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Passion, politics and power to the people

The Coup
Kenny Muhammad

Crystal Ballroom
1332 W. Burnside
Tonight – $13 Advance/all ages

April 29 marked the 10-year anniversary of the beginning of the Los Angeles riots. In the year 1992, hip-hop was completing its climb from underground movement to the top of the Billboard charts and Public Enemy’s Chuck D had declared rap the “CNN for black people.” When white cops were found innocent of the beating of unarmed motorist Rodney King all hell broke loose in Los Angeles.

Amidst the senseless violence there was legitimate rage. A Los Angeles county jury had essentially legalized every incident of harassment and violence people of color face at the hands of police. Like the uneasily balanced mixed message of many rappers, part peace and unity and part gangster posturing, the riots elicited a wide-ranging response.

This moment, when a pop culture phenomenon reached maturity and a historical event unfolded on televisions across the globe, gave hip-hop artists the spotlight to make their feelings known. Rappers pleaded for peace but articulated the anger.

Boots Riley of Oakland hip-hop band the Coup understands this balance. Before Sept. 11 the Coup had released advance copies their record Party Music. Boots, the son of a Black Panther lawyer and an outspoken communist, appeared on the cover along with DJ Pam the Funkstress igniting the World Trade Center with a dynamite plunger. What was a symbolic dismantling of a symbol of world capitalism became a headline-grabbing controversy.

Boots did not back down. As his record label’s parent company – Time/ Warner – quickly pulled the cover, he continued to defend it. He was allowed an interesting platform to commentate. Against intense media scrutiny Boots defended the image and expressed sympathy for the victims yet used the spotlight to question the role of the U.S. government in violence across the planet. Certainly not a popular opinion to be expressing following the events of Sept. 11.

But the Coup has never been about reciting popular opinion. Since their early ’90s releases Kill My Landlord and Genocide and Juice, Boots’ lyrics have been a call to arms to the disenfranchised. To slum lords and repo men he raps against are merely an extension of the American political system, institutions to keep minorities and the poor downtrodden and locked out of the system. But he is more than a didactic mouthpiece. Boots manages to convey his message with playfulness and an often absurd sense of humor that both entertains and educates.

With the release of Steal This Album in 1998 the Coup truly began to hit its stride. In addition to his lyrics Boots is also a solid and innovative producer. With the addition of many additional live tracks and the continued prowess of Pam the Funkstress on turntables were becoming a powerful and politicized funk machine. The track “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night” is a musical masterpiece and the lyrics are one of Boots’ narrative best.

The story, of a boy coming of age and killing his father the pimp, is filled with the typical dark humor and attention to detail that Boots brings with his lyrics. As importantly, it is as much an indictment of the “gangsta” mentality as it is an indictment of ghetto politics. Within his lyrics Boots is as interested in questioning the oppressed as he is in questioning the oppressor. And it set the stage for last years brilliant Party Music.

Much beyond the controversy of its cover art Party Music should be remembered as one of the great albums of last year. The aptly-titled record combined overtly bouncy funk with Boots’ own inner-city communist manifesto and continued the Coup’s plan to move feet and challenge minds. And the song “Wear Clean Draws” added a new level of beauty to Boots’ vision. Over a simmering R & B groove, Boots’ addresses his young daughter about the practical lessons of life and the challenges of growing up a proud and radical woman.

But like any band, the absolute proof is in the live show. And the Coup can back it up. Boots and Pam have no troubles bringing their studio skills to the stage, but it is their full band that pushes them to the next level. With Pam and Boots front and center they are backed by drums, guitar, bass, keys and a female singer that bring the tightness and urgency of their records to their tours.

The Coup’s last visit, at the Eastside’s B Complex, was one of the best shows I have seen. They literally took the stage running and did not let up for ninety minutes. And the show transcends many musical boundaries. There is the lyrical power – something akin to Chuck D’s heyday with Public Enemy – but also a musical urgency closer to the tightness of Bad Brains or even Fugazi. Imagine the Last Poets jamming with Trouble Funk. Their live show is that good.

The feeling seeing the Coup, though, is something more. It has something to do with being gender-mixed. Having a female DJ in the often boys’ club hip-hop scene who happens to be one of the best DJ’s going is part of this. There is a very tangible feeling of how much both the music and the message mean to them when they are on stage. They are not merely posturing some revolutionary and egalitarian stance. They are living it.

And when I consider how much they have put both themselves and their career on the line with their stance, it all adds up. They just might be the most important band in America. And this show is downtown and all-ages. There is no excuse to miss it.