Politician greed. Wall Street greed. Insurance exec greed. The media offers daily reasons to rail against the corrupt systems forcing the struggling economic classes into ruin. The little people are mad as hell, but really, what are we gonna do about it?
The rock 'n' roll answer? Find a protest act with a sound so aggressive it makes you feel like you're engaged in a riot, and release some of that tension. Such is the case for Street Sweeper, the heavy and timely new activist outfit from Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello and the Coup's Boots Riley. Their partnership comes with an innocuous name and a bold mantra that rails against corporate monopolies and hopes to incite militant movement. As Riley explained last week, “The choruses are meant to be sung by a ruckus group of rebels as they tear the state down.” Any questions?
If you know anything about the lefty powerhouses collaborating on Street Sweeper, that statement shouldn't come as a surprise. Morello built his guitar god status in Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave (he also records solo under the Nightwatchman moniker). Riley riles up progressive parties of both the political and shake-it variety with the Coup, the Bay Area's singular firebrand of funk and hip-hop. Together they're reinventing Rage's rap-metal with a boosted urban groove, thanks to Morello's axmanship, Riley's assertive rapping style, and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore — whose New Orleans vibe, Riley says, keeps the beats in a “really tight, funky pocket.”
Before last week, the first tastes of Street Sweeper were limited to the Internet. The debut album isn't due until sometime this summer, when the group launches a hit-the-ground-running tour opening for Nine Inch Nails and Jane's Addiction. The Web site for that project, www.ninja2009.com, offers three rounds of Morello/Riley muscle in the sampler tracks “Fight! Smash! Win!,” “The Oath,” and “Clap for the Killers.” They're insistent songs with tidal riffs and incendiary lyrics (“I trip my mouth off/I can find my pistol yet/You can call this music disrespect/'Cause it'll slap you in the face at the discothèque”). Singsong choruses lift spirits like an old-fashioned punk anthem, but overall these tunes have Morello's hard-rock stamp all over them. For his part, Riley says Street Sweeper's is some of the most aggressive music he's made. “I played it for a friend who has always been like, 'You need to come on some harder beats,'” he says, “and he was like, 'Oh shit, okay, that's what we've been talking about.'”
From the stage at Slim's last Thursday night, Morello put things a different way. “Freedom never felt so funky,” he said with a grin.
Morello was introducing his “not-so-secret” new band to folks gathered at the club for his Justice concert — the live music arm of his nonprofit Axis of Justice. The tour collects disparate artists to perform together, and 100 percent of the ticket price goes to a local charity (in S.F., Project Open Hand). By the time Riley grabbed the mike, he'd been preceded by sets from Wayne Kramer of the MC5, Sammy Hagar, Joe Satriani, Steve Earle, and Corey Taylor of Slipknot. But since this was ultimately Morello's show, the audience was most fired up for anything that smelled of Rage. And Street Sweeper is filthy with the scent of that band's fighting fumes.
Live, Morello and Riley proved to be a fierce combo. Backed by Morello's Freedom Fighter Orchestra, the Coup frontman bobbed, weaved, and rapped with a momentum that was almost matched by his delivery (the mike cut out for the first song and Riley mumbled his words a bit, slightly taming his fire). Morello stood to his side and engaged in a chicken funk strut, a proud papa of a project that, from the way the front rows chanted right along, could quickly grow bigger than a Madoff Ponzi scheme. The Sweepers closed out their brief, three-song set with a cover of M.I.A.'s “Paper Planes,” a populist play that definitely ratcheted up the excitement level in their favor.
Onstage and on paper, Morello and Riley are a natural partnership. Both have used their positions as entertainers to become mouthpieces for the underprivileged. Morello's Justice tour mantra, “Bail out people, not banks,” dovetails with Riley's lyrical themes about shifting power from Wall Street to the workers. But it wasn't until Morello invited Riley on the 2003 Tell Us the Truth Tour, a protest against media consolidation, that the songwriters sparked a friendship. They've since collaborated onstage and in the studio — Morello played guitar on the Coup's last album on the song “Captain Sterling's Little Problem.” But for the most part, Morello was involved in more time-consuming projects that prevented a fleshed-out musical collaboration.
When Audioslave broke up in 2007, Street Sweeper became a reality. Riley happened to be in Los Angeles the day of the split, and Morello came to him with his vision. “He said to me, 'We're gonna be in a band. It's gonna be called Street Sweeper. It'll be anthems for the revolution. I'm gonna send you a tape of the music and you're gonna write the lyrics,'” says Riley, adding with a laugh, “He didn't ask me. He just told me.”
The album came together over the last year, with Morello writing and producing, Riley in charge of the lyrics, and Moore on beat patrol. Morello had one secret weapon in the sidelines too. Steve Perry — yes, the very Perry from Journey — did some backing vocals on the album. “I don't know how it happened,” Riley says. “It was like all of a sudden, 'We're going to have Steve Perry come in and do this part,' and I was like, 'All right, cool.'” (For his part, Riley calls Perry a “nice dude.”)
With 12 debut songs wrapped, Riley is already working on lyrics for the next Street Sweeper record, as well as blueprinting the beginnings of a new Coup album. That's when he isn't sketching out new methods for fixing the corporate greed crisis. The next step on that latter front, Riley says, is to create radical unions, ones “that can immediately force the corporate elite to choose between making no money and making less money, so the wealth is divided more evenly.”
Between Tom Morello and Boots Riley, Street Sweeper has some heavy Rage, riffage, and radical thinking on its side. Sounds like the militant left-wing thinkers of this country have a brand-new mosh pit in this partnership.