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The Coup delivers a political message with hip hop, funk and humor

Matt Sullivan
Raymond “Boots” Riley of The Coup
Photo by Amelia Kennedy
Raymond "Boots" Riley of The Coup.
Photo by Amelia Kennedy

The Coup and Sage Francis will perform Thursday, Nov. 7, at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub. Doors open at 7 p.m., Sage Francis plays at 8 p.m. and The Coup starts at 10:30. Tickets $30. See beartooththeatre.net for more. 

Since the early '90s, rapper Raymond "Boots" Riley has been as much a rabble-rouser as an emcee, a politically charged lyricist with fiercely leftist convictions and an ear for catchy hooks. Taking a cue from Public Enemy, his group The Coup made social justice a focal point, but the message comes packaged in classic hip-hop that mines funk and soul for inspiration.

Last year The Coup released "Sorry to Bother You," only the group's third full-length since releasing the indie hip-hop classic "Steal This Album" in 1998. That interim also included "Party Music," an album maybe more notorious for what was originally planned as the record cover: a depiction of the twin towers exploding (this was just before the Sept. 11 attacks). But with "Sorry," The Coup re-emphasize that, while the message might be political, the music comes first.

"We write the music first, and then, whatever that music is making me feel, that's what I write about," Riley explained over the phone from his home in Oakland, Calif. "There are very few times that I've ever sat down and said, 'Here's the message I want to give.' I just try to engage in songwriting that reflects how I really feel about the world."

"Sorry" also retools The Coup's sound a bit, sporting more elements of rock, but it'd be wrong to call it "rap-rock."

"This album, I think, sounds more like what our live show has been sounding like since '98," Riley explained. "When we first started making records, a lot of songs were slow and stuff like that, but we've gotten really good at the live show, so that's affected how I construct the songs."

The title and some of the themes are drawn from Riley's experience as a telemarketer. Riley has written a screenplay for a movie of the same name, which is planned for production next year (he will also act in the film). "What I say is it's a dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by my time as a telemarketer," he said.

Though telemarketing probably seems a strange job for an ardent communist, Riley sold things like newspapers and encyclopedias and raised funds for nonprofits. "I was really good at what I did. I was so good it was depressing, because I was using my prowess for the wrong thing," he said.

Riley also worked in fundraising: "Even though that was different from telemarketing, it still had a lot of similarities.

"Sometimes you're just lying, putting things in a really good light. For instance, how the hell do you raise money in Orange County (California) -- which is an extra-Republican, right-wing area -- for a homeless shelter? The only way to do that is to scare right-wing Republicans into thinking that if they don't give money to the homeless shelter, there's going to be homeless people outside on their sidewalk terrorizing (them)."

But even as those experiences helped inspire another critically acclaimed album from The Coup (Pitchfork called Riley's performance on "Sorry" "as nimble, funny, and wry as ever"), efforts to take the live show to stateside audiences have proved frustrating. When Play spoke with Riley, he had just returned from touring France. He said that was The Coup's fourth or fifth trip across the Atlantic in the past few years. "For some reason, even though we put out this album that got all this acclaim, we haven't gotten as many bookings out here in the U.S.," he said.

He's hoping a change of booking agent will help with that, and to that end, the 23-year-old hip-hop institution is making its first trip to Alaska. "Is it going to be like that Al Pacino movie?" Riley asked.

The more recent successes in Europe come after The Coup abandoned a tour there with Puff Daddy much earlier in the group's career. "We went out there to do some shows with him -- this is about 10 years ago or something, and we were coming in near the end of the tour -- and he hadn't paid his truck drivers," explained Riley. "They went out on strike, and he brought in scabs. I just said, 'We don't cross picket lines.' "

The Coup traveled to Europe but never performed with Puff Daddy. Even while managers were in his ear saying he'd be crazy to do so, Riley pulled The Coup out of the tour.

"How can you struggle and try to get higher wages if people are crossing picket lines and scabbing?" he asked. "What we're talking about is the fact that we need to change the system so that the people have control over the wealth that they create with their labor. Part of that struggle is going to have to be work stoppages and strikes, done militantly and done in solidarity with each other -- which is illegal, by the way. I would never step on someone's struggle for their livelihood. There would be no reason for me to keep doing the music if that's what I'm going to do.

"The reason I'm doing the music is to express myself, but one of the things I want when I'm expressing myself is I'd like to see the world change," he said. "Withholding labor is the only tool we have to fight exploitation, and scabbing is one of the most despicable things you can do, because you're not just affecting one person, you're affecting a whole group of people's jobs. So yeah, we don't cross picket lines."


By Matt Sullivan
Daily News correspondent