“It’s a whole different feeling on the East Coast.” Raymond “Boots” Riley, Oakland’s most famously outspoken rapper, is talking. The Coup, the group he’s led for more than a decade, has just returned from a series of spring New York dates. Their latest album, Pick a Bigger Weapon (Epitaph), has just dropped. It’s a good time to clock the distance between the coasts. “They’ve got a whole different code of language and lifestyle — and the same with the political energy that’s there. It doesn’t even translate,” he says. “We were in New York for four days, and like the old saying goes, ‘It’s a nice place to visit.’”
He pauses, perhaps for breath, perhaps to check himself, before continuing, “There are a million things to plug into back there. You don’t even have time to make a mistake. With all the stuff you hear about Oakland, the truth is that people walk down the street and say ‘what’s up’ to each other even when they’re strangers.”
For Riley, that sense of community is crucial. It keeps him going. Because exposing the dark hand behind the daily injustices heaped on the populace — and empowering people to stand against it — is what Riley is all about. Beginning with the Coup’s 1992 debut, Kill My Landlord (Wild Pitch), through his latest, the group’s fifth full-length, he has created a deeply personal, heartfelt, often funny body of work that captures the East Bay’s radical legacy, as well as its funky, booty-shaking musical sensibility.
ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN
For those whose eyes were focused on other things — understandable under the circumstances — the original drop date for the Coup’s fourth album, Steal This Album: Party Music (75 Ark), was 9/11. If current events weren’t enough, the original cover featured Riley and Coup DJ Pam the Funkstress in front of a crumbling World Trade Center. It got the group a fair bit of publicity — not all of it favorable, including scrutiny from the political police. The result was that in some quarters, Party Music was seen as too hot to handle.
It contributed to a potentially lethal — career-wise — four-year-plus interlude between albums. Riley is frank about the delay.
“A couple of years were about us touring to make sure that people found out about that album,” he explains. “For a long time when we toured, we’d get into town and find out that the album wasn’t in the stores. I don’t apologize for anything about that album, and I wanted to make sure that it didn’t just disappear.”
But a nearly five-year wait?
“Well,” Riley says, “there was the business of what did I want the next album to be. And in the past, the first 12 songs I liked, there was the album. But this time, I had 100 songs I liked, I kept obsessing about the music, and a lot of that was me running away from making the album.” Party Music may not have gone putf8um, but it boosted the Coup’s visibility and reputation among more than just funk lovers. The past few years have seen an upsurge in political activism, and the group managed to find fans among those who like rebellion with their music. High expectations came with the territory.
“I got sidetracked when I started this album for a little bit,” says Riley. “I set out thinking I was going to have to address everything in the world. I was taking on too much.”
It’s instructive to understand what “too much” means to Riley.
“At first I’d think about writing a song that would break down the Palestinians’ fight for land,” he says. It led to what he calls overthinking the problem. “Some people look out at the world and see things simply. I see things in their complications. It’s how I understand the world, but it also can lead to problems. That comes out in my music sometimes, because I can always do something over by just erasing a line.”
What this led to in the case of Bigger Weapon was a classic hurry-up-and-wait situation. There was a time, for instance, when Riley would go into the studio and just follow his instincts. Now many listeners were knocking at the door. The president of Epitaph, Andy Caulkins, was one of them.
“He’d call me,” Riley remembers, “and say, ‘We’re really excited about this album. It’s really the time for it.’ ‘Laugh, Love, Fuck,’ a kind of personal manifesto, was the first song I turned in. After a few of my conversations, I’d be wondering if this was what they expected. But I realized that what motivates me to think about things on a world scale, it has to do with what is happening in my town, how it’s similar and dissimilar to what’s going on in the world. Otherwise it’s like I’m sitting in class, and it’s just a bunch of facts. When I first got into organizing I was 15, and I was really excited about learning things, and I think I read every book that was shoved at me. What stuck with me is the parts of the books that my actual real life made clear.
“How I write best is just me being myself — when I have what I call moments of clarity — just feeling things, reacting to things as I live my life. That’s when it works.”
The material is so personal that at moments Riley had difficulty handling the idea of a public hearing. “I have songs on here,” he says, “that I couldn’t look at people when I first played them … ‘I Just Want to Lay Around in Bed with You’ and ‘Tiffany Hall.’ The last one is about a friend of mine and what her death signifies to me. Those songs were hard for me in that very personal way.”
These tracks were foreshadowed by cuts like “Wear Clean Drawers” and the wrenching “Heaven Tonight” from Party Music. The former is a kind of heartfelt message to his young daughter warning her about the difficulties that life has in store for her; the latter is built around the story of a young woman with hunger pangs that are the unjust punishment of poverty.
At the time that he wrote “Drawers,” Riley remembers thinking, “Maybe this isn’t why I got into rapping, that I needed to break the whole system down.”
In fact, his songs do indict the system, like the tracks on the latest album — not by imparting lofty lessons, but by focusing on the human particulars. Ultimately, the album shows a confident Riley at home with an unambiguous approach to songwriting.
TAKE THE POWER
To say that the rapper is unapologetic doesn’t begin to describe his resolve. The truth is that he never budged from the original World Trade Center a flambé cover of Party Music, and there’s no give in Pick a Bigger Weapon. The title itself works two ways: as advice to the dispossessed and as a challenge to the powers that be.
“In my life,” he says casually, “I’m still probably the only person I kick it with who considers himself a revolutionary. I mean, I’m not in an organization, but I think that in this world the people can take power.
There are no doubt folks who feel that Riley lives in a different universe. When asked about the skeptical among us, he tells a story he heard from guitarist Tom Morello of the late rock-rappers Rage Against the Machine. Morello has become a Riley friend and fellow traveler who can be found on occasion playing behind the Coup, as well as working with Riley as a guitar-rap duo. According to the guitarist, Rage some years ago was working on a video with outspoken director Michael Moore. The idea was for Rage to arrive on Wall Street on a busy workday, where they’d set up and play, loud. The financial district population would, they thought, be pushed up against the wall by the Rage challenge.
What happened was unexpected, and for Riley serves as a case in point. “They showed up on Wall Street,” he explains, “and expected all kinds of chaos with people scared, threatened by their music, and the police coming and everything. But what happened was, out of the financial district came about 100 people in suits chanting, ‘Suits for Rage! Suits for Rage!’ The point is that there are a lot of people who don’t want to be part of the system and don’t see themselves as part of it.”
“We all hear about the problems, like you can’t say anything or the FBI’s gonna put you in jail,” continues Riley. “But the thing is that people need to feel empowered. I try to make music first that makes me feel good about life, that makes me feel empowered. Some beats make you feel like, ‘Damn, I’m gonna beat somebody’s ass,’ and sometimes might do that, but I try to make music that draws on a lot of different feelings.”
As Riley says, the album has many flavors. But when all is said and done, the essential message can be found on the first full track, “We Are the Ones.” Over a booming, bouncy bass line, he sounds almost laid-back as he raps, “We, we are the ones/ We’ll see your fate/ Tear down your state/ Go get your guns.”
It’s frank, on the ferocious side, and exactly what audiences have come to expect from the Coup. It took Riley nearly five years to release it, but Pick a Bigger Weapon is in your hands. Use it wisely. SFBG
With T-Kash and Ise Lyfe
Sat/12, 9 p.m.
628 Divisadero, SF