I saw The Coup about a week ago at Brooklyn Bowl, the bowling ally/music club on the Williamsburg waterfront. It was kind of an odd show. Japanther opened, and sounded like they were playing their hearts out to the oft-enthused but underpopulated audience (the performance space is big, despite sharing quarters with a bowling alley.) Then The Coup, one of my favorite acts for well over a decade now (Jesus I’m old) came on stage to the excitement of a small, dedicated, and growing crowd.
The Coup was once Boots Riley, distinguished foil E-Roc, and DJ Pam the Funkstress. E-roc departed before the group’s third LP, the classic Steal This Album, but Pam has DJ-ed on every album through their most recent, 2006’s Pick a Bigger Weapon. I saw The Coup live at Southpaw around the time that album came out, and Pam was nowhere to be found. Instead, Boots was backed by a tight funk band that effectively recreated and reinterpreted the sample-heavy album cuts and brought out the infectious energy of the material. Boots danced and preened across the stage like Prince channeling James Brown, an act I had no idea he could pull off so well, and a fantastic time was had by all.
Boots has focused primarily on non-Coup projects in recent years, including Street Sweeper Social Club, his revolutionary slogan factory/band with very famous guitar genius Tom Morello. Playing regularly to large crowds with that caliber of a rock musician may have built Boots’ already-ample confidence as a front man into even more comfortable and controlled showmanship. At least, that was my companion’s theory. I remembered the Southpaw show as being pretty tight, and when I saw Street Sweeper at Rock the Bells last year it felt like the same Boots just now, you know, with Tom Morello. I think he’s been stadium ready for a long time, despite fronting an independent communist hip hop group. In any event, I saw his fantastic fringed pants, I knew all would be right.
Sure enough, Boots lead his energetic band through often amped-up versions of The Coup’s catalog, all the way back to sophomore lp Genocide & Juice’s genuinely funny slice of life “Fat cats, bigga fish”:
That song is a good introduction to Boots’ exquisite narrative prowess, which should be the envy of many short story writers, forget lyricists. He also performed the first verse of “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Grenada Last Night”, an even more impressive feat of lyricism. A chill went through the portion of the crowd who instantly recognized the opening interpolated notes, and then the words:
Well, he was smilin’ like a vulture as he rolled up the horticulture
Ignited it, and said, “I hope the vapors don’t insult ya”
What I replied denied, but he mixin’ weed and hop
His head was noddin’ up and down like he agreed a lot
Bored, said “We need a plot,” I comply, “Let’s leave the spot”
Hopped in the Granada, he’s impressed by the beat I got
His name is “Hey-Zeus” but his pimp name is Jesus
Slapped a ho to pieces with his plastic prosthesis
A thus introduced one of the more memorable and hateful villans in pop music history. The Coup manage to construct a cinematic pimps/hoes take that transcends any cliche, prioritizing detailed character development and power analysis (This is, after all, the emcee who would later rap “pimps down/hoes up” on one of my favorite songs ever, “Ghetto Manifesto”.) This song is sad, and scary:
It’s also long, though it doesn’t feel it, so perfectly paced is the tale of fatherly misogynist violence through the eyes of his son. My companion talked to a guy outside the bathroom who was very upset that Boots didn’t do the entire song, though, as my companion pointed out, the entire song would have taken up like 14 minutes. We were glad for what we got, a hushed, intense rendition. It was special. Specialer even than when Boots looked me in the eye and smiled because I was enthusiastically chanting along with every word of “Ride the Fence”:
Silk E, a fantastic singer who was featured on Pick a Bigger Weapon and at that Southpaw show years ago that I keep talking about, sang on most songs and even performed a couple of her own as Boots ran back stage or enjoyed the show. At one point he crumpled dramatically to the floor, so in the moment of her passionate delivery:
Yeah, it was a good show. Also, while it’s often time to hit the bar when a back up vocalist who is not an official group member takes the lead, but not here. At all. Silk E is fierce, singing and strutting in front of Boots’ current funk/rock band almost like a modern day Betty Davis.
Other highlights included a deadpan speech by Boots about how, while he often talks about his opposition to capitalism and how that’s really important, The Coup had unfortunately been forced to take on a corporate sponsor to keep this tour going. He recommended that the audience take this opportunity to head to the bar, as part of the corporate sponsorship deal was that he had to talk about the company onstage. Who was the sponsor?
Boots also acknowledged an audience member holding a sign aloft. The sign read “Occupy Wall Street”, and I’m glad Boots told us this as I’d been unable to read it in the dim light. Boots also said he endorsed Occupy Wall Street, in a legitimate connection between the revolutionary rhetoric we’d been dancing to and actual action taking place right then, in our city.
More of the show:
To see where Occupy Wall Street-style demos are popping up near you (new cities are organizing their own every day) visit OccupyTogether.