances will be matched or eclipsed by what we do now. We worked on it. The reason why bands are good is because of chemistry. You can’t just shift pieces around and go on paper, ‘That looks like it’ll be pretty good.’ That’s not how it works. You gotta figure it out, and we spent the time figuring it out. We did figure it out.
TC: We get better and better no doubt. Every performance seems like it gets better and better and I can’t wait to get out on tour and be playing 3-4 shows a week and get great. That’s how you do it.
TM: We’ve had a most eventful first eight shows of any supergroup in history. Those shows, first, we’ve given away every cent we’ve made at every show to first aid or they’ve been free shows for the residents of skid row in downtown Los Angeles. Free for the protesters at the RNC and then we have a mysterious show coming up in the next few days. A free show at a penitentiary somewhere.
When you guys had stopped as Rage, were you still in communication saying alright when the time’s right we’ll know when it is to get back together again and do something?
TC: I don’t think we’re done. I never look at it as is being done. It’s sort of like a superhero thing. It’s like the bat light in the sky goes up. The Rage light goes up and we need to be there. The thing I think people, there has been bands that have come around that have tried to do what we have done, that we did with rage and the thing I think they always leave out is that we are a punk band. We do not play by the rules. We do not do what people want us to do, never have and never will.
All of you come from different parts of the country. Politically and socially what is the most unique thing about Los Angeles compared to anywhere else in the U.S.?
TM: I always thought that the music of RATM was mirrored the city that the band comes from. The band comes from Los Angeles. This guy is from Orange County, I’m from a small town in Illinois, Brad traveled around, but the music — you can hear the hip-hop and the punk rock, you can hear the metal. You can hear the violence. You can hear the tension of inequality that exists in the city, in a way — that’s why when we first formed this band I really did not anticipate being able to book a club show.
Now everyone has Spotify, everyone listens to alt country and [laughs] the latest future song. Everyone loves every genre. That’s not how it was when this band formed. There were hostile opposing camps of punk, metal and hip-hop so I thought — we were an interracial band that touched all those things and then had this neo-Marxist world view. No one was handing out record deals. So early on, people would come along and say oh this was a band that was just put together by a record company. Oh really? Because of all the great commercial success of all the previous interracial neo-Marxist hip hop, punk rock hair metal bands?
There were naysayers before there was the Internet.
TC: That was the beautiful thing. I know that we never thought that we would be here 20 some odd years later. No way.
Things are so different now for bands that are just starting out as opposed to when you started out. Kids who are starting bands now, they don’t get that experience of having to go out and hand out flyers.
TC: Or make 12 song demo tapes and sit in Tom’s apartment and fold J cards.
TM: Yeah, no one is folding J cards these days. [laughs]
TC: Tom lived in an apartment, I gotta say this, a little studio pad in Hollywood and he had a roommate. It was a studio pad, we were like, ‘How do you have a roommate?’ It’s easy, you just go in the closet and make a hole in the wall and tunnel underneath the apartment complex and build bedrooms underneath the apartment complex, which he did.
TM: Like Hobbits.
Wow. That’s creative.
TC: We called them “the nooks.”
Who slept underground?
TM: We both did.
TM: We had to remove the earthquake supports from the building in order to build them. There was once nearly an electrical fire.
TC: We just missed the pool. The pool came pre-Rage, they had a pool in the living room apparently.
TM: The one room we filled in the house with a 10 foot diameter / three and a half foot pool with a water heater to keep it at 101 degrees. We thought that was going to attract the ladies — it did not.
That is a dudes’ place. You’d never hear of girls deciding to do that.
TM: These were desperate times. Then we thought, ‘Okay, this is how we get chicks. What do chicks like? Hot Tubs! Yeah!’ So our whole apartments would be one hot tub. ‘What if they come over and they don’t have bathing suits?’ So we had hooks on the wall where we bought the most inexpensive horrible male imagination bathing suits. Oh, you don’t have a bathing suit? Well, darling, right there on the wall you have your choice of three Brazilian thongs.
Did that ever work?
TM: No! Of course not! It was like handling a huge steaming stinking roommate taking up — there were maybe 17 parties in the pool but for a year it was just this sweltering. It was like living in a jungle.
TC: There could have been maybe just a little too much Star Trek happening.
TM: There was a lot of Star Trek, I’m not gonna say we had a romantic draw. There may have been some other things repelling, there was a lot of Dungeons and Dragons talk too.
I have to say very creative, though.
TM: And very metal.
Dissent is the public face of Prophets of Rage. Offstage, what sort of camaraderie is starting to develop?
TM: It’s a nice time. There are 24 hours on the clock of a band’s day and I’d say with Prophets of Rage it is divided between three things. Music takes up a great portion of it, which is fantastic. Doing political / promotion work takes up some and then having a nice time takes up the rest of it. It is an unusual and a very different sort of experience for me.
TC: Chuck D, that’s all I gotta say. Love B-Real too. Chuck D.
You guys have been in successful bands for a long time, but when you guys are jamming or playing a show, do you find yourself giggling?
TC: For sure. It’s insane. We don’t have to be jamming, to be in the same room with Chuck D, it’s like, he speaks a different language than I do. I’m psyched to be able to learn his language, and I’m learning.
TM: There is no crystal ball we could have looked into to imagine this scenario where we’re heading out on an arena and a shed tour with B-Real and Chuck D. I remember going out with my band I was in before RATM, sitting in lonely Denny’s and Waffle Houses in the middle of the night listening to Public Enemy cassettes thinking this is the greatest band of all time. And then now, I look to stage right and there he is.
TC: He’s in the bass forcefield. Over on my side, he’s allowed to come across my line. I’ve allowed him in.
You’ve got this EP that’s coming out, tell us what we can expect in terms of the future?
TM: The tour is one we’re very excited about. It’s the ‘Make America Rage Again’ tour and ours is a North American campaign that will be competitive with the other campaigns that will be out this summer and fall. We have a different agenda and a much larger mosh pit. It’s also, it bears mentioning the tickets for every show on this tour, the starting ticket price is $20. We didn’t want there to be a financial barrier for people coming to the shows and we donate in Los Angeles a portion of all the ticket proceeds, a portion of them will go to PATH (People Assisting The Homeless). Good deeds, hot rock.
Thanks to Tom Morello and Tim Commerford for the interview. Prophets of Rage will embark on an extensive North American tour starting on Aug. 19. A full list of dates can be found at our 2016 Guide to Rock + Metal Tours. Look for ‘The Party’s Over’ EP out on Aug. 26.
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