Marlon Brando offered up one of cinema’s classic comebacks in his 1953 film “The Wild One.” Asked what he’s rebelling against, he coolly replied, “Whaddya got?”
It’s an ethos the Coup frontman Boots Riley has adopted as his own.
During the band’s ferocious, 90-minute set in front of a midsized crowd at the Majestic Theatre on Monday, the rapper set his sights on everything from the culture of corporate greed to the dangers of human inaction. “We are meant to engage in life,” he lectured early in the evening. “We are not meant to be observers.”
Riley has undoubtedly heeded his own advice, and his activist streak carries over into to every aspect of his life. Most recently, the MC has been a driving force behind Occupy Oakland, and his group’s latest studio album, “Sorry to Bother You” (Anti), was delayed in part because of his ongoing participation in the protest movement.
Dressed entirely in black and sporting his trademark afro and mutton chops, Riley looked and sounded like one of the revolutionary-minded characters from Aaron McGruder’s “Boondocks” comic strip sprung to life. But while his verses were filled with repeated calls for societal overthrow (“Caution, we’re coming for your head,” he spit on one tune), the music itself flirted with a range of styles, incorporating elements of punk, funk and electro.
Supported by a backup singer and an agile four-piece band, Riley reinvented older cuts (the Donald Trump-baiting “5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.” was recast as a harder-edged funk number) and brought an increased sense of urgency to newer ones. “The Magic Clap” sounded downright explosive here, driven by the muscular kit work of drummer Hassan Hurd. Similar adrenaline coursed through “You Are Not a Riot,” a kinetic punk throwdown that closed with a noisy outburst that mimicked the sound of the entire gang toppling gear and all down a metal staircase.
More often than not, however, the music maintained a hip-shaking swagger, and a majority of the songs built around breakbeat drums, rich soul organ and slinky basslines that strutted and prowled like great jungle cats. A funky “Ride the Fence,” for one, could have passed for a long-lost “Soul Train” gem, while “The Guillotine” pulsated and throbbed like vintage Daft Punk.
Riley, for his part, has evolved into a dynamic and captivating MC, and he ably swung from laid back (he auditioned a lazy, Slick Rick-like drawl for “We Are the Ones”) to forceful (the hard-hitting “Everythang,” where his words landed with the snap of hailstones on concrete). On “Violet,” a surprisingly touching tale of love and prostitution, he even adopted a more intimate, conversational style, as if he were sharing the story with a handful of close friends over a beer.
At one point, the rapper fretted the group’s revolutionary message might get lost in the music. “I know it’s hard to hear what I’m talking about sometimes,” he said. “The one thread that runs through (our music) is the people should democratically control the wealth they create.”
And with that the Coup launched into “My Favorite Mutiny,” a funk-tinged number about rising up and reclaiming what is rightfully yours by any means necessary — be it ballot, bullet, or, in Riley’s case, microphone.