Debuting at Sunset Strip staple the Whisky A Go Go was a curious way for newly formed supergroup Prophets of Rage to launch their campaign. The venue, now known primarily for its metal and pay-for-play bookings, doesn’t seem like the immediate go-to for a group grounded in hip-hop to make their grand debut. Yet, as members of Rage Against The Machine, Public Enemy, and Cypress Hill lumbered down the stairs from their dressing room onto the same stage that once saw the likes of Jim Morrison become a star, the venue made for a fitting launching pad for a night of powerhouse beats and unapologetically political rock.
Over the past few weeks, mysterious posters, signs, and news flaunting the group’s name flooded both the streets of LA and the internet. Rumors abounded that Rage Against the Machine was reforming to right wrongs and fight during a bizarre election year, but the reunion that Rage fans clamored for remains unfulfilled. Instead, news soon leaked of an alliance between three quarters of Rage Against the Machine (guitarist Tom Morello, drummer Brad Wilk, and bassist Tim Commerford), Chuck D, and B-Real—their union surely fueled by the same desire that spurned RATM in the early 90s: they want America to wake up.
With tight security and a no cell phone policy (our phones were locked in a ridiculous looking beer koozie-like apparatus), the cramped 500-person crowd at the Whisky had to make due without their electronic devices. Posters with the hashtag #MakeAmericaRageAgain adorned the venue’s exterior and the walls inside, alongside a merch table of red caps embroidered with the phrase, mocking one Donald John Trump.
Following a DJ set, the quintet opened, aptly enough, with Public Enemy’s “Prophets of Rage,” bulldozing through a muscular 22-song set that culled from all three group’s catalogue in just under 75 minutes. Over the course of the night, Chuck D. and B-Real paid homage to the absent Zack de la Rocha, with the Cypress Hill rapper at one point teasing that they were “keeping the seat warm” for the former Rage frontman, and Chuck adding that “the singer may be caged, but his words were not.” More of a gesture than a necessity, perhaps—the two MCs tackled de la Rocha’s vocals with ease and dexterity.
RATM’s final performance in its original incarnation was nearly five years ago, at the LA Coliseum in July 2011 as part of the band’s self-curated LA Rising festival. That night, the band sold out one of the largest venues in the city—over 100 times larger than the Whisky—to perform a semi-inspired greatest hits set that felt more like the rabble rousers had run their musical course. But in the age of Trump and outrage, each day an outlandish scene in the movie satire that's become the presidential campaign, the time is ripe for Tom Morello and company to re-emerge, albeit in a different capacity.
The ensuing buildup, which included a mysterious countdown, rampant speculation, and ultimately, the internet figuring out what exactly was going on, was worth the wait to long-suffering Rage fans who wanted new music. But once word was out, all events seemed anti-climatic. While original Rage frontman de la Rocha is sitting on the sidelines and doing whatever he does, he allegedly gave the newly formed outfit his blessing in a manner that would have made the Corleones proud.
The group made their formation official on local alt rock station KROQ earlier in the day, with the former Rage (and Audioslave) crew announcing they’d be joining forces with the two rap legends to form Prophets of Rage. A surprise to no one who has been tuned in the past few weeks, but a feeling of excitement surrounding the band began to build nonetheless.
Reunions and supergroups, or in this case, a bit of both, are risky—sometimes better in theory than execution. Rage Against the Machine always included elements of hip-hop—which crescendoed on their cover of Afrika Bambaata’s “Renegades of Funk”—so their involvement with the two rappers is less surprising than it is timing-wise.
Hearing Morello, Wilk, and Commerford rejoin forces seamlessly wasn’t surprising as much as it was refreshing. Rage favorites like “Guerrilla Radio,” “Bombtrack” and “Know Your Enemy” were met with fury as Chuck D. and B-Real urged on the crowd that formed a swirling mosh pit that only grew as the night went on. This push-and-pull between Prophets of Rage and the testosterone crowd added to the urgency before culminating in Rage-powered tunes like “Sleep Now in the Fire” and a battery acid-fueled solo from Morello.
Much of the night was filled with Rage songs, but Public Enemy and Cypress Hill were both well-represented. A reconfigured version of “Fight the Power” that incorporated the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep to Brooklyn,” “Bring the Noise,” and “Welcome to the Terrordome” were welcome supplements to the set, as were Cypress Hill classics “Rock Superstar” and “Shut Em Down.”
“We’d like to dedicate this song to Donald Trump,” B-Real exclaimed to the sweaty room before introducing “The Party’s Over.” As the only original song from the collective that as incorporated into the set, the fiery political anthem gave a small glimpse of what may be coming in the near future. Powered by Commerford’s bass, Morello’s trademark howling guitar licks, and B-Real’s nasal-drip vocals, the song is a reminder of how powerful angst-ridden social commentary sounds when done correctly.
Prophets of Rage’s mission statement was punctuated by closing battlefield anthems “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name.” As the final “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” was howled, the band smirked across the stage at each other, knowing that the first test had been passed.
The house lights were flicked on, but instead of running towards the exit to get their phones, fans instead turned to tear posters from the walls, rails, nabbing anything they could grab. For a moment, anarchy reigned supreme, the unknown nature and excitement surrounding Prophets of Rage’s immediate future allowing fans to look forward to what’s next, instead of looking back on who wasn’t in the room.
Follow Daniel Kohn on Twitter.