Prophets of Rage perform at 9:30 Club on Sept. 14, 2017. (Photo by Paivi)
Eleven minutes and thirty-eight seconds.
That’s how long it took before a member of the rap rock supergroup Prophets of Rage mentioned the President, first numerically (“45” — not four-five, which would be South African slang for male genitalia according to Johannesburg-born comedian and Daily Show host Trevor Noah), and then by last name and the acronym POTUS. Rap legend Chuck D muttered the surname and it was clear that the call to action against and the critiques of the current White House occupant weren’t going to end there.
Given the volatility that surrounds the aforementioned leader, and the fact that Parklife DC generally steers clear of politics, this post is going to focus primarily on what was said by the band, the songs performed, and the crowd’s reaction. Before I do that however, I am going to do something I rarely do, and that is provide a brief background of my fandom. While I was very much a participant this past Thursday night at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. — having arrived at 4 p.m. to secure a coveted center spot on the front rail — I was also there to impartially observe and absorb. There’s something about that specific type of communion of sound and sweat that pulled me and many others in to the fold. Being a bystander was simply not an option.
I’ve been a super fan of Rage Against the Machine since first hearing their 1992 self-titled debut album featuring a black and white photo of the 1963 self-immolation of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon on its cover. At the time, the only revolution I was leading was against my parents and whatever the day’s establishment-sanctioned action irked me. After lead singer Zach de la Rocha left the band, I was able to experience their second iteration as Audioslave which boasted the late Chris Cornell at its helm. I missed RATM’s 2007-2008 reunion run due to professional obligations. On May 31, 2016 when the news broke that guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk were joining forces with Cypress Hill‘s B-Real and Public Enemy‘s Chuck D and DJ Lord, I just had to know more. By that point I had witnessed all of those musicians perform live and the thought of seeing them together was thrilling. A year after their first tour, the group returned to the nation’s capital to promote the release of their eponymously named first LP at one of the city’s most legendary venues. I made sure I was there.
People masking the lower half of their face with bandanas moved about the stage preparing for the Prophets set. DJ Lord came on at about 8:30 p.m. and performed a set designed to enliven and pump up the audience. He greeted everyone and made a single request: “I need you to do one thing and one thing only — pay attention.” The sold-out crowd delivered. The wax master went on to play the musical equivalent to the Oscar’s “In Memoriam” tribute reel, kicking it off with his right arm ceremoniously placed over the left part of his chest as he played Jimi Hendrix‘s epic Woodstock rendition of America’s national anthem “Star-Spangled Banner.” From there it was a who’s who of RIP’s — done in a quick but respectful manner. In 38 minutes, he cleverly and artfully mixed together 44 songs, all relating to rap, hip hop, funk, metal, or rock music — which just so happened to be the Prophets’ genre. Everyone from KRS-One, Wu-Tang Clan (who toured with RATM in 1997), Black Sabbath, Linkin Park, and Nirvana, to Queen, Prince, James Brown, and Michael Jackson. To the untrained ear he might sound like Girl Talk, but the scratching, mixing, and dance-inspired moves he did while positioned at the turntables simply cannot be recreated on a laptop. Don’t believe me? Check out his free mixtape.
Just before 9:15 p.m. under the red glow of stage lighting and amid the ominous air raid sirens, the Prophets took the stage with the 1988 Public Enemy cover they’re named after, which appeared on their 2016 EP The Party’s Over. They played “Unfuck the World” next. It’s the second track off their new record and it helped boost the audience’s energy level from an 80 percent energy charge up to near full battery life. Chuck D thanked the crowd and said: “It’s good to see you D.C. We’re going to rage all fuckin’ night long. Can I get a hell yeah! Ha ha ha ha let’s go!”
Any naysayers who might have thought the Prophets weren’t “as good as” RATM were silenced once the crew ripped into “Testify.” That’s when I could literally feel the barricade shake with the movement of the entire floor’s population pushing forward. Intrepid fans leaped into the air, climbing up above the crowd, and entrusted their fellow man (and woman) to carry them to the front as everyone yelled along with the lyrics: “Who controls the past now controls the future. Who controls the present now controls the past! Who controls the past now controls the future. Who controls the present now?”
Chuck D — the consummate MC — enlivened the crowd even more by asking: “Are you motherfuckers tired of the bullshit? Are you sick of the lies? Are you sick of the fuckin’ circus? It’s not too late. It’s time to take it back. Do you want to take it back? Say ‘Hell Yeah!’ if you want to take it back! Yo B — bring that beat in!”
Their next track — another RATM cover “Take the Power Back” — provided Tom the first solo to showcase his insanely original guitar technique and ingenious pedal work. In a world where newspapers are championing the hashtag #FactsMatter the lyric “No more lies” seemed more appropriate and important than ever, and the crowd’s enthusiasm conveyed that sentiment.
Upon finishing, Chuck D asserted: “Take that power back, D.C.”
B-Real then addressed the crowd: “As some of you know, and some of you might not know, tomorrow we drop our brand new fuckin’ album. So you know, it’s like a celebration for us to be here wit you. And ah — it’s fuckin’ awesome tonight, man. So, thank you. We’re going to play some joints off of that album. This being one.”
Unlike most of their songs, “Living on the 110,” addresses a specific concern in a specific place — the plight of the homeless living underneath and nearby California’s 110 Freeway. It sounded very similar to popular RATM singles of the 1990s and is one of the top the album’s top songs on iTunes.
Some of the band shared their viewpoints on the administration without necessarily saying a word. After the Cypress Hill cover “Rock Superstar” the message on the back of Tom’s custom-built, sky-blue colored guitar nicknamed “Arm the Homeless” became visible, and a number of people yelled out the words, which read: “Fuck Trump.”
B-Real spoke directly to the audience again. “Yeah, thank you very much DC! 9:30 is the place to be! Yeah man! We’re going to do a fucking classic right here. I’m going to need you to put your fucking fists up right here. And when this song comes on, pump your mother fuckin’ fists. Alright?” Fans quickly recognized the Public Enemy track “Fight the Power” featured in Spike Lee‘s movie “Do The Right Thing.” It’s more than just a classic, it’s a confrontational protest anthem, topping countless top charts and “Best Of” lists. Brad and Tom brought new, reimagined, robust life to the historic “loops on top of loops on top of loops” heard on the original studio recording, which only had two main instruments by the way: a saxophone and turntable. Once that was finished Timmy C, Tom, and Brad took a short break.
B-Real asked the audience: “Do y’all fuck with hip hop music? Do you fuck with classic hip hop music? Would you like to hear some classic hip hop music right now? If so, can I get a ‘Hell Yeah’? Lord [and Chuck D] lets drop it on them.” The three men performed a seven-song medley of old school Cypress Hill and Public Enemy tracks.” B-Real even incorporated a prescription of sorts, courtesy of his alter ego. “Dr. Greenthumb‘s group therapy” required everyone’s participation and involved crouching down as low to the ground as possible and then jumping up immediately upon hearing the first note of House of Pain‘s “Jump Around.” It worked.
And before anyone could catch their breath, the rest of the band returned to the stage playing “Sleep Now in the Fire” — a song I saw RATM perform live, from that same vantage point along the rail at the 9:30 Club on Halloween 1999. It was also a record release “party.” Tom’s unique use of the amp feedback and whammy bar created an unparalleled high-pitched sound that has become part of his signature style. Michael Moore directed the now-infamous music video for this Battle of Los Angeles single that shut the doors of the New York Stock Exchange on January 26, 2000. After dismounting the drum kit’s elevated stage, Tom switched out his “Arm the Homeless” guitar for the black “Soul Power” modified Aerodyne Stratocaster.
He took center mic: “Greetings Washington, D.C. How are you tonight? We’d like to thank you all very much for coming out on the eve of the Prophets of Rage debut record release. It’s exciting! This is our release party tonight! [Crowd roars with applause]. And you’re all fucking invited, so thank you so much for coming. Thank you so much also, for everyone in our crew and everyone who works here at the 9:30. They come long before we get here. They stay long after we leave. Without them, there’s no fucking show, so give them a big fucking round of applause. And I’d like to thank each and every one of you! Actually — you know, one of the things that Prophets of Rage stands up strongly against and each of our individual bands has done for decades — is standing up against racism. And I know this community has stood against racism relentlessly through the years and will continue to. We have a social justice partner on each show of this tour. Part of your ticket proceeds go to them, and they’re out there in the lobby. You can check them out on your way out. Here in Washington, D.C. it is the National Immigration Law Center, which defends and advances the rights and opportunities of low-income immigrants and their families through helping to advance policies to create a more just and equitable society for everyone. They’re here tonight. Give them a round of applause. [Crowd cheers]. And standing up against racism is key. There’s so much — there’s a reason why there are not dozens of Nazis and Klansmen walking down the streets of Washington, D.C. — because you’d kick their fucking ass if they did. [Crowd screams in approval]. So let’s not just defend against racism, let’s aim for the kind of world we really want. A world where real freedom, of real equality, of real justice for everyone. Not just here in D.C. Not just in our country, but around the entire world. A world where every kid gets an education and a chance. A world where you don’t have to be afraid of being blown up by a drone in the Middle East or being killed by a cop in Baltimore. [Crowd cheers] Anyway. It’s nice to see you people. Not too long ago, we lost a close friend of ours and musical comrade, Chris Cornell. Please give him a huge Washington, D.C. applause. [raucous minute-long applause] Thank you. We loved him very much too. We’re going to play this song in his memory. If you know the words, sing along. If you don’t, say a prayer for peace.”
Probably one of the night’s most powerful and classy moments came next, when Timmy C, Tom, and Brad performed an instrumental version of Audioslave’s “Like a Stone.” A single spotlight created a sort of bright orb around the empty microphone at the center stage, as the crowd sang Chris’ vocals.
Chuck D and B-Real helped managed to bring the crowd’s energy level back up with a rousing version of RATM’s “Know Your Enemy,” featuring an uncharacteristically pleasant sounding 2-minute extended guitar solo intro. The show’s final highlights included one of Prophet’s new (and highest ranked tracks) “Strength in Numbers,” and the RATM covers “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name,” where Tom played both with his Gibson EDS-1275 Doubleneck with Heritage Cherry finish.
The group photo with the Washington, D.C. crowd can be found here and this is the setlist in its entirety.
I guarantee you that the fierce critics of the record were not in attendance at the show, because it’s impossible to claim any part of their over hour and half set was disingenuous. A lot of the world just seems to want to be angry and overcritical for no particular reason. If you’re looking for the next Zach — yeah, then maybe you’ll be disappointed. But nobody in Prophets is claiming to be that. I didn’t see one dissatisfied concert goer leaving the 9:30 Club Thursday night — and I looked. Moreover, to bring this full circle in a way — Tom declared on the Daily Show last Wednesday: “If you’re making music that everyone can agree on, then you’re making pretty shitty music I think.”
Don’t piss off B-Real. “Get the fucking album.”
Last night, the Prophets played the last day of Chicago’s 3-day independent music festival Riot Fest. In October, they’re scheduled to play Louder Than Life Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience in New Orleans, Louisiana. Ozzfest 2017 is their final North American stop before heading to Europe and the UK.
Andrew Collins of Brooklawn, New Jersey, proudly admits this brief 5-stop club tour were Prophets of Rage “shows number 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12” for him. The super fan who owns specially made replicas of two of Tom Morello’s guitars, said he would rank the DC show as the second best, just before the September 9 Stone Pony show in Asbury Park, New Jersey. “Each show has been very different and you really never know what you’re in store for until the show starts. The atmosphere is always on point, but there were crowds that were more into it than others, and I believe that definitely fueled the band into playing a better show.”
Andrew was the first person in line when I got there Thursday afternoon. Some people thought it was crazy that he and his girlfriend — Bridget Hall — drove all the way to Washington, D.C. for a show, but he thinks of it as more of an addiction than obsession. “I’m absolutely addicted to this music and everything about it. Rage Against the Machine has been my all-time favorite band my whole life. Having 75 percent of Rage back, with more of my favorite music on top it is what drives me only to love it more and more. Tom’s blistering guitar, Timmy C’s funky bass, Brad’s thunderous drums, DJ Lord’s scratchy cuts, Chuck D’s depth, and B-Real’s high tempo are everything I ever wanted in a band and I’m taking advantage of this while I can.”
He also finds their social and political consciousness is highly appealing too. “It’s a mixture of the ultimate message they share with everyone combined with the fusion of blistering rock and funky rap music. I have always — from a very early age — followed Rage and stood by their beliefs and values. With Prophets you have three of my favorite bands together as one, spreading a message I stand behind. Music just isn’t music when you feel it on personal levels. It becomes a bigger part of your life and that’s exactly what happened here with me. I’m very grateful for them and the music they’re putting out. Hopefully it keeps coming.”
Here are more pictures of Prophets of Rage performing at 9:30 Club on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017. All photos copyright and courtesy of Paivi.
See the full set for Prophets of Rage on Paivi’s Flickr.