Chuck D on The Origins of Prophets of Rage and Embracing New Musical Directions

Interviews
05/10/2018
Owen Murphy

TRANSCRIPTION BY MOLLY WYMAN

One could say that on this special KEXP programming day, 6-degrees of Chuck D., that the Public Enemy frontman’s latest musical venture is a gift from Heaven for DJs trying to connect the rapper’s career to other great musical acts. If you don’t know what a six-degrees day entails, just know that we start with an artist, like Chuck, play another who connects to the first song played, rinse and repeat, for twelve glorious hours. That’s why Prophets of Rage, which features members of Rage Against the Machine, Cypress Hill, and both Chuck and DJ Lord of P.E. is magical for us, as it allows to follow tangents in metal, rock, hip hop and even folk. We spoke to Chuck via phone last month about his new musical direction, the power of guitars and turntables, and more. The conversation started with the importance of B-Real as the catalyst to make this project perfect.


Chuck D: While not only important, it was, it was essential, and there wouldn't have been the Prophets of Rage without B-Real. Tom Morello had asked me and he came up with this idea that we just couldn't tweet and text about what was going down, and that the aristocracy in the US is a vote and the way it was picking up a momentum of nonsense Raging Against the Machine as used by by Paul Ryan. So Tom Morello says, oh, no. We we have to answer to this. And so he put together this troupe of para military musicians and you know, taps this cerebral music task force, and I was the first one. You know. Oh he reached out of course Brad and Tim, and he also reached out to me, and I brought along Lord because I didn't think that was enough to make a musical statement. And then you know we have to do some Rage Against the Machine songs which is filling the gigantic shoes of Zack de la Rocha. But when Tom called me he says look he was thinking about approaching B-Real who they had worked with in the past. I thought that was a perfect match, and it finally gave me a final, clear picture of what Prophets of Rage would turn out to be. Because B-Real, see, and it's not just that, it's not just two guys on the mic. You gotta look at it just like a bass and a guitarist. A bass player, the guitarist and the drums. Those are three instruments but they all play with each other. Well, and, and you know in hip hop it's not just two guys with a mic just spewing, you know, lyrics over it, you know, like cellophane. He's the lead MC and he, if he's Microphone A-1, I'm like Microphone A-2. I'm not Microphone B, and so, therefore, I accent him when it's time for him to pick up the highlight. And I accent him, and he does the same for me.

KEXP: Our tagline at KEXP is, where the music matters – you’ve been making music in some way, shape or form for 40-years or more...why does music matter to you?

Chuck D:  Yeah, well, music is, without all getting all cryptic, but it's that vibration that moves us, just like, I mean, every heart got a beat that's for the living beings. So if you break down music and the vibrations and the notes it's probably the sound of our existence. You know, before it even becomes a song. Like almost like life is a song. The world is a song as are albums so some people have the ability to kind of narrow focus all the, you know, the realms of life and beyond into the universe and turn it into a song. Recording doing what the birds do, and I don't mean the Roger McGuinn Byrds. I mean, you know, the birds that actually chirp through the sky. So if I, if I gave you an answer that was on a hippie tip then maybe we need to in be some hippie times in the 21 C, which is the 21st century.

 

In regard to Prophets of Rage, I’ve read that you were unsure that this grouping would be able to record a full album, yet you did it in a short period of time – was there a moment, a song, that led you to believe this project would be exciting?

Where I knew that the group was going to be right once another MC came along that was going to be the lead MC and that's B-Real. And B-Real's at the right stage in the right age with the right amount of tenure that knows where to take songs to the next step that he has to go to, and I'm glad to be able to ride shotgun with him along with the great minds and the musicianship of Tom Morello, Timmy Commerford, who I think is the most unique bass player in rock music, and also the God of Hard Drums, Brad Wilk. And also one of the world's great turntable is DJ Lord. And I knew out of that mix was going to come out something that was gonna be creative just on its own right just by existing. The chemistry happens to come from the fact that we dig each other's abilities and we're fans of each other and from that point on I think music and songs and albums are academic but I ask the question all the time like what is an album now? An album is a collection of efforts that we used to call songs that could be a conversation that goes over an hour worth of time or as little as seven to eight minutes. You know, whats to stop a 14 minute album? You know, so, go super Ramones on everybody, right?

When you go back to listen to this document, the self-titled Prophets of Rage album, which song do you go to first and why?

First song I go to when I listen to the new Prophets of Rage albums? Well, we made two albums and somebody might say we made one album and the EP, and I asked him a question like, "What is a EP then?" You know, I mean, why are we using these these, these outdated record company industrial terms when the first album was a collection of songs? And the second, which is called Prophets of Rage self-titled, is also a longer collection of songs. So when I go to it the first thing I have in my mind is how much could I have memorized for a performance because I do believe that music is a performance art. When you start getting into the realm of recording it's a performance art. So those recordings, as an artist, you should be able to to reproduce in a live performance, and those recordings are something that gives me a guideline to listen to to begin to take them on and use them for a live performance. Well, it's a song that gives a damn, and it shows the disparity on the 110 Highway because this is, you know, in every United States city there's that disparity is going on between the fortunate and the privileged getting to work or wherever and those are not fortunate living underneath their car tires. So on the 110 is that, is that real paradox of a highway where a Mercedes Benz or... Matter of fact a Mercedes that's a outdated car now right, or whatever? Well, whatever they, you know, they talk about Maybach or whatever these cars are. I'm not, I'm not a car buff but these really six figure cars. And underneath the highway you got people in tents, you know, trying to use the overpass as a place to stay and stay warm. And in a traffic jam sometimes they in the same eye space. And so that's interesting. So that's where I get when I listen to "Living on the 110."

 

“Unfuck the World” - The song is almost Marvin Hagler in that it pulls no punches but hits you in the mouth with the message, and it’s an optimistic song to me, as well. Instead of saying we can’t fix our circumstance, an easy thing to feel sometimes, it’s all about not accepting the status quo to fix our world. What do you want people to take away from this song?

Yeah, I mean, Tom Morello is a big fan of saying: Look. He got a plan and you got to do. You gotta make it happen. And these things don't necessarily fix themselves. So in "Unfuck the World," you know, is basically looking at if the world is fucked, then if you feel that it is, you, you have to be kind of proactive to unfuck it. So, the planet of mother earth has been thrown down a flight of perpetual, virtual stairs that somebody has to be able to say OK, we've got to fix this, and we can't have it violated. So, that's what the song conveys.

I interviewed Tom Morello earlier this year and he has VERY strong political views - with your song Hail to the Chief - as a background, what are conversations like between you to about the current political climate?

Between me and who? Tom? Well, we come from the same ilk. So I don't, I wouldn't say middle of anything. I ain't in the middle of anything. I don't like any of these governments. I don't like any of these political party, parties either. But I could be so much of a pessimist and an optimist at the same time. I'm saying that there should not be anybody on the planet without. So I go to question governments. I go to question religions. I go to question all these areas of authority but also keeping a foot into the reality that people trust these things so you gotta, in order to cut across the people, you have to get them to lower their shield. Their shield of belief. So that's the beautiful thing is myself and, and all the guys in Prophets of Rage, Tom, we're on the page of of trying to be proactive regardless of a personal opinion about one thing.

In regard to the Prophet's song "Legalize Me" – how far would you go in legalizing drugs?

Well that you know when it comes down to my attack on drugs in the past it wasn't necessarily the herb of the earth. But it was more like the game, the gangster game that's played manipulating people. And weed had nothing to do with it. Unless some game gets it and laces it. Like they got synthetic marijuana going on now but it's about the rights to be able to feel that you can go anywhere on earth. You can, you know, use the earth as long as you give back to the earth. And, and also that human beings could gel together and that's a high in itself. And I come from a time where really seriously the music was even higher than the quote unquote drug of choice because the music had to mind boggle people like they couldn't believe it. And that's where I come from. Where if you was whack you paid the immediate price. You didn't do your thing for long if you was whack.

 

What is it like to share a stage, and write music with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame?

He knows how to fit into himself at any given time. He knows – he's studied. He knows what he's a fan of he knows what he can create and emulate. I mean this dude has made the guitar sound like a turntable. Matter of fact, we got DJ Lord who makes a turntable sound like like a guitar and Tom knows how to fit in himself and knows how to transcend himself off the stage. So that's, those are two dynamic existences that he does pretty well.

It’s interesting to watch live footage of your shows. I was watching the broadcast of your show last year at Zénith de Paris, in well, Paris, and the first twenty minutes is DJ Lord blending an incredible breath of genres into a new mix. What do you think makes DJ Lord so great at what he does?

Showed him a turntable is the instrument of the 21st century, and he does it as hardcore as any guitarist by playing the music and the sounds. Yeah, he plays the music and the sounds of, of, of that genre and the genres that are close to it, and he and he really seriously shreds, shreds the turntable. He's a turntable shredda.

What is it like to be on stage with these world-renowned musicians?

I got the best seat in the house number one. And when these guys come together and they played with other bands and other musicians and other groups. I mean, all the time, but when these three come together it seems like it's ordained by the universe that it will have this particular thing with it. And, to me, my ears always hear when Tim, Tom, and Brad get together. Sometimes I think it's like Motown on steroids. It's like James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, Robert White, runnin' to Blind Faith or somebody like that. Or they runnin' to, what was the group, the Rare Earth, who was on Motown at the same time, and they funktify it with power. You know some stuff that, that, that, that requires the soul and funk and also the metal just bein' shredded.

Do you think you are turning new fans onto what you created in Public Enemy?

I do, I think, and it's also reflected in in the fanship around the world, where I think that on paper we play to three million people already in two years. And so, therefore, it's a performance group. We played every other continent except for Antarctica and the Arctic Circle. But I would tell you this that on paper it looks like, okay, a fan of Prophets of Rage is going to be a fan of Rage Against The Machine, Cypress Hill, and Public Enemy. Where the discovery that belied analytics was that you have fans who are 12 and 14 and 16 who are fans of Prophets of Rage and probably not a fan of either band that made it up. So that's a discovery, and we've dealt with, you know, just a lot of dynamics. With, with unpredictability and the finding this type of new core audience by just playing and being who we are.

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