Prophets of Rage Bring the Noise (Close) to Donald Trump and the RNC

Prophets Of Rage
Gil Kaufman/Billboard

Prophets Of Rage

In the immortal words of Rage Against the Machine's "Guerilla Radio": "It has to start somewhere/ It has to start sometime/ What better place than here, what better time than now?"

For the first official show of their Make America Rage Again national tour, Prophets of Rage brought the ruckus to Cleveland on Tuesday night (July 19). And while the Republican faithful a few miles down the road from the Agora Theatre probably couldn't hear the righteous rock noise, the hip-hop/rock supergroup tried their best to shake the walls and make their message clear.

"F--- what's happening in Quicken Loans Arena," said Public Enemy leader Chuck D mid-way through the 90-minute agitprop counterprogramming to the Trump coronation at the downtown RNC headquarters. "Let's take the f---ing power back. Put your middle finger in the air. We got to take it back all the way back ... Take that power back... You know what happened downtown. F--- that Trump s---."

Led by vicious verbal attacks from Chuck D and Cypress Hill's B Real, the band bolted out of the gate with their new self-titled single, "Prophets of Rage," with Rage trio guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk locking into the kind of pummeling groove that made their band one of the most politically and emotionally powerful acts of the 1990s. 

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Maybe it was the proximity to the heavily fortified convention zone, the sound of black helicopters periodically buzzing overhead or the palpable sense in the air of a city on lockdown, but on this night the lyrics to decades-old songs took on a freshly urgent tone and context.

The collective hewed pretty much to the set list they've played in a series of well-received warm-up gigs, but new meaning seemed to leap from those chronicles of injustice from a quarter century ago. From Rage's "Bombtrack" to PE's "Miuzi Weighs a Ton" and landslide attack of "People of the Sun," both Chuck D and B Real seemed newly energized by the thundering tracks, with the 55-year-old PE frontman hopping around and dancing in circles like a man half his age as he pointedly aimed a finger gun to his head during the Rage stomper "Bullet in the Head." 

Morello brought his usual arsenal of guitar pyro with what sounded like a stuck power drill on "People of the Sun," grinding away as a large backdrop featuring a mob of fist-raising revolutionaries dropped mid-song behind Wilk's kit. As speaker after speaker pledged to "take America back" over the first two nights of the convention, Chuck and Real talked straight, rhyming: "We need a movement with a quickness/ You are the witness of change/ And to counteract/ We gotta take the power back." 

In addition to D's youthful rebirth, B Real also showed a new, more focused side during the show, acting as the perfect foil to the PE frontman, less Flavor Flav-like jester and more sober, truth-dropping equal. They both paid fitting tribute to missing Rage singer Zack de la Rocha's tricky, testy cadence on "Testify," while Morello tapped out a science fiction solo on the palm of his hand using just his guitar chord. 

The fired-up, revolutionary vibe at the show capped a day when some protesters clashed with security on the city's streets and some delegates refused to fall into line when the nominating process got underway. Earlier in the day, the avenues near the "Q" arena featured their own kind of system-bucking theater -- a riot of conflicting megaphone noise from a group of evangelical Christians shouting down a small contingent from the notorious Westboro Baptist Church kept dozens of armed, bicycle-mounted cops on edge.

At the same time, Saturday Night Live anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che mugged for the camera on an opposite corner from the protest and a rolling digital billboard truck broadcasting a commercial for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones inched by under the giant glittering chandelier that hangs over Playhouse Square. A block away, former presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson stood patiently on a street corner awaiting an interview with Samantha Bee and a crew from the HBO Vice news series huddled outside a hotel plotting their next move. 

Prophets of Rage Perform in Protest of Republican National Convention: Watch

Tuesday's show was actually the second time Prophets had performed during the RNC, following an impromptu set at a protest rally on Monday night in Public Square Park. From the looks of it, though, the scene at that show was much more sedate than the previous times Rage Against the Machine (with singer de la Rocha) performed at political gatherings. When they played a free show in Los Angeles in 2000 at the DNC they were famously shut down, and a 2008 gig in St. Paul near that year's RNC drew thousands of protesters for a march from the venue to the area near the convention center where vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin made her national debut.

Mid-way through Tuesday's gig B Real and Chuck D took a turn in the spotlight as DJ Lord cued up a series of their respective group's greatest hits, including Cypress'  “Hand on the Pump," "Insane in the Brain" and "Ain't Goin Out Like That" and PE's "Can't Truss It," Bring the Noise." and "Welcome to the Terrordome." 

At one point, both men were standing on the barricades before the sweat-soaked crowd on the floor, each holding the hand of a white male fan, creating a (possibly unintentional) sign of unity on a night when those gathered across town were sowing division and rancor.  

Near the end of the set, Morello thanked the crowed for coming out during this "difficult time," noting that while they were playing Sen. Mitch McConnell was speaking at the RNC. "He was one of the ones who was a proponent of using torture," Morello said, noting that Rage's music was used to torture some "war on terror" detainees, an action the band sued the government over. "We avenge that and tonight this song is going to be used to torture those motherf---ers," he added, calling for the doors of the venue to be flung open so the sound could travel. 

 

Chuck D threw in a "no sleep til' Cleveland" riff during a mash-up cover of the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" and PE's "Fight the Power," which segued into the floor-shaking "Bull on Parade," a song I've seen live more than a dozen times, but which hasn't lost an ounce of it's power in all that time. And then they leaned into last song, Rage's uber anthem, "Killing in the Name," adding an extra vicious, seething undercurrent to the already foot-stomping track as a massive "Make America Rage Again" banner unfurled behind them.

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