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.
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