SAN FRANCISCO -- When the Coup took the stage at the Justice League here on Friday night, they were ready to rail against the worship of urban-pimp culture, police harassment in the African-American community and hip-hop music's status as a commodity.
However, the politically articulate, Oakland, Calif.-based rap group ran into some trouble proclaiming its message.
It wasn't a case of "The Man" trying to silence revolutionaries. No, this was an incident in the grand tradition of road-worn equipment breaking at the worst possible time.
Rapper Boots, DJ Pam the Funkstress and guest M.C. Osgyefo all experienced microphone problems as the show kicked off. But their spirits were not dampened, and they waited patiently for the technical difficulties to be addressed. Meanwhile, the Coup's four-piece backing band played an introductory song that offered a good taste of the hard-hitting funk to come.
Five minutes later, the mics were good to go.
The hour-plus show started in earnest with "The Shipment" (RealAudio excerpt), a funky workout from the Coup's latest CD, Steal This Album. Decrying the over-commercialization of hip-hop, this number set the tone for the evening: meaningful lyrics, largely from Steal This Album, anchored by deep-grooving blues-funk -- and surviving the occasional technical difficulty.
At times, the bandmembers -- Josh Jones on drums, Will Bernard on guitar, Michael Auburn on keyboard and Keith Macarthur on bass -- threatened to outshine Boots, DJ Pam and Osgyefo with their musicianship. Overall, though, the rappers and the live instrumentation melded into a remarkably tight package.
It isn't easy for some rappers to orate over the changing beat of a live drummer, but Boots and Pam seemed to work out a compromise with Jones. Boots would rhyme over a steady rhythm and Pam engaged in some fierce scratching sessions, while Jones demonstrated his considerable talent for fills and tempo-alteration on the instrumental jams that were played throughout the set.
While concentrating on songs from their critically-acclaimed latest effort, Steal This Album, the Coup did offer a few nuggets for their older fans. "Fat Cats, Bigger Fish" and "Gunsmoke" from the group's 1994 album, Genocide & Juice, elicited strong favorable reactions from the crowd.
A well-received "Cars and Shoes" (RealAudio excerpt), taken from Steal This Album, segued nicely into a cover of funk-master George Clinton's "P-Funk Wants To Get Funked Up" that featured Kimberly Jackson sitting in on flute and vocals.
"I thought they actually played too much of the new album," concert-goer Ben Riggs, 22, wrote in an e-mail Monday afternoon. "I like Steal This Album, and I guess they do have to sell it, but I would have liked it if they had balanced it out a little bit more."
Following "Cars and Shoes," the show hit its first slow point with "Me and Jesus The Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night" (RealAudio excerpt). The song is an epic tale of a boy who sees his mother slide into the world of prostitution due to his cavalier attitude toward the criminal underworld. In the LP version, following the song requires close attention. In Friday's live performance, the storyline was even more difficult to follow, appearing just to ramble. Fans' attention seemed to wander as the tune went on.
Boots appeared to recognize this as he headed into the song's final verse. "I know this song is kind-of long, but just hang with me here," he said.
From there, the pace of the show picked up with "20,000 Gun Salute" and solos from DJ Pam the Funkstress, Macarthur, Bernard and Auburn.
Boots sang about the joys of stealing entertainment -- breaking into shows -- with "Sneakin' In." Then, he invited Sacramento, Calif.-based rap trio F.T.S. ("I haven't figured out yet if it stands for From The Soul or F--- The System," Boots said) onstage for an energetic version of "U.C.P.A.S. " The number had the crowd chanting the chorus -- "Unders, Cops, Pigs and S---" -- without too much encouragement.
After F.T.S. left the stage, the show hit another lull. On Steal This Album, "P--- On Your Grave" (RealAudio excerpt) is a fast and funky condemnation of the sins of America's founding fathers. But on Friday night, "P--- On Your Grave" became a jazzy poetry reading, making the message clearer but muting its anger.
The show ended with another funk jam, this one based on Funkadelic's "(Not Just) Knee Deep," with Jackson handling singing duties. As the band turned the funk into overdrive, F.T.S. and Boots took the stage once more to close out the set with some free-style rhymes.
As the audience slowly dispersed, the entertainers came from the backstage area and were greeted like heroes by the patrons who remained.
A line of people slapped DJ Pam on the shoulders as she ran toward the front door. Meanwhile, Boots, F.T.S. and the members of the band stuck around to press the flesh and accept congratulations for a job well done.
"I was really impressed with the musicians," Riggs wrote. "The pace wasn't always as fast as I would've liked, but the music more than made up for that."