In the five years since the release of the last Coup album, Party Music, there have been enough high-octane political scandals to power the space shuttle. The poorly reasoned Iraq war, illegal spying tactics, Plamegate, the torture photos of Abu Ghraib, Tom DeLay's indictment, the botching of Hurricane Katrina -- you'd think the Coup's Boots Riley would be salivating over all this material, right?
Instead of writing lyrics based on this plethora of plotlines, the West Oakland resident found himself concentrating on composing instrumental tracks. "Everyone was like, 'There's 9/11, there's the whole war,' " says Riley. " 'The Coup album has to be important; it's going to make everybody listen to it and immediately start the revolution. It's got to deal with all these issues.' I really was trying to conceptualize that album, and I realized why I was just sticking to the music."
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Riley had a classic case of pressure-induced writer's block -- until he came to an understanding. "It's always been me talking about my life and [my] relationships to the world and the system, and not the whole macro-political thing from a very objective standpoint. [The lyrics have] always been from a very subjective standpoint. Once I realized that that was okay, I started writing."
What Riley eventually came up with formed the basis of Pick a Bigger Weapon, the Coup's fifth LP, released in April. And while the disc features the act's usual strikingly detailed survival tales and rise-up anthems, it's also the most geopolitically charged Coup disc to date, offering the best (and rudest) dissection of the Bush-Hussein history ever set to a beat, not to mention the slinkiest song devoted to love before Armageddon.
"I feel like an album like this can be used right now," Riley says. "I think it can lend itself to the spirit that's already out there and change the situation that's going on in the world."
Raymond "Boots" Riley has been pushing for change ever since he was a kid. At 14, he started canvassing for the Progressive Labor Party and other left-leaning institutions. And while he rapped throughout high school, it wasn't until an incident in 1989 that he understood the power of hip-hop.
While working for the pro-communist International Committee Against Racism in San Francisco's Double Rock Projects, Riley heard from dozens of people about a then-recent instance of police brutality, in which several cops had allegedly beat a woman, Rossi Hawkins, along with her twin sons. When neighbors came out of their homes to investigate, the cops started shooting their guns into the air, causing the crowd to scatter every which way. Just as suddenly, however, the masses altered their course and returned, separated the police from their victims, and sent the law scurrying out of the neighborhood, without their guns or cars.
"When you heard the story from different people, little bits would be changed here and there," Riley recalls. "But the part of the story that didn't change -- no matter who told it, whether it was an old lady telling it or a young man -- was that at the point when the crowd starting running away, somebody started chanting, 'Fight the power! Fight the power! Fight the power!' This was the summer of '89, and Public Enemy's 'Fight the Power' was all over the radio. And that chanting of 'Fight the power' influenced everybody to turn around and do what they thought was right. And right then I knew the power that music can have and the place it can hold. It can be a rallying cry; it can be an indicator of the thoughts and feelings of the people around you. And it can be a soundtrack to the things that you need to do."
Several years later, Riley formed the Coup with another MC named E Roc, whom he met while loading planes for UPS. After an initial deck jockey didn't work out, the pair convinced DJ Pam the Funkstress to join them. The group's debut LP, Kill My Landlord, which came out on Wild Pitch in 1993, featured "I Know You," Riley's retelling of the Double Rock story, along with shout-outs to the L.A. riots and The Communist Manifesto, all rapped over West Coast-style G-funk.
Undeterred by a marketplace overrun with gangsta rappers, the Coup released its second LP, Genocide and Juice, the following year. Eviscerating the sophomore slump, the group added sly humor and tighter beats to its socialist stew, offering sendups of corporate wiggers and repo men. Steal this Album (1998) was even better, with the departure of E Roc adding more coherence and allowing Riley's storytelling talents to shine brightly on epic tracks like "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night."
Despite these three remarkable albums, the Coup remained an underground phenomenon until 2001, when it became famous for...a piece of cover art. The image for Party Music, shot several months before 9/11, featured Riley and Pam igniting explosions in the World Trade Center towers with drumsticks and a guitar tuner, at precisely the points where the terrorists struck. The act's label, 75Ark, altered the image before it was released, but not before the FBI came a-calling. (At the end of the year, the Coup received vindication of a sort when its disc came in at No. 8 on the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll.)
The Coup soldiered on, visiting South Africa's World Conference Against Racism with Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, Jeru the Damaja and Black Thought of the Roots (all of whom would sing on Bigger Weapon's "My Favorite Mutiny"). Then, in 2003, Riley joined Billy Bragg, Steve Earle and Tom Morello on the anti-Bush "Tell Us the Truth" tour.
"Billy Bragg's music, which I'd just gotten into the year before, that really influenced me," Riley says. "Steve Earle has some beautiful songs. When I heard 'What's a Simple Man to Do?' I thought it sounds like a song I would write...Anytime you can be around songwriters -- no matter what the genre -- who can put forth simple ideas in a succinct way, I really respect that. It reinforced the idea of what I was doing."
On Pick a Bigger Weapon, Riley decided to be even more personal than usual. With "BabyLet'sHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethin'Crazy" he takes a quote from his girlfriend to heart, offering the kind of ominously sexy track that Marvin Gaye would've come up with if he'd lived under the current regime. "Tiffany Hall" tells the sorrowful tale of a girl Riley knew from San Francisco State who died from liposuction surgery, while "I Love Boosters" details the practice of buying high-end clothing from regular shoplifters.
Even on the most personal of tracks -- like the slow, funky "I Just Wanna Lay Around All Day in Bed with You" -- Riley injects his trademark socialist viewpoint, pointing out, "Them rich folks gots ta knows / It's bout controllin' these minutes / They can party cuz we work 'till our lower back goes." On "Captain Sterling's Little Problem" he undertakes the army grunt's viewpoint: "Now I'm in apparel colored shit and guacamole / In another country brought to you by Coca-Coley / Ordered from the top to shoot everything holey / Shit, I'm 19 and I'm missin' all my homies." On "We Are the Ones," he succinctly maps out the dilemmas facing the boyz n the hood of today, offering, "Our pay is unstable and under the table / We like free speech but we love free cable." And then there's "Head (of State)," in which Bush and Hussein perform fellatio upon each other, as part of the larger metaphor of being in bed together.
If there's a statement of purpose on the album, though, it's "Laugh/Love/Fuck," in which Riley raps, "I'm here to laugh, love, fuck, and drink liquor / And help the damn revolution come quicker."
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"What I try to put forth into my music is hope," Riley explains. "A lot of times we hear about all the problems in the world, and they're told to us in a doom-and-gloom way, like 'The ruling class is so powerful there's nothing we can do about it.' The more problems we hear about, the less we feel there's something we can do...The only thing that's going to keep people fighting is a love for life."
The Coup's music attempts to reinforce that zeal. Riley's new tracks are more vibrant than ever, helped for the first time by live drums, as well as the able playing of local guitarists Eric McFadden and David James, Rage Against the Machine's axman Tom Morello and Dwayne Wiggins of Tony! Toni! Tone! "My Favorite Mutiny" has a martial, neo-Motown vibe to it; "We Are the Ones" features a driving beat and Prince-ish synths. The loping rhythms of "ShoYoAss" and chanted chorus of "Laugh/Love/Fuck" sound ripe for summertime car-stereo blasting.
"The idea is to put out songs that can become anthems," Riley says.
It remains to be seen whether Epitaph -- a traditionally punk label that has recently released discs by rap artists Blackalicious, Atmosphere and Sage Francis -- can be the one to finally break the Coup. "This is our fourth label -- fourth time's the charm, they say," Riley chuckles. "This will be the first time our record is in all the stores on the release date...Two months ago was the first time we ever had a marketing meeting. I'm really excited about the possibilities."