“Check one, two!” Zack de la Rocha tested the microphone at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles on September 13, 2000. Tom Morello played a mellow harmony on his guitar. Brad Wilk tapped his drum sticks four times before slamming them down on the snare, a kick off to the sonic explosion that is “Bulls On Parade.” A black curtain fell, revealing the stage backdrop to be a giant red star. Rage Against the Machine powered through the set with such ferocity that the concert let out to boarded up businesses and cops in riot gear. But the band broke up the following month never to be the same again.
Rage Against the Machine’s final show at the Grand Olympic Auditorium came at a moment of political urgency. The presidential election pitting Democrat Al Gore against Republican George W. Bush awaited in November. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader filled arenas with youth enthusiastic about his anti-corporate crusade. The band came off a historic performance outside the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that August before the LAPD got projectile happy with protesters. De la Rocha hated the way local media portrayed the band as having pleaded for peace. He paraphrased Malcolm X’s “send him to the cemetery” quote when talking to the Grand Olympic crowd about police brutality—a speech censored in the DVD that came out afterward.
Sixteen years after Rage Against the Machine fell apart at the worst possible moment, rumors began to surface that another reunion like the band’s 2007 Coachella performance loomed on the horizon. With the current presidential season in full swing, Rage Against the Machine’s Twitter account pointed people to a “Prophets of Rage” website with a mysterious countdown. Speculation ran wild until a new supergroup teaming Morello, Wilk and Tim Commerford together Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Cypress Hill’s B-Real was revealed. The Prophets of Rage, as they called themselves, debuted at The Whisky A Go Go and the Hollywood Palladium combining the catalog of all three groups together with Rage Against the Machine songs taking the set list lead.
Unlike the Rage Against the Machine concert I went to in 2000, I missed out on the Prophets of Rage shows. They’ve announced a massive 35-city “Make America Rage Again” tour this summer, but I’ll be passing on that too…
Don’t get me wrong. Political rallies are turning violent. Donald Trump, who’s spent the better part of the last year demeaning Mexicans, Muslims, women and the disabled, is a dangerous demagogue. Hillary Clinton embodies the sheer villainy of the neoliberal status quo. Bernie Sanders filled arenas with his rants against oligarchy politics appealing to youth whose futures have been destroyed by the Great Recession before fizzling out. Who could blame Morello for wanting to sport a red “Make America Rage Again” hat and blister the masses with his mesmerizing solos?
But Morello’s missing his key co-conspirator with de la Rocha out of action for whatever reason. His absence is felt most acutely. Chuck D is a great rapper when it comes to articulating the forcefulness of his political message in Public Enemy, but he’s never been among the best when it comes to the stylistic art of emceeing. On the flip side, B-Real’s flow has an unique nasal quality, one that actually helps him in his new endeavor. The difference with the Cypress Hill emcee is that political anthems aren’t his forte. De la Rocha could deliver a menacing glare capable of transmitting the indignation at the root of his convictions.
Style and substance aside, both rappers work well enough together in Prophets of Rage. The challenge for them in steering Rage Against the Machine’s musical legacy is that de la Rocha represented a rare, hybrid talent. He developed his blood curling screams in OC’s late 80’s hardcore scene by fronting Inside Out. When de la Rocha helped form Rage Against the Machine (named after an unreleased Inside Out song) he found a new talent in carving poetically sophisticated rebel rhymes and delivering them with a deftness rivaling his hip-hop counterparts. With his long dreadlocks swaying during rock-rap explosions, de la Rocha’s infectious punk frenzy is hard to mimic onstage for most rappers, including the Prophets of Rage duo. The full energy of the Rage Against the Machine songs just isn’t there.
(And while we’re at it, Prophets of Rage would be better off without the artwork of Shepard Fairey representing it. There’s a thousand Fairey stories to go around including the time he got roughed up by Danish anarchists who defaced his controversial art installation with, “Go home, Yankee hipster!”)
But back to the music, the supergroup is actually at its best with new songs like “The Party’s Over.” Prophets of Rage are headed into the studio today to record the track. Chuck D and B-Real’s chemistry is on point, with “The Party’s Over” carving out a timely song instead of digging in the crate of their group’s catalog whose musical message remains timeless because injustice remains rampant. Morello’s riffs roar with all their bone-crunching might, but even then, well trained ears of Rage Against the Machine fans will recognize them as a rehash of “Revolution” the long-abandoned collaboration between the band and Tool.
The biggest question in all this is what’s the end game for Prophets of Rage? After the supergroup makes America rage again, then what? The last tour date ends on October 16 in Chula Vista, nearly sixteen years to the day when Rage Against the Machine broke up before the 2000 election. People will be headed to the polls again a few weeks after the music falls silent.
Without de la Rocha in the mix, Prophets of Rage is better than nothing in these troubled times. But the urgency of now summons the need for one thing and one thing only: the reformation of Rage Against the Machine. And not for one summer festival in Los Angeles, a handful of tour dates or even protest concerts at political conventions. Rage Against the Machine needs to pick up where they left off at the Grand Olympic Auditorium.