This one time, I met Boots Riley, one of my favourite rappers, and we talked about a bunch of cool stuff.
Boots Riley is hands down one of my favourite MCs and lyricists. He’s currently on tour, speaking and performing in Australia and New Zealand. As well as being the frontman for The Coup, one of the longest-serving groups in Hip-hop, Boots has been an active political organiser in his local community for years, and was heavily involved in the Occupy Oakland campaign.
The Coup’s latest release, Sorry To Bother You, came almost 6 years after their previous release - partly due to Boots’ collaboration with Rage Against the Machine’s guitarist Tom Morello on their project Street Sweeper Social Club. I got to chill with Boots for couple of hours, eating lebanese pies and talking about music, politics and some of his favourite hip-hop memories:
I loved the new album, especially the new videos like ‘The Guillotine.”
We filmed most of those videos within a few block radius of my house, with a few really good directors like Pete Lee who does a lot of Kung Fu flicks - he did ‘Magic Clap.’ The label was like, We have [money] to make a video” - and I was like …“How can we make 4 or 5 videos out of that!”
My favourite was ‘Your Parents’ Cocaine!’
That was Eat the Fish, they just make a lot of these silly videos. I was like ‘could you do puppets?’ They were like ‘…Never have before… let’s try it!’
Of course as a comic I’ve always loved the fact that your music has always had a sense of humour.
Well a lot of humour relies on irony, and irony is contradiction. As organisers, part of what we do is expose contradictions in the system, and how those contradictions relate to life. When I came of political age, when I became an organiser at 14, 15 some of the organisers around me were old British dudes, and that’s how they talked and, you know, made sense of the world, so that makes its way into the music.
I read somewhere you were talking about how political art doesn’t have to be depressing and pessimistic…
Something that informs political art is a lack of a class analysis. With a class analysis you understand that it is the ruling class versus the working class, it’s the working class that creates the wealth for the ruling class, and many things are done in the name of that but the truth is that it’s possible to win. And it gives you a different outlook when you’re making music. A lot of times people don’t have that class analysis, so everything is a jumble of terrible things, and they don’t have any hope that it will change.
I love tracks like Cars & Shoes and 5 Million Ways to Kill A CEO. My favourite hip-hop has always been tongue-in-cheek. Do you ever feel like Hip-Hop has lost its sense of humour?
With a lot of rappers that I liked, they relied on these one liners that were like comedy rhymes, Kool G Rap, Lord Finesse – a lot of rappers have that. More rappers that have that technically than rappers did than in the 90’s.
What hip hop lacks is passion. A lot of times when someone is known as a lyricist [with] these one-liners, it’s like doing cartwheels and acrobatics, as opposed to dancing. You lose a lot of feeling – which is why people get so hyped when there’s a diss.. because you can tell that person feels something.
People aren’t writing things that they’re passionate about, they’re writing these one-liners which gets boring to me because I’ve been there and done that, as opposed to songwriting.
OCCUPY: Opportunity seized or moment lost?
Well you always lose the moment. But the point is that I think that it was something that could have been bigger. The regular left sectarianism and infighting is what destroyed it. A lot of the people that were involved in Occupy are still doing stuff but it’s invisible. And people were invisible before.
Occupy got big because suddenly there’s a movement that people know about, that they didn’t know about before. When Occupy came about, it was the first time a lot of people in the US had heard of a class analysis of things.
So for a second you had people working together that would never have worked together before, but when it came down to it, a lot of the radicals just weren’t even down for it.
It seemed like a lot of people disengaged in places where Occupy was actually having a lot of success just because it wasn’t going to happen on their template, or the way they wanted it to go?
- exactly -
… and in hindsight it’s easy to dismiss the whole thing because it didn’t become THE revolution - but I don’t think the majority of people who got involved ever thought it would. Most people just thought it was a good time to strike. Specifically from Oakland, what are some things that happened and are memorable to you?
Well, at least 50,000 people came out to the first general strike and shut down the the place, the port as well. Under the banner ‘Death to Capitalism.’ I mean cheering, you know? That says something.
And in the interim there was the occupying of foreclosed homes, reoccupying, moving [homeless] people in. At one point, we were marching from the BART station to go occupy this home somewhere, and we passed this grocery store that I go to all the time. All the people from the store came out see us marching like, ‘What are you doing? What is this? I was like “We’re gonna go move people into a house, come on!”
The folks at the store were like “We gotta work, we can’t do it. We’ll be at the next one.” And how many times has someone said “We’ll be at the next one.” But a few weeks later, we did the West Coast Port shutdown, and everybody from that grocery store came, as a unit…at five in the morning. So those sorts of things were happening, those sorts of jumps and leaps.
That sentiment doesn’t just disappear. Just because things like Occupy end, things never just go back to square one.
They never do. As we know, nothing goes back to the same, it’s a spiral, not a circle right? So next time we come back to something similar, we’re at an elevated point.
When I look at The Coup, very few groups have managed to continue to record and perform and tour for as long as you have. Off the top of my head, I think of Public Enemy, the Roots, and you as the groups that have managed to keep putting out music and performing for that length of time –
- and haven’t turned into a nostalgia thing -
- or a reunion act… so what’s the secret of your longevity?
Needing money! (Laughs) We never had that hit so we’re still hungry. When Occupy happened for example, we were recording and I stopped. Stopped for like a bunch of months. And then I got a call from my landlord who said “…it’s been a bunch of months since you paid rent!”
What’s your advice for young artists trying to make it in an industry where they’re pushing against the mainstream?
Keep your expenses low. Have a healthy self-critique. Does what you do work? Don’t ever have a bad show and blame it on the crowd. If the crowd isn’t into what you’re doing, it’s your fault.
Ok, pure hip-hop nerd stuff. What was your favourite show you did with other people?
Well one day I got an email from Public Enemy’s people saying “We only have 500 dollars, but would you recreate ‘Bring the Noise’ at the VH1 Honors? With Chuck?” I was like “Wait, let me get this straight… I have to pay 500? I’m in!” They were like “…no, we pay you.”
It was me and Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), Public Enemy and The Roots doing Bring the Noise. That was just one song but definitely one of my favourite moments.
Ok. Favourite show you went to as a fan?
As far as favourite show, it had to be just part of an NWA show, when NWA was just getting known - they did a show at the Henry J Kaiser convention centre -
How big is that?
- like ten thousand people can fit in there. It was MC Hammer opening for NWA. Everybody couldn’t wait to see NWA because we hadn’t seen them, people didn’t know what they looked like. This was like ‘89, before the album came out.
I remember Ice Cube coming out, but we didn’t know it was Ice Cube. Then Ezy-E came out. I’m standing up on the second level, and all of a sudden, the crowd [below] is splitting like the Red Sea. The lights come on and you see it’s a dude in a trenchcoat with a shotgun walking through the crowd with two people behind him. And the crowd is splitting but they’re not running out… because they paid money! Like “I don’t want to get shot, but I do wanna see what happens!”
And Ice Cube is kind of standing at the front of the stage and just says “Y’all motherfuckers in Oakland is CRAZY.” And he throws the mic down and walks out. And that’s all we needed for the show, because NWA recognised that we were crazy. And we paid for that to happen. Nobody was like “Damn, I didn’t get to see the show!”
That was it?
Yeah, the show was over with! They walked off because somebody was in the crowd coming towards the stage with a shotgun. And everybody walked away like “Yeah, now they know, you don’t fuck with us!” People were satisfied.
Boots Riley is speaking at Marxism 2014 in Melbourne on the 19th of April and performing an acoustic set later that night: