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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Prophets of Rage are a ‘supergroup’ amplified

An unlikely dream team, Prophets of Rage are a band to be reckoned with

From left, Chuck D, B-Real and Tom Morello of Prophets of Rage. Kevin Winter / Getty Images
From left, Chuck D, B-Real and Tom Morello of Prophets of Rage. Kevin Winter / Getty Images

The concept of a musical ‘supergroup’ has existed since the dawn of pop time, from the days of Sinatra’s fedora-touting, Vegas-strutting Rat Pack and quite possibly since a caveman first banged a rock by the campfire.

But even in these clickbait days, where singles charts appear punctuated by mysterious algebraic concoctions of “&”, “with”, “feat”, “vs”, “/”, “+” and “x” – we’re looking at you Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike vs David Guetta feat Kiiara – there is something quite remarkable about the Prophets of Rage.

This proud new supergroup combines the contrasting yet complimentary talents of rap forefather Chuck D and his Public Enemy bandmate DJ Lord, B-Real of former chart rivals Cypress Hill, and the entire rhythm section of Rage Against the Machine: bassist Tim Commerford, drummer Brad Wilk and guitar maverick Tom Morello. The latter trio were also the musical engine room powering the earlier supergroup Audioslave, fronted by Chris Cornell, the Soundgarden lead singer who tragically took his own life in May.

Drawing from the back catalogues of all four bands, Prophets of Rage are then, if you will, a Supergroup Squared. It is certainly a line-up that might never have been imagined in the early-90s heydays of these distinct musical voices, but any grievances were slayed and egos left at the door when this unlikely dream team grouped to record their recent eponymous debut album.

Each of Prophets’s antecedents boast their own backstories. Formed in Long Island in 1986, Public Enemy lived up to the band name Chuck D coined. Today, widely hailed for both their ground-breaking music – which blurred the funk traditions of the Civil Rights era with innovative turntablism – and their politically-charged rhymes, Public Enemy helped herald hip-hop’s golden age, capped by 1989’s classic album Fear of a Black Planet.

From the other side of the continent, Cypress Hill called on their collective Latino heritage, popularising the use of Spanish-language raps over aggressive, rock-influenced grooves, emerging with their 1991 self-titled debut as a key force in establishing the West Coast hip-hop sound.

Coming from the opposite side of the rap-rock tracks were Los Angeles contemporaries Rage Against the Machine. A conventional rock quartet of drums-bass-guitar-vocals, Rage drew equally on heavy six-string riffing and early hip-hop – including Public Enemy – to pioneer a rap-metal hybrid most effectively showcased on 1992’s self-titled debut – the most natural precursor to the Prophets’ sonic attack.

Taking their name from a vintage 1988 Public Enemy cut, together Prophets of Rage inarguably represent a supergroup – in every preconception-ladled sense of the word.

The idea of the supergroup arguably dates back to the 1950s, when record execs would pair big name jazz musicians for one-off “all-star” sessions, but the phrase only entered the lexicon in the bloated milieu of rock ‘n’ roll. The first ‘supergroup’ is generally agreed to be Cream, the virtuosic power-trio which brought together mutually indulgent musos Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in 1966.

Closer to how we now understand the term was Crosby, Stills & Nash (later augmented by Young), which cemented the idea of assembling names from previously familiar acts – in this case The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Hollies respectively – as well as embodying the image of hubristic excess later characterised by 1970s all-star rock collectives Bad Company, Journey, Emerson, Lake & Palmer et al.

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In the 1980s, the ‘supergroup’ proved a timely fad for ageing legends to pool dwindling creative resources, such as The Highwaymen, which brought together the four pillars of “outlaw country”, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, and the Traveling Wilburys, in which George Harrison assembled celebrity pals Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, ELO’s Jeff Lynne and the recently departed Tom Petty, to great audience glee.

In the contemporary age, more memorable A-list encounters include Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland joining three members of Guns n’ Roses to form Velvet Revolver, while Them Crooked Vultures united Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones with the younger generation of rock stars he inspired in Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age).

The success of these ventures – and the dozens of other ‘supergroups’ – invariably rests on the shared musical empathy, and personal temperament, of their members. Members of Prophets boast much common ground. In 2007, both Public Enemy and Cypress Hill shared stages with a precariously reformed Rage as part of touring Rock the Bells festival. And this was far from the first time the rap/rock border was crossed by these three seminal acts, who persistently probed genre divides.

Long compared a ‘rock band’ in their ethos and appeal, and now established as critical darlings of the white-centric mainstream music press, Public Enemy set a precedent with earlier ‘rap-metal’ collaborations alongside Living Colour on 1988’s Funny Vibe, and the 1991 remake of Bring the Noise alongside thrash metal band Anthrax.

Cypress Hills’ use of rock/metal instrumentation – most notably on 2000’s Skull & Bones – has seen the band often lumped in the rap-rock genre by tastemakers, a classification harmed neither by collaborations with Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth (both on the genre-colliding 1993 Judgment Night soundtrack), nor their 2009 take on Guns n’ Roses smash Paradise City alongside Slash and Fergie.

Rage of course made the credible definition of rap-rock their guiding principle, and went as far as covering Cypress Hill, alongside hip-hop staples by Afrika Bambaataa and Eric B. & Rakim, on 2000 swansong Renegades.

But if there is a single vaccination which might immunise Prophets of Rage against the contagious beast of supergroup suffocation, it is more than mere mutual musical respect. What facilitated and fuelled this union, we’re repeatedly reminded, was the collective sense of social responsibility in its members. Driven by a shared discontent at recent political calamities, the Prophets formed, they insist, not for the dollars of a big-name tour, but because the times demand it.

“We’re not a supergroup,” declared the ever-explosive Morello to Rolling Stone magazine, announcing the band’s formation last year. “We’re an elite task force of revolutionary musicians.”

Prophets of Rage’s eponymous LP tackles subjects such as fascism, racism, phone-tapping and civil injustice head-on.

Touting brazen song titles such as The Counteroffensive, Strength in Numbers and Who Owns Who, the sextet presents itself as a leftists’ “soundtrack to the revolution”.

Such sloganeering has often met deaf ears, with critics largely lukewarm – review aggravator Metacritic gave an average score of 55/100, while The National’s Saeed Saeed dismissed the collection as “more bark than bite”. Yet it is onstage, in front of the masses they hope to inspire, where the band’s mix of block-shaking riffs and rants has proved most potent, clocking more than 70 gigs since their Make America Rage Again tour in May 2016.

Watching the Prophets at Poland’s Open’er Festival this summer, their bombast was intoxicatingly immutable and they gave headliners Radiohead and Foo Fighters a serious run for their money.

Playing just a single original – their politically pulverising second single – the setlist lent surprisingly on vintage RATM headbangers, viscerally re-legitimised by spiralling political events. The set closed with battle anthem Killing in the Name the UK Christmas number one in 2009, 17 years after its release, following an anti-X Factor social media campaign. “Dangerous times demand dangerous songs,” declared Morello onstage.

With the earnestness of the fires burning in their collective bellies – however belligerent the rhetoric, however dumb-fisted the approach – it would be foolish to write Prophets of Rage off.

Injustice isn’t going anywhere fast, so if Morello and co are as serious as they say, this quintessential supergroup should keep raging until the walls fall and the revolution comes.

Prophets of Rage is out now