Why they fight

Boots Riley still believes a change is gonna come.

Riley, the MC who slings rhymes for the hip-hop crew known as The Coup, was a community activist before he was a rhymer, and his passion for social change permeates many of his songs.

The Coup
Still triggering discussion: MC Boots Riley and DJ Pam the Funktress, of The Coup.

This was true even before Riley and the Coup roused the rabble with the incendiary cover art for their 2001 release, Party Music. The cover depicted Riley using a guitar tuner and drumsticks to detonate the World Trade Center. Riley dreamed up the image way before the Sept. 11 attacks, as a metaphor for the way music could be used to attack a capitalistic system — a system he sees as not only grossly unfair, but also “rigged” to benefit the ruling class at the expense of the lower and middle classes.

The cover drew predictable replies from both quarters — outrage from the right and uneasy praise from the left for its eerie “prophecy” — and won Riley invites to speak on such varied TV forums as “Politically Incorrect,” Fox News and UPN. Eventually, the group agreed to change the cover art, but the incident drew laser-like attention to the Coup from those who fall outside rap’s target audience — those who wouldn’t know the difference between a bling and a blog.

Which was fine with the activist in Riley, who recently hooked up with Music For America in an effort to mobilize people on such issues as getting out the vote, protesting the war in Iraq, raising the minimum wage, etc.

Riley, who brings the Coup to Stella Blue on Tuesday, doesn’t exclusively rap about social issues, but even his songs about love and relationships burble with an undercurrent of social reality.

“Like, if it’s a song about a woman being mad at her man because he won’t take her out, well, it’s because he doesn’t have any money, because he can’t find a job,” says Riley during a phone interview from his adopted hometown of Oakland, Calif. “So many people spend so much of their time worrying about paying the bills, and health care, and that’s a big part of their lives. I don’t know why more people don’t write songs about that, except maybe they’re afraid they won’t get played on the radio.”

The Coup’s just-released disc, Pick a Bigger Weapon (Epitaph), crackles with songs that commingle themes of love, revolution, social outrage, and the pure fun that can be had just playing with the language. For example, on the lead-off track, “Bullets and Love,” Riley chants, “I’m a walking contradiction / Like bullets and love mixin’ / Slur my words with perfect diction / I’m guilty of my convictions / Complicated compositions / Punctuated propositions.”

This playful missive leads straight into the revolution-will-be-televised sentiments of the second track, “We Are the Ones,” where Riley laconically observes that “We are the ones / We’ll seal your fate / Tear down your state / Go get yo guns / We came to fight / It’s yo disgrace / Smash up yo place.”

Riley’s social commentary and rabble-rousing sensibilities are further laid out in titles like “My Favorite Mutiny,” “The Stand,” “Head of State” and “BabyLet’sHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethin’Crazy.” (He’s not just woofin’ on the topic of parenthood — during the interview, Riley asks, “Can I call you back? I have to drop off my daughter’s lunch to her at school.”) But Riley also explores sexual healing in slinky, satin-sheet tracks like “IJusWannaLayAroundAllDayInBedWithYou.”

All of this is built atop a sonic bed that’s rich with ’70s-funk references, from the spacey synth squiggles and wall-shaking bass lines of Parliament-Funkadelic to the dizzy ‘n’ fizzy bounce of the Ohio Players to the socially conscious soul-funk of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

“Yeah, all those people were huge for me when I was growing up,” says Riley, now 34.

“My older brothers and sisters had house parties, and played all that stuff, and I used to do this dance, the Errol Flynn, named after a Detroit gang of that era,” recalls the rapper, who was born in Motor City and spent the first six years of his life there.

Essential to the Coup’s deep-groove sound are the deft turntable stylings of Pam the Funktress, arguably the first female DJ star on the Oakland hip-hop scene. Also helping build up the funk on Bigger Weapon was guitarist Tom Morello, the sonic sculptor whose dive-bombing solos defined the sound of Rage Against the Machine before most of that group morphed into Audioslave. And if the ’70s-funk vibe sounds too real to be an imitation, it’s because, for the recording sessions, Riley also recruited veterans of groups like Parliament, the Gap Band and Frankie Beverly and Maze.

“I wanted the sound of this record to be a little edgier, to have more aggressive beats and sounds,” says Riley. “Not all of the songs turned out that way, but generally, I definitely think this record has a bigger, more aggressive sound.”

Standing up for the Dixie Chicks

Riley has some strong opinions about the way the media — especially Fox News and country radio — can sometimes show its arrogance and political bias by distorting the truth and preventing its audiences from hearing a particular artist. Like, say, country radio still holding a grudge against the Dixie Chicks and continuing its rigid, belligerent “ban” on their music — still punishing them for singer Natalie Maines’ anti-Bush/anti-war statements of three years ago.

“See, I don’t believe that a whole big chunk of the Chicks’ audience just peeled away from them,” says Riley. “This is purely a radio thing, making the assumption that all of their listeners — or all country-music fans — are Republicans, and then preventing people from hearing music they probably still like.” (Note: Prior to the release of the Chicks’ new disc, Taking the Long Way, it was was ranked No. 5 on Amazon’s pre-order list — a list that also included new releases by chart rulers like Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam. So it seems country radio’s “ban” is essentially preaching to the converted — those who indulge in knee-jerk bashing first and think for themselves second.)

Riley cites a personal experience to illustrate how media stereotyping can distort reality.

“I did a tour with Steve Earle a couple of years ago [the “Tell Us the Truth” tour, with other, similarly left-leaning artists like Morello, Billy Bragg and Janeane Garofalo], and there were a lot of truckers and cowboys who turned up for Steve’s set — people some folks would think of as ‘rednecks’ — and they cheered like crazy when Steve made comments against Bush and the war.

“Or, like, when the media is always referring to states like Tennessee or North Carolina as ‘red states,’ as though everyone in those states is a pro-war Republican.

“I just think it’s crazy for the media to paint a whole group as all thinking the same way about something,” asserts Riley. “It’s just wrong, and it’s dishonest.”

The Coup will play Stella Blue (31 Patton Ave.) on Tuesday, June 13. 10 p.m. Call 236-2424 for details.

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