Boots Riley - Tell Homeland Security: We Are the Bomb [Book] (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Boots Riley

Tell Homeland Security: We Are the Bomb [Book] (2015)

Haymarket Books

You’d be hard pressed to find a more complex figure in music than Boots Riley. He came up in the Oakland Hip Hop scene, rubbing elbows with Tupac and E-40 But, instead making major label “club music” or noir-style gangsta dramas, he took a page or two from the communist manifesto and formed the Coup, a collective that is rooted in Hip Hop.. sometimes… but is also kinda-sorta-maybe a rock band… that also is well-maybe-probably a funk band… that sometimes-also-once-in-a-while is an avant garde multi-media group.

You can’t parse the Coup with just a label or two which is exactly the reason why their fans are so fervent and also why you’ll never hear them on the radio (despite the fact that the group would likely grab onto such exposure whole-heartedly). Riley’s lyrics are at once playful and deadly serious- it’s more revolution party music than bland political ranting or just booty-shaking beats. But, even more than that, sometimes Riley’s lyrics are masterfully obtuse- he’s saying something, but he doesn’t want you to know exactly what he’s saying, and he’s happy to leave the listener to form the pieces into something as he or she would.

That’s why his new book, Tell Homeland Security- We are the Bomb is such a boon. Essentially a combination Coup scrapbook and lyric guide, the book helps fill in the cracks (and gaping canyons in some spots) of the Coup mythos without necessarily pulling the curtain down.

Visually, the book is striking. Filled with photos of the group in all eras, the book traces Riley and his gang from their earliest days to the present, stopping to snap at every line up of the group. It’s also quite a kick to watch Riley’s hair grow from dreadlocks (with buzzed sides!) to a flat-top to that famous, iconic Afro. As a visual coffee table book, We are the bomb is interesting in that it provides an outsider's view into different scenes throughout the decades- and also how the Coup never really fit into any scene.

But, of course, the real treat is Boots’ explanation and ruminations on most of the Coups’ songs. The majority of the group’s discography is covered, with Boots either explaining a song’s meaning, talking about how it came to be, or using it as a springboard for introspection. A theme throughout the book is how Boots is constantly weighing his music aspirations against his community organizing ones, and perhaps surprisingly, it seems that the latter usually comes out on top. Doubly surprising is the amount of guilt that Riley seems to harbor for being involved in music at all, when he could be using that time to provide more direct social good.

He also lets some personal insights slip out. For instance, he quickly mentions how New Years is the only Holiday he can truly enjoy without fretting over the day’s implications. Likewise, his frustration at being number two on BET but being barely able to afford rent or get shows is spit out directly- this raises a bigger question: what is success? Further, what is success for an anti-capitalist Hip Hop/Funk/Community Activist? Every time Boots pats himself on the back he bites his tongue and every time he bemoans the situation he immediately hands himself a blue ribbon.

Riley is a complex guy and We are the bomb doesn’t provide an all inclusive “solution” to his complexities and contradictions. Rather, it acts as a sort of guide that shows just how much more there is to the Coup than is evident at a cursory, or even focused reading. This book doesn’t explain everything, but it says what needs to be said.

Highly recommend for fans. Newbies should spin a few records and then check out this book.

Side note: Is the Coup an alternate reality World/Inferno Friendship Society or visa-versa?