The Coup: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

posted July 12, 2006 12:00:00 AM CDT | 8 comments

It was P-Funk who first sang Free your mind and your ass will follow, but few artists that have come along in the decades since have upheld that musical ideal quite so fervently as The Coup. Along with DJ Pam The Funktress, Oaktown-bred Coup mastermind Boots Riley has spent the better part of the last 13 years dropping lyrical manifestos rooted in the sociopolitical consciousness of ol school forefathers like PE and BDP, but tinged with a welcome dose of humor that recalls Digital Underground, the Pharcyde and other George Clinton-influenced West Coast luminaries.

The Coups career has certainly been nothing to laugh about, as label problems (their current home, Epitaph, marks their fourth in five albums), FBI-investigated album cover controversies (well get to that later) and the untimely shifting of hip-hop trends have conspired to create enough drama to fill several episodes of Behind the Music. Yet the duo has tenaciously persevered, and their new album, Pick A Bigger Weapon, is easily the funkiest blend of ass-shaking beats and mind-expanding lyrics this side of Princes Controversy.

While other MCs are content to glorify the gangsta lifestyle, on We Are the Ones Boots breaks down the ties between poverty and drugs in a way that simultaneously educates and entertains: "The one university I knew was Yale/so I cooked it, bagged it, put it on sale/Now philosophically, you'd be opposed/to one inhaling coke by the mouth or nose/But economically, I would propose/that you go eat a dick as employment had froze." He breaks it down Fahrenheit 911-style on the ridiculously danceable "Head (of State)," which finds him bashing Bush and dropping lyrical smart bombs such as "War ain't about one land against the next/It's po' people dyin' so the rich cash checks."

We recently caught up with Boots on tour to talk about consciousness, controversy and commercial viability.

Im a big fan of the old school sociopolitical rappers Chuck D, KRS-One, Rakim, etc. Were those guys a big influence on you when you were first starting out?

Yeah, but there were other guys, too, like Ice Cube, Easy-E, Schooly D people that wouldnt have been considered political hip-hop as well as artists like Prince, Stevie Wonder, Gil-Scott Heron and the Last Poets. But I was also influenced by people that were connected with their community and tried to help change it, and by other writers. Id say Toni Morrison is a big influence on my writing.

When you were breaking into the business in the mid-90s, conscious hip-hop was pretty much on its way out at the tail end of the Native Tongues era. Was that shift in hip-hop trends frustrating?

I started out on a compilation with a gangsta rapper named Spice 1. We worked at UPS together and came into hip-hop together. I was trying to put messages in my music, but I didnt see myself as in a separate world from what was considered gangsta rap. In most hip-hop, people talk about the world around them and give people advice on how to survive. It just so happens that I have a deeper, more complicated analysis than most people. Some people are like, Go sell this rock and youll be able to survive a bit longer. And thats true, to a certain extent. I just take it deeper and look at why there are no jobs in the first place. So the frustrating part was that, since other rappers [lyrical] content wasnt being looked at by the media and mine was, it made it seem like all my art was about the content and not the music. Theres a lot of gangsta rap and conscious hip-hop thats terrible music. Nobody wants to listen to that. You wanna hear good music, and we spent a lot of time on our production, but that part was left out of the media coverage.

So do you think the critical praise of your lyrical content may actually have hurt your commercial viability?

To a certain extent, yes. When we were about to release our first album (1993s Kill My Landlord) and the label sent out the single, Not Yet Free, to be reviewed, hella people wrote that it was more gangsta rap from East Oakland. At first I got mad, because it seemed like they didnt even listen to the lyrics they just heard the beat. But what happened was people were like, More gangsta rap from East Oakland?! Im fixin to go get that! (Laughs) So I think now, because the subject matter of our music is usually what gets talked about [in the press], the average reader gets an idea of what the music sounds like thats totally different from what were about. Thats the good thing about downloading: People see people like us on MySpace and try out stuff they never would have otherwise.

When you guys ended your relationship with the Wild Pitch label, there were a few years (1994-1998) where you were outta the game for a minute. What was that period like for you?

Well, I was 24 at the time and I had a mid-life crisis. (Laughs) I was like, "Ive been fucking doin this for most of my adult life!" EMI bought Genocide & Juice (1994) from Wild Pitch for like $500,000, and we were climbing up the charts and getting radio play. It looked like it was gonna blow up, but they bought the album and shelved it the next week. I was like, shit, I do all this stuff for all these years to get my music out there, but Im still playing their game. I had no control over it. Id originally gotten into hip-hop to be part of a movement, so I was like, fuck that shit. I was comparing myself to Fred Hampton, whod organized a thousand people in Chicago to be in the Panthers before he was 21, turning the gangs into a political organization. People like him and Huey Newton were young, so I felt like I was wasting my youth. I just stopped, then me and some friends formed an organization called the Young Comrades. That slowly turned into a study group, and I was like, if all Im gonna do is get ideas to people, I could do this in a much better way. Thats when I went back.

Ill never forget getting the advance CD for Party Music back in the summer of 2001, with the cover image of the Twin Towers exploding in flames and your finger on the button of a detonator. Was it frustrating when the events of September 11 found you guys being put back on the defensive, investigated by the Feds?

I kinda took that as an opportunity. There were very few voices of dissent out there at the time, and that unfortunate coincidence happened to me someone who had nothing to lose and knew that the reason I got into this was to be that voice of dissent. What was frustrating was the idea that, with all the publicity that came with that controversy, our record label (indie startup Ark 75) went bankrupt before the album came out. We couldnt even get our album in stores.

Talk to me about being a voice of dissent in these times, when anyone who disagrees with the Bush administration is crucified as unpatriotic. They seem to forget America was forged from dissent!

I think what theyre doing is painting themselves into a corner. The reality is that, in the areas where there ISNT dissent, its only because people are scared to speak out. All that does is breed unrest, even in their strongholds. Weve performed in all kinds of places that are supposed to be Republican strongholds, and people are not down with this war. Theres a lot of soldiers that are not down with this war. Like you said, the only reason people arent speaking out is because theyre scared of how theyll be painted. Pretty soon, people end up figuring out that they have to say something, because theyre not down with the people who try to breed that fear. I feel like Im doing what Im supposed to be doing, utilizing my life and my art in the most effective way possible. Im pushing boundaries, so maybe people dont agree with everything that Im saying. But the things they do agree with, Im making it possible for them to say.

When you see people like Michael Moore and Kanye West standing up and speaking out, does it give you added confidence that youre doing the right thing?

Ive known from the beginning that this wasnt a minority movement. They kinda hoodwinked everybody into support for the war. It was a shell game they did. Right after September 11, they said, Fly your flag to show your sympathy for the victims of 9/11! So everybody put their flags out because 3,000-plus people died. Then, when they decided to go to war, they said, Look how many people are flying flags, showing their support for the war! As soon as people figured that out, they were like, Take that flag down! So Ive never thought that mine was a minority viewpoint in the United States, and definitely not a minority among people around the world. A very small percentage of people vote, and the reason is that the majority of people dont think this system works for them.

Do you believe that art, music and film have the power to affect real sociopolitical change in the world.

Yeah, I think they prepare the soil for change. Theyre a part of creating a culture, by putting ideas out there in the same way that a book can. And maybe even more effective in certain ways, because youre getting to way more people.

Having followed your career for years now, Pick A Bigger Weapon feels like a big step forward for The Coup. From a creative standpoint, your message is very clear, and to me its the best politically charged funk record since Princes Controversy. Does this feel like your moment to shine?

Well, its really weird cuz we been doing this for a long time, and this is actually the biggest album weve had in our careers. Theres so much talk about it, and were doing a 10-week tour to promote it. Weve never toured that long! The distribution is out there, the album is selling and weve got some big things planned for the fall, so I think this will be an album where a lot more people hear about us. I think its coming out in a period where people are figuring out how theyre gonna be involved in changing the world, and theyre looking for things like this to inspire them. So I do feel like its an important album.

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