Even Chuck D gets intimidated.
Sure, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has been fighting the power for decades as the leader of Public Enemy and as a pioneer in using the internet as both a distribution tool for his music and a megaphone for his issues.
However, when Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello approached the Roosevelt native with the idea of starting a supergroup, Chuck admits he was a little worried.
“This ain’t karaoke,” he says, calling after a band rehearsal in Los Angeles. “It can’t be karaoke . . . I was intimidated by all the songs. It’s one thing to listen to them as a fan. But to perform them? You gotta hammer them home. You gotta design how you’re gonna go at these records . . . And Zach [de la Rocha, Rage Against the Machine’s former frontman] matches his lyrics with their sound so perfectly. Nobody can match his sound. He performs like a knife is turning in him.”
But Morello was inspired by the hip-hop supergroup assembled at the 2013 Grammys to accompany LL Cool J’s performance of “Whaddup.” It included Morello, Chuck D, drummer Travis Barker and DJ Z-Trip. He wanted to create something similar to tackle songs from Rage Against the Machine, which hadn’t really been performed much since de la Rocha left the band. But Chuck wasn’t so sure about the idea, thinking, “I’ve already got a group.”
Chuck says Morello often talked with Chuck’s wife, Gaye Theresa Johnson, who teaches about race, racism and cultural history at UCLA, about political and academic issues. “She mentioned to me that this might be a good idea to look into,” Chuck says. “Then my dad passed on Feb. 8 and I was looking for a new challenge to think about. When I asked about [Morello’s] idea again, [Cypress Hill’s] B-Real was involved and he’s great. I liked the idea that all the pressure wouldn’t be on me . . . That’s how the idea blossomed to become a reality.”
Soon, Prophets of Rage was born, with Chuck and B-Real fronting Rage Against the Machine’s Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk, with Public Enemy’s DJ Lord handling the turntable duties. And given this year’s wild political climate, Prophets of Rage’s rap-rock protest songs had a built-in urgency, which has led to the national “Make America Rage Again” tour that stops at Barclays Center on Aug. 27.
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“The best part of what this thing has become is that it didn’t start from somebody’s boardroom,” Chuck says. “There was resistance at each step of the way, but we made it work . . . On paper, it looks awesome, but that’s the challenge — to be even better than that in reality.”
Chuck says he and B-Real are looking at each song in the Rage catalog and seeing whether they can or should take it on.
“Something like ‘Calm Like a Bomb,’ they rarely performed, but we’re going to do it like putting on a different suit of armor,” he says. “The same goes for ‘Guerrilla Radio’ or ‘Bulls on Parade,’ my favorite, or ‘Testify.’ The way the songs are performed now, we’re pulling them off so differently, making them entirely another thing.”
Chuck says the band was thrilled with the reception it got for the tour opener in Cleveland during the Republican National Convention last month. “We marched with the people,” he says. “It was very much a grassroots thing . . . It had the feeling of the Big Bang Effect. People were giving the middle finger to the RNC.”
However, Chuck says the Prophets of Rage message goes far beyond supporting one American candidate over another. “This has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton,” he says, adding that the group encourages its fans to vote for people who support their beliefs at all levels of government. “In the U.K., it’s commentary about what Brexit is . . . It’s a way of bringing the world’s view into the United States. We need people to look at the social gap, the economic gap. They are so wide they are glaring. We want to reach anybody around the world paying attention. Today, attention is currency. We need awakened people to unite. We need them to stay woke.”
Chuck says that he expects Prophets of Rage to continue on as a group after the tour wraps up. The group has already unveiled a new song “The Party Is Over,” the title track of its new EP out Aug. 26, at its concerts, as well as a new version of Public Enemy’s “Prophets of Rage.”
He says the group will continue working on new music, but that they will generally release the songs as singles at appropriate times.
“The recording process is outdated,” he says. “No one is waiting for any particular album any more. We are out there wetting people’s whistles to what is relevant right this minute. We are going to release songs parallel to this movement, trying to get people to feel something. We want them to think global and act local.”
WHO Prophets of Rage
WHEN|WHERE 7 p.m. Aug. 27, Barclays Center, Brooklyn
INFO $20-$69.50; 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com
Forget gold or platinum. Public Enemy has gone . . . plastic!
Next month, the rap group from Roosevelt will get their own action figures, designed by Ed Piskor, author of the award-winning comic book series “Hip-Hop Family Tree.”
The set features Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Terminator X and Professor Griff striking classic poses — yes, Flav is wearing clocks around his neck — with each figure standing about four inches tall. (Terminator X is the tallest because his hi-top fade is superhero-sized.)
PressPop Toys of Japan is selling the Public Enemy action figures only as a set for $59.95. They can be preordered through the company’s website (presspop.com), though they are also expected to be available through retail stores starting in September or October.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Chuck D and Flavor Flav have been immortalized in plastic. Mezco Toyz included both in their “Rap Stars” action figure line in 2006. However, the new set is the first to include the four figures together. — GLENN GAMBOA