The iconic musicians discuss their revolutionary group Prophets of Rage.
Rapper Chuck D and Guitarist Tom Morello Part 2 of 2
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, part two of our conversation with musicians and activists, Chuck D and Tom Morello. They are members of the revolutionary group, Prophets of Rage, and are out now with their anticipated self-titled debut album.
We’re glad that you’ve joined us. Chuck D and Tom Morello coming up in just a moment.
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Tavis: So pleased to have Chuck D and Tom Morello back for more of our conversation. If you missed last night’s discussion, go to our website, pbs.org/tavissmiley and you can see what they had to say last night. It’s a powerful start to this conversation last night…
Chuck D: Like Ernie Banks, let’s play two.
Tavis: I like that. Speaking of Ernie Banks with your Cubs baseball cap on. Mr. Cub, let’s play two.
Tom Morello: That’s right.
Tavis: So, again, go to pbs.org/tavissmiley if you missed our conversation from last night. Their new project is called “Prophets of Rage” out now on vinyl and on CD, a powerful, powerful work. But what would you expect from these two guys and their compatriots when they come together.
You said something last night, Tom, I want to come back to. I’ve made the distinction any number of times in public addresses, the distinction between justice and charity. We get those two things confused. Charity is not justice, but last night, you made a powerful distinction between justice and unity. And I’m not sure in America that those two things are possible simultaneously. Are they mutually exclusive?
Morello: I’m not sure. The one thing that you cannot give an inch on is justice. We may have to sacrifice unity. If you have unity with injustice, what is that unity worth?
You know, in light of the injustice in the criminal justice system, in light of some of the recent comments by the president, people are having — it’s torn the scab off of the issue of race in America. You know, it’s my contention that racism is in the DNA of this country and it’s just as American as baseball or apple pie or rap music [laugh].
Tavis: He says, sitting next to Chuck D, yeah, yeah [laugh].
Morello: And this is an opportunity not just to have a dialog, but to confront head on the issues that have been simmering under the surface for so long.
Tavis: If you believe it’s in our DNA, taken to its logical conclusion, I can’t change my DNA.
Morello: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: I can change many things about me. I can change my character. I can change my attitude. I can change my clothes, change my hairstyle. Can’t change my DNA, so what are you saying to me?
Morello: Well, what I’m saying is that it’s time to take a real hard look. For example, when athletes take a knee or when people protest the national anthem, it can mean different things to different people. Like the national anthem, to some, is like an article of religious faith. There’s an unquestionable thing that’s patriotic and represents freedom and the bounty and wealth and power of this nation.
Tavis: Even though it doesn’t.
Morello: Even though — well, in some peoples’ mind, that is an article of faith. For other people, it represents like an unfulfilled promise. It is a promise of America that is as yet unfulfilled and it’s something we continue to work on.
To others, it’s a symbol of oppression. It’s a flag that flew over lynchings. It’s a flag that flew over slavery. It’s a flag that flew over, you know, eliminating the Native American population and immoral crimes in wars around the world. So it’s like this is an opportunity for the country to look itself in the eye and go, who are we? What parts of us do we want to keep and what parts do we want to lose?
Tavis: You mentioned this briefly last night, Chuck, and I want to come back to this now. Let me just ask you expressly what did you make — what was your read on the way that the NFL players, the NBA players, Golden State, LeBron, all of them, what was your read on the way they responded to what the president had to say?
Chuck D: Immediately, you saw this festering and building up. I think it was said some years ago that, if the top ball players don’t speak up, it makes it very hard for somebody that’s looking over their shoulder for a job. When a LeBron James speaks, then the league has no other choice but to figure out how they work with that. How do they even look into it, knowing that he speaks for many and he ain’t going nowhere.
In the past, when they had players that were sort of on the fringe or marginal, which also speaks for a lot of NFL players who have shorter careers, they have shorter money, they’re not easily identifiable, a lot of them might have wanted to say something, but they couldn’t because a football team is really the closest thing to sports plantationology.
Morello: But one did. Colin Kaepernick. And paid the price.
Chuck D: Right. He was somebody who actually took a team to the Super Bowl. He had a little bit of a profile or whatever. They saw how much he suffered. So it took other athletes in other sports to speak up, and when the basketball players started speaking up. And major league baseball has a way to go too to understand where they are. But the NBA in the United States as far as Black athletes is probably in the highest profile.
So when the big players, they speak up, then others will follow and that helped out. So, yeah, what the president — he’s a whipping of mass distraction, but it forces people to pay attention to the reality of what’s going on. That this guy — you know, firmly I believe that he’s not gonna last the whole tenure of his presidency.
Tavis: You don’t believe that?
Chuck D: No, I don’t believe that at all.
Tavis: Let me follow up on that. Will he implode or will he explode? That is to say, will he bring himself down or is it gonna be the police that brought him down?
Chuck D: It could be all of the above.
Tavis: All the above?
Chuck D: But he won’t, and I just think that it’s really more of a reason to pay attention to how this system works, what’s happening with who is a Sessions? Who is a Pence? Where did he come from? Why all these decisions being made while they’re being distracted by the clownery that might come out of Donald Trump?
Out of Donald Trump, it’s like, okay, whether you like him or not, it is irrelevant. This dude shouldn’t be the President of the United States. And when you have athletes say, hey, stay in your lane, this shouldn’t be your lane. That’s something that the average person could understand.
Tavis: So if you don’t think that Trump is gonna make it out of this first term, we opened up last night’s show…
Chuck D: Not at this rate. It’s an avalanche, dude.
Tavis: Okay [laugh].
Chuck D: It’s an avalanche.
Tavis: I hear you. We opened up this show last night playing your video that initially was barred from YouTube, called “Hail to the Chief”. Mike Pence, former Governor of Indiana, my home state, is featured prominently in that video. So if Trump don’t last the first term, Tom, we go to Mike Pence.
Morello: I think they all got to go. I mean, as far as — it’s really time for the kind of mass action that disposes with this whole horrible regime. The people that own and run and control the country don’t deserve to and Trump is symptomatic of a greater disease, in my opinion.
And my hope is, like said last night, is that this administration brings into existence a movement that doesn’t just get rid of them, but that reshapes the country. Like this album is our audition to be the soundtrack for that resistance.
Tavis: What is that disease that America’s inflicted with?
Morello: Well, I mean, it’s a combination of economic inequality and racial injustice which is really at the core. And it’s something that people want to have — there’s this myth that it’s one America, that we all are just high-fiving each other at the Super Bowl. That’s just not true.
My experience with being pulled over by cops may be different from some people in our audience has experience. And they cannot relate to the America that I’ve seen through my eyes.
You know, one of the things we try to do on this record, one is, we try to rock the hell out of you with deep rhymes and with big riffs and with searing guitar solos. But the message that’s contained within it is one that is incendiary that’s built for these times.
Chuck D: Yeah, and also growing isolationism is not good for any nation in this world to go forward. This is one planet. There’s no such thing as “over there” unless you’re talking about another planet.
You know, this growing, well, this is ourselves and anything that we do won’t affect the rest of the world and we don’t care what happens in the rest of the world, that does not fit the 21st century, in my opinion.
If people are connected to the worldwide web, why would they be limited to be chained to one place in one state of mind? So I think these things have to change as far as the future of human being.
Tavis: Tom was talking a moment ago, Chuck D, about the music, the guitar solos, the lyrics, etc. Let me talk specifically now to you about the lyrics. The music, the groove, the beat, you know, the guitar solos will get you and you want to hear that. Talk to me specifically about the lyrics. Some of these titles I can’t repeat on PBS, some of the titles of some of these songs, but…
Morello: Maybe only one [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I see two [laugh].
Morello: Okay, all right. Fair enough.
Chuck D: This is an organic coming together of six individuals. Yes, myself and I call him the shaman, the great B-Real of Cypress Hill. Yes, we do form and go forward to do with the lyrics, but it’s formed out of understanding in the chemistry that came together, us being together.
We understand the catalog and the legacies of what we do with Public Enemy and Cypress Hill and Rage Against the Machine. You’re talking about the great works of Zack de La Rocha and you’re talking about Professor Griff. You’re talking about Sen Dog from Cypress Hill, Flava, you know.
But in this, we all got together, looked at each other and said, you know, well, this is what you call a group of six talented revolutionary musicians where the music is the narrative and the lyrics will ride into that. And if people kind of know what you’re about, then they could kind of understand and get their head. If they don’t, something’s got to pull them. That usually is a performance.
And we played in front of 2.5 million people since last year before our first record came out. So the ability to have words not dominate the narrative, but come out and ride great music and great performances on the blueprint of what Tom first asked us to do, and we’re all the better for it.
Tavis: Chuck just gave a list of musical luminaries, quite frankly, Tom. It occurs to me this is my first time, I think, seeing you face to face since Chris Cornell left us.
Tavis: You want to say a word about that?
Morello: Sure. It’s a tragedy. He was a great friend and an incredible talent, one of the greatest rock and roll singers of all time and the greatest singer of his generation. It’s a horrible shame and, in our shows, we do a tribute to him where we play an audio slave song, “Like a Stone”, and we let the crowd sing it back as sort of a public mourning and celebration of his greatness and our love for him.
Tavis: None of us are getting younger and we’re all living lives, we’re all leaving legacies. I can only speak for myself. Whenever I lose someone close to me like that, it causes me to just pause and take stock of what I’m doing with my life and the kind of legacy that I’m leaving. What do you hope you’re doing with yours?
Morello: Well, for me, it’s simple. You know, it’s guns blazing to fight for a better, more decent world. And if we don’t win, to go down swinging.
Chuck D: Never hesitate, and time and the present is such a gift that you build and plant for the future. You know, on the other side of a certain age whether it’s 45 or 50, you realize that this world less and less belongs to you. And collectively, you could come together and do something for the spirit to understand that the 40 and 50 years belong to somebody in their teens and their twenties, you know, yet to be born, in their thirties.
And this is why the knock at this administration is so sincere with us because if you got a president in his seventies and they’re making decisions as an administration on the next 40 to 50 years, they don’t give a damn about somebody who’s trying to figure themselves out at 14.
Climate, the environment, economics, the education, you know, where do they sit in the world in 2035? How does it look? One in charge of anything, any country, any government has to also keep 2040, 2035, 2050 in mind, and we don’t see that.
Tavis: Because the way the studio is set up, you can’t see her, but over to my left shoulder off in the distance over here watching this conversation take place is Tom Morello’s 94-year-old mother who I finally had the honor to meet before we started this program tonight.
We’re all the sum total of our life experiences. I’m sure I speak for y’all. Every one of us wants to make our mama proud. I know I do.
Morello: Sure [laugh].
Tavis: I try to every day make my mama proud. Tell me about your mother and what it is that you got from her that made you the Tom Morello that you are.
Morello: Sure. Well, to this day, I remain — she’s the most radical and popular member of the Morello family [laugh]. There’s no doubt about that.
Tavis: At 94, yeah [laugh].
Morello: She will occasionally introduce the band with a spirited and sailor-like flavorful introduction [laugh]. Most of the revolutionary bones in my body come directly from Mary Morello’s DNA. You know, she was also the one that allowed — as a kid, my loud, noisy punk rock band could practice in her basement.
You know, I had an Ivy League degree and I said I’m gonna go live in a squat in Hollywood and play rock and roll. She was like, “Great. See you at Christmas.” [laugh] So I really do owe everything to her in that regard.
Yeah, it’s not just me trying to make Mom proud. It’s trying to keep up with her. Let me tell you, at 94, she’ll be home after this. She may write a letter to the editor or a letter to you, depending on your performance of tonight’s show [laugh].
Tavis: I better behave myself then, yeah, yeah, yeah. It raises the question, Chuck, for me particularly in the Black experience as to whether or not we are our grandparents, our great parent’s generation. What I’m getting at here is that, when you think about King and the movement, these were kids.
They were in their 20s when they were raging against the machine. They were in their 20s. What’s your assessment of who we are and this millennial generation? Are we as good as our ancestors?
Chuck D: I think there’s an insecurity by the older people the past 30 years that don’t want to look at younger adults — notice I didn’t say “youth” — younger adults in the areas of leadership. I think we have entered the last two or three generations that are a little bit more selfish, a little bit more kind of self-centered.
And you have to let go at a certain point, but you also have to teach. But if the teaching is scattered and the opinions are scattered and, once again, you’re isolated from a world philosophy and opinion, you’re gonna have these fragments that keep youth kind of disillusioned and puzzled. There’s a different 27 now than when I was 27.
We have to fight against that. We have to encourage young people that, yes, you do have a lane. And when I see your lane, I’ll stay in my lane. This intermixing of the ages and the inner hate that might come from generations through these gadgets of social media, we have to step back a little bit from that and encourage young nations that they could lead.
That’s probably the biggest difference. In the 60s, you know, Dr. King, they had the same philosophy that Tom built is bad. The world ain’t gonna fix itself. You gotta make things happen. And I think younger adults and young people are starting to realize that. It ain’t gonna fix itself. We’re gonna have to do it.
Morello: Look at Black Lives Matter. You know, you’re from the Occupy movement, to Black Lives Matter, to the Anti-Fascist movement that’s willing to stand in the streets and punch the Ku Klux Klan in the face. There are a lot of young people now who, we’re inspired by our ancestors, I’m inspired by those people.
And our music is part of this movement in this time now. And while Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill have political legacies, like this is the crucible that we’re in right now and a lot of young people are responding to the moment. And our music hopes to reflect those struggles and fan the flames.
Tavis: I think what scares me — maybe scares is too strong a word — what concerns me is, while I do not believe, clearly do not believe, that politics is the end all-be all, everything is not a political decision or decided by politics, as you mentioned a moment ago, you said some great examples of people who are in the streets, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, etc., etc.
But so many young people were engaged by the political process in the Obama era and some were disillusioned after eight years of that. So many more young people were engaged because of Bernie Sanders.
The oldest guy in the race had more young adult votes than Hillary and Trump combined and that didn’t end so well for them. I wonder whether or not, because this is a marathon and not a sprint, whether or not they have fatigue.
Chuck D: Well, this is why collectives count. This is why we are a group. There’s been a movement in music to say, well, we’re gonna focus on the individual, the star, the one person. As a group, as a collective, you could beat off a lot of that fatigue because you share the duty against whatever is aggressively said against you.
I mean, I feel in this group there’s a lot of time Tom takes the lead. I love playing support. I love playing the support, back up mic to B-Real as the emcee. It makes me stronger. Iron sharpens iron. I feel in order for us to have a message of telling people to come together, well, hell, we come from three groups and we’re a super group. We are together. That’s how you can make your change. That’s my personal opinion.
Tavis: Based on what you see in the streets as you tour around the country, are you hopeful?
Morello: Yeah, I’m very hopeful. Two things are constant that there are gonna be challenges, there’s gonna be disappointments, there’s gonna be injustice. But you know what else is constant? Resistance to that injustice.
You know, we are from the civil rights movement to now. Donald Trump didn’t invent racism and injustice, you know. And it predated him and it will postdate him. And our work is like generation after generation, it’s just trying to unscrew the cap, you know?
And everybody gets another turn around and, during our time here, we may not reach that promised land, but we’re gonna fight as hard as we can really for the kind of world that we want to see, not just like against global warming and against racism, but like a world where there is a true freedom and equality and justice.
Not just here in the United States, but where every kid gets an education and a chance, where you don’t have to be afraid about being blown up by a drone in the Middle East or be killed by a cop here in the United States. Let’s aim for what we really want and fight for that.
Tavis: How do you sustain your hope, Chuck?
Chuck D: Well, number one, you have to spray the stench. Racism, fascism, they linger around. But older people move on and transition. Younger people are born and they come in. To eliminate the stench and try to fight against that stench is very key. That’s what we claim to be as a group.
You know, you have people that came along and checked out us and they were fans of what we’ve done who might have not been fanatical about any of the three groups that made this group. And that’s different and it’s new. It’s been a revelation. So you got to fight against these things.
Look at the 20-year-old in Charlottesville. Where did he get that from? But he ended up doing the same thing that somebody would have preceded him maybe 75 years earlier in that same state. So we have to work hard. It’s a nonstop struggle and you gotta keep punching at it.
Tavis: This is either a loaded question or an unfair question, maybe both.
Chuck D: Uh-oh. Look out.
Tavis: When you look back, Chuck, on your catalog, what do you make of it? Everybody else has their own thoughts about your catalog. I’m gonna ask Tom the next question. When you look back on your catalog, what do you make of it?
Chuck D: My word is bond and I ain’t ashamed of anything others said or spit [laugh].
Tavis: I love it [laugh].
Chuck D: I wrote words and made sure bond was next to it [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, I love it. When you look back at your catalog, Tom, what do you think?
Morello: I mean, before Rage Against the Machine, I was in a band that tried to be famous and that didn’t work out. I had my grab at the brass ring and I thought I was done at 26 years old. So I vowed at that moment I was never gonna play another note of music that I didn’t believe in.
And I’ve kept true to that from Rage Against the Machine to Prophets of Rage. And here we are today making music that we believe in.
And what we try to do on our record at the shows is try to create a little bit of the world that we’d like to one day see, like to be the example in our multiethnic band, in our multi–genre music, with our multiethnic fans. We try to create a little bit of the world we’d like to see in every show with every note.
Tavis: Given the forces…
Chuck D: I’d like to say one thing, is that this man right here has revolutionized the instrument that has been used since the Moors. And these things, I would want them to be known in our community. Musicians are important. Musicians matter. The teachers of music and arts, they matter.
This bothers me a bit when it comes down to people who like a Tom Morello and a Black kid that feels that, you know, the guitar can’t be played by him or rock music doesn’t belong to us.
Education must be revamped as well as many things in this country. Because when you go around the world, they hold onto our culture like it’s gold and diamonds and oil. And this is important for all youth for me, but especially youth that feel like they’re detached from things that we created.
Tavis: You do realize, obviously, one of the challenges we face is making sure that music is taught in schools. That’s a real challenge these days, Tom.
Morello: Yeah, it’s a huge challenge. You know, it’s one of the misguided priorities. You know, we’ve got more money for aircraft carriers than we do for, you know, children. It’s a shame. But, again, like I said, it’s like the people who structure the world and those priorities don’t deserve to.
Tavis: I want to talk about your text, Chuck. “Chuck D Presents This Day in Rap and Hip Hop History” with a foreword by Shepard Fairey. Before I get into the text, tell me about your relationship with Shepard because he did the cover art for the new project and is working with Chuck. How did you guys hook up with Shepard?
Chuck D: Go ahead, Tom.
Morello: I mean, Shepard’s been…
Chuck D: Family.
Morello: Exactly, family. He did posters for Rage Against the Machine back in the day.
Tavis: This is long before the Obama poster.
Morello: It was a decade before the Obama poster. You know, he always had that kind of like the antiauthoritarian punk rock spirit in his artwork and in his street art. He gravitated toward our music and he was actually the first person to ever see Prophets of Rage play. We were rehearsing in deep secret in the San Fernando Valley.
You know, we were kind of figuring out the chemistry and the chemistry clicked when we had one audience member. Shepard came down and we kind of, oh, now we just like had to show off and rock in front of him [laugh]. And then we were a band.
Chuck D: You know, you’re the Michael Jordan of rehearsals. You know that.
Tavis: He makes you go?
Chuck D: It’s like the shows are easy. The rehearsals…
Morello: Yeah, you gotta swing two bats [laugh].
Tavis: I’m just laughing about the many secrets I’ve heard that take place in San Fernando Valley, but that’s another conversation for another show [laugh], the secrets of San Fernando Valley. Tell me about this book, Chuck.
Chuck D: Oh, it’s real quick, so you won’t freestyle hip hop and rap facts. You know, a lot of people want to talk about the music, but it’s like, okay, where’d you get that from? I don’t know. My man’s told me. That eliminates that.
But it’s all tied to understanding something comes from someplace. Right now, Prophets of Rage comes from a place that we’re throwing a stone into the future that people could kind of look at and say, yes, I could follow that.
Tavis: I got 25 seconds. Did you ever think that hip hop would be as hegemonic as it is?
Chuck D: Tom, what’s hegemonic [laugh]?
Morello: Large and in charge [laugh]. It’s America’s native tongue. Do you know what I mean? It’s America’s language.
Tavis: I love you, Chuck, anyway [laugh]. The new project that Chuck and Tom are a part of is called “Prophets of Rage”. You’ll want to get it. It’s good stuff and it will get you thinking and, more importantly, get you acting, I hope.
The new text from Chuck D is “Chuck D Presents This Day in Rap and Hip Hop History” with a foreword by Shepard Fairey. Love you guys. Honored to have you all times. Thanks for coming to see us.
Chuck D: You know, I ain’t coming in to pay dues, but, you know, hey.
Tavis: Love you, man. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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