The Coup designed the original cover for Party Music several months before September 11. It shows the two Coup members — Pam the Funkstress and Boots Riley — with the twin towers behind them. Pam is dancing and waving a couple conductor’s batons. Boots is holding a guitar tuner, pressing a button on it as if it’s a detonator, while two fireballs explode above, from the top floors of the WTC. (“The one reason we had that cover was because it was very unrealistic to me that something like that would happen,” Boots told the San Francisco Bay Guardian.) The symbolism is that the WTC represents capitalism, and party music is going to bring it down.
When the terrorists attacked, the meaning of this image changed, obviously; the cover hadn’t been printed yet, but it was on the publicity company’s Web site, from which it was deleted, but not before a whole bunch of people had downloaded it and the story had been picked up by Reuters. I reported here in the Voice that because of the attack, the Coup were changing the cover. This was my wishful thinking, my misinterpreting a record company press release — I subsequently learned that it was the record company that was changing the cover, over the group’s objections. I also quoted the company to the effect that “the Coup advocates change, but change through peaceful means, never violence.” This was the record company’s wishful thinking. Yes, Boots Riley wants to build a mass movement for social change, but in fact he thinks that ultimately it may only succeed through violence. What he told the Bay Guardian about the WTC attack was: “Everyone who listens to the Coup’s music knows that [when] we say it’s going to be a violent revolution, what that has to do with is millions of people coming together and making the movement. This is not part of a movement — bombing places. I don’t think that those kinds of things are anything that people who are interested in the people having power get involved in. It doesn’t build people’s power at all. If it does anything, it sets up for a military [escalation].” And he told The Onion several years ago: “Organizing needs to be done in the community to make smaller reforms. But these reforms have to be working toward an ultimate goal, which may or may not be achieved during our lifetime, which is to destroy the system that makes these inequities and makes this problem, and this system is capitalism… But that revolution is a ways off, so I talk about things in the here and now.” So why the hell did he want to keep the cover? If he doesn’t know enough to get rid of it, how can anyone take him seriously as either promising or threatening social change? Whom did he think he would attract with it now — other than some kids who like the idea of blowing things up? And what message did he think it would deliver?
“I wanted to keep the cover so I could have a platform,” he said on Davey D’s Hard Knock Radio show in Oakland. Come on, the cover would have outshouted anything else he could possibly say. Not that he was saying much of value in the radio interview: “What happened the other day was a tragedy, but the media wants to make us think that this happened in a vacuum. They don’t tell us about the fact that the U.S. ordered 100,000 people killed in East Timor a few years ago.” Stuff like that. (Sure, the WTC attack didn’t happen in a vacuum. But it didn’t happen in relation to East Timor, either — and the U.S. was in no position to order those killings, anyway.) The guy’s simply not a political thinker, and the more political his statements get, the more he comes across as just another barroom bullshitter.
Many of the lyrics on Party Music amount to no more than slogans, maxims, opinions: “You got 5 million ways to kill a CEO.” I wonder who counts as a CEO here? Donald Trump? Puffy? Jay-Z? L.A. Reid? “I could work hard all my life and in the end still suffer/Because the world is controlled by you lazy motherfuckers.” Well, the first half of this couplet is true for a lot of people. But does Alan Greenspan, for instance (or Puffy or L.A., etc.), work less hard than the rest of us?
Such lyrics bug me because Boots Riley is quite capable, when he’s not thinking big thoughts, of artistic and moral and emotional depth. For one thing, there’s the music, a slow Funkadelic party funk — not as exuberant or edgy as that of the OutKast-Backbone-Goodie Mob gang down in Atlanta, nor as grippingly atmospheric as Dre’s. But it’s a good fit for Boots’s rap style, which has a relaxed charisma even when the words come fast.
The lyrics I quoted may seem to speak otherwise, but I feel that, though Boots’s thinking is often lazy, it’s not mean. I don’t get the sense of someone just looking to discharge his anger. In fact, I don’t hear much anger at all. If I didn’t know English, I’d think of the album as good-humored, bubbly. Interestingly, the songs that have the most political posturing are the ones that sound like the most fun, with spirited delivery and P-Funk twisty-toy tunes. And the words themselves are fun to play with. I might not believe that CEOs “control the Pope, the Dalai Lama, holy rollers, Ayatollah,” but I can have a good time rolling those syllables around my tongue. Same for “pro-prophylactic yet procreation.”
And there’s visceral storytelling that’s not stupid at all: In 1999’s “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night,” he introduces the one-armed pimp by saying that Jesus “slapped a hoe to pieces with his plastic prosthesis” — so later, when the narrator recalls how, as a little boy, he heard Jesus slam “Momma’s head against the front bolt lock,” you can almost feel the hard plastic against skull against metal. And then the confusion: The little boy intends to get even with the pimp but in the meantime plays friendly (“You accidentally killed my mom, no playa hation points/You know how bitches act, shit, exclamation points”), asking the pimp to be his mentor. He explains to us, “First it was a setup move, then it was the truth/His letters were the only thing I had as a youth.” The boy grows up violent and abusing women. Finally as a young man he kills Jesus, which is cathartic but leaves him unresolved, since now, grown up and a father, he still only knows to act violent.
The new album’s “Nowalaters” is, if anything, even more complicated than “Me and Jesus” (though not as vivid or as musically gripping): A guy thinks back to his teen girlfriend, his having had to get high to overcome his fear of sex with her, and then it turns out that the girl got pregnant — and then that she was trying to sucker him into thinking that her kid was his. (Moment of truth: “The baby was four months early and around 10 pounds.”) The singer in retrospect realizes how scared the girl must have been and how she’d been taught that her only choice in such a situation was to grab a man. So there’s anger at her, and sympathy, and finally his thanking her for letting him go.
What I miss from the last LP, Steal This Album, are more such social details: repo men disguising themselves as pizza delivery boys to get inside a house; fast-food workers confronting their shift managers; hip-hop skits that for once are actually funny, about sneaking into movies, pissing at funerals.
Maybe what the Coup’s real message is, or what I’d like it to be, beyond the sloganeering, is that all of this — the wordplay, funk, jokes, fucking up, getting angry, scrambling to eat, pay the rent, have fun — is a party. And from this party you can evolve the power to alter the conditions of life.
But again, I have to wonder about Boots’s pretensions to be a political organizer, or wonder if there are disconnects between Boots the organizer, Boots the storyteller, and Boots the sloganeer. “If you got beef with the C.O.P.’s/Throw a Molotov at the P.I.G.’s.” I mean, if he truly wants an effective mass movement, at some point he’s going to need the support or at least the acquiescence of a lot of cops, not to mention their siblings, cousins, and neighbors — and he’s not going to get it by calling them “pigs.” So I really don’t see what these songs have to do with creating alternative social arrangements; they’re more a kind of identity politics, where pimps and teen moms get to be interesting people, while cops and shift managers and repo men are corrupt and worthless, across the board.
Not that I expect great political insight from musicians. But actually, why not? This has been a main perplexity of mine, since I’m always hearing social insight in music: When a Jay-Z kicks Amil out of bed or calls Prodigy a ballerina, I feel that I’m getting culturally rich actions from a culturally rich world, no matter how narrow or conventional or bigoted or creepy Jay-Z’s particular action might be on the surface. Whereas when I hear a noncreep like Boots Riley rap, “Every death is an abrupt one, every cop is a corrupt one,” I think he’s just taking a potentially interesting world and reducing it to simplicities. I don’t know if I can explain the difference, the richness of Jay-Z’s bragging versus the narrowness of Boots’s sloganeering, but I’m sure that I’m right and that the difference exists throughout music, the obviously political song usually coming out much more simpleminded than the standard love song, hate song, boasting song, gangsta song, pop song. You can hear the same difference between Boots’s agitprop lyrics and his story lyrics. But why should this be? Why wouldn’t a sense of politics and broad power relations enrich song lyrics, not deplete them?