The most infamous man in pop music doesn't look very infamous here in his kitchen. Raymond "Boots" Riley -- rapper, communist and, for a few days last year, one of the most reviled men in America -- is just a harried dad at the moment, foraging in his refrigerator for fruit and taking orders from his 4-year-old daughter, who can't make up her mind about breakfast.
"I want a plum. No, I want cantaloupe," says Alena, whose curly brown hair bounces when she walks. "And I can cut it, Daddy."
"No, I'll cut it," Riley replies, shuffling around for a knife.
This tableau of domesticity seems jarring, at first. Riley is better known as a bomb thrower than a doting dad. As the lead vocalist and only continuous member of the Coup, a hip-hop act born and based in this rebounding port city, the 30-year-old Riley has for years been poking the chests of his many enemies, most notably corporations, cops and anyone else standing in the way of a socialist revolution.
The Coup has been recording since 1993 but had never even jiggled pop's Richter scale until last year. That's when the world got an advance look at the cover of "Party Music," the group's fourth album: a shot of Riley and deejay Pam the Funkstress seeming to blow up the World Trade Center with a guitar tuner. It was meant as a mischievous, jokey attack on capitalism, but the day after Sept. 11, the joke fell catastrophically flat. It fell even flatter when Riley declined opportunities to sound apologetic about the image -- which was shot well before September -- and suggested that the United States was responsible for its share of atrocities, too.
The album cover was hastily altered. But songs like "5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.," a tongue-in-cheek guide to whacking chief executives, suggested that Riley was looking for a fight. Which he got. Conservatives garroted him in print; the right-wing half of Hannity & Colmes hauled him in for an on-air drubbing; and his label, 75Ark, was flooded with thousands of extremely livid e-mails. Riley looked very much like a guy taking that familiar, one-week hayride from obscurity to ignominy and back to obscurity again.
Instead, something else happened.
Critics listened to "Party Music" and loved it. They raved about its wit and surprising tenderness, its humor and funky bravado. They were smitten with its rich, organic grooves. Among the usually fractious collection of the nation's pop writers, a consensus formed that the Coup had delivered a great album. Three of the New York Times's pop staffers picked it as one of the year's finest, as did Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, the Denver Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Spin, the Philadelphia Inquirer and, yes, The Washington Post. The Village Voice's national poll of critics this year placed "Party Music" at No. 8, putting it in the same company as Radiohead and Bob Dylan.
But many whose curiosity was piqued by the rhapsodic reviews had a strange problem: They couldn't find the album. It's not that retailers refused to stock "Party Music." Rather, 75Ark turned out to be a division of a struggling Internet company, which last year was in the middle of a lengthy, employee-shedding meltdown. The label had trouble shipping the album, its chief executive says, and according to Riley a promised ad campaign never materialized.
"If people come to a record store and they can't find your album, they buy something else," he says, fuming. "We had people coming up to us on the tour saying, 'Do you have a copy I can buy? I can't find it anywhere.' " To date, "Party Music" has sold about 15,000 copies, according to Soundscan, a dismal showing for an album that was both denounced and lauded with such intensity and a fraction of the sales for the Coup's less acclaimed third release, "Steal This Album," in 1998. For the time being, "Party Music" looks like it will be one of those peculiar triumph-fiascos of art in the tradition of "Citizen Kane," a work hailed by critics that failed in the marketplace and then vanished from sight, at least for a while.
Or maybe not. The band's manager, Chris Funk (yes, it's his real name), says he's hoping to persuade one of the labels now courting the Coup to re-release "Party Music" as a condition of any deal for future albums. That would mean convincing 75Ark to sell the masters, something that the label's owner has said he's willing to do for the right price. Today Funk and 75Ark are to meet to haggle over that price.
"You catch a wave when you release an album, and unfortunately, that wave is gone," Funk said in an interview last week. "But we're hoping to find someone to release the record, push a new video and press some vinyl for the hip-hop market. We're just looking to keep this album alive."
Better Red After breakfast, Riley is giving directions. He's been asked for a peek at the studio where he recorded "Party Music" over the course of 10 painstaking months, starting in June 2000. A five-minute drive up a hill, and he's soon standing in front of a house with a panoramic view of East Oakland, the home of friend and sometime Coup piano player Degi Simmons. There's a stand-alone garage here and a fenced-in yard with a couple of barking dogs.
"Meet the dogs," Riley mutters.
These animals troubled the creation of "Party Music," Riley explains, because they bark until you shout them to silence, then take a four-minute break, then start barking again. Most of the album was recorded between trips to hush the dogs, who nonetheless ruined dozens of otherwise usable takes. For all the yelling, Riley was unable to make a bark-free album.
"If you know where to listen, you can hear these guys," he says.
The garage is ramshackle by the standards of today's recording studios. Tiny holes dot the ceiling. A stack of futons, deployed as improvised sound baffles, molder in a corner. Riley could afford only one microphone -- they cost $2,500 apiece -- which meant that everything on the album had to be taped one instrument at a time, then assembled by computer to make it sound like a live band. Riley spent dozens of all-nighters tailoring the smallest aspect of the sound.
"There are all these hand claps on the album, and I'd come home and Boots would be working on the claps," says Simmons. "And then I'd go out and Boots would be working on the claps . . . and I'd come home and he'd be asleep, in the garage, with the claps looping incessantly on the computer. I'd say, 'What are you doing?' And he'd say: 'I've got it! I've got the claps!' "
Riley invited a dozen or so musicians and singers to come by and play, most of them locals he's known on and off for years. His directions to them weren't particularly technical. "I'm not a classically trained composer, and I can't sing very well," Riley says, "so when I want a certain bass line I say, 'I want bomp bomp bomp,' and they have to know what my bomp is because it's not exactly on a note or whatever."
Listening to "Party Music," you'd never guess that it was anything other than a group of well-paid professionals toiling in a state-of-the-art facility. It sounds like the work of a tight, live band that has studied its '80s-era Prince and '70s funk heroes such as Sly and the Family Stone. On tracks like "Wear Clean Draws," Boots's tribute to his daughter, and "Heven Tonite," a slap at organized religion, the music is as sweet and dense as molten chocolate.
But lyrics are what set "Party Music" apart. Most radicals are insufferably dull and humorless. Riley, on the other hand, sells communism not just as a way to seize the means of production but also as a short cut to the all-night dance bash of your dreams.
He wants to make sedition seem fun, a goal that is every bit as difficult as it sounds and a challenge that far exceeds the typical rap goal of persuading listeners to throw their hands in the air like they just don't care. The "Party" of the album title has two meanings; Riley thinks Bolshevism can be a hoot, and even if you consider that cockamamie, his attempts at persuasion are wry and winningly subversive.
This verse, from "Ride the Fence," is typical:
This beat is joyful like jailbreaks
The whole world is anti-United Snakes
So check it out, anticipate the anti-venom
And move your antibodies to this revolution rhythm
We goin' be [messin'] with 'em.
Later in the song, he says he's "anti watered-down drinks in fancy cups / anti promoters who don't ante up."
"I'm just saying," he explains, on the drive from the studio to a downtown bakery, "that if we had a little more power over our lives, one of the things we might want to do with that power is make sure we get some stronger drinks."
Riley is smaller than you expect, perhaps 5 feet 7 inches if you count his Huey Newton Afro, and he has tapered, feminine fingers. Watching him feed his daughter or josh his friends, it's hard to imagine him throwing a punch, let alone spearheading a violent revolution. He's friendly, mellow and earnestly bookish, though unlike most people who fit that description, he says that he's brawled with his share of strikebreakers and skinheads over the years and has been arrested seven times for inciting a riot, a charge that angers him.
"I don't mind inciting a rebellion, but a riot makes it sound like I don't give a [expletive]," he says.
Riley isn't interested in chaos; his goals for society take lots of planning. He'd like to see free housing and free health care. He wants workers to democratically control the profits made by their companies, changes that would require nothing less than the abolition of private enterprise and the nationalization of just about everything in sight.
"There's going to be a fight from the people who traditionally maintain profits," he says, "and it's not only going to be a fight of words, murals and advertising. It's going to be a fight where people are attacked."
You can argue with Riley about the merits of capitalism, or the pitfalls of a state-controlled economy, but you won't enjoy it very much. Short answers aren't his style, and he's been parrying these thrusts for years. Ask him why he doesn't just move out of the country if he finds life here such torture, and he'll tell you that American capitalism is so vast and powerful that its tentacles reach beyond U.S. borders and are essentially inescapable. Point out that record executives are bedrock capitalists and he'll explain, almost convincingly, that he's in the system because that's the only way to destroy it.
"If I want to get my ideas out, I have to be involved in the mechanism that the world is ran by," he says, speaking slowly in a soft, croaky voice. "It's kind of like, if I'm a slave on the plantation and I go on the master's porch and say, 'Hey everybody, let's revolt,' that doesn't mean I'm selling out."
A conversation with Riley reminds you that genuine pariahs are now a rarity in pop music, and the Coup is among the very last. The buttons Riley pushes aren't the usual ones of misogyny, racism and drugs. If nothing else, his agitprop rap expands the surprisingly narrow bandwidth of what is deemed outrageous these days, which is what pop at its tweaking best often does. Whether Riley could retain all his dander if he gets a major-label deal and becomes popular -- the Tums that seems to neutralize all acid -- is an interesting question. Already, he seems to be making a whole lot of peace with capitalism. The band's recently completed tour was sponsored, in part, by Pepsi.
Still, Riley has been at this commie thing for a long time -- long enough to make you think he actually means it.
One Molotov, Straight Up Riley came to "the movement," as he calls it, for the most basic of reasons: to meet babes. He was 14 years old when a buddy invited him to join some friends at a demonstration to support striking cannery workers in Oakland. He said yes, but planned to politely beg off at the appointed hour.
"But he showed up at my house with a van filled with girls," Riley recalls, "and he said, 'We're going to this march, and then we're going to the beach!' And I said . . . 'Okay, sounds great!' and I went with them."
Radical politics are a tradition in Oakland, the home of the Black Panthers at the height of their influence, though Riley was absorbing the gospel according to Karl well before he and his mom, dad and siblings moved to town. His father, Walter, was a Marxist whose own career in the civil rights movement started when he was a boy in North Carolina, soon after he heard about the 1959 lynching of Mack Charles Parker in Mississippi.
"He was taken from his jail cell and shot," says the elder Riley, now 57, in a telephone interview. "I just couldn't understand how that could happen. I went downtown and asked how to get involved." As a teenager, he worked for the NAACP, which later led to an afternoon with Malcolm X, who made a deep impression: "He taught me that you could have a revolutionary approach to change to this society without being crazy."
Walter Riley started working for the Progressive Labor Party, organizing rent strikes and agitating for welfare rights. In his late thirties, he decided he needed more education. He went to law school and became a public defender. Today he's in private practice handling criminal defense cases.
He can't recall preaching to Boots, but he's pleased that his politics trickled into the lives of all three of his kids. "My wife and I hoped that our children would ingest our ideas," he says. "All of them know that they have to do more than walk through this world. They have to get involved with people around them and fight for social justice."
After his experience with the van full of protesters, Boots gravitated toward communism for less earthy reasons. After two years of studying film at San Francisco State University, he decided that music was the most efficient way to change hearts and minds. He teamed with a rapper named E-Roc, and the Coup released three albums -- "Kill My Landlord," "Genocide & Juice," and "Steal This Album" -- between 1993 and 1998, all of which sold modestly and attracted little more than local interest and some national critical praise.
His frustration with the music business grew by the year. A few times, the group looked poised for fame, but something always went wrong. EMI at one point seemed ready to invest in the group, then pulled out for reasons that Riley still doesn't understand. (In an aside that even he finds a little wacky, he implies that the FBI might have had something to do with it.) "Party Music" was a kind of last-ditch effort. If no one noticed the music, Riley didn't see the point in making it.
After Sept. 11, he didn't lack for attention. The cover image of him and deejay Pam pinged around the Internet and generated enough headlines to make Walter Riley concerned for his son's safety. Reluctantly, Boots agreed to change the album cover to a shot of a Molotov cocktail, but only because the comedy of the original was buried in the World Trade Center rubble.
But anyone who thought the cocktail cover represented a retreat soon knew better. Riley drafted a statement that said: "The Coup does not support the American flag. It stands for oppression, slavery and murder," and he added that no one wearing an American flag would be admitted to his shows. The label refused to release the statement, but Riley made others, including a lecture to the audience of the late-night TV show "Politically Incorrect," on which he was a guest, about the foreign wars that he said the United States had started.
"I was flying home after the taping of the show," he recalls, "and these National Guardsmen recognized me and asked if they could take a picture of me, and I was like, sure. When the guy took the photo, I was like, 'Everybody say no bombing in Afghanistan.' "
The Coup's recently completed national tour included a night at B.B. King's nightclub in Times Square. Leading his band through lengthy Parliament-style jams, Riley was as defiant as ever, at one point railing against the United States for killing civilians in Afghanistan and accusing his government of plotting against democracies in other nations when it suited its purposes. There are crowds that would have torn Boots's undies to shreds for that speech, but this crowd cheered.
Now, Riley and Funk, the band's manager, will try to bring "Party Music" to the masses. Building up promotional steam for an album that is months old might be difficult. But that's a cinch compared with the job of peddling a red revolution through hip-hop, which is the only sale that Riley says he actually cares about. The most popular rapper of the day is Jay-Z, whose idea of cool is a Bentley and designer sneakers.
Riley, all evidence to the contrary, thinks his message will catch on if it's heard. "In Jay-Z, the kids just see somebody that doesn't have to worry about paying their electricity bill, that doesn't have to worry about paying the rent, and to them that's empowering because nobody has told them there's another way. Jay-Z thinks he should get paid. I agree," he says, pausing for a moment.
"But I think everybody should get paid."