The Coup may not be a name that is immediately familiar, but chances are you read about this Oakland-based hip-hop duo -- producer/MC Boots Riley and DJ Pam the Funktress -- in the days following September 11th, which just so happened to be the day the cover art for Party Music was going to press. The original cover, pulled immediately but widely circulated, pictured Pam holding two drumsticks like conductors' batons while Riley knelt in the foreground, pushing a guitar pedal like a detonator, as the twin towers of the World Trade Center exploded behind them. The cover was meant to be metaphor, a twist on the inscription Woody Guthrie had on his guitar -- "This machine kills fascists." The Coup's intended message? "Our music kills capitalism."
The cover was changed to a slightly wittier "Molotov cocktail" image (though neither can match the cover of the group's great 1998 breakthrough, Steal This Album, which pictured Riley and Pam locked up behind a bar code). The only significant admitted Marxists in all of American pop music, the Coup have a penchant for overstepping their music with wrongheaded statements (unless, that is, you really believe that "every cop is a corrupt one" or that those with the money and power are all "Lazy Muthafucka"s). But during an era when most pop music is apolitically conservative, the Coup's leftist agitpop has no rival. Most mainstream rappers are screaming for Bill Gates and Donald Trump to let them in the club; the Coup are releasing a single called "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO."
On Party Music, Riley and Pam create a bed of warm, ambitious West Coast funk over which Riley flows with a languid drawl and sharp wit that splits the difference between classic Ice Cube and Dre from the similarly adventurous OutKast. Riley may not be a great pure rapper, but if this music is about the love of language and the delight of delivery, few can match him for his conversational, unpretentious way with a memorable lyric. The world has been waiting for a "Ghetto Manifesto" that begins this way: "I write my lyrics on parking tickets and summons to the court/I scribbled this on an application for county support/I practice this like a sport/Met Donald Trump and he froze up/Standin' on his Bentley yellin', 'Pimps down, Hos up!'" The song is the Coup's political sloganeering at its wittiest and most musical, "a slum serenade on razor blades and grenades/By the nannies and the maids who be polishin' the suede."
But this band isn't nearly as strident (or as macho) as Rage Against the Machine or Public Enemy, whose The Battle of Los Angeles and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, respectively, are Party Music's only real competition as the best purely political album of the post-punk era. Like Public Enemy's Chuck D. before him, Riley is guilty of plenty of blustery bullshit. But unlike Chuck D., he doesn't need to rely on a sidekick to cut his crap with comic relief. Riley has plenty of good humor on his own, which helps the agitpop go down easy, but also offers reassurances of his own generosity and compassion.
Indeed, beyond "Ghetto Manifesto," Party Music's best moments are softer and more reflective. "Heven Tonite" is the rare hip-hop song to take churches to task for concentrating on the next world without turning tithes toward political change in this one. Marked by a circular acoustic guitar riff and sung chorus, Riley concludes with his most specific description of what "the revolution" might entail and then instructs retailers to file the deeply political song under "love ballad."
Even better is the hip-hop "Night Moves" of "Nowalaters," an inspirationally understanding and perceptive open letter to a high school girlfriend that is richly evocative of growing up in the '80s, with its chorus references to high-top fades, Jesse Johnson's "Crazay" (a great, forgotten Video Soul staple), and the playground-favorite candies of the title.
Best of all is the gentle but strong "Wear Clean Draws," a song directed at Riley's young daughter ("The revolution takes time and space/But you as a woman gotta know yo' place -- that's in the front, baby"), which deserves to be every bit as big a smash as OutKast's musically similar "Ms. Jackson" but won't because it says too much and says it too plainly. I know this, though -- there hasn't been a pop-music moment all year that makes me as happy as the advice Riley hands out at the beginning of this record: "You're my daughter/My love/More than kin to me/This is for you and the woman that you finna be/Tell that boy he's wrong/Girls are strong/Next time at show-and-tell play him our song/Tell your teacher I said princesses are evil/How they got they money was/They killed people."
In short, an Album of the Year candidate, warts and all.
-- Chris Herrington
James Mathus &
His Knockdown Society
James "Jimbo" Mathus calls three locales home -- the farm in North Carolina where he lives today and the Corinth and Clarksdale, Mississippi, towns of his youth. His life journey reads like an updated musical version of Huck Finn -- first picking up a guitar when he was 6 years old, playing bluegrass with his family band, then starting Corinth's first punk-rock band, Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves, with high school classmate and Tearjerkers leader Jack Yarber.
After graduation, Mathus went to work as a deckhand on the Mississippi River then wandered his way up to North Carolina, eventually forming the jump-blues- and hot-jazz-inspired Squirrel Nut Zippers with his wife Katharine Whalen and friends. The Zippers turned the music world on its ear in 1997, selling more than a million copies of their second album, Hot.
That year, Mathus returned to Mississippi to record Songs For Rosetta, a Charley Patton tribute, under the guise of the Knockdown Society, a loose-knit group that provided a bluesy alter ego for Jimbo. His fascination with the Delta bluesman was genuine -- Patton's daughter, Rosetta, babysat Jimbo when he was a boy. Mathus planned the record as a one-off project, a benefit for Rosetta Patton Brown, who never received royalties from her father's music.
But after that trip to Clarksdale, he couldn't get the North Mississippi blues out of his system. A tour with Luther and Cody Dickinson followed, then Mathus eventually re-formed a stripped-down version of the Knockdown Society. Today's configuration of the group, a trio, could give the Dickinsons' North Mississippi Allstars a run for their money -- if, of course, both bands weren't such good friends.
Earlier this year, the Knockdown Society holed up at the Dickinsons' Zebra Ranch studio to cut their second album, National Antiseptic. The record, a hodgepodge of originals, covers, and far-flung interpretations of American standards, plays like a running commentary on Mathus' life as Huck: From the joyous opener "Call Your Dawgs Off," replete with Muscle Shoals-sounding horn riffs and Stonesy "whoo hoo" back-up vocals from Yarber, to the raunchy "Chicken Town" and pensive "Back to the Bottoms," featuring Luther Dickinson on mandolin, Mathus plays hard, drinks hard, lives hard -- and revels in it.
An ominous take on Lonnie Pitchford's "Drinkin' Antiseptic" rolls and tumbles like a barge on the Mississippi. Full-time Society members Stu Cole (bass) and Nate Stalfa (drums) take the frenzied journey with Mathus, who reminisces about the time he picked up a hitchhiker down in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The man lived on the Choctaw Reservation, where "They didn't have no whiskey/They didn't have no wine/They were drinkin' antiseptic/Most all the time." Though his heart aches for the Indians, Mathus joins the party without hesitation.
But, as evidenced on the gospel-derived "Rock of Ages" and heartrending "Nightingale," Mathus has a soft side as well. He's an itinerant musician but a family man too. Thirty-four years of influences -- from the Delta and hill-country Mississippi blues to the sounds of his newfound North Carolina home -- contribute to the 15 songs that make up National Antiseptic. From "Spare Change" to "Innit for the Money," the album pays homage to the life experiences that make Mathus the man he is today.
On the album's fifth track, "Stranger," Mathus reveals his truest self: "No house, no home/Always will I roam/I am just a stranger in this world all alone." Like Huck Finn at the end of his river adventure, Mathus won't stand to be "sivilized" -- in Huck's words, "I can't stand it. I been there before," so he lights out for the Territory, ahead of the rest. Mark Twain -- and Jimbo Mathus -- wouldn't have it any other way. -- Andria Lisle
Jimbo Mathus will be at the Lounge on Thursday, November 15th, with the Tearjerkers.