Music

Tom Morello And Chuck D On Trump, Punching Nazis In The Face, And Prophets Of Rage’s Self-Titled Debut

When Tom Morello corralled Chuck D and DJ Lord of Public Enemy, B-Real of Cypress Hill and the rhythm section from Rage Against The Machine for a supergroup called Prophets Of Rage in 2016, it appeared as the though the project might be a short-term proposition during an unusually contentious presidential campaign. But Donald Trump’s eventual election, and the success of the Prophets’ tour, gave the band renewed life. What started as a vehicle to perform classic songs by each member’s most famous groups has turned into a full-on working band, paving the way for Prophets Of Rage’s self-titled debut album due out this week.

“We had to figure out, if we had a great band chemistry onstage, do we have a decent/fair/good/excellent chemistry as songwriters? We didn’t know that,” Morello said in an interview last month at Uproxx’s Los Angeles headquarters. “The good news was we were in the studio for two weeks and we wrote 10 songs. For me it was the [most fun], most collaborative record I’ve worked on since the very first Rage record.”

Morello and Chuck D spoke to Uproxx a few days after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia turned violent, resulting in the death of anti-fascist protestor Heather Heyer. Unsurprisingly, both men had plenty of opinions about the current administration, as well as the “antifa” movement that has risen to oppose Trump’s far-right supporters.

“Do you think it’s morally righteous to punch a Nazi in the face,” I asked at one point.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Morello replied.

Do you think it can actually get worse with Trump?

Tom Morello: It can certainly get worse. My uncle was a violent anti-fascist. He was in the Army in World War II and he’s an American hero because he used violence to stop fascists who want to exterminate Jewish people, exterminate gay people, exterminate non-white people. We should be totally pissed off by what happened in Charlottesville and what our president’s saying. I mean, he is clearly on record [about] who he’s representing. We’re on record [about] who we’re representing. In our vocation we weave our convictions into it to fight the power and to be, as much as we can be, the soundtrack for the resistance in 2017.

Chuck D: He’s caught in a conundrum of knowing what he said and what he did to get his vote, that put him in that position, and he knows damn well that there’s a contingent out there that he inspired and made rise with all the rhetoric he was spitting on that campaign. This is what we’re stuck with now.

It makes me think of the single you guys put out recently, “Unfuck the World.” Chuck, there’s a line in the song where you talk about how “everything changed, yet nothing’s changed.” You’ve both been talking about systemic corruption for decades now. Do you see Trump as part of a continuum, or is he so beyond the pale that we have to look at him as sort of a new thing?

TM: I think he’s certainly part of the continuum, but the resistance to injustice happened before Donald Trump, it will happen during Donald Trump, it will happen after Donald Trump. So, can it get worse? Of course it can get worse. Now the Nazis and the KKK have unhooded themselves because they’ve taken off the hoods in the Oval Office, so they feel more comfortable taking off the hoods on the streets. We have to confront that. The police don’t always confront it, so I think the American heroes of today are those who are confronting it in the streets, and we’re doing our best on the cultural front to confront it as well.

CD: We’ve got to do our best to try to not have this climate fester and get bigger. You have people who were here thirty years ago, fifty years ago, but a lot of people are not here. You have new faces but also new racism in old ways. Or, I should say, old racism in new ways. With this going on right now, it’s very important that culture and music speaks its loudest as being a voice because we can’t rely on government and the law to actually tell the people the truth.

TM: This was a band that didn’t just happen. We didn’t put it together to play some festival shows. We came together during the tumultuous electoral season of 2016, because it felt like it was a chaotic political time where Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were being described as candidates that were raging against the machine. We were like, ‘Hold on, we may not have trademarked the phrase, but we have an opinion about what that really means.’ We wanted to have our voice in the world, a competing megaphone.

We found out that we enjoyed playing together. We had a great tour in 2016 and we decided to make a record together. This is the beginning of Prophets of Rage. We felt that it was not enough to hashtag about what was going on, or tweet about, or Instagram what was going on. Those are small arrows in the quiver but there’s a big arrow in the quiver and that’s rock and roll music, which in my experience can steel the backbone of those who are fighting injustice and put wind in the sails of a movement that will hopefully dethrone Trump and Pence and lead to a more just and sane United States of America.

When you put out a song like “Unfuck the World,” are you hoping to energize people? To inform people? What is the best case scenario when you record a song like that?

CD: Tom coined a statement, ‘The world won’t fix itself.’ Things don’t fix itself, you gotta make it happen. If you want to see this change, you got to get up and orchestrate that happening. Make yourself move. Movement is good, especially against movements that are going anti, I guess, the positive aspects of life. You got to move against it, you can’t just stand still. That’s why “Unfuck The World” came about. The world, if you’re gonna consider it fucked, somebody’s gotta figure out how to unfuck it.

Is it enough for people to simply have a good time at a Prophets Of Rage show?

TM: First of all, it is very important that they have a good time. The reason why I picked up a guitar, and why Chuck picked up a microphone, and why we play music, is because of the visceral feeling of rock and roll, hip-hop, punk-rock satisfaction that we had. If we can’t convey that on a record or at a show then nobody cares what you’re talking about. I love Noam Chomsky but he’s not gonna rock a field of 80,000 people in Belgium. That’s what we do. First and foremost, the message is in the mosh pit, and you have to convey that kind of thrilling, visceral experience. That’s our vocation.

I meet people every day who have been impacted in some way by music that I’ve been involved in, and they’ve become attorneys for the homeless, or they’ve become ski mask-wearing brick throwers. Or they’ve in some way been energized by the music. That’s the power. In the same way The Clash and Public Enemy did it for me, we hope this music is able to energize people in 2017.

Did you guys in any feel like that kind of stuff wasn’t happening elsewhere in the music world?

TM: I don’t give a shit about what else is happening in the music world. I honestly don’t. I think ghettoizing music in that way is an unfair thing. Is it happening in society? Is it happening in your line of work? Is it happening in student’s work? In carpenter’s work? In plumber’s work? When any substantive, progressive, radical, or revolutionary changes happen, it comes from below, not from above. It’s not musicians who make it exclusively. We can provide some cultural wind in the sails of it, but it’s average everyday people who stand up where they live, where they work, and where they go to school who make the change. Now it’s more necessary than ever. We’re on the bubble. There’s a thin line between where we are and environmental disaster, and a potential neo-fascist future for our country. So, what are you gonna do about it?

Do you feel like it’s harder to get people engaged now versus twenty years ago? We’re more connected but we’re also more distracted.

CD: I think if you’re somebody who is in the cultural music field, or somebody that’s in some kind of position where you can talk to a lot of people and influence them without tricks, the bottom line is they leave better than how they came in. Did they get something when they left you doing whatever your thing was?

The difference is that 40 years ago people were watching a television and trying to disseminate whatever was coming through the tube — be it propaganda, be it information. Now, they’re privy to everything. At the end of the day we’re gonna be primitive, in the aspect of making sure we rock your asses out.

When people come to see you, they expect you to kick ass. You can’t sit on stools and do the unplugged thing. How difficult is that to do now, given your veteran status?

TM: Veteran status! That is a well-couched phrase. I’m like, ‘Never be the second best band on a bill, ever.’ You could be playing at an Inuit music festival or you can be playing a huge German metal festival. I think that the show that we do is not even genre dependent. It’s a commitment of six people. This has to be a frontrunner for the best show you’ve ever seen in your life. That just has to be.

The good news is there’s a lot of arrows in that quiver. We’ve got a catalogue, and we’ve got a new record too. There are Rage Against the Machine songs and Public Enemy songs and Cypress Hill songs and we can back up twenty-five jams back-to-back and play them with the same conviction as the day they were written, from “Unfuck the World” to “Fight The Power” to “Bulls Pn Parade.” And if you’re going to play on a bill with us, you better bring your A-game.

CD: We’re at war with our own ghosts. I don’t want to hear a person come up to me and say before a show, ‘Yo man, you blew me away, best show I’ve ever seen in 1996.’ Or whatever year it was. Because in my mind I’m going to try to obliterate myself. Obliterate that piece of history out of your mind.

TM: That’s one of the reasons why there’s no resting on our laurels in this band. There’s none of that. Each show has to be the best show. I spent time playing with Bruce Springsteen — that’s not a lesson I learned from him, but it’s a lesson that was reinforced by playing with him every day. Dude’s 68, playing for four hours, playing the best shows of his entire career. If you want people to have the best show they’ve ever been to be your show, then you have to be better the next time they see you.

Prophets Of Rage is out tomorrow, 9/15 via Concord Music Group. Get it here.

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