Interview: The Coup’s Boots Riley
It’s never easy to walk the precarious line between art and activism, but Boots Riley, frontman and lead conceptualist for The Coup, has kept his balance with a mixture of swagger, charisma, wit – and just a touch of wry humor. His home base of Oakland and the Bay Area’s radical history provide a wealth of inspiration; from Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party to Sly and the Family Stone, Riley channels a bygone era of soul power, right down to his impeccably coiffed Afro and mutton chop sideburns, that has molded him into one of hip-hop’s funkiest cult heroes.
Interestingly, Sorry to Bother You, The Coup’s sixth album, largely eschews the sensuous funk tropes of 2006′s Pick A Bigger Weapon, leaning instead toward uptempo immediacy (“The Magic Clap”), punkish attitude (“You Are Not A Riot”) and raw, unvarnished grooves (“The Guillotine”). Riley himself sounds focused and driven – “Hypnotic, the noose is slip-knotted in a fourth-quarter audit and pumped through the carotid,” he spits in “The Gods of Science,” which features guitar demon Vernon Reid – but he also brings a street romantic’s flair to “My Murder, My Love” (with Jolie Holland and Joe Henry) and the prostitute’s lament “Violet.” Ruthlessly topical without ever sounding didactic, Riley can call out entitled rich kids in “Your Parents’ Cocaine” or the harsh economics of “Strange Arithmetic” and still get you to move to the message. In hip-hop of any stripe, that’s saying something.
What got you going to make this album?
Well, I’m someone that, while accused of doing funk and loving Parliament-Funkadelic and Sly and all them, there’s only so many times you can listen to those albums. I don’t care what genre you’re in – if you’re really into music, you’re gonna wear something out. So I’m always looking for new forms and new things. And there are some things that I’ve listened to probably since before I started making records, but I just didn’t think that I should put into my music, because I was young and thought there were certain expectations for my sound, as opposed to letting it all flow through. I think with this album, I just let all of my influences be laid out there musically.
Do you feel like you’ve grown sharper as a lyricist?
I think I let myself lose a lot of conventions that were shackling me. Early on, I got labeled with the title of “lyricist.” And that’s an honor, but it’s also limiting, because the idea of “lyricism” in hip-hop, quote-unquote, has to do with being witty and being clever, even if what you’re saying is not heartfelt. Sometimes what’s witty and clever only has one emotional note, which is that you’re disconnected. So I wanted to write lyrics that I felt were connected to my emotions. There are still different things that are funny and humorous, but it’s not just a punch line for the sake of having one. And in that way, I think I let some of the influences that are more akin to literature and poetry come through. I’ve done that a little in the past – for instance, with “Me & Jesus the Pimp” [from 1998's Steal This Album], there’s a lot of literary tools and tricks used in that, but it’s to tell a story, so it’s somewhat expected. This time, I just took a lot more influence from poets I like – whether it’s Leonard Cohen or Michael Ondaatje or Pablo Neruda – with the idea of choosing words that add a texture that make you think about that situation in a different light.
At the same time, I do hip-hop, and that’s what I’m comfortable in, so I needed to do it in a way that I’m sure I can master. As long as I’m emotionally true and talking about everything that is connected to whatever the topic is, and letting myself be open, it’s all gonna come out in the wash. So I wanted to do that.
Tell us about “You Are Not a Riot,” which is subtitled “An RSVP from David Siqueiros to Andy Warhol.”
That got sparked by a conversation I overheard that got me angry. It was about some artist, I don’t remember who it was, but I wrote it right then, putting myself in another character’s position. That’s the easy way out, right?
David Siqueiros was a Mexican muralist who was actually part of the Mexican revolution. In later years, people might have thought he was kind of crazy, with some of the allegations he would throw around. For instance, when he was one of the hosts of the Venice Biennale in the ’50s, he accused the Latin American artists who were coming with all of this abstract stuff of being CIA agents. He was like, “Look, in a time when there’s revolutions going on all over the world, why you gonna come with this shit? How disconnected could you be from the world to want to do this?” And it turned out that there may have been some truth to what he was saying.
Anyway, the idea was to talk about art that tries to assume a rebellious aesthetic without actually being, in content, rebellious. The reason for that is people are attracted to the rebellious aesthetic. Why? Because we all know that the world is fucked up, and we all want something that’s different. And sometimes artists play on that rebellious aesthetic, while selling you all the core values of the system – selling you the idea that you don’t need to be rebellious. And a good symbol of that, to me, was Andy Warhol. Aesthetically, what he was doing in art was a little bit different. However, what it sold was art without passion. And in order to sell that, you had to sell this disconnectedness with the world, and he talked about that.
So with that conversation, I had the idea of Andy Warhol inviting David Siqueiros to a party. What would he say? I wrote it in eight minutes, maybe, and went into the studio and it just started, “You are not a riot,” with the bass line, and that was it.
You launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to buy a new tour bus. How does social media fit into what you do as an artist?
It’s really the same old thing. It’s been around for a long time. Before the internet, there was mail order, and before that, you had catalogs that people ordered from. So that existed to a certain extent. But this is getting people to pre-order, basically. By the time I started the campaign, we had one song, “The Magic Clap,” out there, so it’s good that people had faith in the album.
I think it’s definitely very helpful to artists to be able to connect directly with their audience. In our case, if this many people had bought the album later on, with the money coming in incrementally, we wouldn’t have been able to get this bus. On top of that, getting the bus will allow us to tour more regularly, which also allows us to connect with organizations and communities during the daytime. When we go in a van, everything is the same – we’re travelling all day, we go to the venue, hit the late-night place to eat and then the motel, and it all ends up feeling very similar. But this way, we can connect with organizations and hopefully help them publicize what they’re doing.
Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland just marked their first anniversaries, and we’re gearing up for another election in November. Where are we now, in your opinion, and where are we headed?
To use what’s now a cliché, I think the conversation has changed. We’re heading towards a militant, radical labor movement. The Chicago teachers’ strike is a good example – a very militant strike that was able to get community support because it put out a bit of the bigger picture. And that’s not even a classic labor issue – there’s gonna be labor issues around production and services. A new tactic has been put on the table.
People understand that even if the struggle isn’t related to their particular job, they still feel connected to it. So there’s a new atmosphere of radical direct action coming up, and it’ll be around labor and material wealth. You even see the conversations about getting folks to vote in a different way. Voting is the very least of political activities that anyone can do. If someone just says, “I voted,” that doesn’t mean you did shit. Not only do we see that it doesn’t change much, but we see that there’s something more that needs to be done in order to change the world.