Monday, September 15, 2008

Live From the Bay: Boots Brings the Revolution to Berkely

“Fun” is not a label you commonly hear associated with Protest Rap. Whether the subject is Chuck’s us vs. them rhetoric, Dead Prez’s sociology lectures or Immortal Technique’s conspiracy theories few approach a dystopian future with the brevity of Oakland native Boots Riley and his group, The Coup. Since 1993 The Coup have favored a decidedly personal, pinko slant to their political diatribes, fitting for a dude who’s been an avowed Communist since age 14. At his best Boots’ music is funny-sad, and strives for a biting truth to his everyday injustice (See: Haggling for hours while shucking and jiving at McDonalds) that is considered too mundane for your run of the mill, fire and brimstone politico. It’s all delivered over easily recognizable soul staples and hearty funk licks, which coupled with Boots’ breezy delivery, cadence and humor build a sound that is palatable and, yes, fun.

On April 25th, Boots brought his Hip Hop/70s Funk Revival crew a few Caltrain stops North of Oakland to Berkley, home of one of the countries best state schools and no stranger to political dissidence. The show took place at the Shattuck Down Low on Shattuck Ave. The Down Low is a glorified basement situated on what serves as the main strip of Berkley’s college town. It is located just off a tight triangle of movie theaters all featuring their share of brainy independent flicks, Bush bashing documentaries and dicey foreign fare. There’s a few bars, some cheap noodle houses and a couple upscale avant-garde eateries for professors and trust fund kids. The Down Low serves as the requisite venue, and it’s as unique and appropriately Northern California as its surroundings.

I entered the subterranean, narrow, low ceilinged, dingy hole around 11, after waiting on a line that snaked around the block for about twenty minutes to see Boots rock a sold out crowd. The generic, opening act conscious rapper was still on, and after grimacing through a few 2003ish “Hip Hop is a soulless, materialist, corporate machine” laments, and a painfully earnest song he had just written about Barack Obama, The Coup took the stage with an authority befitting of their name. Hip Hop pundits who tend to criticize rappers for not being hard enough, and demand that every music video be an homage to 93 era Wu-Tang often bemoan the presence of instrumentation at a live show. Personally, I think when the musicians are accomplished it brings an aura of fun and excitement to a performance, giving an opportunity for variance that two lifeless turntables, or even worse, the mp3 player simply can’t deliver. The Coup offer the best of both worlds, with a backing band and Pam the Funkstress on the 1 and 2s, employing scratching and well placed vocal snippets.

As the band got warm to “We Are The Ones” Boots came sauntering from stage left on a bed of olive oil. He had his afro fully picked out and was rocking a button down black dress shirt with 9mm decals stitched up on the sleeves near the shoulders. With his diminutive stature, slight build and brolic fro, Boots stutter steps and glides around the stage in a manner reminiscent of Sly Stone, with a presence that is laid back without being passive. The majority of The Coup’s set was the tracklist of their last effort. I have mixed feelings about Pick a Bigger Weapon. Throughout the album, and specifically with songs like “laughlovefuck”, Boots takes his politics dangerously close to vague, rhetorical irreverence with Californian declarations that we all need to “Laugh, love, fuck, drink liquor, and make the damn revolution come quicker.” Liberal alarmism aside, the album works live for precisely for its vibrant funk and insanely chantable hooks.

The Coup live are nothing if not entertaining. Pam the Funkstress is simply one of the most likeable personalities I’ve ever seen on stage. She is perhaps a shade over five feet tall standing up and lying down. Rocking a XXXL “Vinyl Lives” t-shirt she played McMahon to Boots’ Carson all night with aplomb. One of the craziest things I’ve ever seen was her parlor trick of scratching a record with a particularly bountiful part of her anatomy during a five minute DJ solo set she ran through mid show. (Can’t remember the last time I saw one of those) Also worth mentioning was Coup newcomer Silk-E. She was outfitted in black from the stilettos on her feet to the fedora on her head and carried herself with the sneer and swagger of a Parliament Diva. At different points throughout the show she sang back up, got hyphy, ripped a vicious freestyle and lead the audience in a mellow rendition of “babylet’shaveababybeforebushdosomethin’crazy”.

The show was appropriately capped with a jammy rendition of Boots’ masterpiece, “Fat Cats Bigger Fish.” It’s The Coup at their best, presenting first person narratives that play like a collection of Aaron McGruder short stories over one of Hip Hop’s greatest loops, George and Gwen McCrae’s “The Rub”. This Communist Manifesto in particular encapsulates Boots’ view of a society peopled by corporate pimps and proletariat prostitutes. As they moved away from their idealist roots, Dead Prez would gravitate toward the everyday outlaw existence confused with Panther nationalism that Boots’ hustler seems to endorse here, leading up to his disillusion learning the nature of the true hustle behind the scenes. As The Coup closed the song they went around the stage giving the house band and Pam lengthy solos followed by resounding, appreciative applause. In contrast with a troubled, self serious rant like “Hell Yeah”, what becomes apparent is how The Coup differentiate themselves from the more familiar beret and shotgun grass roots revolution we’re accustomed to. There are not many diatribes representing this heartfelt, profound cynicism and sadness you can dance to.