The Urgent 'Sonic Blast' Of Prophets Of Rage

Sep 15, 2017

In the late 1980s, Public Enemy emerged as a pioneering voice in American hip-hop, injecting the charge of politics into its music.

MC Chuck D and his fellow Public Enemy members, including Flavor Flav and DJ Lord, made rap music that carried strong political messages with all the ferocity of punk rock; pivotal albums like It Takes Nations Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet come to mind.

Soon, even rock musicians began to take notice of the group — including guitarist Tom Morello, who found mainstream success in the '90s with his band Rage Against The Machine.

Morello came to Chuck D with an idea for a new band, one that would channel the anger of today. This new group, Prophets of Rage (which also includes rapper B-Real of Cypress Hill) continues these musical legacies on its self-titled debut album, out September 15.

When Morello approached him about the band, Chuck D says he "kind of didn't give a quick answer."

"Tom had a conversation with my wife," Chuck D says, "and she said [to me], 'Look – you are who you are. You are what you are. This is good!'"

At 57, Chuck D remains a pure entertainer, and an accessible one: After all, Public Enemy used to welcome everyone to be angry with them. He admits that, in Prophets of Rage, he's no longer the superstar of the group, as he was in Public Enemy. If the new band were a basketball team, the star on the court is B-Real; Chuck D backs him up.

Chuck D spoke to NPR's David Greene about how politics have driven his music since the days of Public Enemy and how Prophets of Rage can speak to these angry times. You can hear their conversation in the audio player, and read on for an edited transcript.

David Greene: I want to talk about a song on the new album, "Living On The 110." For those people who haven't been to Los Angeles, can you describe the 110?

Chuck D: The 110 is a highway. Because the weather in Southern California is conducive that you can possibly set up and live outside without the elements just, you know, killing you, people who are homeless have set up shantytowns in tents to live out there in the streets. You've got people at the top of the highway who are driving their southern Californian Bugattis or whatever — I don't know the fancy names of cars — Teslas or whatever. [Laughs.] So the contrast of them being on the top, and underneath the highway, you've got people at their most stripped existences.

Is this a call to action about homelessness at this moment?

Yes, this song especially. The advantages of being a musician is that we have conversations that will make someone in a particular region pay close attention to what's happening somewhere else, because this is one planet.

In the late '80s, hip-hop was just finding its footing. You were seen as one of the first to really focus on politics and political themes.

We were older. I was born in 1960. So we clearly remember the 1960s, and I would have songs that would talk about — like "Black Steel in The Hour of Chaos" talked about when one of my uncles graduated high school and that same weekend, my uncle then turned 18 [and] found out he was drafted en route to Vietnam to go fight for war.

You were telling kids it can get more real than you can possibly imagine.

Yeah. I started school as a first grader and it was three years after Kennedy was killed. And then in the third grade, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated and all of a sudden you're just learning about these other categories. Like, okay, I was in the Black Panthers' lunch program in Harlem where I visited my grandmother, and all of a sudden you find out this organization that's giving us lunches, their leadership is getting killed. So, you're like: Wow; if you come out and just try to help people, do you get killed in the United States of America? So that curiosity led me to learn and read about right and wrongs and revolt and things like that in the early '80s.

When you were talking about Tom Morello convincing you to do this, I was getting the sense that he felt like you are needed in this moment. And I got that sense when your wife said "Do it, because you are who you are, you're needed in this moment." Why are you the right person for this moment?

I don't think I'm the right person for this moment; I think we are. And Tom was very clear: This is not a lecture. The music, when it's seen live — it's a bear to try to hang with this sonic blast that this team is doing.

This is an angry moment. These are angry times. When I'm at a concert listening to music, do you want me to just let it all out, channel it and be free to be angry? What do you think you guys are pulling off?

I don't know. It was angry times for me in 1997. I was angry in 1996 when people were tossing back and celebrating a whole bunch of false promises with the Clinton administration. So I've always had my antennas up for things that are out there. It's just been intensified. So you hope that this mesh of words, music, style and the story can get across to a person that, yeah: We are at a point where you need a little bit of a sense of urgency.

Web intern Steffanee Wang contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hip-hop has come a long way since the early days.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")

SUGARHILL GANG: (Rapping) I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip hip-hop and you don't stop the rock it to the bang, bang boogie, say up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.

MARTIN: Our co-host David Greene spoke to a guy who played a big role in that evolution.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Chuck D always thought that rap was more than party music. And in the late 1980s, he and his group proved it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC ENEMY SONG, "PROPHETS OF RAGE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're quite hostile.

CHUCK D: I got a right to be hostile, man. My people are being persecuted.

GREENE: Public Enemy featured strong political messages with all the ferocity of punk rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROPHETS OF RAGE")

PUBLIC ENEMY: (Rapping) With vice, I hold the mic device. With force, I keep it away of course. And I'm keeping you from sleeping. And on the stage, I rage and I'm rolling.

GREENE: Soon even rock musicians were taking notice. Among them - a guitarist named Tom Morello. He found massive mainstream success in the '90s with his band Rage Against The Machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE THE POWER BACK")

RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE: (Singing) Yeah, the movement's in motion with massive militant poetry. Now check this out.

GREENE: And this is where our conversation with Chuck D began - the moment when Morello came to him with an idea for a band, one that would channel the anger of today. The new group is called Prophets of Rage.

CHUCK D: I kind of, like, didn't give a quick answer at it. And Tom had a conversation with my wife. And then she said, look, you know, you are who you are. You are what you are. This is good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE COUNTEROFFENSIVE")

PROPHETS OF RAGE: (Singing) The counteroffensive. Prophets of Rage.

GREENE: So who is Chuck D? Well, at 57, he's a man who wisely takes advice from his wife. He's also a pure entertainer but an accessible one. Public Enemy used to welcome everyone to be angry with them. He's also humble - sort of - saying he's no longer the superstar. If the new band were a basketball team, the star on the court is the rapper B-Real. Chuck D backs him up.

Is that the opposite of what you were in Public Enemy?

CHUCK D: Yes. I was Magic Johnson in Public Enemy.

(LAUGHTER)

CHUCK D: The ball runs through me. But...

GREENE: Are you OK with a different role now?

CHUCK D: I'm OK with all this, man. I used to move furniture in this city in trucks. I'm OK with anything in this music business.

GREENE: Well, I want to play a little bit of the music, if I can, and hear what you can tell us about it.

CHUCK D: DJ Greene.

GREENE: So DJ Greene wants to play "Living On The 110."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVING ON THE 110")

PROPHETS OF RAGE: (Singing) Living on the 110. There's no end to the poverty stopping me. You pretend there's democracy, hypocrisy. This is the reality.

GREENE: For those people who haven't been to LA, can you describe the 110?

CHUCK D: It's the 110, which is a highway. Because the weather in Southern California is conducive that you could possibly set up and live outside without the elements just, you know, killing you, people who are all homeless have set up shantytowns and tents to live out there on the streets. And you've got people on the top of the highway who are driving their Southern Californian Bugatti or whatever - I don't know the fancy names of cars - Teslas or whatever. So the contrast of them being on the top and underneath the highway, you got people at their most stripped existences.

GREENE: Is this a call to action about homelessness at this moment?

CHUCK D: Yeah, this song especially. And the advantages of being a musician is that we have conversations that will make someone in a particular region pay close attention to what's happening somewhere else because this is one planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE")

PUBLIC ENEMY: Brothers and sisters, I don't know what this world is coming to. Yes, the rhythm, the rebel. Without a pause, I'm lowering my level.

GREENE: In the late '80s, hip-hop was just finding its footing. And you are seen as one of the first to really focus on politics and political themes.

CHUCK D: We were older. I didn't mean to cut off your question. But, you know, I was born in 1960. So we clearly remember the 1960s. And I would have songs that would talk - like "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos" talked about when one of my uncles graduated high school. And that same weekend, my uncle then turned 18, found out he was drafted to Vietnam to go fight for war.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK STEEL IN THE HOUR OF CHAOS")

PUBLIC ENEMY: (Rapping) I got a letter from the government the other day. I opened and read it. It said they were suckers. They wanted me for their army or whatever. Picture me giving a damn. I said never. Here's a land that never gave a damn about a brother like me and myself because they never did.

GREENE: You were telling kids it can get more real than you could possibly imagine.

CHUCK D: Yeah. I mean, I started, you know, school as a first grader and that was three years after Kennedy was killed. And then in the third grade, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. And all of a sudden, you just learning about these other categories. Like, OK, I was in the Black Panthers lunch program in Harlem when I visited my grandmother.

And all of a sudden, you find out this organization that's giving us lunches, their leadership is getting killed. So you're like, wow. So if you come out and just try to help people, do you get killed in the United States of America? So that curiosity led me to learn and read about right, wrongs and revolt and things like that at an early age.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADICAL EYES")

PROPHETS OF RAGE: (Rapping) If speed is what you need in this security mess, your homeland history you want to dispossess. If you need anything else to make me bleed that you want to blame me for what I read.

GREENE: When you were talking about Tom Morello convincing you to do this, I was getting the sense that he felt like you are needed in this moment. And I got the sense that when your wife said do it, you know, because you are who you are, that you're needed in this moment. Why are you the right person for this moment?

CHUCK D: I don't think I'm the right person for this moment. I think we are. And Tom was very clear, like, this is not a lecture. The music when it's seen live, it's a bear to, you know, try to hang with this sonic blast that this team is doing.

GREENE: This is an angry moment. These are angry times. Like, when I'm at a concert, I'm listening to music. Like, are you - do you want me to like just let it all out and channel it and be free to be angry? Or what do you think you guys are pulling off?

CHUCK D: Well, I don't know. It was angry times for me in 1997. I was angry in 1996 when people were like tossing back and, you know, celebrating, you know, a whole bunch of false promises with the Clinton administration. So I've always had my antennas up for things that, you know, are out there.

It's just been intensified. So you hope that this mesh of words, music, style and the story can get across to a person that, yeah, we are at a point where you need a little bit a sense of urgency.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADICAL EYES")

PROPHETS OF RAGE: (Singing) They say I'm radicalized. See my radical eyes. They say we're radicalized. See your radical eyes.

GREENE: Chuck D, it's been an honor and pleasure talking to you.

CHUCK D: Hey, DJ Greene, keep deejaying.

MARTIN: That was David Greene talking with Chuck D about his new album with Prophets of Rage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.