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Old Rage, New Machines

The rap-rock supergroup Prophets of Rage hits Cleveland, where there’s plenty of power left to fight

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​ The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

What better way, really, to learn that Donald Trump had finally, officially been named the Republican presidential nominee than from the lips of Chuck D, announcing the grim news while standing nonetheless triumphant onstage at Cleveland’s Agora Theatre on Tuesday night, exactly 2 miles from the Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena. (Also great: the incredulous contempt with which Chuck D said the words “Quicken Loans Arena.”) And with that, three-quarters of Rage Against the Machine launched into “Guerrilla Radio,” aggressively preaching to a sold-out cargo-pants choir, who screamed along to the song’s whispered climax:

And then, a violent, raucous group chant of All! Hell! Can’t stop us now! It was a genuinely thrilling moment, but as always with this band, and now more than ever, an uncomfortable question loomed: Are you sure about that?

Meet Prophets of Rage, a spectacularly aggro supergroup featuring RATM guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk, with the vocals of absent frontman Zack de la Rocha taken up by Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Cypress Hill’s B-Real. Their Make America Rage Again tour hits arenas and amphitheaters coast to coast starting next month, but they made a special trip to Cleveland for the RNC. On Monday afternoon they played an End Poverty Now: March for Economic Justice rally (marking the 50th anniversary of Cleveland’s racially charged Hough Riots), and threw another impromptu Public Square be-in a few hours later. Tuesday night’s Agora gig was the band’s local protest-tour crown jewel, both electrifying and politically surreal.

The surreal part started outside the venue, where kind folks from the Revolutionary Communist Party handed out fliers and gave impromptu speeches to ticket holders waiting in the security lines. “You can’t just hum along to the lyrics of Rage Against the Machine — you gotta live it, man,” one older gentleman told us, adding that the higher-ups in both political parties were fascists and war criminals — “none of this ‘lesser of two evils’ bullshit” — and that an American-flag burning was scheduled for the following afternoon. “You believe what he’s saying?” a dude behind me asked his friend. “He’s a fuckin’ idiot,” the friend replied. Agora security made people throw away the fliers before coming inside.

Rob Harvilla
Rob Harvilla

I had high hopes for the T-shirt-slogan game at this show, and it did not disappoint: “Sodomize Intolerance,” “Nazi Trumps Fuck Off,” “Taxes Are Stealing,” “Fuck Sleeves,” “[Photo of Lana Del Rey],” etc. This made for a fine distraction until the house lights went down; the band opened with “Prophets of Rage,” a new Public Enemy–remixing single that indeed sounds exactly like Chuck D and B-Real fronting Rage Against the Machine. It’s not great, but it’s certainly familiar, and that’ll suffice.

No one has ever hummed along to an RATM song, but half the fun of the rap-metal monolith’s ’90s heyday was grappling with their elbow-throwing leftist politics and how much those politics mattered, or didn’t. Paul Ryan, an infamous (and band-disavowed) superfan, certainly had his own interpretation; it’s a trip now to revisit (Bill) Clinton-era jams like 1992’s “Know Your Enemy” and try to hear it the way a young Republican might’ve, try to imagine the enemy he imagined. Though, of course, not everyone took this stuff so seriously. (Disclosure: I saw Rage Against the Machine perform in nearby Akron in 1996, and my buddies and I got so fired up that afterward we drove around our suburban neighborhood looking for trouble, which is how I soon found myself attempting to toilet-paper a street-corner mailbox, which, as you might be aware, has a basic shape that is not particularly conducive to being toilet-papered.)

All of which is to say that hearing “Take the Power Back” live in 2016 is a jarring experience. Take what power, and from whom? Has that equation changed in the intervening 25 years?

Does the fact that Bernie Sanders basically finished third in this year’s presidential election suggest that this band’s sociocultural influence has grown more profound? Does the fact that Donald Trump will finish either first or second suggest the opposite? You can grapple with such matters all day, or you can just luxuriate in the elegantly lunkheaded bombast of “Take the Power Back” itself, one of a dozen or so golden-oldie scream-alongs that served to remind the crowd that RATM had some jams. “Testify” and “Bullet in the Head” still ring out regardless of which amendment is your favorite. (Though the “Testify” video, which applies the “none of this ‘lesser of two evils’ bullshit” principle to the Bush-Gore election, hasn’t aged so well.)

Several mosh pits ensued; for several songs, a dude in front of me was FaceTiming with a baby.

Rob Harvilla
Rob Harvilla

This supergroup is decidedly tilted Rage-ward — a few Public Enemy and Cypress Hill songs made the set list — including “Miuzi Weighs a Ton” and “(Rock) Superstar,” respectively — but Chuck and B-Real mostly dispensed with their other groups’ hits in a quick DJ-driven medley halfway through the show. Thankfully, both make for fine ersatz RATM frontmen. Chuck bulldozed through his verses with no particular regard for human life or the niceties of meter, while B-Real was a bit more nimble and diabolical, tweaking the verse to “Killing in the Name” ever so slightly: Some of those up in Congress / Are the same that burn crosses.

As the 1990s’ most flamboyant and least likely guitar hero, Morello could be a lot to deal with, channeling Led Zeppelin one second and a malfunctioning fax machine the next. (His solo on “Sleep Now in the Fire” is patently absurd.) But that sort of silliness can be transcendent in person; you wouldn’t think a Public Enemy cut like “Shut ’Em Down” needed a lot of extraneous wheedling, but for a dude who clearly always regarded himself as a one-man Bomb Squad, Morello is more at home in this context than ever. It was a nice little jolt of nostalgia just to see his old guitar with “Arm the Homeless” scrawled on it. (Disclosure: I suggested the name “Arm the Homeless” for my apolitical post-high-school pop-rock band during a band meeting at Denny’s. Nobody else liked it.)

Rob Harvilla
Rob Harvilla

Two notable, topical pieces of stage banter: Early on, Chuck noted all the flags he’d been seeing at half-mast lately, and suggested that Cleveland’s flags should’ve been at half-mast after the fatal police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. That probably deserved more applause than it got. And Morello gave a brief speech toward the end that started out rough — the first words out of his mouth were “Hello, Cleveland!” — but got both better and weirder. He announced that all of the show’s proceeds would go to a local charity (better applause). And then he pointed out that the notably pro-waterboarding Senator Mitch McConnell was onstage at the RNC that night, which reminded Morello that his band’s music has been used to torture prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, and this show was designed to serve as his revenge. (He’d used that line the day before, too.)

And soon thereafter came “Killing in the Name,” and we all screamed Fuck you, I won’t do what ya tell me! a whole lot.

There was the question, as always, of who could hear us and who could not. As history has shown, even those who hear it don’t always get the point. (Plus, even the most defiant among us still end up doing what-ya-tell-me at least 40 percent of the time.) But the Prophets of Rage were in Cleveland, whereas most other rock bands (save Third Eye Blind, who did a benefit show and took another approach) decidedly were not. Good for them, and good for us. If there was an echo-chamber aspect here, a sense of screaming into the void, it’s worth noting that screaming into the void can be fun when 1,800 people are doing it right alongside you. That’s what politics is all about. So what better place than here? What better time than now?