It's a sun-dipped afternoon in West Oakland, and Boots Riley is taking time out to help a neighbor in distress. “Tell me when you're ready,” he says, leaning out the driver's side window as he steps on the gas to give the other car a jump. “You got it?” When the response comes back as a thumbs-up, Boots turns back to his cell phone. “Sorry about that,” he says. “Where were we?”
He may be an easygoing, at-the-ready pillar of the community, but as one half of the Bay Area's legendary hip-hop duo The Coup — with turntablist Pam the Funkstress — Boots has also made a career out of his politically incisive, socially conscious and often scathingly hilarious rap prowess. Since founding the group back in 1991 with fellow rhyme traveler E-Roc (who left in 1994), his keen street sense and fatback grooves have driven a series of monumentally underrated albums, including Kill My Landlord (Wild Pitch, 1993), Genocide & Juice (Wild Pitch, 1994) and Steal This Album (Dogday, 1998), considered by many in the hip-hop underground as a latter-day classic and dubbed “a masterpiece of slow-rolling West Coast funk” by the tastemakers at Rolling Stone.
After the release of the ill-fated Party Music (75 Ark, 2001), which was temporarily pulled from production after 9/11 because of its controversial cover art (depicting, months before the fact, the destruction of the World Trade Center towers), Boots struggled to maintain his focus. The Coup had just completed 2001's successful Black August tour of Africa (with The Roots, Dead Prez and Jeru the Damaja) and continued to stay visible on 2003's pre-election season Tell Us the Truth tour (with Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Tom Morello and Janeane Garofalo). By the end of that year, Boots was ready to start work on another album.
Pick a Bigger Weapon (Epitaph, 2006) is a visionary triumph — a testament to Boots Riley's ability to channel music and message into an inseparable whole. The album is backed by a killer phalanx of Bay Area musicians — among them guitarists D'wayne Wiggins (formerly of Tony Toni Toné), Eric McFadden (P-Funk All Stars) and Jubu Smith (Frankie Beverly and Maze); vocalist Silk E; keyboardist Michael Aaberg; and bassists Uriah Duffy, Elijah Baker, Dave Council and John Payne. And with guest shots from Audioslave's Tom Morello, punk icon Jello Biafra, Talib Kweli and The Roots' Black Thought, The Coup has definitely hit the ground running.
“This album feels much more like a whole concept to me,” Boots observes. “On Party Music, every time I listen to it, I wish I could have had more time. On this one, I had the time, but as you hear in the song ‘I Just Wanna Lay Around All Day in Bed With You,’ I also procrastinated a lot, too. [Laughs.] I came up with the idea for that song actually doing just that, knowing that I was supposed to get up and finish the album. So I had time to do it. Sometimes that can mess you up because you have so many possibilities, but as a producer, it did make me go onto tangents that I know I wouldn't have if I had been locked into an expensive studio situation.”
HIT THE CUE TRACK
It all starts with a beat — usually on Roland R-8 or XV-3080 synth modules — and a bass line. “I did it all at my house with Pro Tools,” Boots says, explaining the preproduction process that takes place before he hooks up with mix engineer Matt Kelley at Cookie Jar Recording in San Francisco (see the sidebar “Save It for a Rainy Day”). Pick a Bigger Weapon is the second Coup album to be recorded digitally, but there's a lot of tube-sweetened analog gear used on the front end and in the mixing phase — all to give the music the extra punch that, to Boots' ears, a 2-inch tape machine would handle back in the day.
“The house that I've been renting is owned by D'wayne Wiggins,” Boots continues. “This is where Destiny's Child did their first album. It's called the House of Music, but my studio, I call it the Little Red Room. I have an older Pro Tools TDM rig with all kinds of plug-ins and some Focusrite Red mic pres and a Soundelux U95 [patterned after the classic Neumann U 47]. So I'd start by just looping some drum sounds in Pro Tools, and that would call for a certain bass line. I'd have a bass player come in and play to the click, and then sometimes I'd just manually select parts of it in Pro Tools and hit repeat.”
From there, any number of musicians would be invited to lay down synths, guitars and vocals. Boots takes “My Favorite Mutiny” — a vintage soul nod to Psychedelic Shack — era Temptations, with The Roots' Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter stepping up with Talib Kweli on the mic — as an example of how a song was built from scratch with a stripped-down beat.
“That one started with just a four-on-the-floor click and a horn sample to cue the musicians,” he says. “Mike [Aaberg] played the piano part on a baby grand with just the [U95 mic] on it; we simulated stereo miking by dubbing it twice. Dave Council added the bass — he's from that school where he knows what I'm talking about when I say I need a ‘Temptations’ feel — and then Mike added an ARP [Solina] String Ensemble, with one layer going through a Moogerfooger [Lowpass Filter]. I've been really excited about that effect. It's got to be a joke with the other musicians, like, ‘Let's get Boots in here — put a Mooger on that!’” [Laughs.]
“My Favorite Mutiny” leaps off the page as one of the centerpiece tracks on the album. “I think everybody definitely came through on it,” Boots says, “especially when Tariq was laying it down. I was like, ‘Oh shit, I've gotta come correct on this one.’ Tariq set it off for me and Talib, which is a testament to his artistry.”
Of course, knowledge of craft also came into play with the studio itself. Once the basic tracks of a song had been committed by Boots to Pro Tools, the sessions went to Cookie Jar Recording for further tweaking and mixing. By far the most significant stroke of studio magic on most of Pick a Bigger Weapon comes from reamping — rerouting a line signal out to an instrument amplifier and then miking the new signal and recording it back into the box, where it can be mixed with or completely take the place of the original. For this task, a reamp unit designed by John Cuniberti (mastering engineer at The Plant in Sausalito, Calif.) did the trick.
“It just takes balanced line-level signals and turns them into instrument-level signals,” Kelley explains. “So if there was a keyboard-bass sound or something like that, we would run it through the studio's Ampeg SVT bass amp, for example, to really warm it up and get it sounding live and amplified. We reamped a lot of Rhodes and Wurlitzer sounds; we even did it with snare drums. We'd pop a [Yamaha] NS10 or a small Orange amplifier on top of a snare and then mic the underside or the little sound hole on the side of the drum. We'd send some pretty decent level through it, so that when a synthetic snare sound came out the amp, it made the real snare vibrate like it was hit.”
Reamping helped create a seamless mesh between the album's live performances and its synthesized (or sequenced) parts, particularly on the envelope-soaked “I Love Boosters!” and the Funkadelic-inspired “Captain Sterling's Little Problem” (which features Tom Morello on guitar). “That track was definitely one of the reamped ones, where the drums were reamped and then blended with the actual drum machine sounds,” Boots explains. “In fact, we tend to reamp all over the place, so it might seem like it never ends.” A thicker, thumpier kick drum was swapped in place of the original on “I Love Boosters!”, which was also reamped through the Ampeg SVT and boosted to resemble a Roland TR-909.
“We were always nudging up the bass a little bit and wondering if we were going over the top,” Kelley jokes. “That's just the nature of how we do it. For the bass, I really enjoy the sound of the Pultec EQP-1A and the EAR 660 limiter. The EAR is very similar to an old-style Fairchild in that it's a very high-voltage signal path; it's all tube and superwarm. We tried to get it so it wasn't overwhelmingly boomy and not drowning out the kicks but still had plenty of nice, warm bass.”
KEEPING THE BOTTOM LINE
Low end is certainly a key component in any recording by The Coup. “I'm a huge fan of the bass line,” Boots says proudly. “That may have worked for us and against us in the past because, for instance, right now, a lot of songs on the radio don't have bass lines. But I think in the Bay Area, people have always been hyped on the bass line, so when there are keyboards or live bass, it has to be tight.”
And indeed, tightness reigns throughout Pick a Bigger Weapon as well, from the locked-up post-disco groove of “We Are the Ones” (with Boots emulating a faux Brit, Slick Rick — style voice that finds its Northern Cali street counterpart in the closing chants of “Get You Worked Up!”) and the Minimoog'd-out anthem “Ass-Breath Killers” (complete with a dexterous turntable solo from Pam the Funkstress) to the steamy ballad “BabyLet'sHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethin'Crazy” (with the incredible Silk E on lead vocal). Through it all, Boots Riley seems to hover over the proceedings like an exquisitely smooth and flight-prone master of ceremonies, resplendent in his multifarious role as producer, songwriter, storyteller and signifier.
“When I'm writing lyrics to a piece of music,” Boots observes, “I sit and listen to it, and I think about how the feeling I get translates into my life and my experiences. It's not a human fact that you have to make whatever people are used to hearing when they hear a certain chord structure — like if it sounds like an Isley Brothers ballad, it has to be a love song, or if it sounds like Prince, it has to be party music. If I were to stick to the music that's supposed to fit my subject matter, it would be doom-and-gloom, really depressing stuff. So I try to unite with some feeling that's in the music, and that guides me to what I'm gonna write about.”
SAVE IT FOR A RAINY DAY
Located in the Hyde Street Studios building in the heart of San Francisco's rough-and-tumble Tenderloin district, Cookie Jar Recording is an analog funkateer's dream, with a solid digital platform that's built for speed without the sky-high expense. A late '70s Trident mixing desk and a wall of vintage tube outboard gear and instrument amplifiers are what make this a great space for capturing a fat sound — especially when the sound in question is a funk and hip-hop hybrid generated by a bevy of live musicians.
“That's the reason I picked Cookie Jar,” Boots Riley notes. “It's a small studio, but they have some really tight tube compressors and EQs, and the Trident board that we used to mix the album has been refurbished, so what we get out of that is pretty cool.”
“I've known Boots since at least 1990,” says engineer Matt Kelley, who got his start at Hyde Street working on Digital Underground's classic Sex Packets album and has since collaborated with Del tha Funkee Homosapien, George Clinton and scads more. “It's kind of a tag team with us when we do a Coup album. Boots is very proficient on Pro Tools, so I might spend a few hours getting a good balance of sounds going and doing things like reamping and tone-shaping. And then when I'm ready to take a break, he'll come in and finish the arrangement.”
INSIDE THE COOKIE JAR
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Power Mac G4 533 MHz with five PCI slots
Digidesign Pro Tools|24 Mixplus system, 888|24 I/O (4)
1979 Trident TSM 36-channel console (refurbished and recapped)
Yamaha NS10Ms powered by Crown K1 amplifier
Meyer Sound HD1s with Genelec 7070A subwoofer
Keyboards/synths, plug-ins, drum machines, turntables
Bomb Factory Moogerfooger bundle plug-ins
Farfisa organ (originally owned by Sly Stone!)
Fender Rhodes keyboard
Hammond B3 organ
Hohner D6 Clavinet keyboard
Hohner Pianet T keyboard
Moog Minimoog, Micromoog synths
Oberheim OB-8 synth
Roland R-8 drum machine
Technics SL-1200 turntables
Waves Renaissance bundle plug-ins
Wurlitzer electric piano
Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
AKG C 414 B-TL II (2 matched pairs), C 451 B (2) mics
Amek Pure Path Channel in a Box preamp/compressor/EQ
Blue Baby Bottle mic
Empirical Labs EL8 Distressors (2)
Esoteric Audio Research (EAR) 660 limiter
Focusrite Red mic preamp
Manley Massive Passive EQ, Variable Mu limiter/compressor
Neumann KM 184 (matched pair) mics
Pultec EQP1A EQ
Soundelux U95 mic
RCA BA6A limiter
Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A Leveling Amplifier
Note: All keyboards are courtesy of Mike Aaberg, recorded at The Little Red Room. For more of what's available at Cookie Jar Recording, visitwww.cookiejarrecording.com.