Rap's Righteous Rhyme-Fighter
If Raymond 'Boots' Riley -- frontman for Oakland, California's the Coup -- is rap's most political practitioner, he may well also be one of its most expressive humorists.
The year 1991 was not the best to form a political rap group. Three years prior, Public Enemy and Queen Latifah had been rallying progressive forces around their righteous raps, but by the dawn of the new decade the narcissistic individualism of the gangsta style had become the genre's dominant strain. All the same, into this arena leapt long-time activist, Raymond "Boots" Riley, with his neo-Marxist hip-hop vehicle, the Coup. Before long it became apparent that the Coup was not only a political rap group, but the most ideologically-driven act to emerge in years -- from rap or rock. Hailing from Oakland, California, home to some of the nation's most radical politicos (including the original Black Panthers), the Coup aired its polemics with the natural ease of San Franciscans, while the rest of the hip-hop nation marginalized it as the band-out-of-time-and-place that it undoubtedly was.
Although the Coup would never compete on the same playing fields as New York's Biggie Smalls or L.A.'s Tupac during the '90s, Boots' roots-based music and concerns have held the kind of sociological and literary weight that should one day have historians citing him in the same breath as Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets (neither of whom were chart-toppers in their day, either). Part of a progressive tradition that runs from James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone, through Funkadelic and Public Enemy, and up to Digital Underground and Dead Prez, Riley (with his trusty DJ sidekick, Pam the Funkstress) has embraced these foundations without being beholden to them.
As much as the Coup is couched in a particular black musical tradition, Riley's lyrical flair and satire suggest other, broader antecedents. His richly detailed scenes and comical caricatures evoke the observational humor of Mark Twain and Warren Zevon, while his hip vernacular and outlandish skits are as raw, irreverent, and funny as Richard Pryor in his prime. If Riley is rap's most political practitioner, he may well also be one of its most expressive humorists.
Kill My Landlord (1993), the Coup's debut album, lacked the caustic wit that the band would soon be known for, though it starkly established the band's principle targets of concern: the capitalist system, politicians, and the police force. "Presto, read the Communist Manifesto," Riley declares in the opening line of the album's opening song "Dig It!" From thereon he proceeds to demystify the myriad oppressions of African-American culture, highlighting police brutality in "Not Free Yet" and celebrating the L.A. riots in "The Coup".
The follow-up, Genocide and Juice (1994), continued to combine funk with politics, its tall-tales of downtrodden characters told over a West Coast groove inspired -- like the album's title -- by Snoop Dogg. "The Name Game" is a particular stand-out song that seeks to puncture the American Dream assumptions surrounding the spate of rich rappers then populating primetime MTV. Their largesse and conspicuous consumption, Riley points out, only serve to cloud the shrouded poverty of the nation's black base.
The Coup continued its internal ribbing with "Cars and Shoes" from the succeeding Steal This Album (1998). Here, Riley uses incongruous humor to invert the materialistic convention of cars as represented in so many hip-hop songs and videos. It initially appears that the stereotypes are being perpetuated when Riley raps, "See me in the town you might think I'm a star / Every three months in a different car." Far from a boast, though, it turns out that his vehicle turnover is a result of the broken alternator of his '81 Datsun and the complete break-down of his '88 Seville. The prevailing rap myth of the heroic pimp is also satirized on the album's epic, story-song, centerpiece single, "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night".
Steal This Album (with its title stolen from Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book ) represented a coming-of-age for Riley's lyrical skills. His sensitive character portraits -- laced with black humor -- had been garnering him a reputation as a satirist with Swiftian compassion and wit, but the street poetics of his rhymes increasingly appear in full bloom on this album. "Underdogs" is a tour-de-force study of the impoverished life, with a bittersweet wit derived as much from lyrical style as content. "Bills, they pile up on the coffee table like they're decorations," he observes, using a pointed simile to underscore the character's barren habitation. A painful paradox enters the song when the narrator poignantly admits, "You feel like laughing so it seems like you don't give a fuck." Later, alliteration is employed to create a sad flow for the following haunting lines: "There's certain tricks of the trade to try and halt your defeat / Like taking Tupperware to an 'All You Can Eat'." Few artists (within and beyond popular music) have given voice to the voiceless with such moving clarity, or have painted such precise portraiture of the invisible "other America".
It was visual rather than lyrical humor that created a stir as Party Music was being prepared for release. The original cover art work, completed in June of 2001, featured Riley and Pam forefronted in the shot, the former holding a guitar tuner and both wielding conductor batons. Behind them two high-rise buildings were exploding, presumably detonated by the tuner. The image was very much "in tune" with the anti-corporate philosophies that the band had been espousing over their prior three albums, the intended joke being that music has the potential and the power to bring about change. With the subsequent events of 9/11, however, the humor became rather overshadowed by reality and the cover was swiftly replaced with a new one featuring a cocktail glass. The resulting brouhaha over the original image (that subsequently swept through the media and ultimately led to FBI inquiries) ironically underscored the original cover's message, though, that music (and humor) can provoke and disturb the status quo.
Somewhat lost beneath the cover scandal were the subversive songs contained within. "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO" was the musical correlative to the original album art. Its adaptations of "Your Mama" signifying quips gave reign to Riley to unleash a tirade of wicked one-liners about greedy corporate heads. "You could throw a 20 in a vat of hot oil / When he jump in after it, watch him boil" is followed by "Put a 50 in the barrel of a gun / When he try to suck it out / A-ha! / Well, you know this one."
The Coup's most recent album release, Pick a Bigger Weapon (2006), reveals little let up regarding the band's outrageous skits and wicked wordplay, though a gentler, more personal Riley is also in evidence. With the anti-establishment political pendulum starting to swing leftwards, the band is finding more willing recipients for its black humor; and with quirky rap-fun(k)sters like Outkast and Gnarls Barkley now in vogue, the Coup's hybrid concoctions of funk, soul, R&B, and rap have an all-of-a-sudden contemporary vitality. Critics have been delighting in uproarious songs like "Head (of State)", which envisions George Bush Jr. and Saddam Hussein in oral copulation, a metaphoric allusion to past political engagements between their respective nations. Riley is just as forthright and funny at the President's expense in the self-explanatory "Babyletshaveababybeforebushdosomethingcrazy", which features the ever-radical Tom Morello on guitar. "Ass-Breath Killers" is absurdist and bizarre with its Pryor-like parody of pain-killer advertisements; here, the medication is guaranteed to cure the spineless silence of the nation's inert and sycophantic populace.
With the winds of sympathy at his back, Riley offered up "My Favorite Mutiny" as his sequel to Gil Scott-Heron's insurrectionary 1970 anthem, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised". Calling on black youth to revolt against the enslaving legacy of their history, Riley proclaims, "I get off the chain like Kunta Kinte with a MAC-10", before lambasting his people for falling prey to the opiates of drugs and religion: "Mind cloudy through the wheeze and phlegm / I'm get my brain off that and the Jesus hymns / If we waiting for the time to fight, these is thems." As if to compensate for the censoring of their Party Music cover, Pick a Bigger Weapon finds our intrepid duo returning to visual humor to complement their lyrical subversions. With Pam holding a bat and Riley a pen, the cover shot sets up their two weapons of advocacy, to be used in tandem or according to necessity.
Some might -- indeed have -- dismissed the Coup's satirical rages against the machine as un-American, but pulsing within the anger, heartache, and street-speak is a patriotic fervor and critical radar that connects back to the nation's founding fathers (and beyond). Moreover, in a hip-hop era that reveres crack-rapping, bullet-boasting, and individual self-indulgence, where macho breast-beating and internal squabbling are de rigueur, the Coup's social conscience and provocations are as necessary as they are anathema to the current scene. Speaking to reality over fantasy, to "we" over "I", Riley's modest proposals provide the kind of wake-up calls, wit, and empathy found only in the finest subversive humor.
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The above essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming book from PopMatters/Soft Skull about rock-related artists who use(d) humor as a primary instrument of rebellion.