Courtesy of Los Angeles Times

September 5, 2016

SWAN | Who’s Raging?

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The lineup of the newly formed Prophets of Rage is an extraordinary one: Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine, along with Chuck D and DJ Lord of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill. I have a profound sense of respect for all of these artists and their musical innovations and output. I particularly identify with their political ideology and the unprecedented aplomb with which they conveyed it. My young imagination can only vaguely fathom the sublimity of listening to Fear of a Black Planet as a new release in 1990 or thrashing to RATM and Cypress Hill in concert during their heydays of the same distant era. Despite the considerable length of time between now and then, each group’s body of work still manages to sound relevant and assumes a timeless quality. As the three acts represented in Prophets of Rage influenced each other with similar musicality and motives, this new supergroup possesses a theoretical capability of artistic dominance and influence over current popular music and political expression. As Tom Morello states in a Rolling Stone interview, “We’re an elite task force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bullshit, and confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing.”

With this lofty goal in mind, Prophets of Rage released their first EP, titled The Party’s Over. Did it live up to the expected brilliance of its hybrid divinity? Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen made an assessment of the EP that is not far from the truth: “[Prophets of Rage] is a harmless if not crass experiment that amounts to a bad cover band playing songs they actually wrote.” Indeed, the group’s first body of work is lacking in the power and bombast of its predecessors. The Party’s Over contains two original songs by the supergroup, and three covers, including “Killing in the Name,” “Shut Em Down” and “No Sleep Til Cleveland” (a slightly altered version of the Beastie Boys’ “No sleep Til Brooklyn”). The two original tracks, “Prophets of Rage” and “The Party’s Over” feature what sound like B-side RATM guitar riffs and general hype lyrics about injustice or hypocrisy, as opposed to the poignant lyrics that each group used to write (“You know they went after King when he spoke out on Vietnam!”). As Cohen points out, Prophets of Rage essentially ignores any happenings of recent years, such as police brutality or financial corruption.

However, let’s assume that The Party’s Over actually does employ some rhythmic pizzazz and lyrical coherence – would it then achieve any revolutionary transcendence? In returning to Tom Morello’s quote from The Rolling Stone, I am most intrigued by his ending thought: “…confront it head-on with Marshall stacks blazing.” I will certainly not doubt the raw, electric power – or at least the loudness – of a “blazing” Marshall amplifier. Yet, I wonder if it is truly the most relevant form of musical expression and not merely an antiquated component of past popular music. Despite Tom Morello’s eccentric guitar playing, I don’t believe that his effect-driven playing has the ability to cut through music’s general divergence from rock-genre trends. It would be entirely more invigorating to witness the group embrace more modern production trends and experiment from there. This touches on the interesting nature of political expression through music. When a group chooses to seize upon social or political themes in their output, is it the lyrics or the music that allures listeners? Or rather, are poignant lyrics still reliant upon new and exciting music to carry their weight? I doubt that people would have seriously considered the messages of RATM had they simply been another Seattle grunge experiment. Likewise, Public Enemy’s work would not have made such a cultural impact if not for the visionary production and DJ’ing of Terminator X and The Bomb Squad (and of course the additional commentary of Flavor Flav).

Perhaps that’s part of the problem; if Rage was made by the funky and clever growl of Zack de la Rocha and Public Enemy by the heavily sampled tracks of its production crew, then maybe Prophets of Rage is too incomplete to successfully draw upon past creativity. The supergroup must seek new forms of musical innovation instead of attempting to recreate a flawed version of their former selves. Each original group proved the point that the mere existence of a political truth is not enough to spur any meaningful change or action. Rather, the message must be placed in some captivating context that forces people to listen. Similarly, the formation of Prophets of Rage on its own is not enough to instill any inertia in the world of music. Instead of replicating an imperfect version of their former work, they must embrace more contemporary trends that are identifiable and thus more apt to induce any revolutionary fervor.

Nick Swan is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]Swan’s Song appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.