Basically, I think that the whole discussion it really has to do with, Can the struggle to say that our problems come from our culture that we create, versus the question of, Do our problems come from a system that we need to fight against?” ~ Boots Riley
Revolutionary politics has an understandably bad rep in the music industry. After all, why would a business that values the System, the Power and the Man promote music that seeks to fuck, fight and overthrow these factors? The running theory is that the industry “learned its lesson” with Public Enemy and has since buried political sentiment in hip-hop, but this idea has also contributed to the marginalization of critical thought. As Ian at Notes from a Different Kitchen recently pointed out, “Truth be told, political hip-hop is still out there to be discovered for those who care to look a little harder.” However, finding a sympathetic voice among this pack has been another bag, and it’s also what makes the Coup such an extraordinary group.
Oakland’s best-kept secret, the Coup — a duo composed of emcee Boots Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress, since the departure of co-rapper E-Roc in the mid-’90s — quickly raised the ante after Public Enemy, openly espousing a neo-Marxist outlook (mostly through Riley’s direction) and a deep love of the Funk. However, the group set itself apart by refusing to sermonize; instead, it has and remains committed to storytelling. Riley’s ability to humanize social ills through plain ol’ narrative, often with a sly sense of humor, has made each of the group’s four albums rich with imagery and continually engaging.
Pick a Bigger Weapon builds on these core values. With the help of expert musicians from Parliament-Funkadelic, the Gap Band and Toni! Tony! Toné!, the funk has become leaner (the summer-ready “ShoYoAss”) and meaner (the grinding “Captain Sterling’s Little Problem”). Songs such as “Ass-Breath Killers” and “We Are the Ones” hearken back to Genocide and Juice‘s “Repo Man” and “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish,” but Riley’s writing has become focused and furious. Like Richard Pryor’s or Bill Hicks’ best, he uses punch lines for both audience response and thought provocation. Riley is the rare emcee who can lead a chant to “smash up the place” but remind us (with a wink) that it’s because “that’s just polite.” This ability to balance the perspective of the protagonist and the storyteller is what makes “Laugh/Love/Fuck” such a signature Coup tune: Over a bass bouncing like karaoke balls, Riley joins the chorus in praise of life’s trifecta of happiness but makes sure to drop the postscript, “And make the revolution come quicker.”
What takes Pick a Bigger Weapon over the top is the album’s sense of personal revelation. The group invites the listener in as they reflect, such as on the Wonder-esque “I Just Wanna Lay Around All Day in Bed With You.” Spooning between the sheets, Riley now feels comfortable to whisper, “The world outside feels claustrophobic/ Under cover of you is where my thought exploded.” Vocalist Silk E lets loose a similar love plea on “BabyLet’sHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethin’Crazy,” which deserves to share headphone space with Cody Chestnutt‘s best. In this manner, the members of the Coup bridge first, second and third persons together with their songwriting; of all the group’s works, Pick a Bigger Weapon has a greater sense of inclusion and belonging. Now, that’s a revolution anyone can dig.
The Coup of Epitaph’s Web site (streaming audio)“Captain Sterling’s Little Problem” is featured in the new feature-length film Sir No Sir!