'You remember 'The Shawshank Redemption'?" The outspoken rapper, author, and media commentator Chuck D poses the question during a telephone interview. The frontman of Public Enemy since its inception in 1982 is currently touring with a new band, Prophets of Rage, which announced its arrival in part with two days of guerrilla performances around the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Days after the Democratic National Convention has ended, he's trying to summarize his feelings about this year's electoral cycle.
"You're Andy Dufresne and you're in that pipe, crawling to your freedom," Chuck says. "You've got vermin and [expletive] snakes and excrement. When you're in the pipe, you could die there; you've got to keep crawling forward. And your freedom will be questioned even if you get through it. That's where we're at right now — we're Andy Dufresne in that [expletive] pipe."
The new band, named after a song on the 1988 Public Enemy breakthrough LP "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," finds Chuck and current P.E. turntablist DJ Lord mixing it up with Cypress Hill rapper B-Real and the instrumental core of '90s activist metal band Rage Against the Machine: guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk. Speaking in advance of a show at Xfinity Center Aug. 21 and a new EP, "The Party's Over," due Aug. 26, Chuck talked about the rap-rock supergroup's origin and motivations.
Q. Prophets of Rage took a stand against the RNC and its message in Cleveland. Did you see anything during the DNC that gave you hope?
A. Well, yeah: the hope that it's the only thing that you can say against the monstrosity. Cleveland was that high-school pep rally where they throw bananas on the floor because you're a black player at the game. [laughs] You're in Boston; you know they did that with Patrick Ewing. The Democratic thing was more like the high-school prom, where they're all pretentious — kind of like everyone's at their own tables, and they're nice, but they ain't dance with you.
Q. In a more practical sense, how did all the pieces come together to form this band?
A. Organically. It had to happen organically. Tom asked me; it was like, "OK." Nobody's actually going to go and say this will be the second edition of Rage Against the Machine. Nobody's going to take [vocalist] Zack [de la Rocha]'s place, and we all already had our groups, anyway. But it started to make a little bit more sense when we were toying around with it. I brought DJ Lord, one of the greatest turntablists on the planet, into the fold — OK, that's a little different. But it really blossomed after B-Real accepted. Then it was like, ding! It made all the sense for me to do it. B-Real, frontman for one of the greatest hip-hop acts of all time, has a whole different demographic and dynamic worldwide; I can play No. 2 M.C. to his No. 1, a position I've never been in before, and be the No. 2 spokesperson to Tom Morello's No. 1. B-Real has a command, a presence, that is different from mine. DJ Lord's one of the greatest turntablists in the world, who's raising his profile. And the players: Timmy Commerford is one of the greatest bassists of rock & roll, and Brad Wilk on the drums is self-explanatory. When that rhythm section comes together, it's this aligning of the planets that really can't be put together in the boardroom, can't be contrived. We get a chance to Rage-ify Public Enemy and Cypress Hill songs, we do some original things, and then Rage Against the Machine songs never die. They speak to a time that's future as much as present and past.
Q. And Morello certainly brings something original: He's a brilliant hard-rock/heavy-metal guitarist, but also one of the first rock guitarists to sound like he grew up listening to Terminator X and the Bomb Squad on Public Enemy records.
A. Yeah, he's said that. And then you hear Timmy C. sounding like [Motown bassist James] Jamerson in many ways, and then Brad is not only a metronome but he hits like [Led Zeppelin drummer] Bonham. There's a reason that Rage Against the Machine as a rhythm section is unparalleled, because they did their own thing, and they did their own thing so well. And then you've got a 20-something-year-old Zack de la Rocha, who sounds like somebody's turning a knife in him… Our whole thing, me and B-Real, we said, you ain't gonna repeat a 20-something-year-old where somebody's turning a knife in you. So you've got to grab qualities, look at the words from different vantage points to make them even more powerful, and grab aspects of that. It's not Rage Against the Machine, it's not Public Enemy, it's not Cypress Hill; it's Prophets of Rage, and its identity is forming right before our ears.
Q. Even looking at sketchy cell-phone video on YouTube, it's amazing how much chemistry you've had from the start. Have the shows been more or less what you expected?
A. I have the best seat in the house, man. I'm actually in the middle of these songs, and I'm like, wow. I'm totally turned up, so I know somebody watching us is going to be.
Q. Throughout your career, you've walked a fine line between educating people and entertaining people. Fans are psyched to see these shows going down, but can you sense whether they're engaging with the social and political messages you're trying to get across? Is it too early to know?
A. It's never too early, not with social media. It's cumulative; it's growing bit by bit, and that's how it should be, organically. And then also there's a push and pull with it; you get somebody who might be turned off by the politics of it all. But we don't control the politics; we're just pointing to a system that's broken and saying, Look, you might not look at us as being somebody speaking to you, but you're 28 years old, you've got two kids, and you're trying to figure out where the [expletive] you live — you've got to listen to somebody. And it shouldn't just be music; you'd better find out who's running the school board in your district, what's the policing like in the county where you live. You ain't a kid no more. Welcome to life.
Q. You've unveiled one entirely new song, "The Party's Over." Can you predict whether there's more to come?
A. There's more to come, but I think in the time and space that we're at, this is not like Rage Against the Machine signing up with Epic Records in '91, or Cypress Hill with Ruffhouse in '91, or Public Enemy with Def Jam. The songs have got to be organically released when they're felt. I don't think there's this "OK, let's stack this up, here's 11 cuts and this is our album to represent the year." An album for this particular act should be like a life in progress. So if we decide to make three original songs at the end of October, it's more befitting the time than saying [affecting pitch-man hype] "Look out, because on November 25 we're coming with the Prophets of Rage album." That's last century-ish. People don't work that way. When the idea comes, and the rhythm comes, and the rhyme comes with it, then we release.
PROPHETS OF RAGE
With AWOLNATION. At Xfinity Center, Mansfield, Aug. 21 at 7 p.m. Tickets: $20-$69.50. 800-745-3000, www.livenation.com
Interview was condensed and edited. Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.