Prophets of Rage's Chuck D on Rap Groups Vs. the Solo Star: Kanye West Is 'Just Kanye'
"The journals and blogs and everyone threw hip-hop down the stairs by praising the individual and knocking aside the importance of the group," says the Prophets of Rage frontman.
“I don’t think anybody brings the power I do.”
Chuck D is talking MC skills, but it’s also evident in casual conversation. The Public Enemy frontman and Rock and Roll Hall Of Famer remains one of the most outspoken and thoughtful people in music. His legend is secure, but that hasn’t stopped him from facing new challenges. For America, times are tumultuous and terrifying, making the looming election seem more momentous than usual. Chuck D’s latest musical endeavor isn’t just a project or a creative outlet -- it’s destiny.
Prophets of Rage take their name from a Public Enemy song, so there really was no way Chuck D couldn’t answer the call. The new group features PE turntablist DJ Lord, Cypress Hill MC B-Real and every member of Rage Against The Machine not named Zack de la Rocha: guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk. They’re all on a mission and Chuck D was eager to talk about it.
During the fascinating talk, Chuck covered politics, his fandom of B-Real and why the idea of Prophets Of Rage appealed to him. He also had a lot to say on the current state of hip-hop and why, while he supports the genre, he is all about the group, not the individual.
Tom mentioned you are recording a new song. How will you approach that while in Europe?
With Prophets Of Rage we’ll be doing it as organically as possible. The idea came along organically out of Tom Morello’s thoughts when we participated in the Grammys about two and a half years ago. LL Cool J was doing his song, Tom Morello, Z-Trip, Travis Barker and I had performed. It came off. Rage had played their last concert in 2011 and they went off to do their projects, but the Rage songs don’t go anywhere and it’s up to the musicians to catch up with them because they travel around the world and they don’t disappear. So Tom brought [the idea] to my attention and I was like, “Nobody could step in Zack’s shoes and I already have a group that’s traveling the world and it’s in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and so on. But this sounds interesting.” I said, “I’m gonna bring along who I consider the best, most supreme turntablist out there, DJ Lord, from Public Enemy.” When B-Real accepted, that made Prophets Of Rage go from a fantasy to a reality in my mind because he’s the epitome of a rap superstar, rock superstar -- his flow, his wit and his charisma. And the fact I could play a second fiddle is unreal; it’s great to me.
He’s like a shaman to me. He also has abilities most MCs don’t have in the United States -- he could be bi-lingual at any minute, he could hit tones, he has great flow, he has great stage command. I’m the weakest link in this area of six people and if I’m pretty good at my best, then the rest of the music world competitively is in trouble 'cause I’m a strong weakest link. Also coincidentally we didn’t plan for this weird conundrum of swirling chaotic events and politics of this country, which has taken a weird, bizarre turn. And I think the lyrics of Rage Against The Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill are always needed and they always transcend. But in a perfect storm of lyrics and musicianship coming against a perfect storm of political disaster, why not?
If you are the weakest link, how do you compare this to other supergroups?
Musically, yes, this is a supergroup. But the only thing I can compare this to truly is the Woodstock moment when you had Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young come together. It was the shot heard 'round the world with maybe a million people watching. But today, with media and gadgetry, out of 300 people at the Whisky, a million people might as well have been there. That has metastasized into an event that has spread and everything has followed up from there. Public Enemy is active and goes around the world. Cypress Hill is very powerful. And Rage Against The Machine, you have Tim, Brad and Tom and there has never been anything that sounded like them when the three of them line up. And the fact some of the greatest musicians of all time in my opinion could not play those songs live -- this is the win-win answer. 'Cause myself and B-Real, although maybe not ferociously succinct in that particular way of Zack, I don’t think anybody brings the power I bring and I don’t think many people bring the wit and flow and the charisma that B-Real has. So that makes up for whatever is not there in those songs.
Are there PE songs that have changed for you as you catch up to them?
I didn’t start this out as an 18-year-old. I already was grown when I wrote the songs and I understood great songwriters of the past. So I knew if I was gonna write something I was gonna have to live with it when I wrote it at 27, 28, 29 and 30. I wrote Fear Of A Black Planet based on a theory from a psychologist, so I was writing every word to resonate. I learned that when traveling to another country early in my career that “Fight the Power” could actually be used by the Serbs and the Croats looking for the freedom between them two as former Yugoslavians. So the Public Enemy songs are always in effect. The key is it’s not a long period of time anyway. Maybe in music terms, maybe in culture terms, but in real terms, 40, 50 years is not a long time. There’s been some significant changes; people are now at a 45-degree angle staring into their gadgets and phones and maybe that’s different. But it’s not a long period of time at all. So if they were pulling some bullshit in 1963, its effect could still be felt in 2016 in many ways. Many of the countries still have the same names and although it’s a different Bush, you have Bushes who are governors and ex-president Bushes that are still sitting around spewing their philosophies. As new Clintons come in and other ones watch over them, I tweeted this yesterday: “Those who choose to ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” You got a lot of things on repeat.
So how do we change the things on repeat?
Gadgets and technologies have led us into very individualistic times. You can be an individual and create chaos like that one shooter did in Orlando or that one shooter that went up to [Christina Grimmie], you can be an individual and change the future by doing some dumb, crazy bullshit. But making positive change is like going up a mountain that’s made out of grease wheel with a pair of roller skates; it requires like-minded collectives. This is why bands work. This is why when a band is in sync – the bass, the guitar the drums – there’s nothing that can match that. One of the tragedies of hip-hop, I think B-Real could share in, is how the journals and blogs and everyone threw hip-hop down the stairs by praising the individual and knocking aside the importance of the group.
The group was the only thing that made hip-hop even competitive to the rock world in the first place. But the minute that you started taking the DNA of the thing that worked, it’s the guy and the mic -- the guy is Kanye and just Kanye and nothing else -- it started shooting down hip-hop as being a legitimate genre and being more of a spectacle. I think it was a disgrace that individual came into the talk of the genre. So the whole thing of “Me, me, I, I” has really brought it down to the point where people feel they have no power 'cause they’re not connected. Hard to bring it up as an individual -- that’s why collectives work. So even in the music business where they want to just streamline it to this person we know the individuals of music that are incredible -- like Stevie Wonder, Elton John -- but so few are at that level where you can’t take your eyes or ears off them. Ninety-five percent of everybody else, you gotta work with somebody to make me interested in you as a fan. I come from a time where cats had to get together and play together to just impress you past fucking 15 or 20 minutes unless they was a super person. So, in hip-hop -- I love the genre, I’ll support the genre -- I’m dismayed by the individual efforts. I don’t think anybody is that great enough to hold anybody’s attention past half an hour just talking about their damn self. I don’t.
Are there hip-hop artists you’d like to see team up, like Mos Def and Talib Kweli did for Black Star or Kanye and Jay Z on Watch The Throne?
There are, I can’t give them to you right now. I know collabs happen because a lot of the times cats feel they gotta deliver eight songs -- a collaboration makes it more interesting. But, ding, that’s the bell, groups are more interesting, soloists are not. In the rock world you can’t be a soloist and actually bust a band in the ass.
What would you like to see happen as a result of the Prophets Of Rage tour?
You want antennas raised, you want the songs of Rage Against The Machine never ever to be dormant, you want new generations to not be puppets and robots. We have to learn how to manage the gadgets or they’ll master us, like Prince said. And the fact you have a Hillary versus Trump, it’s like anybody with a thinking brain would say, “Are you fucking kidding me?” And that’s what the rest of the world is saying. So the perception sometimes has to be defeated and hopefully Prophets Of Rage can rage against the perceptions. Raging against the perceptions is very important in 2016.