"It's a whole different feeling on the East Coast." Raymond "Boots" Riley, Oakland's most famously outspoken rapper, is talking. The Coup, the group he's led for more than a decade, has just returned from a series of spring New York dates. Their latest album, Pick a Bigger Weapon (Epitaph), has just dropped. It's a good time to clock the distance between the coasts. "They've got a whole different code of language and lifestyle — and the same with the political energy that's there. It doesn't even translate," he says. "We were in New York for four days, and like the old saying goes, 'It's a nice place to visit.’”
He pauses, perhaps for breath, perhaps to check himself, before continuing, "There are a million things to plug into back there. You don't even have time to make a mistake. With all the stuff you hear about Oakland, the truth is that people walk down the street and say 'what's up' to each other even when they're strangers."
For Riley, that sense of community is crucial. It keeps him going. Because exposing the dark hand behind the daily injustices heaped on the populace — and empowering people to stand against it — is what Riley is all about. Beginning with the Coup's 1992 debut, Kill My Landlord (Wild Pitch), through his latest, the group's fifth full-length, he has created a deeply personal, heartfelt, often funny body of work that captures the East Bay's radical legacy, as well as its funky, booty-shaking musical sensibility.
ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN
For those whose eyes were focused on other things — understandable under the circumstances — the original drop date for the Coup's fourth album, Steal This Album: Party Music (75 Ark), was 9/11. If current events weren't enough, the original cover featured Riley and Coup DJ Pam the Funkstress in front of a crumbling World Trade Center. It got the group a fair bit of publicity — not all of it favorable, including scrutiny from the political police. The result was that in some quarters, Party Music was seen as too hot to handle.
It contributed to a potentially lethal — career-wise — four-year-plus interlude between albums. Riley is frank about the delay.
"A couple of years were about us touring to make sure that people found out about that album," he explains. "For a long time when we toured, we'd get into town and find out that the album wasn't in the stores. I don't apologize for anything about that album, and I wanted to make sure that it didn't just disappear."
But a nearly five-year wait?
"Well," Riley says, "there was the business of what did I want the next album to be. And in the past, the first 12 songs I liked, there was the album. But this time, I had 100 songs I liked, I kept obsessing about the music, and a lot of that was me running away from making the album." Party Music may not have gone putf8um, but it boosted the Coup's visibility and reputation among more than just funk lovers. The past few years have seen an upsurge in political activism, and the group managed to find fans among those who like rebellion with their music. High expectations came with the territory.
"I got sidetracked when I started this album for a little bit," says Riley. "I set out thinking I was going to have to address everything in the world. I was taking on too much."
It's instructive to understand what "too much" means to Riley.
"At first I'd think about writing a song that would break down the Palestinians’ fight for land," he says. It led to what he calls overthinking the problem. "Some people look out at the world and see things simply. I see things in their complications. It's how I understand the world, but it also can lead to problems. That comes out in my music sometimes, because I can always do something over by just erasing a line."
What this led to in the case of Bigger Weapon was a classic hurry-up-and-wait situation. There was a time, for instance, when Riley would go into the studio and just follow his instincts.