Prophets of Rage's Tom Morello and Tim Commerford Talk About Coming to Cleveland

click to enlarge Prophets of Rage's Tom Morello and Tim Commerford Talk About Coming to Cleveland
Andy Keilen/Rolling Stone
“There’s evidence that suggests the music of Rage Against the Machine riles people up, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Rage guitarist Tom Morello, who brings his newly formed Prophets of Rage, a band that also features former Rage Against the Machine members Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk along with Public Enemy's Chuck D and Cypress Hill's B-Real, to town to play the Agora on July 19, right at the start of the Republican National Convention.

The band will play songs from the catalogs of Rage Against the Machine, Chuck D and Cypress Hill. Proceeds from the Agora show will go to the Cleveland Food Bank. “The profits from the Prophets of Rage show will go to those most hurt by predatory capitalism in Cleveland,” says Morello. In separate phone interviews, Morello and Commerford spoke about Rage’s history as well as the significance of performing in Cleveland during the RNC.

The band initially formed in 1991. What was going on socially and politically at the time that was motivating the band’s music and lyrics?
That was the Clinton era when we first started. That was the wake of the Gulf War. There was a lot going on. There always is a lot going on. The thing about the first Rage record that I loved was that there wasn’t a lot of thought put into the lyrics or the state of affairs. It was the universal sentiment that we’re fucked and that the world is fucked up. We had an idea how bad it could get. Here we are today, and it’s so much worse. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to get any better. It was the universal sentiment of the world we live in. Look where we are now with Trump. He’s tooting the horn of the Gulf War, that idea that we’re Americans and we should be proud and shouldn’t be scared and we should bomb whoever gets in our way. That’s what he’s feeding on. That all began with that Gulf War.
Morello: We wrote those Rage Against the Machine songs during the Bill Clinton administration, which now seems like some sort of dreamy Camelot. [Rage singer] Zack [de la Rocha] is the principle lyrical architect, and they’re songs that speak to similar issues that are going on now. At the end of the day, the people who control the government don’t deserve to. At the end of the day, the currents of racism in the justice system deserve to be confronted. At the end of the day, imperialist military incursions in the Middle East that are essentially about access to oil deserve to be confronted. We confront those issues with microphones, bass and guitars and Marshall stacks blazing. In 2016, those issues are at the forefront once again. As Martin Luther King said, the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral during times of great moral conflict. We are at a time of great moral conflict. It’s important to be playing Rage Against the Machine songs and Public Enemy songs and Cypress Hill songs with Marshall stacks blazing. One of the things that you see now which is unique to this election cycle is that from left, center and right, there’s a rejection of the political status quo. Half of America is voting for a fascist and half is voting for a socialist. That shows you how ignorant the ruling class has been to the legitimate concerns of working people. On the one hand, Bernie Sanders tried to hijack the Democratic party to make it a people’s party. On the other hand you have a demagogue racist who has taken white working class concerns about globalization and has given this divisive and racist spin to hype his own ego and campaign. Into the fray, enter Prophets of Rage, hopefully representing to people what it truly means to rage against the machine.

What do you consider your musical influences to be?
 I’m unafraid to admit that in 1991, I didn’t sign up to be in a political rock ’n’ roll band. I don’t think any of us discussed it when we started making music. We never even thought we’d be a band that would last 20 some odds years. That’s for sure. We didn’t see it as having an impact on generations to come. Rage Against the Machine was my school. It became my classroom as it did for so many other people in the world. I became political because of Rage Against the Machine. I went into it with a punk rock attitude of “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” and came out of it with a more educational view of the world for sure. In the bands that came around after us and tried to copy what we were doing, they were doing rock and hip-hop. They left that important ingredient of punk out of it. Zack de la Rocha is a punk rock dude. There’s no doubt about it. He and I grew up together and we’ve known each other since elementary school when we were listening to Never Mind the Bullocks. I’m proud to say that in sixth grade I was rocking to that album. That was my soundtrack. That’s an important part of our menu. We listened to jazz and the beginning of “Bulls on Parade,” for example, was inspired by John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” It’s the same bass line. We were pulling from all over the place. I grew up in Irvine and worked at the gas station across from the university. In Irvine, every house is painted the same color and you can’t work on your car in front of your house with the hood up or leave the garage door open for too long. It was a crazy world and it spawned a lot of punk rock. There was a healthy punk rock scene when I was in high school in Irvine.
Morello: Two of the major influences were Cypress Hill and Public Enemy. That was the hip-hop side of our formation. To be playing with Chuck D and B Real is an honor and shows how things have come full circle. I grew up on hard rock and heavy metal music. I only began playing music when I had the punk rock revelation of the Sex Pistols and the Clash. A Sex Pistols cassette changed my life. I was in a band 24 hours after purchasing the Sex Pistols record. I didn’t know how to play a single chord on the guitar, but I was compelled.

When the band decided to come back together as Prophets of Rage for the “Make America Rage Again” tour was Zack de la Rocha invited to join?
I called Zack and said he was our first choice. I told him that he he had an open invitation. He was honored. He thought it was amazing. Chuck D and B. Real were huge influences of his. When he and I would drive up to Hollywood from Orange County to record the first Rage record, that’s what we were listening to. We would listen to Public Enemy and Cypress Hill and Bad Brains and the first Smashing Pumpkins record and Soundgarden and Nirvana. These are his heroes as well as ours. He was psyched. You never know what the future might bring. I can’t speak for him, but I’m always hopeful I will be able to share the stage with Zack.
Morello: Zack hasn’t been interested in playing Rage Against the Machine music for a long time. He’s been busy with his own projects and I respect his decision to not do Rage Against the Machine. But like I said, dangerous times demand dangerous songs. We cannot sit on the sidelines of history when we have this potent catalog of Rage music and it needs to be played right now. Raise your hand if you’re in. Timmy, Brad, Chuck D, B-Real and DJ Lord raised their hands. And so the quest began.

Talk about what the initial rehearsals with Chuck D and B-Real were like.
They were great. It was fun and easy. We just started writing songs. We started Ragifying their songs and doing mash-ups. There’s a lot of possibility in the world of rock and hip-hop. You don’t have melody in the vocal so it’s easy and fun to write songs and hear them the day you write them and know if they’re going to be good or not. Everyone is excited about it. It was similar to when we first got together with Rage. And now, we have three catalogs to delve into. It feels endless. It’s been a super quick process. I can’t believe we can play 27 songs after a few months. it’s exciting and it’s so great to come off stage or finish a song and look over and there’s Chuck D and B Real and see those guys and they have big smiles on their faces and they’re psyched. I can’t believe I’m in the presence of greatness and they feel the same way. It’s surreal.
Morello: Each band has to find its own chemistry and its own way to be great. We rehearsed in secret in the San Fernando Valley for months to see how this combination of musicians would be great. It took a while. We wanted to see who could do what verse of what song and how we could incorporate a turntablist into the proceedings. We want to keep the authenticity and raw punk rock fury of Rage alive but with MCs Chuck D and B-Real. We went to Rage-ify Public Enemy and Cypress Hill songs. We needed to figure that out. The good news is that we figured out, and it’s pretty devastating.

You play some Cypress Hill and Public Enemy tunes in your sets. Which of their songs are your favorites?
I like playing all their songs. “My Uzi weighs a Ton” is one we’ve been jamming. It has heavy bass. I look forward to that one in the set. “How I Could Just Kill a Man.” I just love that song. I love the Rage version and the Cypress Hill version. those are the first two that came to mind. We play “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” and the lyrics are “Fight the Power.” It’s pretty amazing. Again, that’s how fun it is to make this type of music. You’re not constrained in any way.
Morello: The Cypress songs in some ways lend themselves to it. “Rock Superstar” and Shut ’Em Down” lend themselves to rock-i-fication. The PE songs are more challenging in that regard because they’re sonic collages. In some cases, we’ve thrown out the music and kept the lyrics and written brand new Rage Against the Machine songs with Public Enemy lyrics. The most obvious song is “Prophets of Rage,” which we’ve been opening the shows with.

Talk about how important it is to play Cleveland during the RNC.
Well, it seems really important because it looks like there’s going to be a racist who hates Mexicans and wants to build walls. He’s a jamoke from New Jersey. He’s kind of dumb. He hates women and I think he probably wants to have sex with his daughter. There’s a lot of illness. He’s definitely homophobic. The list goes on and on. He reminds me of Adolf Hitler. Here we are in a world where people are embracing that. I can’t even believe it. It blows me away. With Rage, we played the Democratic Convention in 2000 and we played the Democratic and Republican Conventions in 2008. In 2000, there was a full scale riot. Police were shooting our fans with non-lethal weapons. In 2008, they surrounded the stage and wouldn’t let us go on stage because our music was too dangerous. When we played in Minnesota in 2008, they had every single street corner blocked off. No cars were allowed on the streets for a 10-mile radius around the venue. There were armored cars and every cop in full riot gear. If history repeats itself, it’s going to be gnarly. And I want it to be. I’m excited for gnarliness. I want to use music as a weapon and start spraying fools.
Morello: It was very important that this be the first stop on our Make America Rage Again tour. We want to send a message across the land and across the globe that while Trump and Sanders have been described as raging against the machine, we want to show people what it really means to rage against the machine. There’s no better stage to do it than at the Republican National Convention.

Your show at the Agora will be preaching to the choir. Any plans to join the protestors?
Preaching to the choir at the Agora but directly across the street will be the opposite of that. This guy is a straight maniac. The people who follow him are the same. Anyone who aligns themselves with him is a crazy person in my opinion. There will be lots of crazy people roaming around. We hope to join the protestors. The Agora show might not be the only show we play. We’re in search of and have maybe already found amazing places to play. Hopefully, some that are in the eye of the storm.
Morello: Not that I’m willing to reveal.

Prophets of Rage, 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 19. Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., 216-881-2221. Tickets: $20,

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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