For people of a certain age, the formation of the Prophets of Rage supergroup is a pretty big deal. I am that certain age. After the novelty effort of Run DMC and Aerosmith‘s reworking of “Walk This Way“, it was the collaboration between Public Enemy and Anthrax on “Bring the Noise” that made combining rap and metal a viable and exciting proposition. I vividly remember the first time I heard the track – at school in the very early nineties – and it was the equivalent of an atomic detonation in my imagination. I needed more rap metal, and soon.
Fortunately I didn’t have long to wait. Bands fronted by rappers with a DJ in the corner seemed to be emerging out of every crevice – some of them were even pretty good – but leading the early charge was Rage Against The Machine, whose anthem-packed debut still resonates today, some 25 years on from its release. I couldn’t get enough of it then, and it remains one of my ten favourite albums of all time.
The final piece of this particular nostalgic puzzle came a couple of years later, in the form of Cypress Hill‘s second album Black Sunday, whose bass-heavy odes to getting high made their way into the record collections of kids from all walks of life who wanted to listen to “Hits From The Bong” while taking hits from a bong. At least, that’s what the other boys were doing while I watched. Honest, Mum.
So in all honesty, on paper the prospect of Rage minus Zack joining forces with Chuck D and B-Real and playing selections from the seminal repertoires of all three bands, along with new material, was actually a little bit more exciting than a pure RATM reunion. With the band in Europe for festival season, an extra show at Brixton Academy has been slotted into the schedule, and my excitement is such that I only winced slightly at the £55 ticket price. Ouch. Certainly, one has to wonder whether the high cost of entry, together with the show falling in the immediate aftermath of Download, have contributed to the fact there are still tickets available on the door for the show, despite the touts offering to buy or sell for ‘Pockets of Rage’ on the drag between the tube station and the venue.
Solitary support act Zeal & Ardor are onstage when I arrive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the average age of the crowd is somewhere around forty, and probably comprised of long-standing Rage fans who, like myself, couldn’t quite face the prospect of trekking to Download to see them. There also appears to have been some concerted rummaging in the backs of wardrobes to retrieve greying tour shirts from many moons ago. Zeal & Ardor are perhaps a bit of a leftfield choice for this crowd, so after picking my way past the crowds surrounding the bars, I’m able to walk virtually up to the barrier unimpeded.
In the early nineties, smashing rap and metal together seemed like an improbable marriage. Zeal & Ardor have managed to concoct an even more unlikely soundclash by combining black metal with the soulful spirituals of the American slave chain gangs. I admit that their proposition was tantalising, but my general dislike of the tropes that are usually associated with black metal had stopped me from actually checking them out until now.
Pleasingly, my concerns seem misplaced. With three vocalists, including guitarist/mastermind Manuel Gagneux lined up along the front, the balance seems to tip in favour of the spiritual, rather than the satanic. If Zeal & Ardor is an aural manifestation of the battle between good and evil, then good seems to be just about winning. Which is nice. Full-bore blastbeats and shrieking seem to be relatively minimal, and the interweaving vocals practically dripping with soul, emotion and authenticity.
The sound doesn’t do them many favours, even standing practically in front of the speaker stacks, and an attempt to get the crowd clapping along is met with about 5% participation, but I have had my previous trepidations assuaged, and resolve to finally giving their debut album, Devil Is Fine, the attention it deserves. Whilst much of the crowd is clearly only interested in the main event, Zeal & Ardor have definitely earned a few new fans tonight, myself included.
As Zeal & Ardor leave the stage and the covers are taken off the very familiar backline, I take advantage of the still relatively sparsely populated room to reposition myself into a spot just in front of the sound desk, hoping it will provide the best vantage point to drink in the spectacle. The combination of ticket prices and circumstances mean that I’m flying solo tonight, but that has become significantly less of a chore since the advent of smart phones. So I wait patiently as the room gradually fills.
As it turns out, I don’t have long to wait at all. Prophets and Public Enemy turntablist DJ Lord pops up behind his decks after less than fifteen minutes, and gets the crowd in the mood with twenty minutes of mixing and scratching acrobatics. Snippets of all manner of rock and rap, with a mostly nineties slant, get a brief airing in the process, from Beastie Boys to Slayer to Snoop to Hendrix and culminating in some very tricksy fader manipulation using “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as its base. It’s an impressive display, and a great way to pass the time between sets.
Air raid sirens herald the arrival of the band themselves, and with fists raised across the venue, they launch into their signature tune “Prophets of Rage“. The pair of rappers have a bit of a presentational yin-yang going on, with Chuck dressed all in black and B-Real in white and sporting an oversize arabic headscarf arrangement. The song delivers everything one could hope for from the band – with hallmark performances from all parties. As explosive an opener as it is, the response is dwarfed by that received by “Testify“, which immediately follows.
This sets the tone for the rest of the performance, with over half the songs drawn from the Rage repertoire. The crowd goes suitably bananas, and people are bouncing along as far back as I am standing, which is a rarity, especially for an old crowd on a hot day. Chuck seems to adopt a slightly different flow in his delivery of Zack’s lyrics, which makes singing along a little problematic, especially at pivotal moments, but it’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to hear bona fide classics like “Take The Power Back” and “People of the Sun” performed again.
Through these early tracks, it becomes clear that both rappers, and Chuck in particular, for all the time they’ve spent onstage, have a lot less experience in the stagecraft of a heavier band and so look a bit less comfortable jumping around than Tom Morello’s effortless and seemingly endless array of rock god poses. But, at the same time, Chuck is now into his late fifties, so we can cut the guy a little slack. What’s more, any misgivings are entirely forgotten when the band play “Fight The Power“, and watching Chuck deliver those iconic rhymes in the flesh makes my head tingle.
In amongst the Rage staples we also get the other two original Prophets tracks that have been released to date. “Unfuck The World” is disappointingly lacklustre and the weakest song of the night. It also sees B-Real try, and fail, to coax a double circle-pit out of the crowd. Perhaps he was unaware of how the barriers dividing the crowd would impede that.
When the three Rage members depart the stage to make way for a hip-hop medley, I glance at the time and am amazed to find 40 minutes have already passed. There’s really something in that old adage about time, fun and flying. The medley is comprised of essentially a verse and a chorus from around half a dozen Public Enemy and Cypress Hill tracks, including “Bring The Noise“, “Insane in the Brain” and “Welcome to the Terrordome“. Both rappers feel compelled to come down off the stage and deliver these bars from the barrier. This is clearly a treat for those in yhe front row, but does mean there’s not much for everyone else to actually watch, as the pair remain obscured by a forest of arms and phones. The segment culminates in B-Real second, and rather more successful, attempt at mass crowd participation by inviting everyone to crouch down before DJ Lord spins the instantly recognisable intro to House of Pain’s “Jump Around“, and everyone knows what to do. It’s an old trick, but an effective one.
The full band returns to play “Sleep Now In The Fire“, my least favourite Rage track by some distance, but I’m clearly in the minority. The end of the track segues into a few rounds of the main riff of Audioslave‘s “Cochise“, as an indication of what would follow. The rappers depart, and Tom invites the crowd to pay tribute to the late, great Chris Cornell. The venue erupts in a roar of appreciation that sustains for a full minute. The trio then play “Like A Stone” instrumentally, with the crowd singing as one while two spotlights illuminate a vacant mic. In the middle of a big party, it is an extraordinary and poignant moment.
It is while the band are playing “Know Your Enemy” that a niggling thought that has been lurking in the back of my mind throughout the set finally crystallises. There seems to be a slight difference of opinion on the tempo of the tracks, and this in turn is taking the edge off the band’s natural funkiness. Then they manage to fluff the transition from the solo to the final chorus of “Bullet In The Head“, and it becomes obvious that the band are not quite on top form. Even the inevitable rabble-rousing grand finale of “Killing In The Name” feels sloppy, so maybe tour fatigue is taking the edge off.
But these little niggles just show how high the band had set their standards in the past, and it would be only right to point out that nobody in the room seems to give a righteous shit – myself included. The highs of tonight’s show far outweigh the lows and I think the crowd would have been more than happy for the band to play a whole other 90 minute set on top of what was played. We know that a full Prophets of Rage album will see the light of day before the end of the year, but it’s fairly obvious that it’s the collective back catalogue of the members that will keep people buying tickets, even if it will be an expensive night out.
As the crowd slowly and sweatily shuffles out into the Brixton night, I am content. Despite that high ticket price and a few noticeably shaky moments dotted through the set, I feel I’ve had my money’s worth. Prophets of Rage is a new chapter in three iconic legacies, and does all of them justice. I think I’d like to have seen more Public Enemy and Cypress Hill tracks given the full Rage treatment than the two on offer tonight (“How I Could Just Kill A Man” being the obvious Cypress Hill selection), but maybe that will happen in the future. And while a full Rage reunion is apparently not going to happen any time soon, Prophets of Rage is a lot more than just a wooden spoon consolation prize. Trips down memory lane are rarely this much of a party.