He Got the Megaphone: Boots Riley during the Occupy protests
Soaring on the wings of a widely critically-acclaimed new album, Sorry to Bother You, a successful European and North American tour, and a prestigeous New Year's Eve gig opening up for Erkyah Badu at the Fox Theater—as well as a newborn son—Boots Riley of the Coup is in a good place right now.
Despite his image as a super-serious, rabble-rousing political activist who walks the walk as well as raps the rap, Riley’s essentially a happy-go-lucky guy who’s more laid-back than high-strung. For two decades, he’s been the conscience of Oakland hip-hop, rapping about social, political and economic issues from a street-level, proletarian point of view--and never venturing into materialistic excess or misogynistic blather.
Riley’s not known for being shy about venturing his opinion, and he’s used his celebrity (and social media following) to help get the word out about issues that concern him, whether they be Occupy protests, labor strikes or foreclosure defense actions.
After watching the controversial and provocative Quentin Tarantino film “Django Unchained” alongside Riley—whose newborn son is coincidentally also named Django—it only seemed right to ask the Oakland lyricist, producer and activist his thoughts on the film during an interview, conducted later that evening.
“There’s a few scenes I definitely have a problem with,” he says, in a voice somewhere between raspy and gravelly.
On one hand, he intones, “....a slave rebellion movie against slave masters in general is gonna get a lot of people hyped and is always a welcome thing to see on the screen.” However, Riley noted that the film doesn’t disprove an ostensibly racist Leonardo DiCaprio monologue which upholds phrenology --a (discredited) science which maintains black people are genetically subservient to whites--by making its protagonist “the exception to all of that.”
He then proceeded to point out several scenes which further illustrate the point “that most black people have a genetic disability to rebel.”
Whether this message was intended or not by the filmmaker is open to interpretation, but it does show that Riley has a keen eye for noticing detail and incongruity, even in a film lauded by some as revolutionary.
Riley’s son Django—a Roman phrase which means “I awaken”—was named before the film came out. He adds that he almost changed the name after hearing about Tarantino’s eponymous film, but decided against that, because “I don’t think the movie will be remembered for that long.”
Moving right along, longtime Coup fans will notice the further evolution of the group’s sound on Sorry to Bother You. The in-your-face aggression is still there, along with the “fonk” (Riley’s pronunciation). But the use of new wave-y keyboards, rock guitar, gratuitous handclaps, and generally uptempo beats make STBY easily the most danceable Coup album to date.
The biggest influence in how the Coup’s sound has evolved, however, says Riley, has been the group’s shows. Early Coup albums had slower tempos because they were designed for listening to in cars. But since the late ‘90s, Riley’s been playing with live musicians onstage. “As we performed more live shows,” he says, “I started getting a feel for fast songs.”
Asked for insight into his creative process, he says, “I make songs that move me.” And what moves him is “music that’s emotional to make.”
The sonic experimentation with musical textures outside of conventional rap which became apparent on 2001’s Party Music and coalesced on 2006’s Pick a Bigger Weapon are even more evident on STBY.
“Gods of Science” seemingly channels Brian Eno’s ‘70s esoteric collaborations with Bowie and Byrne, while “Strange Arithmetic”‘s jump-up groove could be the result of a bathroom tryst between Toni Basil and Ready for the World. Piano and kazoo are the primary instruments on “Your Parents’ Cocaine” -- a snide observation of entitled rich kids engaging in risky business.
The use of what he calls “happy, joyous” background music doesn’t detract from Riley’s sly social commentary and far-left political leanings, though it occasionally distills what’s been at times a militant, hardline stance into a more humanistic, life-affirming perspective.
Riley notes his eclectic listening tastes, elaborating that side projects such as Street Sweeper Social Club, the rock/rap outfit he helms along with former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, have changed how he approaches Coup albums.
He used to try to fit the group within defined limits of what he thought fans wanted to hear. Now, he thinks, “what parameters can I do and still be in the hip-hop genre?”
Most of the album, he says, was finished before the Occupy movement emerged in 2011. The song which perhaps best encompasses the take-it-to-the-streets protest sensibility of #OO and #OWS is the anthemic single “Guillotine,” as clear an illustration of his lyrical ability to mobilize the masses as Riley’s done in his career:
We want to thank you for flying with us/ We know you coulda stayed home/ just cried and cussed/ May all your guns go off if it's time to bust/ May all they tanks have time to rust/ They got the armies turning bullets into gold/ They got the hookers turning tricks in the cold/ And every time the police kicks in a door/ An angel gas break dips in the O/ And even if a D-boy flips him an O/ It ain’t enough to buy s**t anymore.
Thus far, STBY has made numerous year-end Best-Of lists, providing validation for Riley’s efforts. But such praise is just “proof that good reviews can’t pay your bills,” he says. At the end of the day, he says, “I’d just like to know how many people have heard the album. That’s the thing that satisfies me.”
Riley's best tour experience came in a town whose name he can’t pronounce, somewhere in Holland. “I was doing ‘You Are Not a Riot.’ A quarter of the way into the first verse,” he remembers, “people in the crowd just picked me up and passed me around. That was a really good moment.”
His worst tour experience happened in the mountains of Colorado, when the bus nicknamed “Detroit Red” Riley funded with a Kickstarter campaign wouldn’t start. “we thought the bus had broken down… but it turned out to be the AC,” he says.
Coming back home to Oakland to play a big show makes it all worthwhile for Riley. “The Fox is [a] place we’ve wanted to play for a long time,” he says.
“It’s obviously a beautiful venue,” he adds, as well as “probably the biggest venue that the Coup is going to be able to play in Oakland.”
We’ll see about that.
Fox Theater - Oakland
1807 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94612
Mon, Dec 31, 2012 09:00 PM