They’d probably object to the implication of patriotism; nonetheless, Oakland-based hip-hop band The Coup can best be described as an American success story.
What could be more American than freedom of speech?
Bandleader Raymond “Boots” Riley has talent to match his convictions. He’s a songwriter, rapper, programmer, producer — and a man whose active political and social conscience has landed him in a bit of hot water. In this day and age, when your band’s name is The Coup and the artwork for an upcoming album cover shows the World Trade Center being detonated, eyebrows will raise.
The Coup’s label, 75 Ark, quickly scrapped the proposed cover — conceived, in an incredible coincidence, just before Sept. 11 and shown on some Web sites — and released Party Music, now decorated with a gasoline-ignited martini, on Nov. 6. The group issued a statement that read, somewhat ironically, “Advocates of change, but change through peaceful means, never through violence, The Coup are deeply saddened by this horrible tragedy.”
However, Boots Riley hasn’t backed off his uncompromising views, going so far as to proclaim his pro-communist leanings on ABC’s “Politically Incorrect” a few weeks back.
Formed in the early 1990s — some 30 years after the Black Panther Party began recruiting members in the San Francisco area — The Coup was inspired as much by the Black Power rhetoric of rappers like Public Enemy and K.R.S.-One as by the writings of Marx and Mao. The debut CD, Kill My Landlord (Wild Pitch, 1993), and the follow-up, Genocide and Juice (Wild Pitch, 1994), put the group on the map and won favor with critics, but achieved only moderate sales among the deluge of gangsta-rap artists of the day. In 1998 they released Steal This Album (Dogday), continuing their agenda of political/social insubordination while refining their sound.
Party Music finds The Coup still taking musical cues from Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Prince and ’70s funk. “Ghetto Manifesto” is what Riley calls a “turf operetta,” a “slum serenade” –but the rapper preaches the power of knowledge, saying, “Let’s all get high from the income angle.” “Get Up,” with guest Dead Prez, is a call to arms, pleading, “Get up right now, turn the system upside down, you s’posed to be fed up by now.”
The “beef” in “Pork and Beef” is with the usual suspects (i.e., the cops). “Ride the Fence” is what Riley doesn’t ever do — and in this song we learn that he’s anti-FBI, pro-prophylactic, anti-anti-depressant and pro-Cuba, among other things.
Politically, The Coup is a bit to the left of fellow Bay area hip-hop funksters Spearhead and that group’s outspoken ringleader, Michael Franti. In the 1970s, activist Gil Scott Heron sang, “The revolution will not be televised” — but it will at least be available on compact disc, if Riley has his way. “On the music side, it is party music,” Riley has said about The Coup’s new album. “A lot of the songs have a real Marvin Gaye feel. There’s a lot of snaps and claps in the album.”
As serious as he is on many of these tracks, Riley is just as often deeply humorous, taking on organized religion, labor relations and corporate politics — though some suits may miss the laughs to be had in “5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.”
Riley mixes his socially conscious songs with funky grooves like “Tight,” a tribute to his partner, scratcher Pam the Funkstress. Vocalist Keneice is Riley’s Apollonia (remember “Purple Rain”?) on two tracks — “Heven Tonite” and the sweet “Nowalaters,” which has the sophisticated harmonic content of some of Meshell Ndegeocello’s best work, and a hot drum beat using a drag across the snare and a crosstick. He brings in top-notch rappers and instrumentalists to fill out the album. “Thought About It” is a mostly instrumental jam, one of several tracks that feature the versatile Mike Tiger, here on clavinet and Micromoog. “Wear Clean Draws” is all about family values, an organic piece of work like something Outkast or Arrested Development would put out, quite a contrast to the electrofunk heard later on the disc.
In the end, Party Music is all about motion — movement politics and movin’ butts.