THE COUP'S BOOTS RILEY is talking to me from Vermont, where he's grabbing some mid-afternoon Subway. "'Not Your Soldier,'" he says, referring to the name of the Coup's current tour, "comes from the Not Your Soldier campaign, who we're teaming up with. They teach workshops on how to keep recruiters off of your campuses and out your neighborhoods. They expose a lot of the lies recruiters tell about joining the military."
It's not the kind of rhetoric we've come to expect from rap artists—or more specifically, from good rap artists. A widening schism exists in hiphop; many of the artists who fall under the "socially conscious" rubric come up short musically, with tired boom-bip beats and competent-but-academic flows. Conversely, a lot of rappers with thrilling rhyme schemes, intoxicating syntax, and insane production remain content to rap about grills and Laffy Taffy.
And then there's the Coup. Formed 15 years ago in Oakland, Riley and Pam the Funkstress have been holding it down as the funkiest, most verbally dexterous Marxists since, you know... ever. Respected in the hiphop underground for melding staunchly anti-capitalistic lyrics with deeply funky beats, the Coup's most high-profile moment came in late 2001. The cover art for Party Music depicted Pam and Riley with the World Trade Center blowing up behind them. (The cover was designed months before 9/11, but controversy lingered anyway.)
After Party Music, the Coup laid low until Pick a Better Weapon dropped earlier this year, and the duo has never sounded better. Riley's voice sounds like he's channeling Aquemini-era Andre 3000, and Pam has layered instrument upon instrument for a full-bodied Gil Scott-Heron/On the Corner/George Clinton vibe.
I ask Riley if he fears that his politics overshadow his music in the press. "Definitely," he answers immediately. "A lot of [media] focus goes onto the content of my lyrics. It's an easy thing to write about. So readers, if they haven't heard the music, think it's all about the content. But who wants to listen to music that has the perfect political line but terrible music and is all angry all the time? That's just not my thing."