It would take a nation of millions to hold back the Coup. In the wake of Sept. 11, Boots Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress found themselves the subject of intense media scrutiny with the release of Party Music, which featured an eerily prophetic cover depicting the group blowing up the World Trade Center. Oakland’s premier politico-rap duo didn’t miss a beat. Instead, they took the accusations of anti-patriotism and (no joke) bin Laden connections for the sensationalist slander they were, using the attention to speak out against the frenzied flag-waving that emerged after the terrorist attacks.
Which meant, at least to the Coup, that the album’s artwork and message of revolution should remain intact. The group’s label, 75 Ark, disagreed: “Just to get out of things, the label said [in a press release not approved by the duo], ‘The Coup has never advocated change through violent means,’” Riley explains from his home. “But every one of our albums has talked about revolution — although [unlike Sept. 11] it’s something that we’re talking about on a mass scale, with millions of people seizing the means of production ... and it is violent. But [the label] wanted to play down what we even advocated.”
He continues in his laid-back Cali-cool drawl, explaining his rationale for keeping the cover post-twin towers. “American flags were going up immediately and there was gonna be basically a blackout [in the media] of any other points of view on the war. So, even though people were telling me that it could’ve been suicide for my musical career, I decided that in order to be able to be one of the voices at least saying something different, I said, ‘OK, fuck it, let’s keep the cover. That way I get to say something on this.’”
75 Ark changed the cover anyway, and the media hostility grew exponentially once Riley clarified that he preferred the original artwork. “[Riley] belongs in a capitalism-free cave in Tora Bora, spewing his ‘poetry’ around an al Qaeda campfire,” snarled Michelle Malkin in her syndicated piece, “Stop Giving America a Bad Rap.” It wasn’t just right-wing scribes blasting Riley, either. So-called liberal publications such as the Village Voice and Seattle’s The Stranger took the rapper to task too: “The guy’s simply not a political thinker,” insisted Frank Kogan in the Voice, “and the more political his statements get, the more he comes across as just another barroom bullshitter.”
Listen to the aptly titled Party Music, the Coup’s fourth full-length and one of 2001’s best, however, and it’s clear that the Marx-minded Riley’s a powerfully inspiring political thinker — just not one with whom Kogan agrees. Over DJ Pam’s P-Funky beats, Riley spews scathingly astute, Black Panther-informed rhetoric that calls for nothing less than a grassroots revolution. “Everybody throw your lighters up/Tell me, y’all finna fight or what?!” urges the Outkast-astik “Everythang,” with Riley exhorting listeners to fuck the police, get off the fence and to turn the system upside down.
So if his critics in the media wanted to silence him with accusations of simplistic sloganeering and anti-patriotic propaganda, Riley did anything but concede. After all, his music isn’t aimed at them: the Coup takes its message to the people. “People want something that’s relevant to their lives. They want something that means something to them, and they want something where it seems like people have thought about what they’re saying. And the fact that you have a grasp on what’s going on in the world, and where you stand in the midst of all of this, shows that you’re thinking about this,” Riley says. “And the thing is, everyone is thinking about these things.”
The Coup performs with X-ecutioners and Arsonists Wed., April 24 at St. Andrew’s Hall, 431 E. Congress, Detroit. Tickets are $15, doors at 8 p.m. Call 313-961-MELT.Jimmy Draper writes about music for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org