Now more than ever, Boots Riley is alone. Gone is Pam the Funkstress, the limber-wristed DJ whose turntable wizardry was the very foundation on which the Bay Area political rapper stood with raised fist. Former sidekick E-Roc fled the Coup years back, and the blaring funk backing band is nowhere to be found. So how does one emcee lead the revolution without a DJ, his fellow rappers, and backing band?
With an acoustic guitar.
But before you sit cross-legged on the floor and expect to clap along with an afro'd Pete Seeger, hear the man out. "Somehow it's still going to be funky, but it's just me and a guitar player," explains Riley. "It will focus more on my lyrics and the basics of the songs, that's why I like it. It is definitely more intimate. You get the benefits of a cappella and spoken word, but without the boredom."
Boredom is seldom associated with Riley and the Coup—a band that has spent the better part of 16 years chronicling the plight of the lower class, storming the castle of the bourgeoisie with torches ablaze. But when Riley and his lone acoustic guitarist pass through Portland (opening for Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who shares a message with Riley, but lacks the teeth and urgency of his opening act) it will be in the looming shadow of the most important election in decades, if not ever. And while poll numbers bring along a sense of optimism, Riley is less convinced.
"I think that the reality is that everybody wants things to be radically different. Well, not everyone, but there are enough people that want things to be radically different that they are going to vote for the candidate that they think is going to change things, and for most people that looks like Obama. I don't think that either of the candidates are going to bring that much change."
Chalk up that cynicism to a man who has seen far too many souls caught in the unforgiving gears of a system meant to assist them. While his fellow Oakland emcees were peddling puffed-chest bravado behind the mic, Riley's finest moments came in the quivering fear of living south of the poverty line. When the Coup weren't verbally slaying CEOs, their protagonists were on the run from the cold grip of the repo man, unable to find steady (legal) work, or struggling as the next generation of the urban Tom Joads of the world, those pushed down one too many times to stay complacent on their knees. It's been a decade since Boots first spit the line, "Somebody's mom caught a job and a welfare fraud case/When she breathe she swear it feels like plastic wrap around her face," but the effect is still the same.
So please don't expect Riley, a self-professed communist, to hijack the "Straight Talk Express" and ghostride that whip, but the man does have a sincere and deep-rooted belief in the power of the people as a weapon of change, one that he will always be unafraid to share: "The progressive changes that we've seen in the last century—whether they were the New Deal, civil rights, or affirmative action—all these have come because of mass movements in the streets, not because people elected the right candidate." Riley continues, "We can get any politician to do what we want them to as long as we have a movement that scares the shit out of them."