Next to the Beatles' infamously withdrawn "butcher" cover — in which a blood-spattered Fab Four were photographed cradling plastic baby dolls and hunks of raw meat — the Coup produced arguably the most controversial album art of all time.
The original cover for its Party Music album depicted the Oakland hip-hop duo in front of a flame-engulfed World Trade Center, with frontman Boots Riley holding up what appears to be a detonator. (It's actually a guitar tuner.) Designed in the early summer of 2001, the cover was set to go to press, bizarrely enough, on that Sept. 11.
So when the Twin Towers fell, the politically provocative cover suddenly seemed eerily prescient. Faster than George W. Bush put down his copy of The Pet Goat, the Coup's record label pulled the image off the band's website and caught the printer in time to stop the presses.
A decade on, Riley and co-founder Pam the Funkstress keep pushing the Coup agenda, which is as musically intoxicating as it is politically strident. Following a recording hiatus in which Riley collaborated with Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello in Street Sweeper Social Club, they're back with Sorry to Bother You, an album of funk-fueled genius and confrontational imagery.
"Guillotine" is a case in point, pairing the heaviest synth riff this side of Gary Numan's "M.E." or the Gap Band's "You Dropped the Bomb" with a chant-along chorus ("We got the guillotine / You better run") as infectious as the best Funkadelic. The accompanying video, which opens with a scarecrow-garbed Riley crucified on a basketball hoop, is an unsettling mashup of Broadway's The Wiz, Spike Lee's Bamboozled and the French Revolution.
We recently caught up with Riley to talk about the infamous album cover, the recent presidential election and the musical evolution of a revolutionary band.
Indy: October was a good month for politicized hip-hop, with long-awaited albums by both you and Dead Prez. In your case, I know you were busy with the Occupy movement and live shows, but what else were you doing during your six years between albums?
Boots Riley: Let's see, I put out two Street Sweeper Social Club releases, I have four kids now, and also, you know, just gigging. It's like every business that's out there right now; you end up working a lot more for a lot less. So we have to gig, first to get the message out there about the album, the fact that it exists. And then also, we have to gig constantly just to make money to pay bills.
Indy: You grew up in Oakland, where the Black Panthers got their start and pretty much ended. At what point did you first hear of them?
BR: We moved there when I was 6 and then we moved away between the ages of 9 and 12.
So no, I was into Star Wars, stuff like that. I mean, my father was involved in the Progressive Labor Party, but that was more when we were in Detroit. It just wasn't something that registered with me, you know? But I do remember my father coming back from fighting the Klan in Detroit with his ribs broken. I remember the bandage around his torso.
Indy: One of the things I remember from reading Rules for Radicals in college was the idea that, when people who are pushing for change establish an ongoing organization, that organization will inevitably become more concerned with perpetuating itself than with the goals it started out with. Right now, Occupy and Anonymous are both, to a large extent, decentralized organizations. Do you think that's something that can continue?
BR: I mean, it's kind of like it just will. I think Occupy works because it's the left working together. I also think it has a lot of problems because it's the left working together.
You know, since the '60s I think the left has been good at breaking down into smaller and smaller more correct organizations. And so you have some very correct, exactly on-point organizations that are three people big. And this Occupy Wall Street movement changed all of that. You have people sitting in the same room that hate each other, but are working on a campaign together. So and the idea is that you can work together without having to agree on the same party line.
Indy: Were you at all optimistic or encouraged by the results of this election?
BR: Do I find myself encouraged by it? The way I look at it, what usually happens is there'll be a mass movement that's growing — like the anti-war movement — and then it gets diverted and changed into a pro-Kerry movement, or an Obama movement, you name it. If you really want change, you have to have a radical, mass militant movement. If you have that, you can make any politician do whatever you want. If you don't have that, it doesn't matter who you elect. So it shouldn't be an either-or thing, maybe, but it is.
Indy: On the new album, there's obviously a lot of funk, but then there's also accordion on the title track, and a song like "Violet," which is almost chamber hip-hop ...
BR: Chamber hip-hop — does that exist?
Indy: No, I think you've created it.
Indy: Anyway, how would you say your music has evolved since you and Pam and E-Roc first started the Coup? I assume you're still responsible for the compositions and the lyrics, but has it continued to evolve into more of a band thing?
BR: Well, it's always been live instruments from the beginning, right? The difference is that I would program the drumbeat, because I had an idea that that's what people wanted to hear. And with much of the newer stuff, I've let my other influences come in. You know, whether other people want to hear them or not.
But since '97, we've been performing with a live band, and while I'd always been the producer, I co-produced this new album with Damion Gallegos. So yeah, I think everything is a collaborative effort to a certain extent.
Indy: You have a track record with interesting cover images. And the scene depicted on the new one [riot cops busting into the band's living room] is something I could almost imagine happening after the coincidence between 9/11 and the original Party Music cover. How long was it before you started hearing from federal investigators?
BR: I never heard from any federal investigators.
Indy: That's amazing to me.
BR: It's even more amazing when you consider that the FBI was knocking on the doors of people who criticized Bush at their gym or wherever. But take it back a few years to when Clinton was in office, and he allowed wiretapping with no warrant. So although we talk about all these things that happened with the Patriot Act, that shit was already happening
I'm sure that they have a file on me, and that they had one already. And that there was nothing new they needed to know.
Indy: So they had you figured out?
BR: Yeah, I'm sure they were tapping my phone already. There were artists from 40, 50 years ago that they were tapping and following because they were putting out messages. It's not like I have any conspiracy-theory idea about it. I think that they were doing their job for the capitalists, to keep tabs on people. So that's the only reason why they didn't need to question me, because they know whatever I would say on the phone is something that I would say in front of 10,000 people.