Raymond “Boots” Riley was just fifteen when he decided to be a career revolutionary. It was perhaps a surprising decision for someone whose activism began so casually. One day a youth organizer visited his home; Boots assumed the guy was a salesman, but then remembered meeting him at school, recruiting demonstrators to support striking cannery workers. Now the man was waiting outside his house with a van filled with girls. First they were headed to the cannery in Watsonville, but then they were going to the beach. Boots tagged along because of the girls.
While other kids his age were riding bikes or getting into trouble, Boots was soon spending summers organizing Mexican immigrants in rural California towns like Wasco, Delano, and McFarland. He joined the Progressive Labor Party and the International Committee Against Racism, flew around the country for meetings and rallies, and learned to be a taskmaster and a public speaker. “It gave me a sense of importance,” he recalls, “understanding that what I did made a difference.”
But by age nineteen, Boots’ activism alone was not enough. Having first written and performed hip-hop in drama class at Oakland High School, he started frequenting local rap shows at Berkeley’s Keisha’s Inn, loading equipment in exchange for the chance to perform a song or two. Although Boots savored the crowd’s appreciation for party-oriented music, his often-political lyrics were very different from the dance tunes then popular. “Later on when I decided to do it seriously,” he recalls, “I knew it was gonna be hard getting shows.”
He and some activist friends formed the Mau Mau Rhythm Collective, which presented consciousness-raising “edutainment” concerts at local venues. Among the wide-ranging mix of performers was an early version of the Coup, which then featured Boots, DJ O, and rappers Osageyfo and Yapos. The others eventually left to pursue other projects, and Boots recruited MC E-Roc, a UPS co-worker, and DJ Pam the Funkstress to round out the group.
Fifteen years later, the Coup has a distinguished and sometimes brilliant track record. The group has never put up platinum or gold sales figures, yet it has amassed an impressive body of work. It has struggled through more than its share of bad breaks, but proven defiantly resilient.
The Coup released its first EP in 1991 and its first full-length album, Kill My Landlord, in 1993. It followed that up with 1994’s Genocide and Juice — a play on Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” that established the group as progressive hip-hop leaders. But its record label, Wild Pitch, folded soon thereafter, leaving the group in the lurch. Boots “retired” from rapping for a while, working as a telemarketer and holding other assorted jobs. He returned to active duty in 1998, signing with the East Bay indie label Dogday and putting out another critically acclaimed gem, Steal This Album — a twist on Abbie Hoffman’s Yippie manifesto Steal This Book. Boots had high hopes for the album, but its exposure was limited after a video for “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Grenada Last Night” was rejected by BET on the grounds that it was too violent. Following numerous accounting disputes with Dogday, which later folded, the group parted ways with the label in 2000.
By the time the Coup released Party Music in late 2001, the group consisted of Boots, Pam the Funkstress, and Oakland MC T-Kash. The album received reams of press, and was declared the year’s best album by the San Francisco Chronicle, made three of four top ten lists in The New York Times, and ranked number eight on the Village Voice‘s annual poll of music critics.
Party Music was an artistic and critical triumph, but its sales were disappointing, particularly at first. Problems at new label 75 Ark resulted in the album being hard to find when the group was on tour. “The label was very visibly not what it used to be, in terms of staffing and how they were getting records out,” says Ken Erlich, the Coup’s manager. The album ultimately sold about 50,000 copies, he says, but with all the press it received, it could have sold much more.
Music critics almost unanimously praised Party Music‘s mix of funky music and socially conscious lyrics. But their articles almost always focused on its original, never-released cover. The eerily prescient graphic, which appeared on the Internet in June 2001 but was not scheduled to be printed until the fall, depicted Boots and Pam the Funkstress blowing up the twin towers of the World Trade Center with a device that looked like a detonator, but was actually a guitar tuner. It was intended as agitprop, but in the wake of 9/11 it became something else altogether.
Online opposition campaigns were launched by conservative Web sites such as CapitalismMagazine.com and Townhall.com. Right-wing nutcase and Internet preacher Texe Marrs made far-fetched connections between Boots’ Communist leanings, Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s antiwar stance, and Arab terrorism. Fox News talk-show host Sean Hannity belittled Boots during a call-in segment (the rapper claims he was unable to respond because the show’s producer cut his mic). The group received an outpouring of hateful e-mails and even death threats.
For a while, Boots was “the most infamous man in pop music,” in the words of The Washington Post. “One day, he was Boots bin Laden in the eyes of the media,” T-Kash recalls. “A year later, he was Boots Michael Moore Riley.” To this day, Boots says he’s still asked about the album artwork in every interview he does.
But while becoming infamous for a CD cover that never actually existed, Boots should be revered for entirely different reasons. Whether viewed as a turf rapper with a social conscience or a conscious rapper with turf awareness, he is a character unlike any other in pop music.
He is best known as a post-Black Panther, post-Public Enemy street documentarian who spins colorful yarns laden with socioeconomic and political messages. “In terms of political music, he’s one of the greatest ever,” enthuses Andy Kaulkin, who signed the Coup to Epitaph in 2005. Kaulkin believes Riley’s message and appeal ultimately transcend hip-hop. Noting that Boots toured with Billy Bragg and Steve Earle last year, he thinks the group can resonate not only with punky anarchists and conscious hip-hoppers, but with older, mature listeners hungry for substance in their music. “What he does is really, really catchy, really accessible,” he says. “The message sort of sneaks in.”
Boots often conveys his message with humor or irony, something that separates him from preachier, more didactic political rappers. “Humor teaches a lot,” he says. “Contradictions are humorous. The system is nothing but contradicting.” Consider the notion of “Ass-Breath Killers” — lozenges that remove the distasteful odor that comes from kissing the rear end of the Man — or the image of a Lewinskyesque liaison between Saddam Hussein and one or both Presidents Bush, as suggested on “Head (of State).”
In addition to his knack for making subversion sound humorous, Boots also is an underrated producer. His skills have been overshadowed by his outspoken political activism, yet every one of his efforts has been more musically sophisticated than the last. The progression toward an original, funk-based sound unlike that of other rap acts became evident with Party Music, and has continued with the new album, which uses more live instrumentation than ever before. In addition to basslines, guitars, strings, claps, and congas, Pick a Bigger Weapon experiments with instruments not typically associated with rap, including a B-3 organ, mini-Moog, and Rhodes electric piano. With all the live musicianship, there’s noticeably less turntable scratching, although Pam the Funkstress remains an integral part of the group.
Finally, amid the hypermasculine sexism of so much mainstream rap, Boots exudes the confidence to give women equal footing. While misogyny has become commonplace to the point of acceptance in rap music, Boots not only writes odes to female empowerment such as “Wear Clean Draws” or “Tiffany Hall,” but shares the spotlight on his album covers with Pam, herself a rarity in a male-dominated arena. Through it all, he is forthrightly militant, yet not so gung-ho that he’s afraid to show some tenderness. This dichotomy is brought to life by the group’s logo, a silhouette of an African woman toting a machine gun on her back and suckling a child at her breast.
But then, as Boots himself puts it in the opening lines of the new album, he’s a walkin’ contradiction, like bullets and love mixin’.
Bullets are nowhere to be seen or heard at the Riley household, but love is in plain view. There’s a new addition to the family: On March 4 Boots’ girlfriend, Dawn-Elissa Fischer, gave birth to a healthy eleven-pound boy. Dawn looks radiant, flush with a rosy-cheeked glow. As for the baby, he’s a handsome little squinty-eyed dude who seems much lighter than his birth weight. Dressed in a yellow-and-white striped jumper and already sporting a thick tuft of black hair, he seems fairly uninterested in what’s going on around him, although Dawn says being around his dad makes him happy. Boots burps the baby and makes googoo faces at his son.
Boots is nothing if not consistent; even the newborn’s name — Zola Dessalines Amilcar Fischer-Riley — blends love and politics. Dawn says Zola is a Xhosa word meaning “tranquillity.” The second name pays homage to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a comrade of Toussaint-Louverture in the Haitian revolution. The third name comes from Amilcar Cabral, a writer and activist from Guinea-Bissau. Boots tends to leave out the third name, which Dawn added, because he believes it spoils the rhythm of Zola’s name. Yet he knows that for a relationship to work, there has to be some compromise.
Dawn’s effect on Boots is obvious in many ways; he is more reserved and gentle in her presence. She’s also the inspiration for the romantic material on the new album. “This is the baby that came after mommy told daddy, ‘Let’s have a baby before Bush do something crazy,’ after laying around all day in bed the night after we laughed and drank liquor at the Lucky Lounge,” she announces excitedly. And indeed, the new album features a slow, soulful turn by the female vocalist Silk E, “BabyLet’sHaveaBaby
Boots and Dawn aren’t married, yet they share a deep love; they’ve been together for about two and a half years. “Her vision of her mission in life is very much parallel to mine, which is more than just sharing the same worldview,” Boots says. In the era of the hip-hop generation, he believes the term “family” should be redefined “in terms of love and commitment, not in terms of who’s married to who, what their legal status is, or the members of their household.” He says the old notion of a nuclear family “wasn’t even real in the ’50s.”
Nor was it real in the Riley household. Ray’s own parents split up when he was eight, and he lived for a while in Stockton and Pasadena before his family settled in East Oakland. At first, he saw his mom regularly, but less frequently after she took a job as a lab technician in Saudi Arabia. She wrote regularly, and the children (Ray has three sisters and one brother) knew she loved them, yet it was still tough at times.
“It’s bittersweet, in the sense that kids are always gonna miss their mother,” he says. But Boots understands that his mom had her first child at age fifteen, and may have felt she needed to grow as a person. “This is a woman that’s put her life aside, or put her hopes and dreams aside,” he says. “Now she has a chance to see the world. It allowed me to see that many women don’t get a chance to realize their dreams. It’s always taken for granted that the man is gonna make his dreams happen, while the woman is stuck with the baby.” His mom, Anitra Patterson, has since moved back to Oakland, and the two are close today, albeit in an adult-friendship sort of way.
But for the most part, Boots was raised in a single-parent home, not unlike a great many members of the hip-hop generation. What was atypical about the Riley household was that the single parent was a man. Boots’ progressive notions about family, community, and social activism have been largely influenced by his father, Walter Riley, an attorney whose clients included former Black Panther chief of staff David Hilliard.
Walter recalls that being a single parent was at times “very difficult,” but that he juggled his law practice and organizing efforts around his family. He said he became a public defender so “I could be home to make breakfast at a reasonable hour.”
The young Ray Riley grew up in an environment in which labor issues and liberation struggles were linked. One of his earliest memories, dating back to when he lived in Detroit, is of seeing his dad return from a demonstration with his ribs bandaged. When the five-year-old asked what happened, the senior Riley casually explained, “We beat the Klan up and sent them out of town.” In the process, his dad got bashed with a two-by-four by one of the Klansmen.
Walter, having grown up in a rural area in a segregated society in Durham, North Carolina, believed in the need for systemic change, particularly where economics were concerned. “I raised my children with that consciousness,” he said. Boots’ dad wasn’t always a lawyer, but he was always an activist. He held various other occupations, including bus driver, political organizer, and field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality in the ’60s. Eventually he got his law degree and became a public defender before eventually moving into private practice.
“Raymond, as I must call him, is Boots because I carried him around with me to meetings, changing his diapers,” his father says. Walter recalls a photo of baby Raymond at nine months, holding up a copy of Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. He notes that his son digested the book at an early age; it was perhaps no surprise that Ray became “very much concerned about issues of race. … He became a person that wanted to know what was going on around him.”
Boots, who acquired his nickname in high school following an unfashionable footwear choice and later adopted it as his stage name, eventually had a catharsis. “All of those questions culminated to, later on in my life, figuring out that it didn’t have to be this way,” he said. To this day, the Coup’s frequent references to “revolution” betray a Lennonesque (John, but also Vladimir) faith that things can improve. As he says in the new song “We Are the Ones,” an anthemic proletarian ditty that posits some of the sociological and economic causes of the drug trade, We’re the have-nots/but we’re also the gon’-gets.
Like any parent, Walter Riley wanted his son to have a better life than the one he experienced in the Jim Crow-era Deep South. Yet while he urged Boots to go to college and possibly even “sell out and get a job,” he supported and encouraged his son’s rap dreams, putting up money for concerts and an indie label, Polemic Records, which released the Coup’s first EP and is still run by Boots’ brother Manuel. Many members of the civil rights generation haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with the hip-hop generation, yet in the Rileys’ case, little or no gap exists between father and son.
“There is a message in Raymond’s music and his life that I totally identify with,” Walter says. He notes, however, that sometimes he has been concerned about the repercussions of Boots’ activism, particularly his antipolice stance. “I don’t think cops are the primary focus for our anger,” he said. “They serve the system.”
But the system itself is one thing father and son agree about.
Just hours before Dawn gave birth to Zola, Boots outlined his view of the system during a panel discussion at Stanford University’s Hip-Hop Archives.
“The image of black people is always being criminalized,” he said. “The culture that surrounds us is being criminalized. And so there has to be a reason for more police in the streets, there has to be a reason why we’re always broke, there has to be a reason why we’re under the impression that we’re under. It’s never that’s it’s a system that’s against us, it’s always that it’s the culture that we create that points to our inherent inability to cope. That’s what all of this discussion is really about. The discussion is about ‘all of the culture that black folks make is somehow not as smart as it could be and not as progressive as certain forms of art.'”
Boots savors those times when his own neighborhood comes together and its sense of shared culture is apparent. “When it’s sunny, we have block parties,” he says in a later interview. “One dude has one CD of MP3s and one big speaker. That’s his setup. It’s a big crowd, pulsing and moving, not standing on the wall.”
Such notions of community mean a lot to Boots. “My attachment to Oakland is not just in the land and the turf and the trees,” he says. “It’s in the people.” In Boots’ worldview, personal, family, community, and cultural identity are intrinsically linked; where you live is a big part of how you live. “There are plenty of people right here on this block who work at jobs they don’t want to, just to support their family,” he says. “A lot of these guys you see selling dope are doing it to support their family.
“We criminalize the act of young black folks standing on the corner,” Boots says. “What do you think we were doing back in the day? I say that because some of these folks are older black folks who got caught up in the dialogue of ‘What happened to our youth?'”
Overall, violent crime in West Oakland is down from a few years ago. Still, homicides are up this year, and there are occasions when residents don’t feel safe. “A friend of mine just got killed three houses down; Tarus Jackson,” Boots says. It was reported in some accounts that Jackson was a member of the group, but in fact he sold merchandise at some of its performances.
The murder’s immediate aftermath cast a pall on the block. “People around here were shocked,” Boots says. “For a little while after that, people weren’t out on the street as much. It affected the sense of community.” Yet with the weather getting warmer, the neighborhood’s spirit appears to be on the rise.
The section of West Oakland that Boots calls home is a society in transition, from a predominantly African-American community to one that’s much more integrated. Arab-immigrant-owned liquor stores stand opposite brand-new condominium complexes housing young, mostly white professionals. Proud Victorians with front and back lawns — some well tended, some overgrown — sit next to stucco apartments with chain-link fences. A storefront sign advertises “Beer Wine Lotto Liquor Groceries Deli.” Kids walking home from school pass by alcoholics passed out on bus stop benches, their brown-paper-bag-wrapped tall cans in plain sight. Young mothers stroll by with babies on their shoulders. Pickup trucks with professional-grade aluminum ladders are parked on the streets next to shiny new SUVs and broken-down buckets. Laughter and music emanates from Esther’s Orbit Room, an old-school watering hole already entertaining clientele at 3 p.m. There’s a fair amount of urban blight, but also much evidence of greenery — flowers, shrubs, trees. It is, in short, a neighborhood with a discernible sense of community, but one currently undergoing a transformation.
Boots’ place is one of the nicer houses. A multistory Victorian owned by D’Wayne Wiggins of Tony Toni Tone fame, who plays guitar on one track of the new album, it boasts sizable lawnage, plenty of windows, and room for several children.
Boots says his block consists of black families who have lived there for decades and know all their neighbors, white bohemian types who reside in live-work lofts and tend to keep to themselves, and middle-class black artists who he says are always saying, “We gotta create a culture.” This latter mentality, he believes, tends to reinforce the generation gap and a general mistrust of youth. To him it’s just another form of elitism that ignores the indigenous urban culture in their midst.
To Boots, hyphy hip-hop, neighborhood block parties, and other examples of what he calls “sideshow culture” are all more positive than they’ve been portrayed by the media. “There is a media attack on youth culture,” he claims. “Youth culture is demonized.” At some level, he believes, there is “an underlying message of unity” behind all of these phenomena. What the young participants are really saying, he believes, is “we’re gonna make our own enclave of culture.”
Toward that end, he has faith in the power of street-level movements to help change the system. “On the album, I say, hustling and hyphy are eloping,” he says. “If you combine the two, it gives you force to make change.”
The need for change, he believes, stems from society’s basic apathy about the social conditions that created hip-hop culture, compounded by attempts to co-opt and exploit that culture. “How do you get white kids to listen to hip-hop, but not relate to black people at all?” he wondered at the Stanford panel. “Because if you relate to the problems that black people have, you might start thinking about the system itself. The way to do it is to characterize this music as being less than up to par.
“Ten years from now, it’s gonna be some white kids making music that sounds like Lil’ Jon, and black folks will have moved on,” he said. “But that music is gonna be what’s called ‘the intelligent music.'”
A frequent criticism of politically aware rhymers such as Boots is that their music often isn’t as engaging as that of their less socially conscious counterparts. But although the self-described perfectionist says he only recently began thinking of himself as an “artist,” in truth, Boots has been more than just another rapper for some time. He has produced every Coup album to date, and the way his music feels to him is just as important as how it sounds. “When I decided, ‘Okay, I gotta write an album out of this,’ it kinda came down to listening to these pieces of music that make me feel a certain way when I hear ’em,” he says, “without any lyrics or concepts, figuring out, how do I stay true to that feeling?”
Pick a Bigger Weapon took longer to finish than any other album by the Coup. Part of the reason was that Boots was touring regularly, teaching for a while at the Malcolm X School for Social Justice in Oakland, and getting involved with various activist issues and antiwar demonstrations. He also has spoken and lectured all over the country; in fact, he met Dawn at a panel discussion at Harvard, where she worked before the Hip Hop Archive project relocated to Stanford. Legal wrangling with 75 Ark also contributed to some of the lag time between albums, as well as the deliberate search for a new record label. But Boots spent much of the five-year layoff between Party Music and Bigger Weapon in “The Little Red Room,” a cozy home studio filled with amps, speakers, cables, effects boxes, and instruments, and dominated by a huge mixing board.
“I just kinda really got obsessed with just making beat after beat,” he said. “My albums are usually the first twelve beats that I like, and I just start writing to them. This album, I made one hundred beats that I like.”
What he ended up with was quite funky, somewhat experimental, and often resolutely anthemic. The album feels more like Boots’ baby than past efforts. The second MC slot once held by E-Roc and T-Kash has remained vacant, and apart from cameos by rappers Black Thought and Talib Kweli, Boots handles the majority of the microphone work himself. The album also represents a new level of maturity for the 35-year-old rapper and perhaps for rap itself; ten years ago, there weren’t many rappers still active into their thirties.
But most notably, Pick a Bigger Weapon is the most musical album the Coup has ever made. It sounds fuller and richer than most contemporary rap albums. “It feels definitely like a progression,” he says. “I think there’s more stuff going on, on some songs. On Party Music, I’d definitely say I started getting more into the faster beats. I started getting into the fonk.”
He also started getting into the luuuuuuuv. After being uncompromisingly revolutionary on the first three Coup albums, on Party Music Boots began to allow the mellower side of his personality to emerge. The song “Nowalaters” was an ode to a teenage former lover that was, by turns, tender, funny, and nostalgic. The poignant “Wear Clean Draws” was a father’s advice to his young daughter in which he advised her to Wear clean draws/Everyday/’cuz things may fall/The wrong way/You’ll be lying there/Waiting for the ambulance/And your underwear/Got holes and shit.
Pam the Funkstress believes that becoming a father was partly behind the change in Boots’ outlook and lyrical content. “It’s kind of mellowed him out a little bit,” she says. “Before he had kids, he was telling people, ‘Our kids are our future,’ and now he gets to practice what he preaches. Like when he wrote that song to his daughter, ‘Wear Clean Draws,’ and he told her, ‘Hey, you don’t back down. You fight.'”
Boots agrees that fatherhood has changed him in many positive ways: “I’ve been a father for eight years; it made me more sentimental.” Parenthood, he adds, “gives you an account of how your actions cause ripples in the world.” And being raised by his father, he says, “made me view parenthood differently, and the role that a father is supposed to have.”
Pam also has a unique perspective on what hasn’t changed about her partner during a decade and a half together in The Coup. “He respects women,” she says. “I can’t see myself DJing behind Too $hort. I couldn’t even compare Boots to anyone else. His lyrics are not degrading. He’s been that since day one.”
Consequently, Pam finds it a bit frustrating that the Coup’s fan base tends to be concentrated among “antiwar” people “who want to overthrow the system” and not a broader cross-section of hip-hop fans. She doesn’t classify herself as politically outspoken, although she does stand behind what Boots says, and thinks it’s a good thing that political consciousness “is getting more play” in the waning years of the Bush presidency. Still, with energetic new songs like “Get That Monkey Off Your Back,” she hopes the new album might attract the group a few more “people from the streets.”
Pick a Bigger Weapon seems likely to at least be a critical favorite; XLR8R magazine, a pop culture tastemaker, has already called it the group’s best work to date. The album is divided between militant songs such as “My Favorite Mutiny,” in which Boots growls Death to the pigs is my basic statement, and pro-love material such as “Ijuswannalayaroundalldayinbedwithyou,” which finds Boots purring the sheet’s sweatin’ and the ceilin’ is pulsatin’. “Captain Sterling’s Little Problem” describes how an enlisted man’s pro-war ideas change after he kills a man who looked like my homie from the ‘hood, while judgmental male attitudes about female beauty contribute to a fatal liposuction in the heartbreaking “Tiffany Hall” — a song based on a true story about a SF State student Boots knew. Both sides of this dichotomy coexist in “Laugh/Love/Fuck,” which marries a let’s-get-this-party-started chorus with exhortations about an altogether different urge. Still it’s fair to wonder how exactly laughing, loving, fucking, and drinking liquor will actually make the damn revolution come quicker. It sounds suspiciously like the type of line a horny student activist might use.
Releasing the album on Epitaph could further solidify the Coup’s appeal to fans of political music. Kaulkin notes that his label has always had groups with a strong social consciousness, starting with the punk band Bad Religion. And while the Coup isn’t the first hip-hop group on the punk-identified label — Kaulkin previously inked deals with Blackalicious and alt.rap icon Sage Francis — Boots has already crossed over to the anarchist punk audience, which may not listen to any other rap music. “In the punk world,” he says, “the Coup has a special place.”
But by picking the bigger weapon of a well-regarded, seemingly stable record label — Epitaph is considered a “major indie” in music industry parlance — Boots may have increased the chances that other audiences will become more familiar with the Coup’s work. Kaulkin promises that fans will be able to find the record in stores, noting wryly, “That’s never been a problem for us.” He admits he’d be thrilled if Bigger Weapon sold 100,000 copies, but says, “We don’t need it to sell that much to be happy with it.” He’s not counting on MTV exposure or commercial radio play to drive album sales, although a lot of press would be nice. “The Coup is a group that requires grassroots marketing.”
Former Coup member T-Kash, who currently records as a solo artist for the Guerrilla Funk label run by the rapper Paris, came to appreciate Boots’ special relationship with his audience during his years with the group. “I look at Boots as the ground assault technician, as far as his standing with his fan base,” T-Kash says. “That’s a rapport that’s timeless.” He adds that Boots not only taught him a thing or two about stage presence and writing lyrics, but helped shape his own ideological beliefs as well.
But the biggest impact Boots made on his protégé may have been in dispensing parental advice. “Boots was the only other male figure I could talk to as a parent,” he says. “He would call me and recommend books. … He helped me more than my prenatal class.”
T-Kash fondly remembers Boots telling him, “When your baby is born, remember to always hold the child with your shirt off, have their skin up against yours. There’s all these nerves in a child’s skin that reacts to the touch of other skin, and it sensitizes their brain to be curious about the touch of another person. It gives them more initiative to bond with another person. Especially if you’re the father. Always remember to do that.”
On a recent afternoon, while picking up his older son from school, Boots is back in daddy mode. He disappears inside the building, then reappears five minutes later with five-year-old Nikos, whose mother, Boots’ ex-wife Katja Hubbard, is a teacher in Oakland.
Nikos is pretty quiet, but also a little hungry. So the family dashes to Boots’ favorite dining spot, the In-N-Out Burger on Hegenberger Road, where he orders cheeseburgers and fries for the children, hold the pickles, and a Double-Double and a soda for himself. He’s not so politically obsessed that he’s above eating at a fast-food spot if he’s hungry, or drinking a Coke if he’s thirsty.
Back at home in West Oakland, Nikos picks at his burger and fries. Bored, he comes into the room to see what his daddy is doing. Boots picks up his son and swings him around. The boy giggles as his legs are suspended in the air. A few minutes later, the rapper’s eight-year-old daughter, Alina, whose original art adorns the living room walls, arrives home from school. She eats too. Then Boots gently reminds her she has homework to do.
Fifteen Years of Rebellion: A Coup-ography
By Eric Arnold
Kill My Landlord
Wild Pitch, 1993
For some strange reason, when the early-’90s hip-hop Golden Age is discussed, this album is often inexplicably overlooked. Some of the sample-and-loop-based songs sound rudimentary compared to the intricate, concept-driven thrust of the group’s later work, and Boots has definitely grown in lyrical potency, but all the classic Coup elements are here: revolutionary attitude, socialist politics, hip-hop polemics, ironic humor, and street-level pragmatism. Key Tracks: “I Ain’t the Nigga,” “Not Yet Free.”
Genocide and Juice
Wild Pitch, 1994
Boots & Co.’s sophomore effort shows considerable artistic growth. The discernable sense of song cycle — several tunes are linked thematically — makes it an anomaly in an increasingly single-oriented rap industry, and Boots’ musings on everyday socioeconomics still hold relevance today. While most “conscious” MCs of this era were disassociating themselves from their gangsta rap brethren, Boots dueted with E-40 on “Santa Rita Weekend,” an underappreciated gem that preceded the onset of controversial juvenile crime initiative Prop. 21 by several years. Key Tracks: “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish,” “Pimps,” “Taking These,” “Santa Rita Weekend.”
Steal This Album
Almost as good as Genocide and Juice, this album came at a time when conscious rappers were few and far in-between. It goes against the grain, if you look at what else was happening in rap that year — Jay-Z and P. Diddy putting New York on bling status; Master P’s ultragutter, superghetto, Dirty Southern No Limit dynasty — yet in retrospect, it’s entirely consistent with the revolutionary ideals the Coup has always espoused. In some ways, this album represents the end of an era: It was the last to feature original member E-Roc, who left the group to become a longshoreman. Key Tracks: “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Grenada Last Night,” “Breathing Apparatus,” “The Shipment.”
75 Ark, 2001
Although never released with the original cover — which was designed before 9/11, depicted Boots and Pam blowing up the World Trade Center with a guitar tuner, and thus was scrapped in the wake of the attacks — Party Music still packed quite a powerful impact. Somewhat overlooked in all the controversy surrounding the album — critically acclaimed, yet plagued by poor distribution — was the group’s musical evolution. Noticeably funkier and more uptempo than previous efforts, Party Music’s subject matter veered from anticapitalist odes to activist anthems to dietary concerns to advice for Boots’ baby daughter. Key Tracks: “Ghetto Manifesto,” “Wear Clean Draws,” “Ride the Fence,” “Pork and Beef.”
Pick a Bigger Weapon
The Coup’s fifth album picks up where Party Music left off, upping the funk quotient even higher, expanding the sonic parameters with more live musicianship (including rock guitar and Bernie Worrell-esque keyboards), and putting additional emphasis on personal relationships — within a grassroots revolutionary context, of course. The album also explains what “Ass-Breath Killers” are, and why you need them. Guests Black Thought, Talib Kweli, and Tom Morello add universal appeal to Boots’ Oaktown fonk, and the driving, upbeat feel makes the disc sound almost like a dialectical materialist version of crunk at times. Key Tracks: “We Are the Ones,” “My Favorite Mutiny,” “Ijuswannalay
aroundalldayinbedwith you,” “Laugh/Love/Fuck,” “Tiffany Hall.”