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Back Door Coup

For Boots Riley, the personal comes first.

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The Coup's Boots Riley has more on his mind than gin and juice.
  • The Coup's Boots Riley has more on his mind than gin and juice.

Five years ago, Boots Riley and the Coup members released an album that spread their names across America -- though few of those talking about the disc had heard a note of the radical hip-hop within. That's because the image that was to have been on the front of Party Music -- Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress blowing up the World Trade Center -- stunned a country still reeling from the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Never mind that the cover, designed to illustrate the Coup's anticapitalist beliefs, had been designed long before that fateful September, or that the illustration was hastily withdrawn and never actually appeared on a single album. Almost overnight, Riley was vilified without anyone even hearing the music.

Adding insult to injury, 75 Ark, the internet start-up that put out Party Music, went bankrupt shortly after its release. So the album that outraged America in the autumn of 2001 was a collection of songs most consumers couldn't have purchased anyway.

Riley's long-awaited return, Pick a Bigger Weapon, confounds the misconceptions surrounding him, while staying true to his revolutionary roots. But it took Riley some time to discover how to tease his own voice out of the expectations others had for him.

"Everyone was expecting a certain kind of album from the Coup that was gonna address all of the changes in world events. And because people kept saying this stuff to me, I kinda bought into the hype and was envisioning an album that wasn't true to me and how I write songs," says Riley, by phone from Oakland.

"Before this album, I always wrote songs from more of an everyday perspective, an individual dealing with the system. Not about the World Trade Organization or the G8. So it took me a while to figure out that's OK."

Which is not to imply that Pick a Bigger Weapon soft-pedals the politics. One listen to "Head (of State)," which depicts the president and Saddam Hussein in an extremely compromising position, makes that crystal-clear. And "The Stand," which declares, "This is the place where I take my stand . . . meet the rubber on my shoe or meet my fuckin' demands," is proof that Riley hasn't abandoned the revolution or his Pantheresque rhetoric.

But much of Pick a Bigger Weapon is about making the personal political -- as well as about finding time to "Laugh/Love/Fuck" amid the struggle. "It's funny, because the first song I sent to the label was 'Laugh/Love/Fuck,'" says Riley. "And I wondered how they'd respond to it, because it isn't the stereotypical revolutionary song."

Neither are "I Just Wanna Lay Around All Day in Bed With You," in which the protagonist blows off work just to get busy, or "BabyLet'sHaveaBabyBeforeBushDoSomethin'Crazy," a slow jam whose title says it all. It came from Riley's partner, Dawn: "It was a direct quote, in fact. We'd just had a baby, so I wasn't really tryin' to hear that. So instead of answering her, I just said, 'That's a song!'" (The couple did indeed have a baby, though -- a boy, born last March.)

Those frequent glimpses of the everyday life of a revolutionary family man are matched to backing tracks immersed in the warmth of live, steaming funk. A persistent reference point is vintage Prince, which is no accident. "Before I wanted to be a rapper, I wanted to have a guitar and be up onstage, like Prince," Riley confesses. "I think the difference is, on this record, I'm wearing it more on my sleeve."

More than ever before, Riley is now the focus of the group. Longtime DJ Pam the Funkstress is still part of the Coup, and the grooves are provided by a stellar cast that includes Audioslave's Tom Morello and Tony! Toni! Tone!'s D'wayne Wiggins, but Riley's production demands attention, and his rhymes are front and center. He declined to replace T-Kash, the second MC on Party Music, and isn't likely to either.

"It's probably one of my weaknesses, that my concepts are so out there that they really only work for me. And other people really aren't getting it until I do it," says Riley. Which is why, for example, the Roots' Black Thought does not guest on "Ass Breath Killers," a song about halitosis brought on by brown-nosing. "I explained the idea to him, and he was like, 'What?! Uh, yeah . . . I don't get that. Let's do something else,'" remembers Riley, laughing. "So we did 'My Favorite Mutiny' instead."

Riley was raised in East Oakland by his father, Walter Riley, a community activist and public defender; he experienced firsthand the Bay Area's legendary DIY aesthetic from players like producer Ant Banks. The elder Riley supported his son's rap career from the beginning, watching as the Coup slowly built a following with hip-hop agitprop like 1993's Kill My Landlord and Genocide and Juice, released the following year.

The group didn't get much help from its labels. The distribution woes were all the more frustrating, Riley says, because of the reception his message was getting on tour.

"At every show, I stopped the music and spoke out against what was then the bombing of Afghanistan. And the crowd responded enthusiastically every single time. I'm talking about Bozeman, Montana. El Paso, Texas," he says. "All these places where people were supposed to be so in support of what Bush was doing."

This time around, Riley signed the Coup to well-known punk label Epitaph, which has also handled hip-hop releases from Atmosphere and Sage Francis. And the theme of the current tour will be convincing kids to resist military recruiters. Riley has aligned the group with the "Not Your Soldier" project, after allowing organizers to use his song "Captain Sterling's Little Problem" (a track about G.I. rebellion, which appears in the Vietnam documentary Sir! No Sir!) in a flash animation.

But Riley's everyday dilemma is the same one that faces any self-professed revolutionary in the music biz: How can you live up to your own standards in an industry in which moving product -- and generating profits -- are job one?

Riley acknowledges the scrutiny and the struggle. "People see you eating at a restaurant, and they say, 'There's Boots from the Coup. Are you eating vegan? Are you wearing all-hemp clothes?'" he says with a laugh. "And the truth is, there are political differences with that culture. Only a few people in society can decide that much what they're gonna buy and not gonna buy. That's about making a little castle for yourself inside of capitalism.

"I don't think we can opt out of this system. We're either gonna change it," he says, "or be commodified by it."

Commodity or not, Boots Riley now gets his best chance ever to find out whether America's buying the revolution he's selling.

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