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."
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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 Juice and 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.
Riley says the record's title has a double-edged meaning.
"Yeah, it's party music -- or it's Party music, in the sense of political party," he says. "But I also made this album because a lot of times when people talk about what's going on in the world and trying to fight the system and change it, there's doom and gloom involved in so much of what is called political rap. What I wanted to do is put forth, musically, the idea that there's hope that we can change the system."
Words like "system" and "movement" pop up so frequently in Riley's conversation that it would be easy to dismiss him as a '60s throwback. He proudly declares himself a Communist in an era in which most people think that that ideology is as dead as Marx. But he is serious and articulate when discussing his point of view.
"'Redistributing the wealth' -- that phrase gets used so much that you almost get numb to it," he says. "We're talking about people getting paid more worldwide. If all the wealth that was hoarded by a few big families was spread out, people would have a middle-class lifestyle.
"There are a lot of leaders that talk about ending things like oppression -- whether it's discrimination or getting a job -- but the reason for all of this stuff is somebody's making a profit off our backs," he continues. "That's the reason why black people were brought here in the first place. It was a profit motive. It's not people liking or not liking people. [We need to] stop exploiting people, and if people aren't talking about that, then they're trying to create a situation in which everything seems like it's good but there is still thievery going on."
Riley hopes others see the connection between activism and music when they listen to his records.
"The thing that I think I can help in is that the music that I'm doing is to inspire people to get involved -- just on the level of community organization -- and telling them to be open to being involved in these organizations," he says.
Riley doesn't approach his politics like some wide-eyed college student who buys into radical ideas for a semester or two. Born to Walter Riley, a lawyer for the Black Panther Party, and Anitra Patterson, an activist in the Bay Area in the '60s, he grew up in a family steeped in progressive politics. As a teenager, he helped organize farm workers in Delano, California. While working with residents in a public housing project in San Francisco in 1989, Riley saw the ways in which rap music and social organization could commingle for social change: One evening, after the police aggressively beat a woman and her twin nine-year-old sons, the projects' residents rioted and chased back the police while chanting the chorus of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power."
Soon after that incident, Riley hooked up with Pam Warren -- who was steeped in the DJ culture that had begun to flourish in the area in the late '80s. She ran with a crew called the Imperial Sounds and learned techniques from soon-to-be legends such as Q-Bert of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. One night, Riley caught Warren tearing up the turntables and asked her to join a group he was forming with his friend E-Roc. The group released Kill My Landlord and Genocide and Juice with this lineup. But after enduring some record-label shenanigans -- EMI bought out Genocide and Juice from New York's Wild Pitch and did nothing to promote it -- the group went on hiatus. At the time, Riley thought about retiring from rap. He formed the Young Comrades, an Oakland organization devoted to political action. The group's activities varied, though Riley says he is most proud of its challenge of an "anti-cruising" ordinance targeting black youths. The group's demonstrations eventually caused the city council to overturn the measure.
"What's basically happening in Oakland," Riley says, "is they're trying to make black people not visible in any spot so that developers will see it as a place where white people can live -- gentrification, basically."
Sentiments like these will likely strike a chord with urban folk -- frightening some while empowering others. It's more difficult to predict how listeners will respond to the explosive sentiments that pepper Party Music -- especially in a time when Americans might feel strange about listening to messages of violence and aggression. Whether one takes it literally or not, the album's first single, "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO," works as an indictment against "the ruling class" through its use of clever vignettes. Instead of the humorless diatribes that we've come to expect from politically minded acts like Rage Against the Machine, Riley spits scenarios like these: "Tell 'em boogers sell like crack/He gonna put the little baggies in his nose and suffocate like that" and "Toss a dollar in the river and when he jump in/If you can find he can swim/Put lead boots on him/And do it again, you and a friend." Musically, Riley echoes P-Funk's "Bop Gun" in the song's finale. It's a fitting tribute coming from a man who calls himself "a proletarian funkadelic parliamentarian."
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Likewise, "Ghetto Manifesto" blends good-timey music with get-serious words, starting off with a vibe -- a din of revelers is heard in the background -- that recalls the beginning of Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up." Boots then boasts of writing his lyrics on parking tickets and, as his first order of business, declares: "This is my resumé-slash-resignation/A ransom note with proposed legislation." But it isn't all agit-prop with the Coup. One of the better tracks on the record is Riley's missive to his daughter, "Clean Draws," which he penned for her birthday: "This is for you and the woman you fittin' to be/Tell that boy he's wrong, girls are strong/Next time at Show-and-Tell, play him our song."
Still, it's the more controversial tunes that have made the Coup a favorite of socially aware hip-hop heads -- and a thorn in the side of the mainstream. In the current climate, when even John Lennon's "Imagine" faces problems at the radio level, Riley isn't expecting to get much airplay.
"The censorship that I'm facing now is about the same as ever," he says. "We've been censored all the time. When I try to go to the media, we've been blacklisted. We were censored with 'Takin' These' [an early single from Genocide and Juice]. The Box would not play 'Takin' These' because we had a scene where we were taking furniture out of Rockefeller's mansion and giving the stuff out on the street for free."
Led by a Communist and more interested in pursuing ideals than money, the Coup may never crack the mainstream. But the group does want you to free your mind so that your ass -- and a revolution -- will follow. Astute members of the hip-hop nation, pay attention and get ready for takeover.