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The Life of Riley

With a brand-new album and a brand-new baby, the Coup's leader discourses on the dichotomy of bullets and love.

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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.

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