Although a lot of radical musicians talk the talk, few walk the walk like Boots Riley. Riley has been the driving force behind hip hop group The Coup for almost 20 years, weaving dense, but playful, rhymes that address everything from killing CEO's to having broken down cars to George Bush and Saddam Hussein's "special friendship." He's also the mouth piece for the politically charged Street Sweeper Social Club, Tom Morello's current hard rock group. In addition, he just recently laid down a guest verse on the upcoming Star Fucking Hipsters album. But, in addition to busting out tight rhymes, Riley has spent time busting up injustices as a community organizer. He's also spoken at campuses, equal rights conferences, and even verbally sparred on Bill Mahr's Politically Incorrect.
Now that The Coup is preparing to release a new EP and a new album, Punknews Staff Writer John Gentile went out and bought a new Che Guevara t-shirt, and then sat down with Riley to talk about the Coup's upcoming movie, his time working as a telemarketer, and why frat boys have been unfairly judged by many in the punk community (including by Yours Truly).
First off, whatâs on the horizon for the new Coup album? Iâve heard that itâs a soundtrack to a movie?
Yeah, I wrote a movie. Weâre in the process of getting it made. The movie is a dark comedy with magical realism. It's called Sorry to bother you. David Cross and Patton Oswald are committed to being in it. We have a graphic novel that's being made from the script. Some crazy shit. It delves into science fiction.
The new album is a soundtrack to it. It will have 20 songs on it. But, before we put that out, there are four other songs that will be a free download Coup EP. We'll put those out and tour and then put out the album.
How did you come to decide to make a movie?
I actually started out in film school. But, films cost a lot to make. Albums were a lot cheaper and we got a record deal while I was in college. So I've always had film making in a lot of my literatureâ¦ very detailed and textured. I like story telling, and I've always wanted to tell this story. It's a way to get in a get a movie made.
Do you feel that there is a similarity between screenwriting and album writing?
Coup albums have always been concept albums. I make songs that you can listen to on their own, but are really supposed to be listened to as an album. There are definitely a bunch of trip songs that I've made. There are songs where something on the last song will refer to something on the next song. I make albums and I like the idea of an album of a group of a songs. I like when there are things that share something thematically.
Along those lines, due you think the recent iTunes based singles culture will hurt the concept of the "album?"
It's not that it will hurt or help music. The album only really came about in the 60s. Before that, people only make singles, and even before that, people just knew songs, and people played different songs. I don't think any of that will hurt musicâ¦ it'll change it.
You used to work as a telemarketer, which I found surprising considering the Coup's lyrical content. Tell us about your days as a telemarketer.
During collegeâ¦ and before collegeâ¦ Actually telemarketing was the end of the line. I started out as one of the kids selling newspaper subscriptions, and I graduated to telemarketing. In a weird way, sales kind of influenced my work later on at how good I was as a [community] organizerâ¦ Even how good I was as an artist.
When I came to you with watery eyes, saying I would get a trip to Disneyland, and I learned that it's really some fucked up manipulation, but it teaches you to listen to people. Somebody opens their door, and they are definitely annoyed, and their kids are running around, you are looking at them, and you have to empathize with them, to understand. It's a fucked up thing- some 20 year old driving around a van full of kids to make money for newspapers, but it taught me something about life. If someone is hiding, then you come at them in a different way. It taught me all about it's not what I was saying, it was about what they were saying, and that changed the way I deliver my message.
Later on, when I became an organizer, I saw a lot of the way that the old guard was doing it. When they would speak to people, there were a lot of clichÃ©s being used, a lot of catch phrases that really didn't get though to the person they were talking to. They weren't worried about talking to people, just about getting out their message as quickly as possible. I learned from that.
A great deal of political hip hop and punk music dismisses marketing. Does marketing have a place within the arts?
It depends on what you call marketing. I think musicians are marketing all the time. The most altruistic musicians in the world are marketing. If you want to make a fast hard song, when I say what I want to say, everyone is jumping around- that's marketing. You are making something so that your show can be amazing. You are making something that you feel people are going to want to listen to, no matter how much you say that you are just making music for you. If that was true, there would be much more experimentation. Marketing starts right there.
But, If you are talking about marketing in the sense that certain people know music exists, I think that it's necessary to let people know that something exists. There are various ways. There are ways that are more commercial or uncommercial. We live in a capitalist society. I don't give a fuck how indie you are. If you have an indie label you are an independent capitalist pig. Just because you're an independent capitalist pig, I won't worship you. I've been on both, indie and major, and they both fuck you over. Not because they're bad people. Even the people that run majors, aren't always bad. They're allowing themselves to be cogs in the machine.
We have a misbelief in the essence of what's wrong. Exploitation is wrong- not consumerism. Consumerism was put out by those who created exploitation. Not buying major and buying indie instead means someone is getting their focus away from the matter. Until there is no exploitation, everything you do under capitalism helps exploitation. So, you have independent capitalist and major corporate capitalist. Until you have a collective, where everyone involved in a production of that project is part of the project, it is a capitalist enterprise. Even then, within capitalism, you are still relying things made through exploitation of labor. The whole idea that you can opt out of capitalism is some Walden pond bullshit. It's some bullshit that allows people to stand by and not organize. That being said, if you had an enterprise where you are selling records so artists can pay their bills, you are not being more virtuous by putting out records and not letting people know about it.
You're a featured guest on the upcoming Star Fucking Hipsters album. How did that come about?
My friend Roberto Miguel, he does these crazy old-timey songs. I met him and we recorded some mashups with Coup songs and old-timey stuff. He had me come out to a show and I met Sturgeon [lead vocalist of SFH] and he hit me up and asked me to be on the album so I did it. I don't even really remember what my lyrics are. The day I recorded them, I went to a coffee shop, wrote some stuff, and then went and laid them down, really quickly. I'm interested to hear what I said.
You're a member of Street Sweeper Social Club with Tom Morello. You've laid down tracks for STZA. You've been on a subsidiary of Epitaph records. You're developing quite a punk rock pedigree. What is your history with punk rock?
Well, let me see. I don't know what my history with punk rock is. I love The Clash. There are a few bands that I think would be called punk that I would think fall into that. My cousin Lauren has a band called New Earth Creeps. That's a punk band.
My first history of punk rock was given to me on a three hour drive from an airport in Alabama to Tuscaloosa. I was trapped in a van with Jello Biafra. I said I don't know much about punk rock. For three hours, he started talking about punk from the mid 60s to the 2000s. That was an experience. That being said, if youâve talked to Jello, he takes a hardline on certain bands. He didn't like The Clash because they were on a major label. He's a character. When he told me about Bad Brains, a lot of the groups he told me about, was the first time hearing about them. I listened to them later. "Bad Brains were good but blah blah blah and people stopped liking them."
Now Jello is crossing the international picket line of the boycott, from the movement in Israel. He's going to play in Israel while there is a boycott which is the same as playing Sun City. Knowing him and how hardline he is on people, on whether or not they stick to the script, that shocked me. I called him and left some messages.*
It's not about keeping something from the people. Do boycotts work to force states to do something? The answer is, "if they are big enough they do." The whole thing with Jelloâ¦ by having Jello Biafra, someone who is a self proclaimed radicalâ¦even Jello Biafra went! He's performing there, not just going there. The boycott is against performing, not visiting. He not only doesn't choose a side, he strikes a blow against the boycott movement. Before Jello decided to go there, even Coldplay was down the boycott. Coldplay but not Jello Biafra! Is Coldplay or Elvis Costello proving himself to be more punk rock than Jello? That's a sad day.
I think that neither hip hop nor punk rock is in of itself radical or against the state. I think hip hop can support the status quo and so can punk rock. People get in an aesthetic that make themselves feel rebelliousâ¦ just like rock and roll. Just like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin were rebellious. But Mick Jagger can have tea with the Queen. Johnny Lydon, is on commercials. So is Iggy Pop. I think a lot of times people give themselves a pass as if they are punk rock.. people do that in hip hop too.
Itâs fine to be individual and find your own way. But if your individuality is actually going against a group of folks who have come together to be able to change the world, then you are on the side of the government, on the side of the capitalist- not just standing by and observing.
The Coup uses a live backing band, which is still fairly uncommon for hip hop. Do you have a specific reason for using live players as well as a DJ?
The truth is that in The Coup, we've been live music from album one. It always has been live music. In the early days it was not fashionable to have live music, so we used to make it sound like it was samples. I wanted my vocals to mix with the music instead of samples were the vocals are overtop the music. We wanted the credibility from the real hip hoppers. We used fuck with the EQs. We would play it a certain way so it would sound like a sample.
A lot of my friends that were working on the first albums played in bands like Tony! Toni! Tone! and they charged a lot to go on tour, so we didn't do many shows until 1996 and would usually use just Pam [The Funkstress, long time DJ of the Coup]. Since 96, which was 15 years ago, it's been live, just like it always has been. When they show a picture of the group, since I write and produce the music, they show just me and Pam.
You're also in Street Sweeper Social Club, which was originally just called Street Sweeper, with Tom Morello. When SSSC had to change its name from just "Street Sweeper" due to a previous group using that name, why did you choose to append "Social Club" to the group's name?
Because it's a group of folks coming together. That in of itself is a social club, which is the original meaning of band. We are coming together with a purpose to say something about the worldâ¦ it also sounds good.
A street sweeper is a machine gun that shoots shotgun shells. It's one of the most lethal machine guns. So lethal that it is the only machine gun that the NRA agrees with banning. So, we named the group that, because we agreed with that, and the fucked up ways it's been used in the past. We also named it that after a lyric from the Coup song "5,000 ways to kill a CEO." It makes an uneven playing field for hunters. The street sweeper was also first made in order to police in South Africa, to quell protests. So, it is a reprehensible weapon. Our music is a weapon.
Tom Morello's previous band, Rage Against the Machine, can be heard everywhere from punk rock bar juke boxes to frat parties. Do you ever worry about your music being co-opted for the "wrong purposes"?
It depends what you mean by co-opted. If you only want your music to reach people that agree with it, then what's the point? My point is to make music for people that might not agree with me. That happens with any music that gets popular. Bob Marley has been played in the background while frat boys are roofie-ing girls.
The truth about my music- one, I want to be heard by everyone, and two it is necessary for that. I think one thing that happened in the 60's when people started to take on what was radical, they forgot that you need the working class to overthrow capitalism. We need masses of people that for some reason we decided are the enemy. The enemy is the ruling class. Before the 60s, the communist party USA used to organize in places like Montana and Utah. Utah and Montana in the 30's and 40's were considered hotbeds of communist activity.
What are the red states now were real red states then. Some of their grand children are right wing republicans. Why? One part of the reason people started taking on the stupid idea that revolution would come from the students and people in the cities and getting the holier-than-thou mentality, and pseudo intellectualism that folks in rural areas "were less advanced." So those folks got left alone for decades.
Any time… I speak in generalities… anytime someone had radical thoughts, they decided to move to the Bay Area, New York, places like that, and leave the places they were at behind. Instead of coming and getting and education, and going back, they stayed or wandered from city to city. No one settles and stakes a claim and organizes a place. All those places are left behind. When you have a group like RATM, or SSSC or The Coup, who go and talk to those folks, those folks agree with those things. It's just that everyone who wears all black looks and sees a frat boy and looks and sees that he is not revolutionary- that's only because they misunderstand history.
If you read A People's History by Howard Zinn, in 1870's, St. Louis became a socialist state. They don't teach that, thatâs part of the reason we don't know that…we misunderstand history. A lot of the folks in the militias, they had some racist ideas, so did a lot of union organizers. However, those folks in the militias, they got formed because there was no real radical organization there in those areas.
I think that it's wrong to think that a group of white folks in Kansas who dress in a certain way means they don't listen to the lyrics. Of course, there are knuckleheads that don't listen to any of the lyrics. Those folks that like the lyrics in Kansas just feel powerless. The people in the city make them feel even less powerless because the so-called-revolutionary decides that they aren't punk enough because they aren't really listening to the lyrics, and they get even more isolated. That's when folks and even organizers have fell for the bait that the media puts out. The media puts out the idea that everyone is more right wing then you are. That way, they can put forth that there is a consensus for the atrocities that are happening. The Tea party is really small, but we think that that is how people really feel.
My point is that most people in the world, in this country, would like to see a change in government. The would like to see socialism or communism. They would like to see an even playing field. One that's fair. They think they can do it. In some areas, people are more silent than others. Its up to folks that think they are radical to show that they can organize.
Any last comments?
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*[Prior to this interview, Jello addressed this issue, separately. On June 29, 2011, after this interview took place but before it was published, Biafra announced that he would not perform in Israel.]