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


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


Coup Thing

Growing up in Washington, D.C., during the salad days of straight-edge harDCore, Nathan Larson wasn’t interested in mixing punk with politics. “I’m embarrassed to say it now,” the Manhattan-based singer-guitarist admits, “but I’d do shit like show up with a McDonald’s hamburger just to piss people off.” Larson played in Shudder to Think, perhaps the least typical D.C. punk band ever: Fronted by bald-domed opera fan Craig Wedren, Shudder made supertechnical math-core that harbored a secret desire to be glam-rock (before glam-rock was back). They were also one of the first Dischord acts to sign to a major label, an act that once scandalized DIY purists.

Over the years since Shudder’s late-’90s demise, Larson formed the short-lived Mind Science of the Mind (with Mary Timony of Helium), put out an underrated white-soul solo album, and began a lucrative sideline as an indie-film soundtrack composer. (He also married Cardigans frontwoman Nina Persson, whose 2001 solo disc he worked on; the couple split their time between New York and Sweden.) And following the 2000 election, Larson sprouted the political consciousness he once disavowed. “That’s when I started getting politically active in the more traditional ways, giving money to causes,” Larson says. “But I didn’t connect with anything musical until the summer of 2005, when the germ of Hot One came up.”

Hot One is Larson’s new outfit with guitarist Jordan Kern, bassist Emm Gryner (with whom Larson had collaborated with on her singer-songwriter material), and drummer Kevin March (a latter-day Shudder member and manager at the local branch of the School of Rock). On their excellent self-titled debut, the foursome play super-tuneful glam-rock that harbors a not-so-secret desire to overthrow “the loathsome G.W. Bush cabal,” as they claim in a recent MySpace manifesto. Song titles include “Sexy Soldier,” “Do the Coup d’√Čtat,” and “Fuckin’ “; riffs come in sizes L, XL, and XXL.

The band finished recording the album back in February, but just made their live debut a few weeks back; they’re having kids from area Schools of Rock open each show, which Larson says rounds out his idea of talking about politics in a way that’s “kind of ridiculous, but with a seriousness about it. It’s awesome: You’ve got these 12-year-old kids playing ‘Tom Sawyer’ by Rush. You can’t be cynical when you’ve got kids playing with you.”

Hot One plays Southpaw Saturday night,


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.


The Cotton Club

Armed with messages of Black political resistance, Black pride, and opposition to militarization and corporatization, designed in part to counter the commercial hip-hop party-and-bullshit madness dumbing down the nation’s youth, hip-hop’s lyrical descendants of the “fight the power” golden era today are booking concerts in record numbers—far beyond anything imaginable by their predecessors. Problem is, they can hardly find a Black face in the audience.

As the Coup (Pick a Bigger Gun), Zion-I (True and Livin’), and the Perceptionists (Black Dialogue) get set for a wave of touring to promote their new CDs this summer, the audience that will be looking back at them unmasks one of the most significant casualties of hip-hop’s pop culture ascension: the shrinking Black concert audience for hardcore, political hip-hop.

“My audience has gone from being over 95 percent Black 10 years ago to over 95 percent white today,” laments Boots Riley of the Coup, whose 1994 Genocide and Juice responded to Snoop Dogg’s 1993 gangsta party anthem “Gin and Juice.” “We jokingly refer to our tour as the Cotton Club,” he says—a reference to the 1920s and ’30s Harlem jazz spot where Black musicians played to whites-only audiences.

Boots says he first noticed the shift one night in 1995, in a concert on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Opening for Coolio, he stepped center stage and grabbed the mic as usual, but then saw something unusual about the audience: a standing-room-only sea of whiteness. Some were almost dressed like farmers, he recalls. Others had their heads shaved. “Damn, skinheads are out there,” he thought. “They can’t be here to see us.” But the frantic crowd began chanting along rhyme for rhyme.

Zion, MC of the independent rap group Zion-I, agrees the similarities to jazz are striking: “Jazz went white, then Black, then white again. At this point African Americans aren’t the ones supporting live jazz [performances]. It’s the same in many ways with independent hip-hop. I’ve been to shows where the only Black people in the place are onstage. It’s kind of surreal.”

“I love Boots Riley’s music, but in general people in the ‘hood are not checking for the Coup,” says Brother Ali, part owner of the Minneapolis-based hip-hop collective Rhymesayers Entertainment. “It’s hard enough to get some of our people to go to a Kweli show. It has a lot to do with the fact that the emphasis on the culture has been taken away. It’s just the industry now and it’s sold back to us—it’s not ours anymore. It used to be anti-establishment, off the radar, counterculture. People in the streets are now being told what hip-hop is and what it looks like by TV.”

According to industry insiders and most media outlets, though, the shifting audience isn’t just a Black consciousness thing—it’s prevalent in mainstream hip-hop as well. Whites run hip-hop, they say, from the business executives at major labels to the suburban teen consumers. But the often-intoned statistic claiming that 70 percent of American hip-hop sells to white people may cover up more than it reveals.

No hard demographic study has ever been conducted on hip-hop’s consumers. And Nielsen SoundScan, the chief reference source on music sales, by its own admission does not break down its over-the-counter totals by race. “Any conclusions drawn from our data that reference race involve a great deal of conjecture,” a SoundScan spokesperson insists.

Wendy Day, founder of the Rap Coalition, a hip-hop artist-advocacy group, says she’s attempted to pair up with several popular hip-hop magazines on such a study, but none would commit to help fund it. When she asked an executive at a major record label, she got an even more interesting response: “He didn’t see the value in writing that kind of check,” she says. “Because rap is selling so well, he didn’t see the value in knowing who his market is. ‘It’s not broken, Wendy,’ he said. ‘We don’t need to fix it.’ ”

And distinctions must be drawn between buyers and listeners. In terms of hip-hop’s listening audience, Nielsen SoundScan doesn’t weigh those passing on and burning CDs. (In July 2003 Nielsen SoundScan began tracking companies like iTunes that sell downloads for a fee.) Nielsen SoundScan, which claims to track 90 percent of the market, doesn’t take into account underground mixtape CDs, mom-and-pop store sales, or big retailers like Starbucks and Burlington Coat Factory that refuse to share their sales information.

Concert crowds are another matter. Looking for the 70 to 80 percent majority white audience? In most cases you won’t find it at a Nelly concert or any other top-selling hip-hop artist’s show. At large venues like Detroit’s 40,000-capacity Comerica Park, where Eminem and 50 Cent will headline the Anger Management Tour in August, estimates suggest that 50 to 60 percent of the seats are filled by white fans. By contrast, Caucasian concertgoers staring down culturally focused Black hip-hop artists topple these numbers. Although to date there’s been no attempt to track concert demographic data, fans, promoters, and independent MCs who play live more than half the year give estimates of 85 to 95 percent.


Backnthaday, artists like KRS-One, PE, Brand Nubian, Queen Latifah, Poor Righteous Teachers, and others coexisted with more purely party-oriented acts like Kid ‘n Play, Heavy D, and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. They could also be found alongside those who got a little more gritty wit’ it, such as Schoolly D and Luther Campbell’s 2 Live Crew. In those days Afrocentric MCs rolled neck and neck with their counterparts, routinely reaching 500,000 units—the gold sales standard of the mid ’80s. By decade’s end, a few such records—Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, for instance—had gone platinum.

That’s no longer the case. In today’s mainstream hip-hop, the mark of success is multiplatinum sales. 50 Cent’s most recent release sold over 1 million units in four days; Nelly’s 2001 Country Grammar to date has moved over 9 million units. By contrast, dead prez, the sole contemporary political hip-hop group with mainstream distribution, struggled to top 500,000.

Dead prez aside, the most widely circulated conscientious commentary in mainstream hip-hop mostly comes in the form of surprise protest tracks from artists who would never be deemed “political”—Jadakiss’s and Eminem’s pre-election hits “Why” and “Mosh,” for example.

And whereas a decade ago artists consistently banged out social commentary with mass appeal, today the closest equivalents are Kanye West, Common, and the Roots, whose stance on wax focuses more on aesthetics than resistance—closer to A Tribe Called Quest, say, than to Public Enemy. PE’s more direct lyrical descendants have been ghettoized in the underground, with high-end sales in the 25,000-to-50,000 range—over months or years, rather than weeks.

“Today, there are no purely conscious MCs competing on the level with the top-selling artists in the game,” says Erik Smith of Critical Mass Consulting, a firm that does street-level lifestyle marketing for major labels’ new releases. But does this mean there is no longer a Black market for Black consciousness in hip-hop?

In the ’80s the gap between the civil rights generation and their hip-hop generation offspring was less severe. Culturally centered artists in that era were often steeped in the politics of the turn-of-the-’70s Black power movement. The lyrical content of the time didn’t venture far beyond those borders. Such was the case of Public Enemy’s 1990 Fear of a Black Planet. The CD jacket even extensively quoted psychologist Frances Cress Welsing’s “Cress Theory of Color Confrontation” that emerged in the 1970s, likening to white supremacy football, basketball, baseball, and other ball games where the color of the ball and what is done to it are subconsciously connected to America’s racial politics.

Welsing also had another, less-known theory, regarding the inferiorization of Black children. Welsing argued that soon white supremacists wouldn’t have to worry about making Blacks seem inferior—they’d just need to keep providing them with inferior education, housing, health care, child care, and the like, and in a generation or two they would be. After 15 years of gangstas and bling, perhaps hip-hop’s Black audience has been so inundated with material garbage that they don’t want an uplifting message?

Zion, who believes the withering Black audience reflects the diminishing discussion of Blackness in public discourse, thinks so. “I do so many shows in front of mostly white audiences that it’s the norm,” says Zion. “When I get in front of a Black audience it’s like, ‘Finally you’re here, feel me.’ We’ve done shows in Chicago and São Paulo, Brazil, and it feels good to be in front of our people when they are feeling it. But there are some thugged-out crowds where our message doesn’t resonate, and Black folks will say that they aren’t trying to hear hip-hop artists remind them of their problems.”

Brother Ali
photo: courtesy of Biz 3 Publicity

Today’s climate is indeed a far cry from the African medallion mania of the 1980s. In the academy, we’ve gone from 1980s discussions of Black studies and Afrocentricity to multiculturalism to current-day debates about post-Blackness and polyculturalism. At the same time, in the arena of mainstream politics we’ve gone from discussing the collective Black impact of Jesse Jackson’s run for president to the individual career successes of Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice. In the streets we’ve gone from the Nation of Islam patrolling housing projects to whites reclaiming Harlem, South Side Chicago, and East Oakland, and Black scholars like Columbia University’s Lance Freeman arguing that poor Blacks aren’t significantly displaced by gentrification.
“So many Black people don’t want to hear it,” Zion continues. “They want that thug shit. That’s why I’m thankful for the audience we do have.”


Mr. Lif, whose success as a solo artist led him to the recent partnering with Akrobatik and DJ Fakts One to form the Perceptionists, agrees. “It’s disorienting. It’s bizarre,” he says. “But no artist is in a position to choose his fans. Whoever is in the audience, I love them for being there. They are allowing me to make a living doing what I love.”

And the demand for art-as-a-weapon hip-hop music is so great that the best-known independent MCs are able to book from 150 to 200 concerts a year in venues where the capacity ranges from 200 to 1,500, all the while not breaking through to the mainstream.

Recognizing the success of such underground white MCs as Aesop Rock, El-P, and Sage Francis—all moving around 100,000 units per release—Brother Ali says, “Our genre is looked at as white rap. It’s almost like a white chitlin circuit of underground rap music.” The more popular underground white hip-hop artists are helping to nurture the audience at venues that now regularly feature conscious Black hip-hop artists. At the same time as political hip-hop’s audience has gotten whiter, audiences for old-school socially conscious hip-hop (think De La Soul) and politically conscious hip-hop (think Chuck D and KRS-One) have merged. It’s an audience that includes white kids, college students, and those tapping into what remains of the counterculture of hip-hop. This requires fans with the time on their hands to search out MCs in independent record stores and on the Internet.

The largely Latino concert turnouts for these MCs in specific areas of cities like Houston, El Paso, and Los Angeles, however, quickly reveals that none of this is an exact science. In Oakland, one MC reports a majority Black and brown audience, in contrast to a mostly white audience when he performs next door in San Francisco. In the South, in cities like Baton Rouge and Charleston, independent labels like Slaughterhouse and Pure Pain are posting Aesop Rock numbers and their concert audience is nearly all Black.

“None of these factors change the fact that the audience supporting Black hip-hop artists with a political message is mostly white,” says Nicole Balin of Ballin’ Entertainment, a Los Angeles- based PR firm representing underground hip-hop artists. Yet according to Wendy Day, no matter how many white kids are being drawn in, the Black stamp of approval is critical even when the audience is primarily white.

“I can tell you as someone who works with independent labels in parts of the South and Midwest that if you are breaking a record at the street level in these communities, and you don’t have young Black kids buying your record, you will not go anywhere,” Day says. “Unless it’s legitimized by the Black community, these kids are not buying a damn thing other than what their friends of color are listening to.”

the Perceptionists
photo: Maya Hayuk

Black hip-hop kids as the gatekeepers for what’s hot has long been the state of affairs for mainstream and cutting-edge hip-hop—but that may be changing in some parts of the country like Minneapolis, for example, where white MCs and white audiences have it on lock. And while there are countless white hip-hop kids supporting the underground who see Blackness as key to hip-hop’s sense of urgency, growing numbers believe white underground MCs are hip-hop’s avant-garde. More and more they insist without pause that their favorite white underground MCs are smarter and hence better.

“One of the hardest things we’re dealing with now is the underlying feeling of white supremacy among fans who feel they are a part of hip-hop, but are listening to and prefer mostly white MCs,” says Brother Ali, who recently toured with several old-school legends together with Atmosphere—a biracial independent rap group who, like Brother Ali, hails from Minneapolis. “They believe that Aesop Rock is better than independent artists who are Black and mainstream artists like Ludacris. These MCs are doing a lot with hip-hop artistically that they have learned from Black people, but [their fans] don’t want to hear from the old-school originators because they believe it’s the white MCs who created the styles they like. This isn’t an underground-versus-mainstream thing—it’s a racist thing.”

Bikari Kitwana’s book Why White Kids Love Hip Hop came out June 5.



The big thing about Later That Day . . . is that it’s a pleasure to listen to. It sounds good. Voice authoritative, flow powerful, beats deep, arrangements full, audio lush, with only the last compromised at all by undie-rap budget. Lyrics Born is his name, but Oakland funk is his game—the different neoclassicist strokes of such different folks as Tower of Power, Maze, and Too Short, all of whom immigrated from non-Southern cities, as did Tokyo-born, Berkeley-raised Tom Shimura. Hear also Bay Area natives Boots Riley of the Coup and Michael Franti of Spearhead. But where the lefties’ formally familiar groove left cynics room to sidestep their message, Lyrics Born is an incorrigible music nut now steeped in the rare grooves of the Munich-based Poets of Rhythm. And while his morality is there for the inferring, a full-time propagandist he’s not.

My favorite LB lines come from the 1997 airplay hit “Balcony Beach” on the only album by Latyrx, the duo he swears will rev back up once Lateef the Truthspeaker’s solo CD is out: “I think it’s better to be depressed for a minute and admit it/Instead of being a bitter cynic, isn’t it?” This known notion and all its kin are unprecedented in hip-hop or any other pop, and immensely strengthened by its status as lyric. Reread the couplet for musicality, all those it and in sounds echoing and interlocking—and then imagine LB’s missus Joyo Velarde crooning a chorus, drum-kick/bass-thwong drenched by sampled breakers crashing, words eddying around the beats in a relaxed, resonant, contemplative, conceivably stoned slur. Yet that’s only a foretaste of the self-produced Later That Day . . . , which explores, expands, and has a ball with the same grown-up tone. Lyrics Born is a notorious perfectionist, and while his album gestated he remained active with the UC Davis-spawned Quannum Projects collective, where DJ Shadow concocted Latyrx tracks and Blackalicious shared cameos and LB got so hot for the Poets of Rhythm he oversaw their 2001 Discern/Define. During those years I caught him with both Latyrx and Blackalicious, and twice he proved spellbinding—quick of lip and quick to ruckus, riding grooves and pushing beats with a stage savvy rare in any hip-hop, much less the supposedly joyless alt kind. The crowd pleaser has his say on Later That Day . . . too.

The always excellent Latyrx album has improved with time, but its aesthetic works changes on spartan alt-rap minimalism-of-necessity, with the spirit of Shadow spurring the production to uncommon heights and depths. Later That Day . . . is a ’70s funk record straight up. The opening “Bad Dreams” is sung-intoned over an aptly obtrusive funk-rock beat with female call-and-response establishing a sonic trademark. Not until track 10 is there an actual song that does without the ladies; they even juice two skits. A “U Ass Bank” teleteller interrupts an on-hold chorus cooing “You’re an asshole” to announce “Whoa—you have no fucking money,” after which the flash button can’t save our man from buying shit he doesn’t want as telemarketers chime a seductive serenade of “We wanna talk to you.” But first come the spiritual “Rise and Shine” he shares with Velarde and the projected party hit “Callin’ Out,” where the girls harmonize, “Don’t worry ’bout the president/He can’t stop us now” before LB starts callin’ out. Ideologically old-school, it’s musically older-school, as intricate as any P-Funkupdate comin’ out your speakerboxx. For all the props Lyrics Born gives the Poets of Rhythm, Discern/Define is merely a blueprint for the turbulent flow he won’t rest till he gets.

Flawless pacing and sequencing keep the album of a piece. But as promised, it never repeats itself. A reggae love song is topped by a conscious funk-reggae hymn straddling a distinctly street guest rap. “Stop Complaining” bitches genially enough, then two tracks later a Latyrx reunion posits “a movement of people across the globe” against straitened opportunities, surveilled lives, and other American malfeasances, including the way “patrons of any faith outside the mainstream are berated falsely painted as endangering the way things run.” Reread once again—it’s not just the relatively spare beat (overlaid with a cuica picked up in Brazil) that will keep cynics off the protest’s back, it’s all the long a‘s. This “potentest braggadocious vocalist goin’ postal” loves assonance—he flaunts it, jokes around with it, executes a rapid-fire run that starts, “Well abracadabra I saddled up a camel traveled the Sahara” and ends 50 seconds later with “Vanity, Miss Japan, Canada, and Bananarama in the back of an Acura.”

This is sound for its own sake, high play in a new tradition—but also one of LB’s less original rap skills. The Japanese American veteran of Too Short’s Telegraph Avenue youth has somehow absorbed the groove, timbre, and definition of Afro-Southern speech, but not so’s he bites anyone in particular. A little Gil Scott-Heron in his husky baritone, a little Barry White in his arrogated ease, neither Deep South—and beyond that, what? Harried home owner in his sighs and shrugs, yet world-weary hipster too, so that when he speeds he’s as much Lambert Hendricks & Ross as Spoonie Gee or Big Pun. There’s a complex personality in Lyrics Born’s voice alone—serious and good-humored, down yet beyond down, committed to continuity meaning committed to change. Born in 1972, he was less than 25 when he conceived “Balcony Beach,” and already he sounded something like wise. Still does. Which makes the Later That Day . . . ‘s insistence on having fun and moving the crowd one more piece of morality alt-rappers had better the fuck infer.


Inkblot Integer-Hop

Regan Farquhar, a/k/a Busdriver, rhymes like a syncopated giggle, sine-curve-scrambling words jockeying for position even as the foundation they springboard from disintegrates into nothingness. On most of the songs on the knowingly titled Temporary Forever, the center doesn’t even try to hold. Passing thoughts, complex rhymes, oddball metaphors, and hella non sequiturs all buzz around some indeterminate point.

But with Busdriver—a man whose first group was called 4/29, after the date of the L.A. uprisings—there’s always a point. Busdriver’s technique is an anti-apathy strategy, a stylistically absurd response to politically absurd times. On “Gun Control,” he spot-rushes the “white conservatives/who form the oligarchy.” On “Idle Chatter” he cautions, “Go ahead and spend/but the dollar bill is nature’s suicide notes.” It’s leftist rap, but not didactically so (à la the Coup or Public Enemy). Instead, call Busdriver a humanist, or at least humane, or at least aware. Stints living in Sedona and rapping in a bluegrass band called Popcorn Goddess will do that to a teen who never cared that he had stereotypes to live down to (empathy is so much a part of his fiber that the adult Busdriver even samples CNN doughboy Aaron Brown). “When I improvise,” he raps on “Along Came a Biter,” “Showers rinse the skies from brainstorm rainclouds/I’m Coltrane and Kurt Cobain’s brainchild/and you’re soaking wet.” Not all of Busdriver’s routes are so Rorschach, though. “Unplanned Parenthood” is a short-short musing on the pleasant tribulations of seed nurturing, and “Opposable Thumbs” among the album’s best moments, is a cruel skewering of fauxhemians. Slipping into the role, our man snickers, “I decorate my speech with Taoism and karma/but I don’t know Walt Whitman from Walt Disney.” Wise stuff, but awfully unforgiving. What was once wide-eyed optimism begins to sting after too much exposure.

So Busdriver keeps hope alive in math-rap time. At the drive-thru window (on “Stylin’ Under Pressure”), he needles the attendant with off-the-cuff Snagglepuss-style verse about the food that bears as much actual relationship to the matter at hand as the average Cockneyism does: “I’m a tall, lonely teddy bear/who occupies empty air/I’m not a millionaire/I’m a pennyaire/Yes!”

And when he’s at his best, Busdriver all but leapfrogs the utility of words. Produced by O.D. (he of the sublime Beneath the Surface compilation), “Jazz Fingers” is a tangled jangle of snare rolls and horn inquiries, a thicket offering absolutely no point of entry for dissent. Or rhyme. But Busdriver doesn’t whip out a machete. Instead, the man whose vocal hero is advanced-placement scatter Jon Hendricks (of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross) name-drops Horace Tapscott and Billy Higgins in a syllabic fusillade so intense, so everywhere, that he’s left to muse to his jazzbo compadre, “white people can’t find your coordinates on a laptop.”

He can dream, can’t he? Outside of the imagined community that is modern-day Project Blowed, computerland is probably where Busdriver is best known. But it’s hard to rep for a cause when the audience is virtual, and so is its collective identity. That anger pops out on “The Truth of Spontaneous Human Combustion,” as he shits on an eager young fan of a lighter shade: “Sorry, I don’t cater to the whim of every white college student/who finds a little bit of truth in the movement/but fails to acknowledge his or her bourgeois background/and acts like they’ve been that down/for that long/just because they’ve been inspired by some tired-ass underground rap song.” Busdriver say you a wanksta, and you need to stop fronting. Odds are you can’t even understand him, though.


Fourth Annual Real-Life Consumer Guide

The universal jukebox is allegedly right around the virtual corner; while you wait, you can get a Sony 200-CD changer ($179.99 at J&R, or $219.99 or $229.99 for the 300- and 400-capacity versions, respectively) and set it on shuffle. We shopped for 26 likely gift items this year and found that, recession be damned, prices are edging up. Sounds is once again your best bet, but J&R is a close second, has better selection, and needs a boost after being shut down for a month by 9-11. Both are cheaper than functional equivalents Tower and Virgin, with a slight edge to Tower, which also needs your business (see The Sound of the City, November 20). Kim’s didn’t have enough matches to make it worth including, but was competitive with Other Music. Online, Web-based comparison-shopping bots like and won’t always find the outstanding deals at and, but they do occasionally find prices even lower than theirs. With a few clicks, we were able to find new (and thus returnable) copies for about as much as the best used prices at Amazon or







Aphex Twin Drukqs






Avalanches Since I Left You






Basement Jaxx Rooty






Bubba Sparxxx Dark Days, Bright Nights






The Coup Party Music






Miles Davis Live at the Fillmore East, March 7, 1970: It’s About That Time






DMX The Great Depression






Bob Dylan “Love and Theft”






Gorillaz Gorillaz






Macy Gray The Id






Langley Schools Music Project Innocence and Despair






The Moldy Peaches The Moldy Peaches






Nuggets, Vol. 2 (box set)






Orlando Cachaito Lopez Cachaito






Say It Loud!: A Celebration of Black Music in America (box set)






The Strokes Is This It






* used + clean

Bonus rummage items: Amazon: Louis Armstrong, “Beale St. Blues” 45, $3*; Cheap-cds: The White Stripes, White Blood Cells, $8.55; Half: Bulworth soundtrack, 75 cents*; Alldirect: Corn Sisters, The Other Women, $9.34; J&R: Honeywell QuietCare HEPA air filter, $59.99; Sounds: Loretta Lynn, Out of My Head and Into My Bed, $3.99*; Other Music: Pavement, Watery, Domestic, $3.99*; Tower: Go Simpsonic With the Simpsons, $8.99*; Virgin: Matrix Hugo Weaving action figure, $8.25.

Addresses: J&R Music World, 23 Park Row; Sounds, 16 and 20 St. Marks Place; Other Music, 15 East 4th Street; Tower Records, 692 Broadway; Virgin, 52 East 14th Street.


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?


Going Down Easy

This is the stuff of which legends are really made: Young New York City Band writes a few great songs; U.K. critics write a few fawning cover stories; young New York City Band is written off by the Underground. Yawn. Nay, urp—who doesn’t find instant adulation and knee-jerk repudiation hard to swallow? The story’s as old as Bruce Springsteen. And he’s pretty old.

“Rock ‘n’ roll” is a myth, of course; the Strokes, like the White Stripes, constitute today’s critically celebrated version of that myth. Peep their revolutionary models: The Stripes follow Blind Willie McTell and the Kinks; the Strokes, Television and the Stooges. (Though I hear the Kinks and Stooges in both. Whatever.) I recently read that good evidence suggests Tyrannosaurus rex never hunted, but scavenged. Paleontologists, ever proud of their long-extinct, alpha-male star, mostly refuse to hear this hypothesis out. Luckily for reviewers, the fantasy element of rock ‘n’ roll’s lore allows newcomers to mount their flesh on old bones (after boning up on master texts, of course). In other words: Sweat the technique, not your historical moment. Or the message your appropriated medium once embodied.

Perspiration needs inspiration. The Coup, Lightning Bolt, Destiny’s Child, Kid606, and other formal innovators dedicate their energies to defining their time. Julian Casablancas, the Strokes’ singer and songwriter, achieves the next best thing: defining his 23-year-old self in songs propulsive enough to jar misgivings out of your head. Although the Strokes have been portrayed as arrogant, their music never sounds that way. Although they’ve been described as shallow, let’s get wasted and fuck, OK? There are enough cold fish in the sea, from men who’d rather spray women with champagne than drink it with them to those who just drink alone. After all, the Coup were being only partly ironic when they named their trouble-crunking new album Party Music.

Meanwhile, the Strokes were being only partly rhetorical when they named their beep-if-you’re-horny album Is This It. The real question is, What more does Casablancas want? It’s “Hard to Explain,” apparently. Rock stars—always leaving the details to the critics. (Too bad I’m just a 22-year-old slut.) Fortunately, Sonic Youth already explained the problem: Confusion is sex. In “Barely Legal,” Casablancas claims, “I just want/to turn you down/I just want/to turn you around,” as if he’s not just talking dirty. Sade already tackled the “Sweetest Taboo”; Julian could care less about subverting social conventions—he just wants to “steal your innocence.”

Sade sounds satisfied; Casablancas, simply fried. His band—Fabrizio Moretti (drums), Albert Hammond Jr. (guitar), Nick Valensi (guitar), and Nikolai Fraiture (bass)—apes chaos by piling out-of-sync precision guitar parts and melodic basslines over hyper r&b beats. If these guys have ever written a ponderous tune, they left it out of Is This It‘s perfectly sequenced 11-track arc. The disc’s peak, “When It Started,” veers from Chuck Berry jitter to garage-rock disco to heartfelt balladry in under three minutes, and it wasn’t even included on early promotional copies of Is This It. “New York City Cops,” an anthem as likely inspired by the B-52s as Black Flag, held its spot. (Allow me to digress for a moment: Like most anthems about police, the song does not treat its subject kindly: “They ain’t that smart,” Casablancas declares. Now is indeed the time to recognize and grieve with, not blithely ridicule, our city’s crime- and firefighting forces. And there are worse things than self-censorship—scapegoating and government encroachment on privacy, for instance. One simply hopes that we have not lost our will to dissent.)

Besides switching songs, some label schmo—perhaps even the Strokes themselves!—decided that Is This It‘s U.S. cover should be changed from the profile of a woman’s bare ass to a totally lame abstract shot produced by a microscope (telescope? I forget which). How inappropriate. Casablancas doesn’t study things up close or from, uh, far away. He calls ’em as he sees ’em, and what he’d really like to see is a woman’s bare ass. Even his very convincing, blue ballad voice comes off a little like a model’s seductive frown. Said tone receives full treatment in the relatively subdued titular tune, with its tweedling guitar and hopscotching bass, but everywhere else it gets folded into belting, moaning, and his bandmates’ stomping tear. This is as it should be. Three minutes after swearing he’ll only “pretend” to leave, Casablancas tells a lover to “take it sleazy” on his way out the door. The confusion in his confidence puts the yelp in his Lou Reed.

If you like one Strokes song, you’ll like their whole album. But when in doubt, put on the ragged, thrashing “Last Night.” Once again, Casablancas is walking out “that door,” but before even crossing the threshold he starts the story over, and over: She whines about how he won’t let her in, so he has no choice but to pretend to leave. Last night, and every night of his life. And this song, which constantly doubles back upon itself: They’re all the same. Equal parts trifle and truffle, like all legendary rock ‘n’ roll. Legend doesn’t mean shit to artists who keep moving; critics have no excuse for not keeping up. As for the Strokes: Stop this mystery train, they wanna get off.

The Strokes play Hammerstein Ballroom October 31.