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“Sorry to Bother You” Smashes Corporate America and the Rules of Movie Storytelling

Much of the past ten years or so of indie cinema has played like a lot of low-budget auditions for filmmakers yearning to go mainstream. That’s not a knock against the few who have made it or their accoladed films — it is near impossible to make something good enough to gain that foothold. And then you get the occasional entrenched director like David O. Russell winning the most prestigious indie awards for a mainstream-but-quirky film populated by A-list actors, as happened in 2013 when Silver Linings Playbook with its $21 million production budget swept the Spirit Awards. So what the hell is indie cinema, anyway? What is its actual purpose? A launching pad for Hollywood, or an anti-Hollywood space for cinematic experimentation? Can it be both?

Those are the questions I was asking myself before I first saw the Coup frontman Boots Riley’s profoundly hilarious and disturbing and shocking and stirring directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You. I will be very clear with you, dear readers, that this surrealist comic moral tale, about a poor man selling his soul to ascend in a golden elevator to the heights of a dubious corporation, is a balls-to-the-wall, tits-to-the-glass, spectacular orgy of fist-pumping, anti-capitalist, pro-labor ideas rolled into 105 minutes of gloriously unpredictable plot. And just when you thought the film couldn’t get any more bizarre, it verges suddenly into science fiction. This, my friends, is indie cinema.

Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) bunks in his uncle’s garage in Oakland, California. He’s so poor that he measures his gas tank fill-ups in jingle change. “Forty on two,” he tells the cashier, tossing three coins on the counter. Still, his provocative artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), sticks by his side, ride or die — Cash may be broke, but he’s still got his heart and his values. That all changes when Cash gets a job at a call center and becomes the best telemarketer in the building, thanks to his cubiclemate Langston (Danny Glover) giving him the secret to success: Use your “white voice.” From then on, whenever Cash makes a call, the nasally tones of comedian David Cross emit from his mouth. Speaking whitely, he wheedles people on the other end of the line into buying whatever the hell it is that he’s selling; he doesn’t care what the product is, just as long as someone’s paying.

Meanwhile, Detroit takes a job at the call center, too, where there’s talk of a union brewing, led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun). Cash’s rise to wealth within the company separates him from his friends, and Riley’s depiction of the clan of elite assholes at the top is sheer brilliance. If you thought Silicon Valley’s skewering of tech bros was cutting, Riley’s version of a Bay Area capitalist asshole is diced up with a block of QVC-sold Ginsu knives: messy and satisfyingly shredded.

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There really is a golden elevator only the biggest sellers of the company can take, and inside that elevator, Kate Berlant’s Diana DeBauchery pumps up these “power callers” with vigorous platitudes that assure them of their masculine power. And at the top of the top of the top of this pyramid-scheming empire is one man, Steve Lift, a coke-sniffing imbecile rich boy played by a transcendently evil Armie Hammer, who here comes close to the spirit of the old gleefully erratic performances of Bill Paxton. Steve is a petulant child in the body of a man bedecked with many fashion scarves. Though the guy is total trash, the media dotes on him, allowing him to sincerely apologize again and again for the travesties this billionaire disruptor has inflicted upon the world, like his company Worry Free, which offers the broke room and board for life in exchange for indentured servitude. Oh God, we are so fucked.

He, of course, brings to mind titans like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, which is why, when I saw this film at Sundance, I declared that I would punch myself in the face if Amazon bought and distributed the film. (Annapurna stepped in instead.)

Amid all the chaos of the corporate sphere, Riley is also satirizing the outside world and Americans’ appetite for our own destruction. We see snippets of a wildly popular TV show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me, wherein contestants are beat to a pulp for a chunk of change and a fleeting bit of fame. These asides might be taken as tangents, and the plot’s developments at times could seem tenuous, but I found them totally daring and confident, as though Riley knew the rules of every screenwriting guide and the demand for “realism,” and he said, “Nah, I’m good,” because he had bigger points to make with a scene or character. So I reveled in what some viewers might consider “mistakes.”

Stanfield, though his contribution is ginormous, exudes the easy charm and sensitivity of Bill Murray and the nuanced comic delivery of early Eddie Murphy, and I hope his succession of great roles after this film, Get Out, and Atlanta does not end, but he’ll need creators as daring as Riley for that.

There’s an adage among filmmakers that your first feature better be your calling card, your id laid bare on the page and screen, because you’ll never be more daring, more yourself, than you were then. Whether or not Riley goes mainstream, he has shot his shot with Sorry to Bother You, a film bleeding with the passion and energy of a director who desires to make, above all else, a revolution, not just a movie.

Sorry to Bother You
Written and directed by Boots Riley
Annapurna Pictures
Opens July 6, Angelika Film Center, Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn, and BAM

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Brainstorming the Revolution With “Sorry to Bother You” Director Boots Riley

You may have heard that Sorry to Bother You, the debut film from writer-director Boots Riley, is nuts. And it is: Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius Green (say it out loud), a young man living with his artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), in his uncle’s garage in Oakland, California. Cassius finds work as a telemarketer at a shoddy call center, until he’s promoted — and realizes he’s now being tasked with selling contracts for Worry Free, a company that employs people for life, offering prison-chic accommodations and meals in place of wages. Meanwhile, Cassius’ former coworkers are planning a strike; Detroit is roaming the streets at night, vandalizing Worry Free signs with guerrilla activists; and the most popular thing on TV is a game show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me!

There are more twists and turns in this gloriously shambolic movie, which has a jumbled aesthetic that recalls Michel Gondry (who gets an ironic shout-out midway through the film). But Sorry to Bother You sings in a voice all its own, thanks to the righteous vision of Riley, known for his 1990s hip-hop group the Coup and his vocal support for labor rights. In this interview, the 47-year-old director talks about Sorry to Bother You’s anachronistic look and its engagement with the politics of class.

Tessa Thompson, Lakeith Stanfield, Boots Riley, and Jermaine Fowler on the set of “Sorry to Bother You”

The movie looks like it takes place in the present, but I noticed a lot of Seventies signifiers — like really wide ties and big collars  or the fluorescent, yellow-ish lighting of the office Cassius works in.

It was supposed to be like an alternative present. The aesthetic that I wanted, not only visually but just the way the whole thing felt, was what I call a beautiful clutter. So that had to do with not only the production design but the story.

Right. The movie has a very tactile look.

I’ve seen some indie films try to do that, but it’s [usually] too, like, production-designed. There’s this extra kitschy thing that’s done, where it’s cute. I think the way we got around that was by having stuff that meant things to people — something that could, in my mind, grow from someone’s life. His bedroom was modeled after Bob Marley’s bedroom. I had seen a picture a long time ago of his bedroom and I was like, whoa, that’s Cassius’ bedroom.

The whole Worry Free concept, that feels scarily of-the-moment. Was there anything in particular that inspired that, like Foxconn?

Definitely, I mean even before that — you have sweatshops where people live and that’s before Foxconn. I think the difference here is it’s happening in the United States, where people are like, “Well, that’s only able to happen in other countries and to people who are less empowered than we are.”

People don’t have a sense of their collective power as workers in a way that they used to. That’s like this nostalgic idea from the 1960s and another time.

It takes more than an idea or more than one person: it takes actual organization. That’s one of the things that [in] the past few decades the left has been scared of — actual organizations where you work with people and get things done. Or not scared of, but acting like it’s not necessary. I think, really, in the Sixties was when people had stepped away from actual labor organizing. In the Twenties and Thirties, you had a million card-carrying Communists. You had strikes going on all the time in mining places like Alabama, Utah, Montana, Colorado. You had in the Midwest people occupying factories and taking them over. On the West Coast, you had longshoremen who were making their union and battling tanks. You had the Bonus March, somewhat separate from this movement but happening at the same time, where World War I veterans marched on the White House, many of them armed, wanting their bonus checks that they had been promised and getting met by tanks.

Obviously, revolution’s happening all over the world. That milieu is where we got the New Deal. It wasn’t because people were, like, let’s all petition and get people to vote for FDR. What made [the government] do that was, they were scared of a revolutionary movement growing. We’ve got fifty thousand people on the street that will shut down this industry. We’re not just saying we’re upset with this — we’re saying we’re gonna shut you down if you do this, and you have X amount of time to remedy it.

Your main character in this movie is somebody who at one point turns his back on his fellow workers and takes a better deal at the expense of their collective action. You seem to want the audience to sympathize with his position, too.

What’s termed activism is now not about building a solidarity to get rid of the system. It’s about saying that you’re right and showing that you’re right. It’s focused on, “Here’s my analysis and this is the right analysis and you have the wrong analysis.” It’s about winning the debate as opposed to making a movement. And a lot of that comes from the left hiding in art and academia.

Then do you believe a movie like this can have an impact in the real world?

I hope that it talks to people. It has different things to say to different people, and it definitely has something to say to people that consider themselves on the left and consider themselves wanting to make social change. It has some suggestions. Through the character of Cassius, one of the suggestions is that maybe it’s not time to be drawing lines yet.

What do you mean by that?

I mean a lot of times we are deciding that people are our enemies because they don’t agree with us. We forget our historical development in our own lives. This person is wrong — we’re not trying to win them, we’re just trying to define them as being against what we are. I wrote Cassius as myself making choices without my experiences of organizing. We see the human side of those choices. I believe everybody in that movie is trying to make their life mean something, and trying to engage with the world. They all do it in different ways, and that’s kind of key to understanding it.

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It seemed like a big point the movie makes is that you’re going to have to get in the way, physically, to enact change. What worries me about activism today is that we’re too used to being comfortable.

Longshoremen are some of the best paid of what I guess would be called blue-collar labor. The reason they make $110,000 a year: Try to cross their picket line when they’re on strike. Nobody gets through. And the boss knows that. For other unions, they know that they can get people through, and that is really the crux of withholding labor. You can’t withhold labor if you let them replace you. Some of that is more metaphorical in the movie. But it’s also just a practical thing of showing people what a work stoppage, what a strike is. We have all these movies that show us what a dope deal is. There’s all sorts of struggle and rebellion going on in the world and in our lives all the time that not only does the news media not show very much, it’s also being kept out of fiction.

Right. I mean, I hope people see this and think, oh, you can do that? But a cynical part of me feels like more are gonna see it and go buy a pair of earrings.

That’s part of what will happen. But also part of it is, look, just a few years ago, Wal-Mart workers went on strike and the military came out to fight them. They didn’t run away right away. Just a few years ago, all around the country, fast-food workers were trying to organize a union. Occupy called for a general strike — fifty thousand people showed up. We’ve lived in a world where although there’s rebellion happening all over the place and even in the United States, the narrative films that we’ve watched all our lives have edited out any rebellion. And it guides what we feel humanity is about. An example that I’ve used before is Never Let Me Go. The movie is about people who are in a school, and they realize that they’re being raised to be food. And then they heard a rumor that if you’re in love, they don’t eat you. So they try to prove they’re in love the whole time, and then they still get eaten anyway. In that whole world, nobody’s fighting back. Nobody’s making a movement.

As a filmmaker, you’re part of a bigger system — you need a lot of people to make a movie and distribute it and get it out there. But then it becomes harder to critique something that you’re a part of. I noticed the distributor tweeting out links to a website where you can buy swag from the movie, and that felt counter to the movie’s message. At the same time, I understand you want your stuff to get out there, and you can’t just retreat from the world. How do you reconcile all that?

I’ve never been somebody that preaches that people go out in the woods and start a commune, because I think that actually helps the system. Even that little commune is still governed by whatever system they’re trying to get away from, and you’ve left everybody else. I think that idea is not necessarily from the tradition of people trying to make revolution or change the system or engage in class struggle in reformative ways. It’s more of a punk aesthetic. And it also is about making yourself feel good, that you’re not part of it.

The struggle that I think needs to be waged is one in which the working class is able to withhold labor. That doesn’t have to do with whether or not people buy stuff. Karl Marx sold books. That’s how we know about him.

Well, according to Elon Musk, Karl Marx was a capitalist.

I don’t know what joke he — he might have been saying that because [Marx] sold books. But the point is to get people to engage in class struggle. The little capitalist that has the T-shirt company that employs five people, they’re not better than the big capitalist, they’re just smaller. I got ripped off just as much on indie labels — they weren’t better, they just dressed differently. The whole point is to build a movement that is not about don’t buy this or don’t buy that, but it’s about people organizing at their place of work. And we can’t do that by simply choosing what we buy and choosing what we don’t buy. These are my opinions. Take everything with a grain of salt.
Sorry to Bother You is out Friday, July 6.

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Galactic

Hailing from New Orleans, the band originally called Galactic Prophylactic started out as a pretty traditional funk band. Other the years, they have developed their sound to include hip-hop, electronica, jazz, rock and blues. Galactic—which pairs guitar and drums with a Hammond organ and saxophone—has performed with many notable emcees, like Chali 2na and Boots Riley, and New Orleans bands, like The Neville Brothers and Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Galactic is known for their live performances and frequent tours and there are very few musical styles this funk fusion band can’t fuse together.

July 23-26, 8 p.m., 2014

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CULTURAL REVOLUTION

Finally, Boots Riley and the Coup return to New York, partying for the right to fight while our city’s self-proclaimed “conscious” rappers stand off to the side moralizing. But that’s how they do it in the Bay, where Oakland funk had been infusing this group’s protest songs long before hyphy blew up, around the time of their most recent album, 2006’s Pick a Bigger Weapon. Japanther opens—but don’t let that trick you into calling the Coup a punk band. This is hip-hop, and thank God for that.

Sun., Sept. 25, 9 p.m., 2011

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Galactic

With a decade and a half under their belts, this New Orleans funk combo started to gain some real respect outside of NOLA with 2007’s From the Corner to the Black, which included great contributions from Mr. Lif, Lyrics Born, and Boots Riley, among others. But even though their next album will feature more great rap cameos, they haven’t forgotten their hometown roots, as they still jam with other brass bands there. With the Hood Ornament.

Thu., Oct. 15, 6 p.m., 2009

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Nine Inch Nails+Jane’s Addiction

After 18 years, the inaugural Lollapalooza’s two most promising acts (sorry, Emergency Broadcast Network) are touring together again. Representing 1991’s dark side, like the Gulf War and George Bush Mk I, are black fingernail poster boys and industro-rock archetypes Nine Inch Nails. As a tribute to that year’s more positive events, such as Super Nintendo and, well, Lollapalooza, the fully reunited Jane’s Addiction are spreading their freaky hippie-punk optimism. Opening the show is Lolla ’92 alum Tom Morello with The Coup rapper Boots Riley, performing as Street Sweeper Social Club. Although each band’s motivations have changed, all remain among alt-rock’s greatest showmen.

Sat., June 6, 7:30 p.m., 2009

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Shooting His Mouth Off

Revolutionaries are many things—uncompromising, impractical, irrational, alluring. But they are very seldom funny. They not only lack comic timing, but suppress silliness in others—at least 20,000 people were incarcerated in the Soviet Union just for poking fun at the government. Humorlessness afflicts not just regime topplers but armchair ideologues, right and left, who prefer hypotheses to humans. Many so-called political artists take themselves as seriously as baby gangsta rappers at a photo shoot, and end up advancing every agenda but their own as a consequence.

Maybe the Coup have been around so long because they’re the rare revolutionaries who seem to be having a good time. Proclaimed Communist Boots Riley and his partner, DJ Pam the Funkstress, have weathered several record-label fiascos and countless musical trends with funny bone intact. They’ve also survived one and a half Bush administrations. But despite plenty of White House provocation, Pick a Bigger Weapon focuses more on local dynamics than on national politics. This is a well-rounded album, with factory-floor rhymes to balance the picket-line choruses. While not as hilarious as 1998’s Steal This Album, where “Cars and Shoes” described Boots’ ramshackle rides and “Sneakin’ In” told how to outsmart movie ushers, Weapon has many sly moments. “I Love Boosters” details the provenance of Riley’s wardrobe: “My shirt is from Stacy/My pants are from Rhonda/My shoes came out the trunk of a baby blue Honda.” “Ass-Breath Killers” tells the story of a potent antidote to posterior kissitis, invented centuries ago by “the African doctor Mwangi Misoi/Known in the States as Mr. Thomas’s boy.” “Laugh/Love/Fuck” presents Riley-as-macktivist in the revolutionary struggle for sex: “If I’m not involved I feel I ain’t breathin’/If I can’t change the world then I’m leaving/Baby, that’s the same reason you should call me this evening.”

Whether or not you want to go home with him at the end of the album, Riley is the kind of revolutionary you’d enjoy having a beer with. He doesn’t just talk politics. He talks about lust and love (sweetly, on “Ijuswannalayaroundalldayinbedwithyou”), being a dad (Party Music’s “Wear Clean Draws”), and even hair care (Landlord’s “Fuck a Perm”). Basically, he talks about living. Riley’s writing is compelling because it concentrates on the corners of everyday life: rickety cars, sneaky supervisors, moldy cheese in the fridge. Riley certainly does slogans—some more successful than others—but what makes his albums consistently intriguing is the details in between. He’s invested in social change because he cares about regular people.

Whether or not listeners agree George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein are in bed together (literally as well as figuratively), they will appreciate his dense, guitar-driven grooves. Here the Coup is backed by a taut live unit that includes members of Toni! Tony! Tone!, the Gap Band, and Maze. Their low-slung rhythms imagine what might have happened if Reagan-era Prince had been less into getting some action and more into kicking up some activism, or if P-Funk had dabbled in politics as well as psychedelics. “Shoyoass” shimmers with subtle guitar and organ work. The gripping “My Favorite Mutiny” uses piano to punctuate a driving rhythm section as guest rappers Black Thought and Talib Kweli try to keep up with Mr. Riley. “Get That Monkey Off Your Back” rides a rubberized funk beat, while “Captain Sterling’s Little Problem” augments its serrated rock rhythm with a solo from Audioslave/Rage Against the Machine guitar whiz Tom Morello.

The climax is a luminous finale called “The Stand,” a clear, quiet threat to the powers that be. The chorus says it all: “This is the place where I take my stand/Take a stick and draw a line in the sand/Now meet the rubber on my shoe or meet my fuckin’ demands.” Boots Riley doesn’t need to yell to rebel, and he knows it. The biggest weapon in Boots’ arsenal is far from the newest: his brain.


The Coup plays the Bowery Ballroom June 8 and Brooklyn’s Southpaw June 9.

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Dear Mr. President

PICK HITS

GHOSTFACE KILLAH
Fishscale
(Def Jam)
With the crack trade making its hip-hop comeback, Ghost fashions a trend record that ranks with any Biggie or Wu CD. Morally, it’s a retrospective—there’s no attempt to convince us that he’s still in the game or wants to return. But neither will he countenance doubt that he knows whereof he speaks. The stories are as vivid, brutal, and thought-out as any noir, with details that both encompass and surpass the wisdom of “pyrex scholars.” This is a guy with a bald spot who likes cranberry Snapple,
Larry King Live, and women who work for JetBlue. When he asks his boo to turn the flame down a little, he says thank you. His high wail renders extreme anxiety beautiful. And before the music settles into a powerfully souled and sampled Clan-type groove, its screeching intensity has a
Nation of Millions feel.
A PLUS

THE COUP
Pick a Bigger Weapon
(Epitaph)
Boots Riley’s live-in-the-studio funk is as retro as his Afro, and when Talib Kweli percusses next to him you’d think his flow was straight out the Watts Prophets. So call him corny if his Marxist talk makes you nervous. Fact is, the brother’s some writer, with his own Oaktown sound. Marxism fans should start with the two love songs: “Ijustwannalayaroundalldayinbedwithyou” lays out the rationalization of the capitalist workday, while the Silk E. feature “BabyLet’sHaveABabyBeforeBushDo Somethin’Crazy” speaks for itself. Plus the Chomskyite “Head (of State)” also has sex in it, the sponsored “Ass-Breath Killers” will help cure your bootymouth, and “I Love Boosters!” is merely the warmest of many shout-outs to a criminal community he’s too busy to join. Riley understands as well as any songwriter in America how the black poor and other barely employeds get by, and he also understands who’s taking their money, and how. His lesser songs would be dookie gold on an ordinary undie-rap album. And he’s no moralizer: “I’m here to laugh, love, fuck, and drink liquor/And help the damn revolution come quicker.”
A

LOVE IS ALL
Nine Times That Same Song
(What’s Your Rupture?)
A minor, female-fronted Swedish band who may have something to tell us about love when somebody posts the lyrics, but probably won’t, and yes, they sing in English, as in “I know we like the same kind of cheese.” What they can tell us about is the persistence of punk. Unlike the Hives, who I bet they look down on, they’re avant formalists as opposed to pop formalists, twisting funky drumming and weird guitar. Love them for getting excited about these time-honored usages.
A MINUS

PINK
I’m Not Dead
(LaFace/Zomba)
With American Idol rampant, it’s nice to have this emotional hipster sticking her celebrity cred in the stupid world’s face. She overdoes the ballads, but what kind of teen idol could she be if she didn’t? She’s got turf to claim before dropping “Dear Mr. President,” which assumes, correctly, that Bush did coke and teens care about the homeless. If there’s a Bono song like that, the stupid world missed it. And if stardom slips through Pink’s cleavage, she’s got an answer: “You don’t have to like me any more/I’ve got money now.” No, she doesn’t mean it—that’s just a smarter than usual woe-is-stardom song. Much smarter than usual.
A MINUS

PRINCE
3121
(Universal)
It could be argued that music this masterful waives all claim to the sound of surprise—until you pay attention. Sure “Love” and “Satisfied” and “Fury” constitute a standard sequence, keyb funk to torch r&b to u-got-the-rock—but only by genius standards. Sure he overdubs all the time, but he risks letting the Other play bass and drums on the over-under-sideways-down title tune—and then immediately prefabs the cockeyed “Lolita” by himself. The dubiosities he induces NPG fans to collect prove only that geniuses know who their friends are. I’m back to suspecting that, at 47, the Abstemious One can keep laying top-shelf stuff on the public for as long as he’s in the mood. Even if he gets on your nerves, treat him nice.
A MINUS

THE RAKES
Capture/Release
They’re more Wire fans than Wire imitators—looser and louder, comfortable with their middle-class roots in a time when identifying middle class is just a fancier way to point out that you’re oppressed. Nevertheless, a fuller sound can be a problem for a band that sounds something like Wire. Suddenly dynamic tension alone won’t do—you start aiming for rock, for songs, for anthems like “22 Grand Job,” more universal than the immortal “I Am the Fly” itself. Unless you’re way too big for dynamic tension, you won’t nail all that many. But you may get close, like on the U.S.-only “All Too Human.” And for sure you’ll be dynamic. “T Bone”! “Terror!”! One after the other!
A MINUS

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO BHANGRA DANCE
(World Music Network)
Punjabi-based dance music has accrued formula since Rough Guide’s first bhangra comp, and this one pumps identical hyperdrive from boy group, Anglophone pop queen, and subcontinental elder. Only it’s really great hyperdrive—if that’s the same hook again (it is, right?), bring it on. Eventually, soft or folkloric sounds do enter the mix, and how about that? The letdown is a respite if you happen to be tired and does itself proud if you’re not. More more more.
A MINUS

TOM ZÉ
Estudando O Pagode
(Luaka Bop)
This exploration of a sexism fueled by the more blatant injustices of class and race doesn’t cohere, but what “rock opera” does? Anyway, Zé prefers the term “operetta,” and with his avant-garde credentials is free to embrace episodic method. Much of the songs’ philosophical punch is lost i
n the superb translations, a shortfall that probably reflects Zé’s special interest in the male chauvinist samba subgenre “pagode,” the emotional resonances of which can’t impact those who haven’t lived with them. But no other Brazilian composer defies cultural boundaries so eloquently. Whether or not I absorb these songs’ meaning when I read along, at any level of attention I feel the way they straddle pop and avant-garde, natural and mechanical, Brazil and the rest of the world. Those not-quite-metallic scraping noises you keep hearing? They come from one of Zé’s inventions, an instrument crafted from the leaf of the ficus trees that grow all over São Paolo. You blow into it.
A MINUS


Dud of the Month

JUVENILE
Reality Check
(Atlantic)
Juvenile gives better interview than former N.O. labelmate Lil Wayne and appears to be a better guy, but he’s also one more bore whose idea of entertainment is threatening to kill people. A few moments seem real enough—not just “I Know You Know,” in which he reminds his wife that, actually, he doesn’t fuck all those hoes he raps about, but the street-mystique primer “Way I Be Leanin’.” And even there Mike Jones, Paul Wall, and Wacko provide welcome relief from the nasal, constricted, humorless flow he’s gotten on. Later, Fat Joe does the same. I mean, really—Fat Joe?
B MINUS


Honorable Mention

WILLIE NELSON
You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker
(Lost Highway)
He owns the title tune now too (“Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age,” “Dusty Skies”).

YEAH YEAH YEAHS
Show Your Bones
(Interscope)
I dig her new Middle America affect, but still don’t wish she was my girlfriend (or daughter) (“Phenomena,” “Turn Into”).

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS
A Blessing and a Curse
(New West)
Includes title song directed at a trust fund baby I personally am sorry they ever met (“A World of Hurt,” “Goodbye”).

BUILT TO SPILL
You in Reverse
(Warner Bros.)
Like Uncle Neil says, “It’s all one song—except for that flamenco thing” (“Conventional Wisdom,” “Mess With Time”).

DJ DOLORES
Aparelhagem
(Ziriguiboom/Crammed Discs)
Club carnaval of the mind (“De Dar Dó,” “Azougue”).

OLD 97’S
Alive & Wired
(New West)
Their rough and rowdy ways—two CDs worth (“Time Bomb,” “Barrier Reef”).

STEPHEN YERKEY
Metaneonatureboy
(Echo)
Sees all the colors of the Cadillac at the Golden Gate Park Botanical Garden, hitchhikes on the Stinson Beach road (“My Baby Love the Western Violence,” “Link Wray’s Girlfriend”).

TURKISH GROOVE
(Putumayo World Music)
Sweet and stretchy in its commercial version, just like the taffy (Bendeniz, “Kirmizi Biber”; Nilgül, “Pis Pisla”).

X
Live in Los Angeles
(Shout! Factory)
The live album Billy Zoom and their songbook have long deserved (“Johny Hit and Run Paulene,” “Beyond & Back”).

THE ROUGH GUIDE TO URBAN LATINO
(World Music Circuit)
A noisy mess from rock to ska to hip-hop, with catchy politicos prominent and a German for spice (Zona Marginal, “No Mas”; Yerba Brava, “Sos Un Cheto”).

EEF BARZELAY
Bitter Honey
(SpinArt)
The best of these songs are so perfectly put they thrive solo acoustic—but could still use a band (“Ballad of Bitter Honey,” “I Wasn’t Really Drunk”).

THE NEW ORLEANS SOCIAL CLUB
Sing Me Back Home
(Burgundy/Honey Darling)
Mix winning sincerity with formal nostalgia, much like the Cuban franchise holder (Cyrille Neville, “This Is My Country”; John Boutt “Why”).

MC LARS
The Graduate
(Horris)
Never mind the wimp beats—if he were my son I’d be so proud (“Internet Relationships,” “Download This Song”).

BEANIE SIGEL
The B. Coming
(Def Jam)
Scared straight enough to rap about being paranoid (“I Can’t Go On This Way,” “Feel It in the Air”).

JON LANGFORD
Gold Brick
(ROIR)
Music for some occasions (“Workingman’s Palace,” “Lost in America”).

HANK WILLIAMS III
Straight to Hell
(Bruc)
“Kid Rock don’t come from where I come from”—and, oh yeah, “if you thought so goddamn you’re fucking dumb” (“Pills I Took,” “Thrown Out of the Bar”).


Choice Cuts

THE RAKES
“Something Clicked and I Fell Off the Edge”
(Retreat, Dim Mak)

SOUL POSITION
“Keys,” “The Cool Thing to Do”
(Things Go Better With RJ and AL, Rhymesayers Entertainment)

THIRD SIGHT
“Hypothermia”
(Symbionese Liberation Album, Disgruntled/Amalgam Entertainment)

VAN MORRISON
“There Stands the Glass”
(Pay the Devil, Lost Highway)


Duds

CALEXICO
Garden Ruin
(Quarterstick)

CORDERO
En Este Momento
(Bloodshot)

KRIS KRISTOFFERSON
This Old Road
(New West)

LITTLE BROTHER
The Minstrel Show
(Atlantic)

RAY PARKER JR
I’m Free!
(RP)


ADDRESSES:

Crammed Discs, 43 Rue General Patton, 1050 Brussels, Belgium, crammed.be;
Echo, echo.co.uk;
Epitaph, 2798 Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood CA 90026, epitaph.com;
Horris, c/o Nettwerk America, Suite 304, 8730 Wilshire Boulevard,
Beverly Hills CA 90211, nettwerkamerica.com;
Hyena, 250 West 57 Street, Suite 725, NYC 10107, hyenarecords.com;
K, PO Box 7154, Olympia WA 98507, krecs.com;
New West, LLC PO Box 33156, Austin TX 78674-0156, newwestrecords.com;
ROIR, PO Box 501, Prince Street Station, NYC 10012, roir-usa.com;
SpinArt, PO Box 1798, NYC 10156-1798, spinartrecords.com;
tipitinasfoundation.org, tipitinasfoundation.org;
What’s Your Rupture?, whatsyourrupture.com;
World Music Network, 6 Abbeville Mews, 88 Clapham Park Road, London SW4 7BX, England, post@worldmusic.net;

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Party to the People

The Coup designed the original cover for Party Music several months before September 11. It shows the two Coup members — Pam the Funkstress and Boots Riley — with the twin towers behind them. Pam is dancing and waving a couple conductor’s batons. Boots is holding a guitar tuner, pressing a button on it as if it’s a detonator, while two fireballs explode above, from the top floors of the WTC. (“The one reason we had that cover was because it was very unrealistic to me that something like that would happen,” Boots told the San Francisco Bay Guardian.) The symbolism is that the WTC represents capitalism, and party music is going to bring it down.

When the terrorists attacked, the meaning of this image changed, obviously; the cover hadn’t been printed yet, but it was on the publicity company’s Web site, from which it was deleted, but not before a whole bunch of people had downloaded it and the story had been picked up by Reuters. I reported here in the Voice that because of the attack, the Coup were changing the cover. This was my wishful thinking, my misinterpreting a record company press release — I subsequently learned that it was the record company that was changing the cover, over the group’s objections. I also quoted the company to the effect that “the Coup advocates change, but change through peaceful means, never violence.” This was the record company’s wishful thinking. Yes, Boots Riley wants to build a mass movement for social change, but in fact he thinks that ultimately it may only succeed through violence. What he told the Bay Guardian about the WTC attack was: “Everyone who listens to the Coup’s music knows that [when] we say it’s going to be a violent revolution, what that has to do with is millions of people coming together and making the movement. This is not part of a movement — bombing places. I don’t think that those kinds of things are anything that people who are interested in the people having power get involved in. It doesn’t build people’s power at all. If it does anything, it sets up for a military [escalation].” And he told The Onion several years ago: “Organizing needs to be done in the community to make smaller reforms. But these reforms have to be working toward an ultimate goal, which may or may not be achieved during our lifetime, which is to destroy the system that makes these inequities and makes this problem, and this system is capitalism… But that revolution is a ways off, so I talk about things in the here and now.” So why the hell did he want to keep the cover? If he doesn’t know enough to get rid of it, how can anyone take him seriously as either promising or threatening social change? Whom did he think he would attract with it now — other than some kids who like the idea of blowing things up? And what message did he think it would deliver?

“I wanted to keep the cover so I could have a platform,” he said on Davey D’s Hard Knock Radio show in Oakland. Come on, the cover would have outshouted anything else he could possibly say. Not that he was saying much of value in the radio interview: “What happened the other day was a tragedy, but the media wants to make us think that this happened in a vacuum. They don’t tell us about the fact that the U.S. ordered 100,000 people killed in East Timor a few years ago.” Stuff like that. (Sure, the WTC attack didn’t happen in a vacuum. But it didn’t happen in relation to East Timor, either — and the U.S. was in no position to order those killings, anyway.) The guy’s simply not a political thinker, and the more political his statements get, the more he comes across as just another barroom bullshitter.

Many of the lyrics on Party Music amount to no more than slogans, maxims, opinions: “You got 5 million ways to kill a CEO.” I wonder who counts as a CEO here? Donald Trump? Puffy? Jay-Z? L.A. Reid? “I could work hard all my life and in the end still suffer/Because the world is controlled by you lazy motherfuckers.” Well, the first half of this couplet is true for a lot of people. But does Alan Greenspan, for instance (or Puffy or L.A., etc.), work less hard than the rest of us?

Such lyrics bug me because Boots Riley is quite capable, when he’s not thinking big thoughts, of artistic and moral and emotional depth. For one thing, there’s the music, a slow Funkadelic party funk — not as exuberant or edgy as that of the OutKast-Backbone-Goodie Mob gang down in Atlanta, nor as grippingly atmospheric as Dre’s. But it’s a good fit for Boots’s rap style, which has a relaxed charisma even when the words come fast.

The lyrics I quoted may seem to speak otherwise, but I feel that, though Boots’s thinking is often lazy, it’s not mean. I don’t get the sense of someone just looking to discharge his anger. In fact, I don’t hear much anger at all. If I didn’t know English, I’d think of the album as good-humored, bubbly. Interestingly, the songs that have the most political posturing are the ones that sound like the most fun, with spirited delivery and P-Funk twisty-toy tunes. And the words themselves are fun to play with. I might not believe that CEOs “control the Pope, the Dalai Lama, holy rollers, Ayatollah,” but I can have a good time rolling those syllables around my tongue. Same for “pro-prophylactic yet procreation.”

And there’s visceral storytelling that’s not stupid at all: In 1999’s “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night,” he introduces the one-armed pimp by saying that Jesus “slapped a hoe to pieces with his plastic prosthesis” — so later, when the narrator recalls how, as a little boy, he heard Jesus slam “Momma’s head against the front bolt lock,” you can almost feel the hard plastic against skull against metal. And then the confusion: The little boy intends to get even with the pimp but in the meantime plays friendly (“You accidentally killed my mom, no playa hation points/You know how bitches act, shit, exclamation points”), asking the pimp to be his mentor. He explains to us, “First it was a setup move, then it was the truth/His letters were the only thing I had as a youth.” The boy grows up violent and abusing women. Finally as a young man he kills Jesus, which is cathartic but leaves him unresolved, since now, grown up and a father, he still only knows to act violent.

The new album’s “Nowalaters” is, if anything, even more complicated than “Me and Jesus” (though not as vivid or as musically gripping): A guy thinks back to his teen girlfriend, his having had to get high to overcome his fear of sex with her, and then it turns out that the girl got pregnant — and then that she was trying to sucker him into thinking that her kid was his. (Moment of truth: “The baby was four months early and around 10 pounds.”) The singer in retrospect realizes how scared the girl must have been and how she’d been taught that her only choice in such a situation was to grab a man. So there’s anger at her, and sympathy, and finally his thanking her for letting him go.

What I miss from the last LP, Steal This Album, are more such social details: repo men disguising themselves as pizza delivery boys to get inside a house; fast-food workers confronting their shift managers; hip-hop skits that for once are actually funny, about sneaking into movies, pissing at funerals.

Maybe what the Coup’s real message is, or what I’d like it to be, beyond the sloganeering, is that all of this — the wordplay, funk, jokes, fucking up, getting angry, scrambling to eat, pay the rent, have fun — is a party. And from this party you can evolve the power to alter the conditions of life.

But again, I have to wonder about Boots’s pretensions to be a political organizer, or wonder if there are disconnects between Boots the organizer, Boots the storyteller, and Boots the sloganeer. “If you got beef with the C.O.P.’s/Throw a Molotov at the P.I.G.’s.” I mean, if he truly wants an effective mass movement, at some point he’s going to need the support or at least the acquiescence of a lot of cops, not to mention their siblings, cousins, and neighbors — and he’s not going to get it by calling them “pigs.” So I really don’t see what these songs have to do with creating alternative social arrangements; they’re more a kind of identity politics, where pimps and teen moms get to be interesting people, while cops and shift managers and repo men are corrupt and worthless, across the board.

Not that I expect great political insight from musicians. But actually, why not? This has been a main perplexity of mine, since I’m always hearing social insight in music: When a Jay-Z kicks Amil out of bed or calls Prodigy a ballerina, I feel that I’m getting culturally rich actions from a culturally rich world, no matter how narrow or conventional or bigoted or creepy Jay-Z’s particular action might be on the surface. Whereas when I hear a noncreep like Boots Riley rap, “Every death is an abrupt one, every cop is a corrupt one,” I think he’s just taking a potentially interesting world and reducing it to simplicities. I don’t know if I can explain the difference, the richness of Jay-Z’s bragging versus the narrowness of Boots’s sloganeering, but I’m sure that I’m right and that the difference exists throughout music, the obviously political song usually coming out much more simpleminded than the standard love song, hate song, boasting song, gangsta song, pop song. You can hear the same difference between Boots’s agitprop lyrics and his story lyrics. But why should this be? Why wouldn’t a sense of politics and broad power relations enrich song lyrics, not deplete them?

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Two Realists

My middle name must be Fuck You/’Cause every time I walk niggas be like, ‘Fuck you,’ ” goes the chorus. “My first name must be He Ain’t Shit/’Cause every time I’m in my car bitches be like, ‘He ain’t shit.’ ” The song is “I’ll Bee Dat!” It’s the lead single on Doc’s Da Name 2000, the fourth album by a rapper I never expected to get that far, or to interest me if he did— not after Redman commenced his 1992 debut with a slasher-flick skit about how he’d strangled “a white male” at “rap” (not “hip hop”) concerts in 13 states. Right, it’s “parody,” and why not name the enemy, which comes down to white males more often than not? But I’m a white male, and not (sorry) the enemy. The enemy rarely attends rap concerts. I do. So my attitude was, fuck you.

Catching up with 1994’s Dare Iz a Darkside and 1996’s Muddy Waters— both gold, both prized by the hardcore— I don’t feel like I missed much. Over utilitarian beats à la his discoverer and Def Squad co-member Erick Sermon, Redman’s brand of weed-fueled raunch-ruckus is rarely as wild or ecstatic as Busta Rhymes’s or Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s; too often its distinctive grit manifests as crass bitch-slap and beat-ass BS. But Doc’s Da Name has a more humane mood: the comic high spirits that previously bubbled closer to the surface in Busta and ODB fuse with the grit into ground-level, politically incorrect satire full of loud farts, stinkin’ asses, and no-account thugs making monkey noises. Set in “The Bricks,” the “ghetto as hell” Newark hometown where Redman né Reggie Noble will reside until such time as he can afford the “nice house” he wants for his infant son, it makes something like a protagonist of Noble’s alternate alter ego Funk Doctor Spot, the kind of hapless monkey who perpetrates mayhem on all of Redman’s records. Not every song is funny, but, miraculously, all five skits are. On “Million Chicken March” a babymama militant named Liquidacia demands 40 cans of Enfamil a month and refuses to report babydaddies to welfare: “We must stick together in order to survive in a world of bourgie hos.” “Pain in Da Ass Stewardess” enacts a skyjacking stickup: ” . . . motherfuckin’ shoes, sneakers, socks, I want the credit cards, the welfare cards, I even want your fuckin’ frequent-
flier miles.” Presumably the speaker isn’t our antihero, who ends up shooting a hole in the side of the plane, blasting himself and everyone else to perdition.

Unless Coolio and Biz Markie are larger than they look these days, it’s safe to generalize that hip hop antiheroes have trouble holding on to what respect they get; the big exception is ODB, who’s really selling insanity and has an entire Clan watching his back. With most rappers who claim hardcore, vulnerability only deepens heroic dimensionScarface’s life after death, Jay-Z’s detailed fantasies of betrayal and reconciliation— and humor means killer disses, fancy wordplay, and the kind of street-
hardened irony Biggie Smalls owned. But whether hip hop’s dauntless self-promotion is exemplary or escapist, Doc’s Da Name downplays it. Redman comes on humble. There’s no flaunting of distance, skill, or command even in relatively generic sex boasts like “Well All Rite Cha” and “Da Goodness,” much less “Let Da Monkey Out” (“I tell lies under oath if it please the court,” but also “I got zits on your face that can’t wait to bump”) or “Jersey Yo!” ‘s infectious tales of fucking up on weed (“What’s up, bitch? Oh, hi mama”). Everybody fucks up here, and although the rapper is a big man of sorts, he’s still living in The Bricks, right? “Fuck all you radio that wanna play clean singles/I cleaned mine for years and still ain’t hit a million,” he grouses resignedly. The result? “I’m a everyday nigga like a Toyota/The A&R hope we don’t drop the same coda.”

In a genre where nobody wants to be a role model and everybody is, Redman cuts fresh cheese. People have jobs on this record— “whether it’s fast food, or transportation, sneaker store, doin’ hair, or straight-up strippin’, we gotta get the cash”— and that includes its “round-the-clock lyricist,” who says he sleeps in his work boots. And though Redman never moralizes, he gives the impression that his developed craft and increasingly down-to-earth ghetto realism come with the long haul of a career that’s maintained but never blown up, with an assist from fatherhood. Afroed Oaklander Boots Riley, the surviving rapper in the Coup, who after valiant attempts to promote post-gangsta militance on Wild Pitch in ’93 and ’94 resurfaced late last year on Dogday (4432 Telegraph Avenue, Box 72, Oakland, California 94609, www.dogdayrecords.com), reaches a similar artistic maturity by a less promising route: ideology, activism, study. Even in the wake of records entitled Kill Your Landlord, Genocide and Juice, and now Steal This Album, it’s shock enough to hear anyone working in a pop form come out and say flatly: “See, I’m a communist.” For the lyrics to bite and excite and amuse and the music to carry them along seems too much to expect. Maybe the revolution already happened and nobody noticed. (Just kidding.)

The Coup are pure Oakland, a cross between David Hilliard, the Black Panther leader whose autobiography tops a reading list on which Riley also recommends Manning Marable and Saul Alinsky, and Too Short, whose deep-bumping beats are a key source of the Coup’s live-in-the-studio funk (although where Too Short treats all women as hos, Riley’s coconspirator is female DJ Pam the Funkstress). Musically as well as verbally, Riley goes for a coherence that would have sounded old school when the Bomb Squad was def, which combined with his incitements to armed rebellion— “20,000 gun salute!/Get rowdy like you got a substitute!”— virtually guarantees that he’ll never take his message nationwide. But putting aside fashion-driven notions of progress, he’s a lot better at his chosen beats than Redman (or tough-fronting hack Erick Sermon). The essence of Redman’s musicality is a staccato flow that suits both his jumpy imagery and the surrounding cacophony (“Fu-u-u-ck you-ou” echoing through brick canyons, say). The Coup’s music is bass-heavy riff-and-chorus jams hung with simple hooks— harmonica, string synth, Tower of Power horns, vocal backups galore. You could wake up humming Alan “Dr. Blues” Werblin, M.D.’s harp part, or Del The Funkee Homosapien’s nervous and/or demonic repo-man la-la-las. But they wouldn’t mean much if they didn’t underpin Riley’s casual, comprehensible, rapid, verbose delivery.

Because Riley is a propagandist and propagandists want to be understood, he declines another hip hop usage that’s more than a fashion by now— the subcultural references, private jokes, and other carefully tended obscurities that shield it from prying ears. There’s even a crib sheet, which isn’t essential but sure comes in handy. Storytelling and theme-following are the rule, and after four years Riley has some rhymes for the people. Steal This Album‘s tour de force is “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night,” a corny, well-plotted tale where a 24-year-old kills the surrogate father who long ago murdered his mom, which climaxes by flipping a surprisingly street Microsoft-Macintosh metaphor. But every track impresses in its own way, including the virtuosic music-as-dope opener, the revolutionary call to arms, the brutal medical exposé (“It seems that he’s lost the will to pay”), funny stories about sneaking into the movies and driving the broken-down hoopties that transport more folks than Beemers where Riley is from and everywhere else. The painful repo-man burlesque is ratcheted up by “Underdogs,” which translates Manning Marable on poverty and exploitation into terms any ghetto dweller can recognize, even from a few levels up the stepladder. Ideologues believe communist artists are never this humorous, this balanced, this concrete. They’re wrong.

Other ideologues, some of whom fear the new black music and some of whom live for it, no doubt believe this can’t be real hip hop. They’re wrong too. The very different ghetto realisms of Redman and the Coup both happen to be to my taste, but I wouldn’t think of trying to point rap that way even if I had the power to do so. Both merely reaffirm what’s clearer all the time— the genre’s so far unlimited capacity to get artists off their asses, doing stuff no one’s ever done before.