boots

The Rumpus Interview with Boots Riley of The Coup

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Since returning from a brief hiatus in the mid-1990s, Oakland’s The Coup has flirted with perfection on three albums: 1998’s Steal This Album, 2001’s Party Music, and 2006’s Pick a Bigger Weapon. Rapping over live-in-the-studio funk augmented by DJ Pam the Funkstress, MC Boots Riley has pushed each album in a new direction while retaining the group’s distinct sonic identity.

For all that he’s transparently a propagandist, Riley’s richly detailed story songs make him one of the most engaging songwriters working in any popular form. The band’s first album in six years, Sorry to Bother You, marks a radical departure, fusing punk and hip hop into a sound that remains unmistakably The Coup’s own. From the infectious uptempo soul of lead single “The Magic Clap” to the blistering funk of “Land of 7 Billion Dances,” it aims to bring about a revolution that’s “both love and lust,” as Riley would have it on the Andy Warhol dis “You Are Not a Riot (An RSVP from David Siqueiros to Andy Warhol).” As politically uncompromising as any of the group’s work, it breaks new ground musically, and it sees Riley experimenting with a lyrical mode of storytelling alongside the customary fight songs and calls-to-arms.

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The Rumpus: Can you talk about where you grew up and what musical influences you first absorbed?

Boots Riley: I mainly grew up in Oakland, but I lived in Detroit until I was six. My older sister was living with us, and she listened to the Ohio Players and Stevie Wonder, so I grew up listening to stuff like that. When I was five years old, me and my cousin got into a fistfight because when “That’s the Way (I Like It)” came on the radio, he said, “That’s my song,” and I said, “No, that’s my song.” In junior high, in Oakland, I was into 80s British Invasion shit, the pop stuff, Tears for Fears and The Cure and things like that, but at the same time Michael Jackson. The overarching biggest musical influence has been Prince.

Rumpus: When did you first become involved with the hip hop community in Oakland?

Riley: In high school, everybody rapped. You just pounded on the table. But I had a best friend named Johnny, he went by the name Julius T. Poette, and he wanted to be a professional rapper. Back then, we had no idea how records were made. We thought what we heard was people freestyling. We had no idea people wrote shit down. At first, I was trying to get him involved in political things. I’d be like, “Hey, we’re doing this rally about police brutality, you can come do a show, there’ll be hundreds of people,” knowing there’d probably be forty people. He’d be like, “I’m only going to do it if you’re my hype man.” There was a weekly hip hop show at a place called Keisha’s Inn in Berkeley. It was put on by Ant Banks, who ended up going on to produce Too Short. Johnny wanted to get on that show, so they told him if he helped carry equipment, he could get on the show. I don’t think he ever got on the show, but the experience allowed me to see some of the inner workings of the music business. At the time, they were putting out this dude named MC Ant, who was headlining the weekly shows, and this other dude Pooh Man, who also went by MC Pooh. They’d gotten some money together and bought some studio equipment and made a record. I thought, “Wow, it’s on a piece of vinyl.” It made it seem doable to me, and that connected with the political philosophy I was learning at the time, which is best summed up as dialectical materialism. Part of it tells you whatever you want to do, you have to identify correctly the steps it takes to get there.

Rumpus: What first got you involved in politics, and how did politics and music begin to intersect for you?

Riley: What first got me involved in politics was being 14, and a youth organizer comes to my house with a van full of 14 year old girls. “Hey, you want to go to the beach with us? But first we’re going to go support the cannery workers’ strike in Watsonville.” That quickly changed because when you present young people with a reason for being, which is what everyone’s looking for, people quickly take to it. I was an avowed professional revolutionary by the time I was 15. I was a member of the Progressive Labor Party. My father had split with them 10 or 12 years before. As opposed to being mad at me, he argued with them, “Why would you let him in your organization? He doesn’t even read.”

Rumpus: Did your parents have a background in politics?

Riley: My father started out in the Civil Rights movement. He was one of the regional coordinators for the NAACP when he was 12 years old in the 50s in Durham, North Carolina. He helped organize the first coffee shop sit-in around integration. After being in the NAACP, he joined CORE, and after that he moved to San Francisco, where he was a bus driver and took part in the San Francisco State Strike, which is what created Ethnic Studies in the 60s. That’s where he met my mother. They got involved in much more radical politics, like the SDS, and then he became a fulltime organizer for PLP. They moved him to Detroit, where he did work with auto workers and was a fulltime organizer, and then he broke with them and moved back to the Bay Area. By this time, he was in his late 30s, and he went back to school and became a lawyer. He’s still in Oakland, still involved in stuff.

Rumpus: After two albums, in the 90s, you took a hiatus from making music. What brought you back?

Riley: When I started doing music seriously, it was with the idea that I was going to make a couple multiplatinum albums, put these ideas out on a large scale and make some money and then buy guns and ammunition and make organizing centers around the country. But the first part of that plan never happened. When I was 24, I felt like all my heroes who had organized were 19, 20. I was like, “I’ve been spending my whole adult life on this music shit. What am I doing?” The Coup was on MTV and BET, but at a time when there was no internet, I had no idea how much the stuff I was doing was affecting people outside Oakland. At the time, also, hip hop wasn’t able to tour because all these clubs that let hip hop come in now, they would never have let hip hop come in. Anytime some independent promoter would put some money together and try to bring us somewhere, before we even got on the plane, the police would shut it down. They’d say, “It’s going to be too rowdy.” But in the interim, while I had stopped, this guy Peter Schwartz at the Agency Group, he’d taken Hieroglyphics, and they told these clubs, straight up, “They have a white crowd; don’t trip.” It’s not like anything got fixed with racism; it’s just that these clubs started being okay with the music because they felt it was white kids coming as opposed to black kids.

After Genocide and Juice some friends and I had started an organization called The Young Comrades. The Young Comrades broke down over stupid shit that a lot of radical organizations break down over. A group of people in the organization turned it into little more than a study group. I was like, “Fuck this, if I all I’m going to be doing is putting out ideas, I might as well go back to putting them out in a much larger way.”

Rumpus: Can you talk about your songwriting process? Do you start with a character, a situation? Do you start with something drawn from life, or do you start more conceptually?

Riley: It’s different with every song. “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Grenada Last Night” started because I wanted to write a song about sexism, but I didn’t want to do it in a mechanical way and be like, “Don’t be sexist!” because that’s not how I talk in regular life. Sometimes it takes time to get into what ideas actually mean to you. Even when you’re not writing a song, it’s like that. A lot of what we say and do are regurgitated things that have to do with what we think we’re supposed to be saying and doing. In reality, I know I’m not hurt directly by sexism; however, my life is made less because of it, so I started thinking about the fallout from relationships in which people feed off each other. That’s where that character came from. “Me and Jesus the Pimp” took me, with all the starts and stops, eight months to write after I got that first line. Then there are songs that took me 10 minutes to write. A lot of them come with lying to the label. For Party Music, I said, “Yeah, the first single is done,” because I had the music, and I had a concept for “5 Millions Ways to Kill a CEO.” But I had no lyrics. Then by the end of the album, we had a mastering date, and I had to get to the airport. If I missed that plane, there was no other mastering date for a couple months, so the album wouldn’t come out till the next year. We had a couple hours before I had to leave, and I felt like there was no opening song. I handed the music over to Matt Kelly, “Just start mixing it, I’m going to go out of the room and write the lyrics.” I wrote the lyrics to “Everythang” in 10 or 15 minutes. But I don’t think there’s any rule. I have tried to write songs quickly that get scrapped. I’ve also taken a long time on songs that get scrapped because you can over-think something, and you’ve squeezed the life out of it. As opposed to work of art, it looks like a really great work of craftsmanship.

Rumpus: Can you talk about “Nowalaters?”

Riley: That was a true story. That was one of the hardest songs I’ve written. I’ve had band members that want to perform that, and I’m like, “I can’t really do that song.” I wrote that right when I had come to a turning in my understanding of those events, and it opened up the idea of me writing about personal things. I wrote “Wear Clean Draws” after I wrote that one. Before that, I thought there were too many songs about people’s personal lives. I was also concerned with the ideas that song might put out there. In writing it, I had to trust that if I wrote the song, if I really believed in those things, my ideas would come through.

Rumpus: How much are the musicians who join you in the studio part of your process?

Riley: Normally, before this album, I would come up with something. “I’m really feeling this bassline on this old record; let’s do something similar to that.” Or I might bang something out on the keyboard. Or I might sing a guitar line. Somebody might be like, “This chord will make it funkier than that chord.” But it’s usually important to me to get my idea out first because a lot of times my ideas will seem weird to musicians. Then I welcome input. However, with this album, I coproduced it with my friend Damian Gallegos. He’s got a studio up the street, and I’ve wasted far too much time talking about music and backwards engineering shit with him, so this time, we decided to make the album together. A few songs, he co-wrote the music; he wrote all the music on “Violet,” and then I changed some of it. “Your Parents’ Cocaine,” I played when I first got the Little Phatty, which is a cheaper new Moog. On “My Murder, My Love,” I was playing around in the studio with these pedals on a Fender Rhodes. Damian being there allowed me to play with a lot of different textures and ways of recording. On “Land of 7 Billion Dances” we discovered he had this broken ribbon mic, but I was like, “Fuck it, it sounds good.” It added something to the kick; it also adds some crunch onto the rest of the drum kit. In fact, the drum sounds on this album can be credited largely to that ribbon mic. On “My Murder, My Love,” even the folks at Epitaph were like, “That sounds unprofessional.” I was like, “Good,” because what you mean by “professional” is “like other shit sounds.”

Rumpus: Was Pam involved with this album?

Riley: She’s always involved. I’ll play her the shit we have, and if there’s something she thinks is really terrible, it won’t make it on the album because I’ll feel guilty. She often doesn’t like most of the shit. That’s just her personality. But since we know each other so well, if she puts down a song really badly, then I know something’s wrong with it. Normally on an album, she’ll be part of it at the end and go through and do her scratches. But Pam has a restaurant and a catering business, and she 95% of the time can’t tour. Pam is still The Coup; it’s just this album represents what somebody would hear when they came to the show. But she was definitely there and part of the thing.

Rumpus: Initial press for the album talked about it being a movie soundtrack. Is that true?

Riley: Yeah, definitely. But the movie won’t come out till the middle of next year. It’s being produced by Ted Hope, who produced “21 Grams,” “The Ice Storm” and “American Splendor.” The director is Alex Rivera. This will be his second feature. His first, “The Sleep Dealer,” came out a few years ago and got a lot of good reviews. The movie is a dark comedy with magical realism inspired by my time as a telemarketer; it’s called Sorry to Bother You.

Rumpus: Do the songs match up pretty closely to what’s in the movie?

Riley: What’s in the movie is a lot of my same ideas, so yeah, the feeling goes with the movie. The songs aren’t related directly with the movie except for “We’ve Got a Lot to Teach You, Cassius Greene,” though. He’s the main character in the movie, and that song is supposed to be a nightmare he’s having, but it deals with some real ideas about the ruling class and what selling out is. That song started as a joke, like the last song on a bad Broadway musical where everybody holds hands and sways back and forth, but it turned into this weird psychedelic dream that held true to the feeling I was trying to get in that part.

Rumpus: Has being part of the Occupy movement changed your outlook? Is being involved in that movement part of what made this such a different album for you?

Riley: Most of the album was done before I got involved with Occupy Oakland. The only song that got created after Occupy Oakland was “Long Island Iced Tea, Neat.” That was because I was doing a show with Japanther, and we went into the studio. Occupy has changed my outlook on a lot of things. A lot of people that were involved in the Occupy movement told me The Coup’s music had some part in their political development. People give out compliments because it’s polite, so who knows? But the Occupy Wall Street Movement reinvigorated my faith in the fact that there will be a movement that will overturn this system; if anything, that gave me a shot in the arm. I’ve been involved in a lot of different kinds of projects. I’ve been on straight hip hop tours. I’ve been on underground rock tours. I’ve been on multimillion selling rock shows. I’ve been in the jam band thing, and both commercial and underground hip hop. Very few people listen to one kind of music. Maybe Deadheads. Also, I have a 15 year old daughter; if you’ve got a pop song that teenage girls are into, then changing your style will get you a different audience. However, for everything else, it’s not like I have to change my style to get to this audience or that audience. What I’m trying to do is make music that people relate to, that talks about ideas that are personal but also make that connection to trying to make revolutionary change, and I don’t need to change my music to get to a certain audience. With all our albums, we’ve been accused of changing a little too much. But in hindsight, those changes are looked at collectively as the group’s sound. So many people, when we did Genocide and Juice, were like, “What the fuck are you doing? This isn’t real hip hop. This sounds like some West Coast G-funk shit.” Then when I did Steal This Album, I had friends that were like, “What are you doing, making music for skateboarders?” Now those same people love that album. Party Music, one reviewer said, “This sounds like Jay-Z.” Our show has sometimes been praised for and sometimes derided for sounding different than the album. This album captures the energy we have onstage.

Rumpus: You have a role as a father, as a romantic partner, as an MC, and as an activist, any of which can be a fulltime job. How do you face the challenge of being all those different people and still being there for the people you love?

Riley: You just laid out the basic problem of my life. There are definitely intersections, though. For instance, on the album, the first song, “The Magic Clap,” is the song me and my now-girlfriend and the mother of my child, Gabby Lala, made the day we met. If you listen to the song, it’s very much about love and sex. But yeah, I am a person who always feels like I am not doing the right thing because there’s always so many things that need to get done, and that’s what led to me stopping doing the music that first time. With Occupy, I feel like those different areas of my life are most connected. In the case of the things we do with the Occupy Wall Street campaign, my music doesn’t necessarily compete with that, so finally there’s something that can be broadcast to thousands and at some point millions of people. It takes so much time to do all this stuff. And then kids need time. You bring them along with you to things, and they’re like, “What the fuck is this? I’m bored.” I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve been able to make things intersect, but it’s still a battle. Before the internet, I was on the phone all day. Now I’m on the internet and the phone and in the studio. If I’m spending time with my family, there’s so much shit over my head that has to be done that it makes it a battle to be present.

Rumpus: How did parenthood change your outlook?

Riley: I think there’s something your hormones do that makes a chemical change in the way you think. When my daughter was born, that was the first time I cried from happiness. Before that, anytime anything sentimental came on TV or on movies, it didn’t hit me, but from that moment on, any tearjerker, it doesn’t matter what it’s about, it could make me tear up and cry. That said, this is my fourth child. It’s a big shock when you have your first because all of a sudden your schedule is erratic, and you’re waking up in the middle of the night, but now my schedule is like that already, so it’s a lot easier because it’s more of the same.

Rumpus: Calling an album Genocide and Juice challenges a lot of the conventions of mainstream hip hop. Can you discuss your relationship with other artists in that community?

Riley: There’s a misconception with the title of that album. A lot of people heard about gin and juice for the first time from Snoop Dogg, but it was nothing new in rap music, and it was nothing new in the black community. A lot of Bay Area rappers had songs about gin and juice including Spice-1, who was a big influence on Snoop. My reference to gin and juice didn’t have anything to do with Snoop; it had to do with a popular drink. Later, writers that weren’t familiar with black culture except through hip hop assumed I was taking a shot at Snoop. I talked to Snoop at the time. Snoop was a big fan of The Coup and would quote some of our lyrics to us just to show he didn’t think I’d been taking a shot at him. But the main thing we would get when our stuff became a little bit more mainstream, people you would call gangsta rappers would come up to us and say, “I love what you’re doing. We’re doing the same thing. We’re dropping that knowledge.” And that’s the truth. Rappers are usually rapping about knowledge they think people need to get by in the world. If there’s no movement that gives the idea that the knowledge people need is how to take over the system, what they see is that people need to know how to hustle; people need to know how to survive. However, in the early 90s, we would be criticized by the hip hoppers that were considered “conscious” as using hip hop for ulterior motives. You were supposed to be about partying and having fun. Of course, that same group of people, when the South started doing hip hop that was about partying, all of a sudden it became that hip hop didn’t used to be about partying; hip hop used to be about putting out a message. Other rappers that are considered lyricists have always given us a lot of respect, but we do something different, so a lot of times, when I’ve tried to collaborate with other artists it’s hard because we have different ways of writing songs and different things that motivate us.

Rumpus: You often seem to collaborate across genres.

Riley: We always have other rappers on the albums. On the first album, we had a few unknown folks. The second album, we had Spice-1 and E-40. The third album, we had Del and STS. The fifth album, we had Talib and Black Thought. This album, we have Das Racist and Killer Mike. There’s definitely collaborations I’ve tried that I feel don’t work. I did an album with Jeff Beck and this weird avant-garde French producer. It was me, M-1 from Dead Prez, Jeff Lee Johnson, this guy Dave King from The Bad Plus and Happy Apple. It wasn’t cheesy, but it was really weird.

Rumpus: Was it ever released?

Riley: Yeah. Ursus Minor. It was only released in France. I’m not encouraging you to go out and buy it. The album would be better if there was no rapping. But it was fun. They’re like, “Do you want to come to Paris for 10 days and kick it and do an album with Jeff Beck and Jeff Lee Johnson.” I was like, “Cool.”


Tom Andes’s work has most recently appeared in N/A, Cannibal, Harp and Altar, and Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He lives in New Orleans. More from this author →