Interview With The Legendary Boots Riley (@BootsRiley) from The Coup!

Boots Riley is what we would label a hip-hop legend.  As lead vocal­ist of The Coup and Street Sweep­er Social Club his in-depth meta­phors and mind-blow­ing word­play has drawn vast crit­ic­al acclaim.  Also famed for his heart­felt, polit­ic­al charged, witty and often humor­ous lyr­ics and deliv­er, his place in hip-hop is firmly con­creted.

Riley has also been heav­ily involved in many polit­ic­al move­ments, includ­ing Occupy Oak­land and has often used his music as a vehicle for deliv­er­ing polit­ic­al mes­sages, fre­quently call­ing for an over­throw­ing of the rul­ing class by the work­ing class.

It was a huge hon­our to catch up with Boots for a chat about his latest pro­jects, his his­tory in hip-hop and his feel­ings on some of the social and polit­ic­al issues cur­rently affect­ing the globe…

Q. Hey Boots, good to talk with you!  Let’s start in the present…what pro­jects have you got going on at the moment?

There’s a record that’ll be com­ing out soon, we’ll prob­ably just do it as a free thing, it’s called ‘The Grand Boutique’, we recor­ded it when we had a few days off on a French tour late last year and so that’s com­ing out.  I’m work­ing on some col­lab­or­a­tions with St. Vin­cent, I don’t know yet if that’ll be an EP or an album, and work­ing on a new Coup album as well.

And then we also have this thing that we just did a couple nights ago called ‘The Coup’s Shad­ow­box’ which is, I’d say, a multi stage, the­at­ric­al, art install­a­tion, dance party, concert…haunted fun house, as designed by The Coup.  There’s everything in it from Guantanamo Bay gogo dan­cers to zom­bie pan­das and mul­tiple oth­er bands col­lab­or­at­ing with us so it’s crazy, and it’s sur­roun­ded by art, my friend who’s a street artist, he makes the crazy city scenes.  We’ll be brin­ing it around the US in 2015 and prob­ably around Europe in late 2015 or early 2016.

The oth­er thing that’s going on, I wrote a script, for this latest album that The Coup has out, ‘Sorry To Both­er You’ and for that album I wrote a script first, and then wrote the album based on the script and the script is a dark com­edy with magic­al real­ism and sci­ence fic­tion inspired by my time as a tele­marketer.  First it’s com­ing out as a paper­back book, that’ll be out at the end of Octo­ber or begin­ning of Novem­ber.

Then the last thing is we have a book of lyr­ics com­ing out, ‘Tell Home­land Secur­ity We Are The Bomb’ and that’s com­ing out on Hay­mar­ket and that’ll be in like a month and a half from now.

Q. So the book of Lyr­ics, will that be fea­tur­ing your back cata­logue or just new mater­i­al?

Everything!  Plus anecdotes…like from the stu­dio or the writ­ing of the songs.

Q. That’s really cool, see­ing lyr­ics writ­ten down really gives hip-hop anoth­er dimen­sion, it really high­lights the poet­ic side…

Yeah!  Well two things…I always wrote my lyr­ics down in a way so it looked good visu­ally, and that some­times some of my lyr­ics also have a dif­fer­ent mean­ing.  I mean there are some things that I write because I only think people will get when they see it placed next to each oth­er, and so I’ve always writ­ten that way.  With The Coup, when we first came out, our first couple albums the label were like’ oh, we don’t have the budget to put the lyr­ics in the liner notes’ and so if you look at the old reviews there’s noth­ing that any­body says about any of the lyr­ics.   A lot of my stuff was using words and idioms that were very geo­graph­ic­ally local…now those words are used every­where! But at the time people on the East Coast a lot of times didn’t know what I was talk­ing about, and now those words are used all of the time, so I might have a meta­phor or a simile based on a phrase or some­thing that we use here right?  An example of a phrase that’s com­monly used…on the East Coast they might have said ‘I sell coke’ where­as on the West Coast we said ‘slang rocks’, and so I had a lyr­ic that said ‘I slang rocks, but Palestini­an style’ and so some people didn’t get the first part, so that was the thing.  Then when we star­ted put­ting the lyr­ics in, say like on ‘Steal This Album’, crit­ics star­ted going back and clas­si­fy­ing me as a lyr­i­cist and then hav­ing a new appre­ci­ation for the old stuff.  So I wanted it as a book so people can go to it, you know some­times online the lyr­ics are wrong…I’ve even put up the lyr­ics myself before, and then someone else will go and cor­rect it!

Q. Tak­ing it right back, before you star­ted mak­ing music your­self, when you were grow­ing up, who were you’re biggest music­al influ­ences?

Num­ber one would be Prince.  Let’s see…then be the time I was rap­ping I’d say Ice Cube…definitely.   I came up in the 80s so Prince…Rick James…RUN DMC…all that kind of stuff.

As far as style wise, I could say Ice Cube.  When I first star­ted, before I made my first demo, we had a song called The Coup on our very first album and I tried to copy Ice Cube’s cadence syl­lable by syl­lable, I so much wanted to sound like him and I was so mad that I couldn’t!  There were a few people who could sound exactly like Ice Cube and I’d be like ‘Fuck, how do they do that?!’, and I’m really thank­ful that I wasn’t able to do that!

I think that I con­tin­ued to be influ­enced as I grew, one cri­tique that we get about our albums is that they’re all dif­fer­ent from each oth­er right?  Lyr­ic­ally I was also influ­enced by Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Lord Finesse…stuff like that…Slick Rick, Nas def­in­itely influ­enced every­body!  Even people that already had albums out!  Out­kast influ­enced every­body.  Then I star­ted look­ing for influ­ences out­side of Hip-Hop because I stopped being impressed, and so I star­ted look­ing for things that people were doing in oth­er genres, that I could apply to what I was doing.  Like I said, we became known as lyr­i­cists, like ‘oh, he can do these meta­phors and similes’…you could really be just a one trick pony and become known as the best lyricist…and it’s really not art, it’s really just tech­nic­al­ity, like you could get known as a really great lyr­i­cist without being art­ful, with only being clev­er.  I don’t think that’s the same…wit and clev­erness are not the same as art, it’s like the dif­fer­ence between doing back­flips and dancing…but you can do back­flips while you dance, so that’s some­thing dif­fer­ent.  What a lot of hip-hop lacks is pas­sion, people aren’t really pas­sion­ate often about what they’re writ­ing, they’re just try­ing to write some­thing that works right?  That’s why people get so hyped when there’s a battle, when somebody’s diss­ing someone, because all of a sud­den that rap­per is passionate…and we want pas­sion.  Unfor­tu­nately some­times hip-hop doesn’t give you it…you just get clev­erness and wit.  I’ve strived to integ­rate the pas­sion I have in me for all dif­fer­ent things in life into my music in a way that people can feel it.

Q. Hip-Hop was a very dif­fer­ent move­ment when you were com­ing up, being one of the early pion­eers, how do you feel about the way it’s changed?

Well, I don’t know if I could say I’m one of the early pion­eers because our first album came out in ’93, and at that time they were already talk­ing about how hip-hop had changed for the worse then, like how bad it was.  Busta Rhymes and that came out in a group that came out before us and they were lead­ers of the New Skool…so there was already a New Skool.  Even in the late 80’s, that’s some­thing that KRS-One was address­ing, he was like ‘Old Skool…New Skool…NO Skool Rules’…because even then they were talk­ing about how hip-hop had changed for the worse.  SO this is some­thing that will always be said and it’s some­thing that only 20 years after will people start intel­lec­tu­ally appre­ci­at­ing, so I think, technically…let’s say this, I was a fan of Lord Fin­esse, tech­nic­ally Lil’ Wayne is bet­ter than Lord Fin­esse right?  He doesn’t get those same kind of props from those same kind of people and so I mean all these things were talked about at the time.  You had BDP song ‘The Pussy is Free ‘Cos the Crack Cost Money’ right?  I mean RUN-DMC were rap­ping about they’re gold chains and when they weren’t it was implied.  We loved them not only because the music sound good, but also these mother­fuck­ers talked Cadillacs and were rolling around in expens­ive hats and big ass gold chains.  That was all part of it, I mean Schoolly D, all that kind of stuff, you know with black music it’s always talked about, even before hip-hop.

Dur­ing the 50’s when blues and rock’n’roll was a black music thing, it was talked about how the big band era, which was black music at first, was the kind­ler gentler time and was more music­al and that’s why you had all the big bands that came out in the 40s and 50s, and they were play­ing black music of twenty years before and declin­ing the black music of that day.  Later on when black folks were listen­ing to Motown and more funky stuff, you had folks like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles who talked about how the old blues was bet­ter and it’s always attached to the idea that black cul­ture is crass and sav­age and viol­ent and that it wasn’t always that way.  That’s the premise, and there’s reas­ons for it being pushed…the sys­tem tries to tell us that poverty comes from bad choices and the real­ity is that we know that cap­it­al­ism must have a good amount of people in poverty, a good amount of people in unem­ploy­ment, because if cap­it­al­ism had full employ­ment then it wouldn’t ever be able to threaten any­one with get­ting fired right?  So work­ers could demand whatever wages and con­di­tions they wanted because they wouldn’t be able to be fired.  So, fin­an­cial report­ers like the Wall Street Journ­al and oth­ers get wor­ried when the unem­ploy­ment rate starts going low, so cap­it­al­ism must have a cer­tain per­cent­age of unem­ployed people.

The thing about unem­ployed people is they like to eat just like employed people, and so what is going to hap­pen is…well there’s already poverty there when you’ve got unem­ployed folks and you’re gonna have illeg­al busi­ness, with people try­ing to sur­vive.  With illeg­al busi­ness, just like leg­al busi­ness, you need viol­ence to reg­u­late it.  Leg­al busi­ness needs viol­ence to reg­u­late it, you can’t just walk into a store and take out all the food or all the money, because you’re gonna be met with a phys­ic­al force and that is either gonna be people from the store that take the food or the money back or it’s gonna be the police.  Illeg­al busi­ness doesn’t have the police as enfor­cers, it reg­u­lates itself, it doesn’t have the court system…you can’t go to court and say ‘Your hon­our, I was sup­posed to buy a whole kilo of cocaine and this is clearly 75% bak­ing soda, I demand restitution!’…you can’t do that.  You can’t go the the zon­ing com­mis­sion and say ‘There’s only sup­posed to be 3 people selling dope in this area!’.

So, illeg­al busi­ness reg­u­lates itself with viol­ence just like leg­al busi­ness, how­ever, we’re not told to look at the sys­tem for the fault, we’re told to look at ourselves for being the fault with the sys­tem. The way they teach us to look at ourselves is to ridicule oth­er people and to say that people in poverty have made bad decisions, like ‘look they have this crass cul­ture, this sav­age cul­ture’ and it’s always said that you can look at art­icles from the time and whatever music was out at the time that was black music was looked at as crass or sav­age, or some­how oppor­tun­ist­ic and mater­i­al­ist­ic in some way shape or form, and the kinder, gentler time was 20 years before and the black folks involved in that are painted as much more gentle and what that does is it say ‘OK, this is a cul­ture thing, these prob­lems are cul­tur­al’ and to unite with the black music of the time is to some­how relate to the folks that are in poverty and to accept that poverty is maybe not because of the cul­ture.  So Lil’ Wayne right now, I might not agree with some of the con­tent of it…but then I didn’t agree with some of the con­tent of Lord Fin­esse or Kool G Rap’s stuff…he’s thought of right now as being the prob­lem with Hip-Hop and tech­nic­ally we could go lyr­ic for lyr­ic and I could put him against those two kings of lyr­i­cism and he would win! But nobody in, say hip-hop acad­amia, intel­lec­tu­al­ism or writers wanna say that, because it’s really not about any of that stuff…it’s about a cul­ture, and it’s about what those folks rep­res­ent in the world.

Q. Aside from your music, you’ve been involved in a lot of polit­ic­al and social cam­paigns and activ­it­ies.  What are your feel­ings on the cur­rent situ­ation in Gaza?

If any­body else star­ted push­ing people off of their land and killing kids based on ter­rit­ori­al rights that they say were pre­scribed to them via scrip­ture they would be looked at by the world as fuck­ing nut cases!  Some­how, that group of people who are say­ing that they have god giv­en rights to a spe­cif­ic piece of land over someone else are killing kids with drones and say­ing that their par­ents are put­ting them there to get killed, and no report­ers are call­ing bull­shit on it…well, no main­stream report­ers.  They’re just read­ing the news that’s giv­en to them to read.

Q. Totally, it seems crazy how so much press seems to be biased towards the Israeli side…

It’s the thing with this scrip­ture.  At the time when all that stuff was writ­ten, there wasn’t Chris­ti­ans and there wasn’t Islam yet.  The folks that lived there, the ancest­ors of the Arab folks that are Palestini­an were Jews back then, so the folks that they’re try­ing to kick out, the Arab Muslims that they’re try­ing to kick out, their ancest­ors were the ones that were there dur­ing the time of the scrip­ture and who con­ver­ted to Islam.  The Ashkenazi folks that are mainly run­ning Israel are des­cend­ants of people in Europe who didn’t con­vert to Juda­ism until later.  So, when people are talk­ing about reli­gion, they’re really talk­ing about race and try­ing to find ways to not talk about race.  They don’t say the Muslims in Israel, they say the Arabs, that’s what they’re say­ing.  So they say it’s about reli­gion but it’s not about reli­gion.  There are folks that con­sider them­selves both…Arab and Jew­ish and so if they were only talk­ing about reli­gion they wouldn’t just say the Arabs…they’re talk­ing about race.  What this is also is an out­growth of what any nation­al­ism without class-con­scious­ness turns into…fascism.  So, Jew­ish people have been through a tre­mend­ous struggle in his­tory and have turned that struggle into a reas­on for them to become oppressors…I’m say­ing as far as the Israeli gov­ern­ment is con­cerned, and are using that his­tory as an excuse.  Most nation­al­ism that turns fas­cist has vic­tim­isa­tion his­tory, because we’ve all under the sys­tem been vic­tim­ised at cer­tain times.  So it’s not a new phe­nomen­on, it’s not like some unique thing that Israel­is have gone through and they don’t know there’s noth­ing else to attach it to, so it’s cliché to com­pare his to Nazi Ger­many.  How­ever, the Ger­mans had their own vic­tim­isa­tion his­tory to talk about as well, and that’s how they ral­lied them­selves togeth­er and excused them­selves for atro­cit­ies.  That’s what’s hap­pen­ing in Israel, not that every­one is agree­ing because there’s protests in the streets.  But the truth is that Gaza and the West Bank are ruled by Israel, and people that live in Gaza don’t get to vote on who’s in the gov­ern­ment there.  So, not only are the people in Gaza being attacked and killed, inno­cent folks being killed, but they…without the bombing…live in a place which does not have demo­cracy, and the main reli­ance and excuse for it is that if every­one got to vote, the gov­ern­ment of Israel wouldn’t be the gov­ern­ment of Israel, Arab folks would be run­ning it because they’re in the major­ity pretty much, or at least like half and half.

Q. I know as well that you were involved in the occupy Oak­land move­ment, how did that come about?

Well actu­ally peopled tricked me into think­ing we were going out drink­ing, then we ended up walk­ing through Occupy Oak­land, and I was like ‘how are we doing this? This is not even on the way!’ and so little by little I got involved, then they got kicked out by Oak­land police, and then I got involved in get­ting folks to come back and take back the square.  Occupy Oak­land does not exist right now, all the folks that were involved in it are still around doing stuff but just like many oth­er things, due to sec­tari­an-squab­bling , people don’t wanna call them­selves Occupy Oak­land because they don’t wanna be asso­ci­ated with the folks that would call them­selves that.  So it was a chance to step out of the invis­ib­il­ity cloak that the left has, like we think we’re mak­ing so much noise but we’re not…most people in the world don’t know we exist and part of that is because the left in the United States, the rad­ic­al left have got away from organ­ising around the kind of things that people really are strug­gling with every­day.  We talk about mac­roe­co­nom­ic things instead of the things that people are deal­ing with, like how much they’re get­ting paid and how they’re put­ting food on the table, those sort of things.

Q. What are your feel­ing on the cur­rent upris­ing in Fer­guson and the shoot­ing of Michael Brown?

I think that what we’re see­ing is an upris­ing that’s based on people try­ing to have power over their lives and not have there life able to be ended by those that are gov­ern­ing us.  We’re also see­ing that, as I was just say­ing, rad­ic­als are not involved with what is the crux of the sys­tem is, the primary con­tra­dic­tion of cap­it­al­ism is exploit­a­tion and that’s the area that rad­ic­als have left to lib­er­als and pro­gress­ives, and those groups have not really done the organ­ising around that that allows us to, for instance, you could have a gen­er­al strike in the area and do much more dam­age and have much more nego­ti­at­ing lever­age than any prop­erty destruc­tion could have.  You could do that in one day, but we’re not there yet because rad­ic­als haven’t been involved in work­ing in that area.  So, the com­munity is out­raged, the com­munity wants to fig­ure out how to change the way these things are and I think it’s up to rad­ic­als work around these issues in the work­place, and we can strike at times we need to.  It could hap­pen now, but it takes rad­ic­als organ­ising.

Q. Going back to your music, where are you going from here?  Is there any­t­ing music­ally you haven’t done yet that you would like to?

Well, in the near future we’re gonna make a movie out of Sorry To Both­er You, early next year.  I’d like to make a song with Prince…there we go.  I dunno, I just wanna keep myself excited, that’s whay the styles of our albums keep chan­ging, I’m keep­ing myself inter­ested.

Catch Boots Riley & The Coup Live in Lon­don At the Jazz Café on 21st Octo­ber 2014. For more info click here. 

Micky Roots

Micky Roots

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Micky Roots

Micky Roots

Micky roots is one of the edit­ors of I am hip hop magazine, a pure hip hop head and visu­al artist he brings his strong know­ledge of hip hop, social con­scious­ness & polit­ic­al con­cern to No Bounds.

About Micky Roots

Micky Roots
Micky roots is one of the editors of I am hip hop magazine, a pure hip hop head and visual artist he brings his strong knowledge of hip hop, social consciousness & political concern to No Bounds.

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