The Coup: Ghetto Manifesto

E very so often in Hip-Hop, an individual comes who speaks to the hearts of the people. There comes an MC whose lyrics strike a chord within an audience, spewing lyrical bars over heavy funk, all the while dispersing knowledge on issues common folk beef about at work, on the block or at the dinner […]

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very so often in Hip-Hop, an individual comes who speaks to the hearts of the people. There comes an MC whose lyrics strike a chord within an audience, spewing lyrical bars over heavy funk, all the while dispersing knowledge on issues common folk beef about at work, on the block or at the dinner table. The Coup, comprised of Boots Riley and DJ Funkstress, has made its mark around the globe by maintaining a simple, yet functional approach to music inside of a complex industry.

Five albums later, the group seeks newfound levels of success, which are long overdue. Unlike most acts signed to the seminal Wild Pitch Records, The Coup has expanded their influence over the past decade. In 2006, they’ve unloaded a new clip of songs, Pick A Bigger Weapon, and those that attempt to stifle their voice. This time, The Coup enlists Talib Kweli and Black Thought in their 15th year of recording. It is now time to get reacquainted with Boots and Pam – The Coup. Party Music had such critical acclaim. How do you follow up such a critically acclaimed album?

Boots Riley: Well Party Music was so critically acclaimed because the media was looking at us more. We had the controversy of the album cover [ a pre-September 11th opus that depicted Boots detonating bombs on the World Trade Center].Since we weren’t on a major label, when the CD came across people’s desks, they would throw it in the stack with everything else, but because of the controversy they actually picked it up and listened to it. Double-edged sword…

Boots Riley: That’s why we got the critical acclaim…so all I do is keep doin’ what we do. Matter of fact, the album is called Pick a Bigger Weapon, ‘cause we upped the ante, and we’re taking it to the next level. I think about my lyrics long enough so that they meet my quality-control test. I’m not worried about critical acclaim at all; I’m worried about getting the album out there and people hearing it. So now there are expectations and you’re being looked at to say something on these current issues.

Boots Riley: Yeah. And really, that’s not how I’ve ever written a song, its all been through my own personal perspective. Meaning, on a day-to-day basis, [I write about] what’s going on in my life, not just what I see on CNN, or what I hear about going on in the world. It’s about the small things in life and how that relates to the bigger things, Ya know, so on this album, I talk about getting up for work everyday and dealing with that same daily drudge. I heard you worked with Tom Morello [of Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave] on this album, what was that like?

Boots Riley: Tom Morello does a solo on this album. He’s cool people. He’s

always been supportive of the music and what we do. He’s tryin’ to push us out

there, so he brought us along on the Tell Us the Truth Tour that he did, and he’s also

bringing us along on the Audioslave tour later on. He’s really a lot more down to roll

up his sleeves and work in the community for somebody that has had as much success

as him. I read an article on a high school teacher in Seattle, WA that uses the lyrics to “Fat Cats, Bigger Fish” to teach a poetry workshop in his Language Arts class. What is it about that song that resonated to your fans, what inspired that song?

Boots Riley: A lot of my songs talk about that daily struggle, and connecting that daily struggle to the world outside and what it means in the world. My songs deal with people coming to a realization of their own power. That’s one of the themes in a lot of my music: realizing your own power. I think that’s one resonates with people. When Hip-Hop was at its prime there were a lot of MC/DJ tandems, and now with you and DJ Pam the Funkstress, what has it been like y’all in a male/female tandem having her on the turntables?

Boots Riley: At first, it was a shock. They thought it was a gimmick, but then she starts cuttin’ and she blows people away. She used to be in all these DJ battles, winnin’ ‘em and s**t like that. People got so threatened by her that they would be mean to her. And she wanted to get to know these DJs but once they were beaten by a girl, they’d stop being friends with her, other contestants would be screaming “F**k you, f**k you!” but the crowd was loving her and going crazy. I’ve witnessed it, some of the DJ’s out now talkin’ ‘bout “it’s all about the art” are the same ones hatin’ on her. So Funkstress stopped doing it. You guys have bounced around a bit trying to find a label home, what’s your new situation like?

Boots Riley: We’re on Epitaph Records; it’s the most like a real label that we’ve ever been on. A few months ago was the first time I ever had a marketing meeting in our whole career. Usually, when our albums come out, people have to look all over to find them and this is the first time we’ll actually be in stores on the release date. We usually end up selling about 100,000 by the end of the day of each album with all these obstacles. This one, I think we’ll sell a lot more just off the fact that people will be able to find it. Being an independent artist, especially in Hip-Hop, what’s that grind been like? Have you ever gotten to a point where you almost gave up or times got rough and you had to take a nine-to-five or do other things?

Boots Riley: I actually quit [my job] after the Genocide and Juice album. The single “Fat Cats, Bigger Fish” got to a promoter named Mona Lisa, and with her help was getting a lot of radio play all over like on Power 106 in LA and Chicago and other stations. We were selling like 5,000 albums a week at that time, so that just shows you that we caused that reaction, we were climbing up the charts. During that time, EMI bought the album and a week later, they shelved it. Even though it was selling and climbing up the charts, they took it off the market. So things have been successful pretty much since?

Boots Riley: It’s been growing and growing, there’s people that still think Party Music was our first album. To me, that’s good, ‘cause that means we are gaining fans and its not just the same fans from back in the day. Some people think this is our first album, Pick A Bigger Weapon, but I like it. I’m like “Wow, this is great!” I love that at our shows the age range is like 17-20-something, and it’s not just the same older fans but it’s still new to a lot of them. You fit a certain role now in Hip-Hop as being one of the top figures in political activism and promoting social awareness in Hip-Hop. Do you feel that’s an overstatement to what your role really is? Do you feel you’re an artist first or an activist first?

Boots Riley: Well, if I’m doin’ what I’m doin’, then I have to see myself as an artist first. Otherwise, what I’m doin’ won’t work. It’s kinda like if you’re a revolutionary doctor and you’re helping people that don’t get medical care, you still have to be on top of your game as a doctor, you don’t wanna try and help somebody and do a f**ked up job. I have a certain opinion of the world that comes out into my songs. I also want my music to be used by organizers in whatever campaigns they do. Who were some of your inspirations coming up whether it is on the musical or political end?

Boots Riley: Paul Roberson, Gil Scott Heron, Amiri Baraka…and basically on the musical end Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Ice Cube, Rakim, Schoolly D…the list goes on. Do you think that positive Hip-Hop will become the majority and commercial Hip-Hop will take a back seat and the tables will turn?

Boots Riley: Well, then that rap will be the commercial rap! Definitely, but what’s called underground right now will be called commercial and vice versa. What’s underground rap is making a lot of money right now. There are people that are “underground rappers” that have nice houses, nice cars and eat very well. It’s a marketing technique, that’s all it is, the word “underground”. What we thought ten years ago was underground was E-40. Now, [My Ghetto Report Card] probably gonna go platinum. All those words are just marketing techniques. Has it been a struggle taking that route in your music and not compromising what you do to gain more fans?

Boots Riley: In this business, if I didn’t have as many morals as I did, I probably would have gotten further. There’s times where like Interview Magazine, was like “Levis bought this editorial page, if you do this ad where The Coup is wearing Levis then we’ll do this editorial page for you”. Certain sponsors come up to me and we just won’t do it. You won’t see me on a Coke ad, that’s an avenue that other people will take that I won’t, there are things that I can do to increase my sales, but at the end of the day I have to sleep with myself. The other day we were talking about the Marvin Gaye ad for Hennessey. Now they don’t even have to put Hennessey on the ad, as soon as you see Marvin Gaye, you think Hennessey. I hope none of my descendants do that to me, where people see a picture of Boots Riley and think, Shavers.