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When the world changed on September 11, so did Boots Riley's career. About a week after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the leader of the Oakland-based rap group the Coup found himself folded into the news of the day, amid images of debris-covered firefighters and ruined buildings. Why on earth, people wanted to know, had Riley chosen an image of the World Trade Centers burning -- in which he stands with a wand and a detonator in his hand while his partner, DJ Pam the Funkstress, looks on with a smile -- for the cover of his new album, Party Music?
"We did the cover in May, finished it in June," he says of the album, which was released on September 4. "It was supposed to symbolize or be a metaphor for destroying capitalism. It was more metaphorical than realistic. It wasn't something that was saying, 'Oh, this would be cool if this happened.' It was supposed to be that the music was making the World Trade Center blow up." In the doctored photo, he says, "Pam has two conductor wands and I have a guitar tuner, which also doubles as a detonator. The fact that it is a guitar tuner may go over people's heads if they aren't involved in music."
Riley's explanation is similar to statements he issued two months ago, when the cover -- which now seems like an eerie artistic premonition -- began circulating in the e-mail realm, eventually winding up in publications ranging from Spin to the New York Times. Riley sought to explain the artwork rather than apologize for it. Along the way, he dropped a few verbal bombs that didn't sit too well with a panicked, grieving and passionately patriotic nation: "While the television media works the public into a venomous pro-war frenzy...it should be noted that a great number of atrocities have been committed by the U.S. government and its corporate backers over the last few decades -- many of which have caused a far greater loss of life than the recent bombings of New York and Washington, D.C."
While Riley says he understands why the public reacted so strongly to Party Music's cover and is sympathetic to the victims of the terrorist attacks, his overtly critical attitude toward the role of the United States in foreign affairs hasn't softened as a result of what happened. In fact, he says he now lives under a heightened concern about the diminishment of civil liberties and artistic freedoms in this country -- something he says he personally encountered during the Party Music debacle. Considering all the questions that were lobbed his way following the terrorist attacks, he is angry that no one ever asked him how he wanted to handle the album's artwork from September 11 forward. That decision was made for him by his record label, 75 Ark, the imprint co-founded by noted producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura.
"The first call I got was from them just saying that, no matter what I thought, they weren't going to run it," he says. "I thought that it was wrong that they didn't give me a choice on it at all. So we say that what people are fighting for is freedom of speech. I would have liked it more if they would have said, 'What do you think? What do you want to do? It's up to you.' Not only did they not want to run the cover -- they thought they could hide the fact that the cover already existed. What they had forgotten is that the publicist had already sent it out to magazines. So they were going to try to hide it and keep it hush-hush."
Conspiracy is a theme in Riley's life. In the days following the first wave of media coverage focusing on the album cover, he began paying closer attention to simultaneous coverage of current events. He felt that he and his art had been misrepresented; surely other facts had, too.
"I was looking at the way the media was running this thing, how they were hiding the fact that this is the modus operandi of the United States -- which is to commit terrorist acts all around the world," he says. "For instance, the U.S. was found guilty by the World Court of killing 30,000 innocent civilians in Nicaragua in order to overthrow a democratically elected government. They were ordered by the World Court to pay $19 billion in reparations, to which the United States just said, 'We're not adhering to the findings of the World Court.' If that's not terrorism, I don't know what is."
These kinds of rabble-rousing statements are what Riley was most associated with before, well, it. Party Music -- which earned a nine-star rating from Spin -- is the Coup's fourth full-length release, following 1993's Kill My Landlord, 1994's Genocide and Juiceand 1999's Steal This Album. (Many people took the last disc's title literally: "I think it was one of the most stolen albums of '99," Riley says proudly.) Yet while it's no less political than previous efforts, Party Music finds Warren and Riley displaying a new desire to make listeners bounce and have fun, even as they contemplate the state of the world. The songs activate the booty as well as the mind by combining the slinky street-swagger funk of Too Short with the pragmatism of social-activist groups like the Black Panthers. It's music for players in Cadillacs as well as the Angela Davises of the neighborhood. DJ Pam the Funkstress provides tasteful scratches that complement the live instrumentation, proving that when the Coup comes to party, it smashes any notion of a glass ceiling.