Radical Oakland, Calif., hip-hop crew the Coup acquired a cult following for their series of funny, funky, intelligent albums in the '90s, but it was a bizarre, and unfortunate, coincidence that thrust frontman Boots Riley into the national spotlight: The cover of their fourth album, "Party Music," slated for release the week of Sept. 11, 2001, featured a PhotoShopped image of an exploding World Trade Center. The ensuing controversy, and Boots' uncompromising response, became a right-wing talking point, but also helped "Party Music" onto best-album-of-the-year lists. Five years on, the Coup return with a new record, "Pick a Bigger Weapon." We met Boots in a New York cafe and talked about politics, music and getting on "Politically Incorrect."
In industry terms, five years is quite a break between albums -- what have you been up to, and how did "Pick a Bigger Weapon" come about?
Well, the label that "Party Music" originally came out on went bankrupt before the album came out. Although we had all of these orders because of the controversy around the album cover, we couldn't get it to people. Eventually, after a few months it got into the stores, so we spent a lot of time touring and promoting the album. And then I started to work on this album, and everybody was like, "Wow, with everything that's been going on, this album is going to be a very important album, people are going to listen to it and instantly turn into revolutionaries," you know, and I kind of bought it, to a certain extent, and started trying to write songs in ways that I never had before.
I ended up making like a hundred different pieces of music that I liked before I was like, "I'm not going to write this objective manifesto of what the movement should do and put that on a CD." I decided I'm just going to write about my life.
What was the experience with "Party Music"?
Well, I think that, for the first time, people that would get a CD of the Coup on their desk wouldn't look at it and say, "What the hell is this?" and put it in the "don't listen to" pile. You know, there was all this controversy, so people were like, "Let's see what this is all about." And we had a good album, so people liked it. But I don't just want critical acclaim! I want masses of people to hear the music, too.
[As for the controversy,] I was able to, at the time, put out a line that was against the bombing of Afghanistan and put the U.S., the U.S.'s role in the world, in the context of September 11 -- or put September 11 in the context of the U.S.'s role. There were a lot of people who had those ideas but were afraid to put it out there, and there were other people that wouldn't have been afraid but had no access. It gave me access to everything from "Politically Incorrect" to "Hannity & Colmes," to Fox, NBC, ABC, to get these things out there. Of course it was in the context of "this guy, he's crazy."
The atmosphere at the time was one of "Don't speak out against the government right now." At the time that the "Not in Our Name," the petition, went around, I was trying to get other people I knew that were big R&B and hip-hop stars -- that I knew, already, in their daily life, are way more radical than they put into their music, that I knew were against the war -- to sign it. But they said no. They'd literally been told by their record label that things wouldn't go well for them, promotion-wise, if they got involved with the wrong things.
Have things changed since then? What's your assessment of where the hip-hop world is at right now, politically?
I think that most people in the world are in agreement that they don't like the way things are. Most people in the world don't like the war. Most people in the world think that we're ruled by a group of people who are willing to sacrifice thousands, if not millions, of lives in order to gain a profit.
But what's happening is that we hear about the problems, but we know nothing of the history of people fighting back against it. I think that people are more aware than they have been in a long time, but there are some people who are just not hopeful. I'm very hopeful because I think all that needs to be done is drawing the connection between what type of actions will work to change the ways things are and the fact that there are a lot of people who want change -- drawing that line, drawing that connection, will cause a big change.
-- Matt Glazebrook