Boots Riley knows what a grain of salt is. His band, The Coup, has been called treasonous, unpatriotic and the living epitome of everything that's wrong with rap music. He's used to vitriol, but ever since a certain fateful September morning it just seems that the only people who want to talk about The Coup have already made up their mind about them.
"I'm glad it happened to me," Riley recalls, "because it allowed me to speak in a very public forum. There were very few against-the-grain voices getting on the media."
Anybody who has ever seen the original cover of the Coup's 2001 album Party Music can understand, incidentals aside, how Riley's message got misconstrued. The offending image is of Riley and Pam the Funkstress (The Coup DJ) standing below two exploding World Trade Center buildings. In his hand, Riley holds the detonator. Add the fact that the album was set to be released on the same exact day-Sept. 11, 2001-and, as Riley will tell you, you couldn't have made this shit up.
"There were people left and right, people I respect, that were scared to say anything," he recalls. "I had publicists that decided to stop working for me, because they were told that they wouldn't be able to work again if they worked for me. There was a real McCarthyist feeling going on."
The Coup's music has always been polemic. Songs about pissing on George Washington's grave, plus titles like "5 Million Ways To Kill A C.E.O." and "20,000 Gun Salute," sound like a Fox News special report waiting to happen. And an album like Genocide and Juice might be hard to rationalize if the music wasn't so funky. It's one thing to scream about killing cops over death-metal riffs, quite another if it's a silky tone over a phat bass line.
"My first job is to make a good piece of art, something that will last," he says. "I'm not into making music that two years down the line you don't know why you liked it."
This is where The Coup's music ascends. Riley, who spent his formative years working for the Progressive Labor Party in Oakland, has a rhyming style reminiscent of Big Boi with a hint of Kool Moe Dee. He addresses issues like poverty, war and racism. The difference is his lecturing tone, à la Chuck D. and Ice Cube, making you rewind lyrics like, "Anti-Republican and Democratic/ If they self-destruct that's anticlimactic/ Tired of being hunted like an antelope/ Take the system by the throat/ That's the antidote."
And where similar groups like The Roots use live instrumentation in a percussive meter, some Coup songs almost come off like a Funkadelic jam session with Dead Prez on the mic. It's a sound that, indeed, never sounds old.
Throughout the controversy surrounding Party Music, Riley never backed down from a pundit, reminding folks like Sean Hannity about Osama bin Laden's days as a CIA operative. They signed to Epitaph Records, and this year-again, on Sept. 11-Riley was awarded the first AFL-CIO Arts and Activism Award for his part in the "Tell Us the Truth Tour."
The Coup's new album, Pick A Bigger Weapon, due by the end of the year, is described by Riley as "more Funkadelic than Parliament, more Dirty Mind than Purple Rain." Whatever it is, you can certainly expect him to up the ante. The advance single, "Laugh, Love, Fuck," is simply awesome.
"Whatever words I put down, whatever music, 20 years from now I'm gonna have to live with that. I'm not gonna make something where I have to make excuses for it."
The Coup plays with Lifesavas and The Kneehighs at the Casbah on Nov. 8. $15-$18. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. 619-232-HELL.