“I’m in heavy metal!”
Carlton Douglas Ridenhour – better known to the world as Chuck D – is reporting in from a record shop, where his recently-formed supergroup Prophets of Rage are set to do an in-store appearance in support of their self-titled debut album. At least, that’s what we initially think – rather than referring to the section of the store he’s in, Chuck is instead explaining that he is on the way to the record store. “Y’all don’t have that term over there?” he asks. “If you’re in heavy metal, it means you’re in traffic.” He laughs to himself as he edges closer and closer to his destination: “Guess you learned something new, huh.”
There’s always new things to learn when Chuck D is on the mic. After all, the man is famous for his reticence to mince words: best known for his three-decades-plus time at the helm of Public Enemy, the 57-year-old has seen a lot come and go over the years. This also means he knows true talent when he sees it – which was certainly the case when he originally came across Rage Against the Machine in the early ’90s, eventually plucking them as a support act for a Public Enemy tour. “I remember picking up one of their demo tapes, just before they got signed to Epic,” he recalls.
“It was all blank, except for a match – and that really stood out to me. They had me interested. When we did those shows with them, I remember how the sound really struck me. Everything was prominent – the bass-playing, the guitar. No-one had really seen hip-hop getting down with metal quite like what they were doing, and of course that’s something that we were into.”
I never wanted [Prophets Of Rage] to be a temporary thing – I wanted this to be a contemporary thing.
Around the same time, Chuck became aware of an up-and-coming west coast group by the name of Cypress Hill. “They were under Sony, over on Rough House Records,” he says. “We were fortunate enough to get to use one of their songs in the score of the movie Juice – that was Hank Shocklee and Gary G-Wiz responsible for that. I was always amazed at their ability to control the tempo of a rap concert.”
He thinks for a moment. “I really got to enjoy that dynamic up close when Public Enemy got to tour with them in 1998 – the Smoke & Grooves tour. We were always on the up-tempo, trying to get everything to move faster. They mastered the down-tempo. They were kind of like the opposite of us in so many ways, and I think that’s why we worked so well together.”
The planets aligned for the sake of this particular Venn diagram in 2016, when Prophets of Rage was formed – its name both alluding to the Rage Against the Machine affiliation of one half of the band, as well as a Public Enemy song from their seminal 1988 LP It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. After debuting with a guerilla performance at the Republican National Convention in January last year, the band – D, Cypress Hill’s B-Real, Public Enemy’s DJ Lord and Rage Against the Machine’s Brad Wilk, Tim Commerford and Tom Morello – hit the ground running.
Their lauded live shows featured a mix of classics from across their respective back catalogues, with a handful of new original songs peppered in. This would eventually lead to the sextet gaining enough momentum to be able to write a whole album together – something Chuck always envisioned.
“It was the first thing that came to mind for me when we got together,” he says. “When Tom asked to do this, it wasn’t just about doing all our old songs together. It was about seeing what chemistry we had when we all got together and played music – to see if we could make something that went beyond. I never wanted it to be a temporary thing – I wanted this to be a contemporary thing.”
With Prophets of Rage out in the world, the supergroup continues to tour extensively. Thankfully for all of us Down Under, their round the world jaunt will eventually lead the band to Australia for their first-ever tour under the Prophets of Rage moniker as a part of the huge Download Festival in Melbourne.
That said, although it’s the first Prophets tour, all six members have visited our fair land in some capacity over the years – it will mark Commerford’s first Australian visit in a decade, while Morello and Wilk have both been here in recent years with Bruce Springsteen and the Smashing Pumpkins, respectively. For Chuck, it was always a matter of when – not if – regarding Prophets of Rage coming to Australia.
When Tom asked to do this, it wasn’t just about doing all our old songs together.
“Here’s the thing: we played to 2.5 million people before we even put a record out,” he says. “We got to travel and tour through three separate continents. All of that time, we were talking about getting down to Australia. It’s one of Public Enemy’s best spots, Cypress Hill always say their best crowds are there and the guys from Rage have always loved coming down there. I can’t wait until we’re all down there.”
As he finally arrives at his destination, Chuck implores Australian fans to come and see Prophets of Rage for themselves – there’s no other way to do it. “What we’re doing can’t be conveyed through YouTube,” he says. “It can’t really be compared to just listening to the record, either. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever done.”
Prophets Of Rage play Download Festival, hitting Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne on Saturday March 24. For more RATM/Prophets Of Rage content, take our music quiz, available here.