words & photography | MATT STEFFEN
Reboots and reunions, the dreaded swan song of a musician’s career. Middle America’s casinos are littered with the plug-and-play lineups of bands gone by. Well past their prime and decades from having written or recorded anything relevant to today’s musical tastes, the motivation quickly becomes clear: a last-gasp cash grab. When Rage Against the Machine announced such a venture under the new moniker Prophets of Rage, without the inclusion of the dominant, unequivocal front man Zack de la Rocha, it wasn’t looking good.
For the unfamiliar, Rage Against the Machine burst onto the scene with a self-titled album in 1992. To say burst is to put it mildly. They walked into the room and blew the roof off. They brought something new, a super high-energy sound held down by a minimally stated but driving rhythm section, sent into the stratosphere by a very inventive Tom Morello on guitar. Then there were the vocals, the high-tone snarl smacking you with political banter that had everyone bobbing their head and every young man in the room wondering where to shake their clenched fists.
The next eight years saw three more albums followed by a sudden exit. De la Rocha departed to pursue his political activism. His bandmates continued to play in groups with varying critical acclaim, both as a team and separate. But when your résumé is anchored by such great success, it’s the benchmark you’ll always have to live up to.
As the old adage goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” To say that political divisiveness, social tensions, and racial injustices have improved during their sixteen-year hiatus would be dishonest. The air primed for the voice of dissent, enter the Prophets of Rage. But just who will be the voice of that voice? This is where the majority of reboots go off the rails. Find someone too similar, and you’re pandering to the crowd with an expensive ticket to watch karaoke, too disparate and you’re messing with the formula. Better to start from scratch. Who could match Zach de la Rocha’s power and back it with authoritative knowledge? Rage Against the Machine announced they’d be touring with the man that carved out that spot ten years before they’d even formed: Chuck D—legendary front man of the pioneering hip–hop group Public Enemy. It was a brilliant move, not a copycat and not a pushover. Chuck D is the founding father showing us how to age with grace while keeping your edge.
The Riverbend Music Center stage, decorated in sharp black, white, red, and gold like a Shepard Fairey mural, could hardly contain them. Tim Commerford, bouncing like a pogo stick, stayed close and locked in with drummer Brad Wilk. Morello was all over the place, jumping, posing for the photographers, and screaming into the crowd in his “Make America Rage Again” ball cap. B-Real, of Cypress Hill fame, added the hype-man accents while Chuck D brought his trademarked, bass-heavy, punching vocals. They sounded at home playing the songs of a former lineup without feeling like a convincing cover band, riling up an enthusiastic Cincinnati crowd, the lone misstep being a mid-set medley of hip–hop classics from the vocalists’ former groups, performed from the pit in front of the stage. A verse or two from Can’t Truss It, Insane in the Brain, and Welcome to the Terrordome, even sprinkling in a little House of Pain classic Jump Around felt a little forced and out of place. It started to wade into those crowd-pandering waters I feared most and broke the solidarity of the rest of the set, exposing the biggest difference between the two Rage lineups. The younger crew was a hungry, cohesive unit that sliced through the music world, the elder version an A-list lineup proving their individual worth and place in history.
Ultimately, the show was super entertaining, still relevant in today’s political landscape, and when not taking ourselves so seriously, a lot of fun. The Prophets of Rage have stuck to their guns and stayed true to themselves and their cause. It was noted that a portion of ticket sales were donated to local charity the Freestore Foodbank. Between songs, Morello encouraged us to follow our vision and create the world that we want, and to do so without apologies. It is a notion he recently recounted about a chance meeting with a boxing legend in his youth. “I was attracted to Muhammad Ali by how he used his vocation to inflict his worldview on the public, and it was unapologetic….He was a person who said, ‘You might not like my religion, but it’s my religion. You might not like the color of my skin, or my opinions, but I am just as American as you are.’” A suitable framing of our time and place—we don’t have to agree, but we can respect the differences and be a little more civil.