Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.
Protest music is back, spread the word!
The bio for Brass Against on Spotify tells it all: “In this politically challenging era, it’s time to stand up against the machine. We want the music we perform to sound inspiring and resonate with people’s emotions, encouraging them to act.” Their style is a mix of big band and sick bars. The band does have their own original music, but they are known for their covers, like those of the band they paid homage to in their own name, Rage Against the Machine.
Brad Hammonds, leader of the Brass Against group, was inspired to return to protest music as Donald Trump started amassing power. He told Louder, “I know when I listen to political inspired bands I get really energised, especially Rage.” Same, Brad. Same.
And as alluded to, Rage Against the Machine is no stranger to protest music (or covers, for that matter). The band members have been vocal about their anti-authoritarianism and have used their platform to advocate for their beliefs. They have held protest concerts at both the Democratic National Convention (in 2000) and the Republican National Convention (in 2008), which led to both violence and police action. Rage Against the Machine is back to raging, reuniting for a world tour nine years after they have last played together and twenty years since their last full tour. Proceeds from the tour will go to charities, including those that advocate for immigrant rights.
I encourage you to work through Brass Against’s full three albums when you need a little fuel for your hate fire, but we’ll go through some highlights here.
Brass Against– Guerrilla Radio (Rage Against The Machine cover)
“Guerrilla Radio” was the first single off of Rage Against the Machine’s third album, The Battle of Los Angeles. The music video sheds light on the working conditions of those working in the garment industry. This was the cover that made me obsessed with Brass Against. Since I discovered this song, I cannot stop listening to it. We are accustomed to hearing power from electric guitars, but feeling the same sense of raw rage coming from brass is both jolting and exhilarating. Not to be outshone or drowned out by the brass, vocalist Sophia Urista commands attention, takes up space, and spits fire, every word a blistering take-down. Seriously, all I can say is “turn that shit up!”
Brass Against– Nobody Speak/Bullet in the Head (DJ Shadow/Rage Against The Machine cover)
Fair warning, this song is NSFW. “Bullet in the Head” is about Rage Against the Machine members’ belief that the government uses the media to control how the populous thinks. The song was supposed to be featured on Saturday Night Live, but was cut due to the band’s insistence on having inverted American flags on their set. Brass Against cleverly mixes this protest song with a more modern one. The music video for “Nobody Speak” features a rap battle turned brawl between politicians.
This cover leans heavily into the hip-hop strength of the band, but just when you forget the brass in Brass Against, it comes back in with such force you are blown back mid-head-nod. Both songs have licks that are perfect for the brass to assert themselves. The pairing of rock-rap and hip-hop blends the two eras of protest music in a way that makes its own statement about the current state of affairs.
Brass Against– Freedom (Beyoncé/Rage Against The Machine cover)
If you thought the vibe of Beyoncé’s Lemonade couldn’t get any more seething, prepare yourself for this cover. Another protest-era mashup, this song brings together Beyoncé’s social commentary on Black Lives Matter and Rage Against the Machine’s support of the American Indian Movement.
The relative sparseness of the instrumentals during the verses of Beyoncé’s “Freedom” pairs well with the heavy Rage Against the Machine-inspired transitions. While the concept of Beyoncé’s whole Lemonade album could be described as controlled rage, the heavier rock style helps us let go of bottled-up rage, unleashing it and lending any remaining strength needed to break chains.
Speaking of winners who don’t quit on themselves, fun fact: Rage Against the Machine’s “Freedom” featured in a Daria episode. La la la la la.
Brass Against– Sabotage (Beastie Boys cover)
When I got a feel for the Brass Against style, I had an inkling that they must have covered this song. I’m so glad I was right. “Sabotage” references Watergate, but it wasn’t created as a protest song. However, the Beastie Boys have a protest streak of their own, calling out the stereotyping of Muslim people as terrorists at the 1998 Video Music Awards ceremony, and the issues of sexual assault and rape at Woodstock at the 1999 Video Music Awards.
Brass Against captures the original song’s dissonance in this cover without parody. The vocal screams merge with the wails from the brass, and as all of the Brass Against covers do, the song only builds in intensity until we are so fired up, we feel that we can take on anything.
I hope these covers have you amped up to go change the world in some small way. Go “set it straight.”