Review: Prophets of Rage brings music of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy to Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre
How do you make ahead-of-its-time music feel ahead of its time decades later?
That is the question surrounding Prophets of Rage on their inaugural tour, including their show Saturday at MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre. The supergroup consists of Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Cypress Hill’s B-Real and Rage Against the Machine minus singer Zack de la Rocha, who’s occupied elsewhere with Run the Jewels guest spots and a supposedly soon-to-be-released solo album.
That’s a collection of musicians, as well as a back catalog of songs making up their setlist, with some serious political pedigree. And the group claims that their inspiration for forming was to tackle the ongoing presidential election, with a mission statement of “Make America Rage Again.”
But can Fight the Power still have the same stratospheric impact as it had when it appeared in Do the Right Thing 27 years ago? Can Rage Against the Machine revert to a time before they were normalized enough that Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan counts himself among their listeners?
Maybe not. But if nothing else, Prophets of Rage serves as a reminder of the talent of performers like Chuck D and guitarist Tom Morello, and the durability of their back catalogs.
Opening was Awolnation, whose electro-alt-rock seemingly has little in common with Prophets of Rage or the members’ previous acts. (Fellow opening act Wakrat’s aggressive sound was a closer match, perhaps because both feature Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford.)
Yet Awolnation singer Aaron Bruno talked about how important Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill were to him growing up, even if it's not reflected much in his band’s sound. And judging from their reaction, much of the audience was in the same boat.
Considering how heavily influenced by rap de la Rocha’s vocals were, putting on full-on MCs in his place was a smart move. In turn, it makes sense Chuck D and B-Real are now playing in a rock group. Public Enemy famously name-dropped, then later did a remix with, Anthrax on Bring the Noise. And of course there’s Cypress Hill’s collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Perhaps the best way to think of the group is like the celebrity-packed jam sessions that close out music festivals. They largely covered their respective acts’ most popular songs — Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name and Guerilla Radio, Public Enemy’s Fight the Power and Don’t Believe the Hype, Cypress Hill’s Insane in the Membrane — but with different arrangements.
De la Rocha’s vocal parts would be traded back and forth between Chuck D and B-Real, or a Public Enemy track would get an instrumental backdrop. Occasionally they deviated from their catalogs, like new song The Party's Over or when Bruno came back out for a rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad (though even that is a cover in Rage Against the Machine's earlier repertoire.)
Most of the setlist came from Rage Against the Machine, which, unlike the vast majority of what could be classified “rap-rock,” has aged well. A track like Killing in the Name with its line “some that work forces, are the same that burn crosses” still feels provocative today, especially when we have a former KKK leader running for Congress.
Yet despite their claims of being “dangerous music,” there’s something strangely heartwarming about Prophets of Rage. It’s at its core a multi-genre, multi-racial group of musicians who clearly respect each other coming together to celebrate each other’s catalogs. Morello even got the audience’s help in recording a birthday message to his mother by having the stadium sing to her.
Towards the end of the show, the group did a mash-up of Beastie Boys’ No Sleep Till Brooklyn and Fight the Power, complete with a wailing, playing-with-his-teeth guitar solo by Morello. At that point, you either roll your eyes and pine for earlier days or embrace it. Certainly it’s no more ridiculous than the political reality the music finds itself in these days.