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Boots Riley of The Coup

A Family Man With a Band

The East Bay is making waves nationally with the trumped-up sounds of the hyphy movement, the Bay Area's answer to the crunk beats made famous by Lil Jon and other Southern rappers. But, with The Coup, Oakland funk lives on. Rapper Boots Riley, DJ Pam the Funkstress and their crew of musicians return this month with a new album April 25th, Pick a Better Weapon.

The album is the group's first official recording since 2001's controversial Party Music, which coincidently featured an album cover the depicted Boots and Pam blowing up the World Trade Center in New York with a detonator fashioned out of a bass tuner. The album cover was quickly pulled after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"If that coincidence had to happen to anyone, I'm glad it happened to me because I was armed with information that many other people in the public eye might not have had," Boots says. "And I wasn't afraid of losing whatever coveted connections I had in the entertainment world by saying things that other entertainers weren't."

The coincidence couldn't have hurt. The following controversy put The Coup on the national spectrum and resulted in a record deal with Epitaph, a punk bellwether that recently started venturing into hip-hop.

Pick a Better Weapon will undoubtedly be followed by some Bay Area performances by Boots and his live band -- a rarity in hip hop. Boots spoke with SF Station during a recent phone interview.

SFStation (SFS): You have a lot of different things going on in your life right now -- a new baby and a family, activism and music. What is consuming most of your time?

Boots Riley: It's different things at different times. It's family stuff and music, and at other times different campaigns and family stuff. It's only been recently that I thought of my job as being an artist. Before that, it was just something that I did that ended up working out. The idea of constantly producing music is a new idea to me.

SFS: When did that change of thought occur?

Boots: Maybe this album. I did so many pieces of music that I'm already working on the next album. Before, I lived life and got experiences in my head and just did songs whenever I thought it was time to make a song. Now, I've gone through a lot and I've got a lot leftover to say. I'll put out this album this year and probably another album next year.

SFS: Your album has a reoccurring storyline that ties some songs together, what ideas were you trying to convey with that?

Boots: The main theme of the album is talking about the little daily struggles we go through all the time and the realization that the way to up the ante is to hook in with other people going through those everyday struggles themselves -- pick a bigger weapon. I tried to make songs that felt anthemic, that were like a call to arms.

SFS: You have a few guests on the album from the rock 'n' roll world, like Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedy's) and Tom Morello (Audioslave). How did you hook up with them?

Boots: He probably doesn't even remember this, but Jello Biafra is probably the first person we ever approached about giving us a record deal way back in the day. He said something like his label wouldn't know what it was doing with hip-hop, but he gave us a list of all his contacts, distribution points and buyers -- information that most labels guard very closely. I've also done speaking tours with Jello.

With Tom, he has this alter-ego called the Night Watchman and I do my raps over him playing the acoustic guitar. It's just something we do live. I also did the "Tell Us the Truth" tour with him and Billy Bragg, Steve Earl, and Mike Mills from R.E.M.

I went to one of Tom's shows a few months ago and I was just overwhelmed by the power of Audioslave. They had 20,000 fans in the building mesmerized and moving to the beat of the music. Afterward I told him, "You almost had me converted to rock 'n' roll." He said, "You looked like you were being converted. I see it all the time."

SFS: You take a band with you when you are on tour. Why do you go that route, when you could just make things simple and take a DJ?

Boots: We did that for years. It may be easier technically to have a DJ, but it's way more fun with a band because the band can react to the crowd and me as the MC. I can vary the way the song is going to go and we end up being able to bring up the energy of the crowd a lot better than most hip-hop shows that just have a DJ.

I've seen some very hype hip-hop show with just a DJ and I've also seen some weak shows with somebody rapping with a band. But what we do rhythmically is so tight -- it's not loosey goosey jam band stuff with some rapper rapping over it -- it's like James Brown, that sort of discipline where the licks are tight. We also have a machine playing the 808 sounds underneath so that it's pounding at the same time.

SFS: So, will we see a Boots rock album in the future?

Boots: Naw, I don't think so. But, my albums have always had that feel to it. There's a thin line between funk and rock. We play with that line all the time.

Pick a Better Weapon comes out April 25th on Epitaph Records.