Now many listeners were knocking at the door. The president of Epitaph, Andy Caulkins, was one of them.
"He'd call me," Riley remembers, "and say, 'We're really excited about this album. It's really the time for it.' 'Laugh, Love, Fuck,' a kind of personal manifesto, was the first song I turned in. After a few of my conversations, I'd be wondering if this was what they expected. But I realized that what motivates me to think about things on a world scale, it has to do with what is happening in my town, how it's similar and dissimilar to what's going on in the world. Otherwise it's like I'm sitting in class, and it's just a bunch of facts. When I first got into organizing I was 15, and I was really excited about learning things, and I think I read every book that was shoved at me. What stuck with me is the parts of the books that my actual real life made clear.
"How I write best is just me being myself — when I have what I call moments of clarity — just feeling things, reacting to things as I live my life. That's when it works."
The material is so personal that at moments Riley had difficulty handling the idea of a public hearing. "I have songs on here," he says, "that I couldn't look at people when I first played them ... 'I Just Want to Lay Around in Bed with You' and 'Tiffany Hall.' The last one is about a friend of mine and what her death signifies to me. Those songs were hard for me in that very personal way."
These tracks were foreshadowed by cuts like "Wear Clean Drawers" and the wrenching "Heaven Tonight" from Party Music. The former is a kind of heartfelt message to his young daughter warning her about the difficulties that life has in store for her; the latter is built around the story of a young woman with hunger pangs that are the unjust punishment of poverty.
At the time that he wrote "Drawers," Riley remembers thinking, "Maybe this isn't why I got into rapping, that I needed to break the whole system down."
In fact, his songs do indict the system, like the tracks on the latest album — not by imparting lofty lessons, but by focusing on the human particulars. Ultimately, the album shows a confident Riley at home with an unambiguous approach to songwriting.
TAKE THE POWER
To say that the rapper is unapologetic doesn't begin to describe his resolve. The truth is that he never budged from the original World Trade Center a flambé cover of Party Music, and there's no give in Pick a Bigger Weapon. The title itself works two ways: as advice to the dispossessed and as a challenge to the powers that be.
"In my life," he says casually, "I'm still probably the only person I kick it with who considers himself a revolutionary. I mean, I'm not in an organization, but I think that in this world the people can take power.
There are no doubt folks who feel that Riley lives in a different universe. When asked about the skeptical among us, he tells a story he heard from guitarist Tom Morello of the late rock-rappers Rage Against the Machine. Morello has become a Riley friend and fellow traveler who can be found on occasion playing behind the Coup, as well as working with Riley as a guitar-rap duo. According to the guitarist, Rage some years ago was working on a video with outspoken director Michael Moore. The idea was for Rage to arrive on Wall Street on a busy workday, where they'd set up and play, loud. The financial district population would, they thought, be pushed up against the wall by the Rage challenge.
What happened was unexpected, and for Riley serves as a case in point. "They showed up on Wall Street," he explains, "and expected all kinds of chaos with people scared, threatened by their music, and the police coming and everything. But what happened was, out of the financial district came about 100 people in suits chanting, 'Suits for Rage!