Pick a Bigger Weapon
by Zoneil Maharaj
When conscious and political hip-hop had risen to its zenith in 1993, the radical anti-capitalist hip-hop group The Coup, led by politically-minded emcee and producer Boots Riley, released their first album, "Kill My Landlord." The video for the Oakland, California-based group’s first single, “Not Yet Free,” was on regular rotation on BET’s Rap City and Yo! MTV Raps.
When the genre of politically conscious hip-hop was removed from the mainstream spotlight soon after, Boots and DJ Pam the Funktress remained active, receiving acclaim and praise for their follow-up albums. Their last ablum, "Party Music," was named the best rap album of 2001 by Rolling Stone and best album of 2001 by the Washington Post.
Now signed to Epitaph and armed with a better record deal, the Coup is ready to make another killing with their upcoming release, "Pick A Bigger Weapon." PopandPolitics.com caught up with Riley, a former youth activist, at his home in west Oakland to rap about politics, hip-hop, and the new album.
PopandPolitics.com: What motivated you to become an activist and what motivated you to pick up the mic?
Boots: Everyone wants to connect to the universe. I found that to really be part of it all, to really connect to the universe is to help to change it as opposed to just being there watching everything go past me. I think once I started organizing when I was 15, I realized that this is why I wanted to get involved. This is what I wanted to do. I wanted to feel like my time here is significant.
PandP: On “Laugh/Love/Fuck,” (a song from the upcoming album “Pick a Bigger Weapon”) you say on the chorus that you’re here to, “Make the revolution come quicker.” How do you plan on doing that through your music?
Boots: Hopefully, my music can be used by organizers as something to inspire themselves and others to keep doing the work they’re doing. Also, there are messages that can be rallying cries to rally more people to the cause of what they’re doing. I think music in and of itself serves as a cultural point of reference. People can hear an idea, a theme, and some music and know that everyone else that is listening to this music is relating to that theme or idea or goal in some way -- so it can help and create a unity of thought in some way, shape, or form. Hopefully my music can be used that way.
PandP: The new album’s heavy on funk. How does The Coup’s sound fit in with the current Bay Area scene, juxtaposed with the hyphy culture that’s going on?
Boots: We’ve always been very funky in our music. And what’s coming out is a variation of that funk that’s been in the Bay Area for a long time. So we’re right there in the middle of it. Our bass has always been low. Our stuff has always been crazy. My rhyme patterns have always been unorthodox. I think some of what people call “hyphy” music is mainly drums with few instruments. There are a few hits that are out that sound like that, and people call it hyphy. People think of Mac Dre’s music as hyphy and his stuff is very much bassline, keys, guitars, everything. It’s the same sound that’s been there the same time. And our music is part of that sound that’s always been there. The hyphy thing is more of an attitude than a sound change.
PandP: How did the industry react to the original cover art for “Party Music?” [The original artwork, completed three months prior to 9/11, depicted the twin towers blowing up and was slated to hit shelves around the same time.] What was your personal reaction when 9/11 happened?
Boots: I heard about it [9/11] on the radio and I didn’t make a connection to the cover really, because planes slammed into the World Trade Center and I didn’t picture it looking similar. On the album I have a bass tuner and Pam [the Funktress] has conductor’s wands. It’s supposed to make the statement that our music is destroying capitalism. I was fine with pulling the cover. My music talks about masses of people coming together to affect change. The album cover was only a metaphorical piece of art that talked about what we wanted our ideas to do... I was fine with pulling it so that people didn’t mistake what I was talking about.
At the same time, it had gotten so much publicity. Many entertainers at that time that had anything political about them were scared of getting shut out of the industry. I had publicists that were like, “I can’t work on your album anymore ‘cause I won’t have a career after that.” I used it as an opportunity to speak out at the time against bombing Afghanistan. The main controversy I got was not for the album cover, but for the statement that came out afterward that stated the U.S. had created worse atrocities all over the world, and what the flag stood for, to me, was slavery and oppression. That’s what got all the right-wing writers up in arms.
PandP: Your new album’s coming out on Epitaph, what used to be a predominantly punk label. Why is a punk label enlisting more conscious hip-hop?
Boots: As you see from marketing, the same people that buy Jay-Z buy Linkin Park. The same people that buy David Banner buy Evanescence. It’s the same people buying all of this stuff. Record labels see that. A lot of the punk audience listens to “underground” hip-hop. Also, Epitaph is known for taking groups that sell 100,000 to 150,000 copies each time out and tripling, if not quadrupling and quintupling their sales. They have groups that they have taken from 50,000 sales to 700,000 when they join them.
PandP: I remember watching your videos in the early 90s. Your videos used to get played on BET, but they don’t play any of your recent videos.
Boots: BET’s Rap City used to be a format in which, if you could show you had a good quality video and song and you had national distribution, you had a good chance of being able to get played on Rap City. It’s not like that anymore. You have to show that you’re getting regular rotation spins on the radio.
PandP: Is your audience generally comprised of an alternative crowd? You were featured in Bakari Kitwana’s article “The Cotton Club: Black-conscious hip-hop deals with an overwhelmingly white live audience” in the Village Voice.
Boots: My live audience is the same as most hip-hop audiences, which has to do with the fact that black people are kept away from shows. Even here, the KMEL crowd [a popular mainstream urban radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area], it’s not mainly black when you go to their shows, it’s mainly a white audience. A lot of that has to do with how shows are promoted. That doesn’t mean that the crowd that listens to this music doesn’t have more black people listening to it, it has to do with how promoters are encouraged to keep black people away, everything from ticket pricing to where flyers are passed out to where events are held.
What I was talking about [in the article] is that hip-hop is being gentrified by the police and by the industry, which is quite a different angle than what he [Kitwana] took. What he tried to say was that black people don’t listen to any music that’s political anymore, which is not the case. He tried to make it seem like 50 Cent and Eminem have a greater percentage of black fans, and we know that’s not true. If you get anywhere close to platinum or gold, most of your fans, 90 percent of them are white. My point is not that a lot of my fans aren’t white. Many, if not most of my fans, are white -- but that is the same for Master P, that’s the same for Jay-Z, that’s the same for all of hip-hop.
Hip-hop in general, when black folks get together, the police don’t like it. A fight that happens when there’s a black crowd turns out the whole show, the police shut it down. But a fight that happens when there’s a white crowd, those fighters get pulled outside and the show goes on. You don’t hear about it because the show didn’t get cancelled…The other thing is, police can decide based on no obvious criteria at all, to okay the permit for your event and that really just depends on who they deem the crowd is going to be.
Yeah, most of my audience is white. Most of the people that buy Nikes are white, most of the people that buy FUBU are white, most of the people that watch Dave Chappelle are white. We live in the United States and the people that have the money to buy these things are going to be white. My music is about the working class defeating the ruling class, and in the working class, there are people of all shades.
PandP: Why the title “Pick a Bigger Weapon”?
Boots: It means "up the ante." And the reason I used "Pick a Bigger Weapon" is because I think that we’re all fighting the system whether we feel like we’re in the struggle or not, and that fight takes the form of struggling to pay the rent, trying to keep the lights on, things like that. Those are the struggles we all should be engaged in collectively. It’s about taking our daily struggles and collectivizing them and it would be a stronger blow to the system.
Also, my girlfriend and I were having dinner with poet Jessica Care Moore and my girlfriend was on her third or fourth martini and Jessica was like, “C’mon girl, pick a bigger weapon.” That’s symbolic of people looking for ways to make their lives better and right now we’ve been taught to overlook actually fighting the system together to make our life better.
Pick A Bigger Weapon drops on April 25, 2006. Boots is also currently working on the Instigators album with political hip-hop group Dead Prez.