Music Rags: The musical dynamics of The Coup


Seeing Oakland’s hip-hop troubadours, The Coup, live for the first time can be a jarring experience for those expecting to merely see MC Boots Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress. The Coup’s live show is built on the furious party assault of a live band that buoys Riley’s impassioned, razor-sharp political rhymes.

Riley understands why some fans familiar with The Coup’s output may be shocked to see something much different than they expected when they come out to a Coup show and see a live band laying down the groove. “Usually when the label wants to promote something, they go the path of least resistance. So they didn’t promote The Coup as a band,” says Riley. “Some of that has to do with hardcore hip-hop fans.” Hardcore hip-hop fans are notorious for their love of the traditional DJ/MC dynamic and are often reluctant to changing that classic formula.

Riley recalls a recent show as a prime example of the dichotomy between what first-time viewers of a Coup live show expect and what they get. “We just did this gig in Helsinki . . . and every single person had a T-shirt and baseball hat on. And I think before we started they were kind of like, ‘What is this? The Coup has a band? What are they doing?’ I’m imagining from the looks on their faces before we started,” says Riley with a laugh, adding, “We change their minds when we play.”

The Coup’s fantastic new album, Sorry to Bother You, released Oct. 30, captures the live sound like none of the records that preceded it. Riley confirms that was one of the goals for this record. “We would get so much more energy from the live show, I mean us, [in] how the songs came across, that I wanted to make an album that had that energy. I would say that the other part of the album is that it more represents what we’ve sounded like live since the late ‘90s.”

Sorry to Bother You is, by far, one of the most sonically adventurous records of the year, bringing a multitude of disparate sounds and instruments together (including a kazoo on “Your Parents’ Cocaine” and an accordion on “We’ve Got a Lot to Teach You, Cassius Green”). It’s a brave statement in hip-hop to experiment in this way, and though it’s fresh and genre-pushing, it comes from a familiar place.

“When we would go get crates of records from the thrift stores and we’d look for samples, we didn’t say something like, ‘Oh, we need something with a bass and guitar that sounds like this,’ ” says Riley. “No, we would sample accordions or bagpipes or a vibraphone — anything that we could make a beat with. I think that this is more of an extension of that openness that came from starting out producing in that way.”

The album, the soundtrack to an in-production surrealist, dark film of the same name that is based on Riley’s time as a telemarketer, is a work of finely honed songwriting. It is filled with short bursts of laser-focused energy, a change from the long-form songs and verses that made up much of The Coup’s early work. “It’s kind of like that short and sweet thing . . . like a Beatle-esque thing. Like, ‘Here is a really good song, and it’s only three minutes, and that’s all you’re gonna get. I’m not gonna try to make it better by going on for 10 or eight minutes,’ ” says Riley.

Moving to that different place in his songwriting is something Riley has worked hard at. “Early on, I was known as a ‘lyricist.’ That’s an honour, but it also means you have to stay in a certain framework — these one-liners that are witty and funny and whatever. But to do that, a lot of times you’re supposed to be kind of cold and not passionate. I wanted to write songs that were maybe more in the classical songwriting idea; songs that had an economy of words.”

It doesn’t matter to Riley how people want to categorize Sorry to Bother You’s many challenging but rewarding twists and turns. “I think coming from that hip-hop background, I don’t have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong in music. It’s just, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ ” After all, good music is simply that: good music.