"Naw, my voice always sounds like this in the mornings," the rapper croaks. "It's just part of it, for me -- like riding in this van for ten weeks."
Riley is traveling with half a dozen other people in support of his outfit's latest effort, Pick a Bigger Weapon. Being on the road has been "a little uncomfortable," he says, "but we're all real excited about this record and the tour. We haven't done a tour like this in forever."
Riley and company have ample reason to be excited. It's been five years since the group released its last record, Party Music, and found itself mired in a firestorm of controversy because of the prescient cover art, which depicted Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress standing in front of an exploding World Trade Center. Despite the fact that the unfortunate artwork was completed three months prior to 9/11, the Coup endured a media flogging. The group persisted, however, and has emerged with a compelling followup.
Featuring guest artists such as Jello Biafra, Talib Kweli and the Roots' Black Thought, Weapon has all the elements of seminal Coup records like Genocide and Juice and Kill My Landlord: slash-and-burn political rants, humorous takes on income disparity and social injustice, and addictive beats culled from '70s funk and jazz. Riley says working with Kweli and Black Thought forced him to step up his game.
"I had known those guys for a while, so it was a lot of fun," he says. "Black Thought always brings it, and because we were all working on our own words in the same song, it really made us step up and focus on the writing. He's such a master of his craft, of using words. It really made us have to work that much harder to bring lines that matched up with his."
With lines like "Let's get off the chain like Kunta Kinte with a Mac-10/They want us gone like a dollar in a crack den," it's clear that Riley hasn't softened his political stance. The Bush administration and its ill-conceived war in Iraq is under the microscope on several songs, and the tour is called the "Not Your Soldier" Tour, after the activist group of the same name.
"We wanted to help get out information on Not Your Soldier," Riley says about the listening parties that preceded the current tour. "We had information available on how high school students can opt out of having their personal information given to military recruiters and how they can organize against military recruiters on campus. They made a short film called 'Punk-Ass Crusade,' which uses our song 'Captain Sterling's Little Problem' as a backdrop."
Elsewhere on Weapon, Riley and Pam temper their biting indictments with humor on songs such as "Laugh/Love/ Fuck." Listen closely, though, and even those moments of levity have substance.
"I say in there, 'Bedtime is 8 p.m./It's half-past,'" Riley explains. "And that's about the feeling you had when you were a little kid and you had to go to bed, but you felt like you were missing something, like something really great was happening out there. What I was trying to say was that, yeah, when you go out, you do have fun, but that's also where you meet people who might think the same as you do. That's where community happens and things get started, not when you're sitting home alone.
"It's when people come together that we can make change happen."