The lyrical change was small but significant, a clear sign of what this new band wants to do with its music.
Rapping over the crunchy hard-rock guitar riff that anchors the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” Chuck D and B-Real tweaked the song’s chorus ever so slightly as they stood onstage at the Whisky a Go Go and promised, “No sleep till Cleveland.”
The Ohio city, of course, is where the Republican National Convention is set to take place in July — and where many expect to see a rumored protest/performance by Prophets of Rage, the just-formed supergroup that combines those two rappers (from Public Enemy and Cypress Hill, respectively) with three members of Rage Against the Machine: guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk.
In 2000, Rage Against the Machine famously played outside the Democratic National Convention at Staples Center, disrupting the event with frontman Zack de la Rocha’s claim that “our democracy has been hijacked.” Now, after Tuesday night’s tiny but raucous club show — the first public performance by Prophets of Rage — Morello, Commerford and Wilk appear determined to do it again when Donald Trump arrives in Cleveland to accept his party’s expected nomination for president.
That altered lyric wasn’t the only sign that Prophets of Rage has politics (and Trump in particular) in mind. There also was Morello’s red baseball cap, which lampooned the controversial businessman’s familiar campaign item with text that read “Make America Rage Again.” And there was B-Real’s dedication of a new song, “The Party’s Over,” to Trump, whose name he spit out like a foul taste.
So how likely is Prophets of Rage to foment any real unrest, in Cleveland or anywhere else? It’s too early to tell.
Described as a benefit for Los Angeles-based People Assisting the Homeless, this gig was for the already-converted: friends, family and a few hundred folks who’d been willing to line up Tuesday morning on Sunset Boulevard to fork over 20 bucks for a non-transferable wristband. (After the show quickly sold out, the band announced it would play Friday night at the much larger Palladium in Hollywood.)
Sure, there were plenty of red faces in the mosh pit as Prophets of Rage ran through its repertoire of well-known tunes by Public Enemy, Cypress Hill and Rage Against the Machine. But the excitement of fans who hadn’t heard “Bulls on Parade” live since Rage last performed five years ago shouldn’t be taken as an indication that the song’s anti-authoritarian message was marshaling an effective resistance.
The true test will be when Prophets of Rage heads out on an all-but-certain tour, taking its music to the masses the group purports to represent.
What was impossible to deny, though, was that these guys sounded like a revolution in the making. Even through the Whisky’s relatively puny system, the rhythm section of Commerford and Wilk delivered a powerful wallop in “Guerrilla Radio,” “Testify” and “Sleep Now in the Fire,” each as sturdy — and as weirdly sensual in their body-rocking fashion — as they were back in the Rage Against the Machine days.
Morello, as always, was a thrill on guitar as he alternated between heavy-funk chords and high, piercing solos that crackled with electricity. (“Arm the hopeless,” read a note scrawled on his instrument.)
As the group’s frontmen, Chuck D and B-Real were forthright about the nature of their job. They’d joined the three instrumentalists, the Public Enemy veteran said, to “pay homage to the lyrics of the great Zack de la Rocha.” And between them, the rappers nailed the two sides of De la Rocha’s signature flow: his raspy bark and his nasal SoCal whine.
Yet Prophets of Rage also made room for each man to show off how he’d inspired De la Rocha and the rest of Rage Against the Machine, as when Chuck D took his time growling “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” eager to incite but also to be understood.
Halfway through the show, Morello, Commerford and Wilk left the MCs onstage to do a mini-set of hip-hop classics — “Can’t Truss It,” “Bring the Noise,” “Insane in the Membrane” — accompanied by the group’s DJ Lord. And later, during that full-band rendition of “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” Chuck D dropped in a verse from Public Enemy’s indelible “Fight the Power.”
“Elvis was a hero to most,” he rapped, before adding that the iconic rocker — a “straight-up racist,” as “Fight the Power” has it — never meant anything to him.
Whatever else Prophets of Rage accomplishes (or doesn’t) in this wild election season, you had to appreciate the irreverence of those words at what amounted to a rock concert.