- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2016

It’s a supergroup unlike any other. And they have a message: “We can no longer stand on the sidelines of history. Dangerous times demand dangerous songs. It’s time to take the power back.”

Thus sayeth the website for Prophets of Rage, which combines personnel of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill in a heated but socially conscious rebuke of the politics as usual.

“It had to happen organically,” rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy fame told The Washington Times. “It had to happen with a mode of its own.”

While soft-spoken and polite off-stage, Chuck D is a titan of the volatile hip-hop sound that emerged in New York in the early 1980s. He and his Public Enemy bandmates channeled stinging social commentary into their hip-hop that found crossover appeal in the suburbs.

He still tours with the group, but when the germ of Prophets of Rage came about, he jumped at the chance.

“It’s like being in the Olympics,” Chuck D said. “Not giving up on your NBA team, but you’re going to look at being in the Olympics as this greater thing.”

With the supergroup, which stops at the EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, Virginia, Friday, Chuck D says he is able to, rather than being center stage at the turntables, allow B-Real of Cypress Hill to be the primary MC.

“Being the second fiddle to B-Real was a comfortable position to me,” Chuck D said. “Being the second person in the narrative gives me a time off.”

The ensemble of anger is rounded out by Chuck D’s Public Enemy crony DJ Lord, guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, as well as Rage bassist Tim Commerford (Rage Against the Machine) and drummer Brad Wilk.

The band wasted no time courting controversy, appearing outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last month. Chuck D minces no words of his political leanings, describing his fellow New Yorker and presidential candidate Donald Trump as “something that cannot happen.”

“You want to be the voice of voiceless and the vibration for the vote,” he said. “For us to not say anything about the ridiculousness of what the RNC was would be a glaring omission.

“It was hot,” he said with a subtle laugh of stirring the pot in Cleveland.

Asked why he and Prophets of Rage were not also playing outside the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where Hillary Clinton was nominated, Chuck D said he and his bandmates had other commitments.

“We had to be there at the RNC — had to be,” the rapper said for added emphasis.

Chuck D, now 56, still performs with the energy of a young man, but he says he must be conscious to take care of himself and his physique. Known to jump up and down on the stage, he tapes his ankles and Achilles tendons to help his onstage locomotion and recovery. A masseuse is typically on call.

In addition to rap and hip-hop, Chuck D has a near-encyclopedic knowledge across all genres of music. In the late ‘90s he was a frequent guest on MTV countdown shows of the greatest music videos/rock albums/etc.

“If you’re going to be in the game, you gotta know about the game and not get so swollen to think it starts from you,” Chuck D said of an artist needing to know about those musicians who came before.

The rapper says he has 30,000 records in his personal collection, which he has organized by genre. When Public Enemy’s first album, “Yo! Bum Rush the Stage” came out in 1987, he added it duly to his library.

“I didn’t too swollen on it,” he describes of the experience of having his own LP. “Whoop dee doo, we got an album. [With] 30,000 other records, how am I going to brag about this one?

“I’m glad I have an album that is in my library, but … it really put me in perspective of don’t swell yourself up.”

Nonetheless, “Yo! Bum Rush the Stage” went gold, and Public Enemy has sold millions of albums since.

“I’m glad that I’m joined by a guy like Tom Morello,” Chuck D says of his Prophets of Rage bandmate and fellow record connoisseur. “I’m glad we got a couple more black people that can talk about music from before our time. Because this is helpful of where [we] want to go” in future recordings.

Even with so many records sold over the course of his career, Chuck D acknowledges that the music industry has irrevocably changed due to the internet and technology. When he first started out, the record companies and retailers were kings, but now, live performance isn’t just the main thing, it’s the only thing.

“If your art is just two-dimensional, people can take it and leave it,” he said. “But if they come in and pay to see you, they have to go home with something. The goal of any performer is that you have to leave the audience better than how they came in.”

Public Enemy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, and Chuck D fought to have the band formally inaugurated by Harry Belafonte, over protests by the Hall and HBO. Chuck D believes the resistance to Mr. Belafonte’s participation was partially racially motivated but also the result of ageism.

“They were adamant about not having some elder introduce us, and I said your erasing of black elders on television is derogatory to my existence,” Chuck D said, again without equivocation. “Getting Harry Belafonte along with Spike Lee to bring us in was the high point. We wanted to use that opportunity to make sure [Mr. Belafonte’s] work was not in vain.”

Chuck D’s father passed away this spring, which he said has galvanized him to work harder to get out what he needs to say.

“You’re unseen and then you’re seen, and then you’re unseen again, so make it all count,” he said of the fleeting nature of fame. “I’m still about … making the genre of rap and hip-hop as legitimate as others. And the neglect from the administration of rap and hip-hop over the last 30 years has been disgraceful,” he said, pointing out that suits and lawyers more often than not made away with the cash rather than the artists themselves.

Of performing in the nation’s capital Friday, Chuck D said it’s an opportunity to speak directly to those who are “so close to the belly of the beast — they can be a part of government instead of just being there.”

Whenever he plays to an audience, be it in the District or elsewhere, Chuck D and Prophets of Rage say they hope their listeners will pay attention.

“Attention is currency out here,” he said.

With such an aggressive show that often requires massages and Advil afterward for the artist, one can’t help but wonder if Chuck D needs to warm up his vocal chords prior to unleashing an invective-laced diatribe against the power on a nightly basis.

“When I get into it, I can yell for a mountain,” he said. “I have a lot of areas that I have to work on, but I can yell loud at anybody, period. So I’m glad I’m in the right century to do that,” he said, again with that trademark chuckle.

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

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