Boots Riley is one of the most respected MCs in hip-hop, but today he'd rather talk politics. This comes as little surprise, given that he's spent the better part of the decade fronting music's most politically informed band, The Coup.
While numerous acts ranging from Public Enemy to A Tribe Called Quest to Dead Prez have been marketed as "conscious," only The Coup have talked about the state of affairs with true clarity, explicitly spelling out modern problems and potential solutions. ("If you've got Public Enemy posters on your wall and an African medallion around your neck but no food in your refrigerator, what's that achieving?" Riley once asked.) Unlike PE, The Coup never diluted its message with anti-semitism, misogyny or homophobia. Moreover, The Coup has always set its politically active lyrics to some of the most head-bobbing bubblefunk this side of Long Beach, Calif. "Masses move as well as asses do," he proclaimed on the band's debut single, "Dig It," a philosophy espoused ever since.
Formed in Oakland, Calif., in 1990 as a trio, (Boots, fellow MC E-Roc and DJ Pam the Funkstress) The Coup released a few local singles before debuting nationally on the Wild Pitch label in 1993 with "Kill My Landlord." Though the now out-of-print "Landlord" sounded like the funkiest political science course ever taught, the effort was virtually ignored by the masses AND the underground.
The stellar "Genocide and Juice" took aim in 1994 at the high-rolling G-funksters topping the charts that year. Fueled by a minor indie hit ("Fat Cats, Bigga Fish"), the album got the band some attention before disappearing from radar for no apparent reason. In 1998, the group returned with "Steal This Album" (which marked E-Roc's departure), serving up another thumping dose of revolutionary prose and Black Panther jams to a mostly indifferent public and press. Of course, that's all changed now.
Though it was just officially released on Tuesday, The Coup's latest effort "Party Music" is already one of the year's most controversial records. Famously, the disc's original cover, shot last summer, depicted the band standing below the twin towers of the World Trade Center, with Boots holding a detonator as the buildings exploded overhead. Songs like "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO" and "Ghetto Manifesto" merely added fuel to the fire, and though the band's record label, 75 Ark, pulled the intended artwork just a few hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, the ensuing media frenzy was already in full swing. Hundreds of articles poured in from around the world, some castigating The Coup for poor taste and others defending the band's right to free speech. Now calmer heads are prevailing, and big-league music publications (Rolling Stone, Spin) are calling "Party Music" one of 2001's finest, most-important records.
With a promising tour in the works, a high-profile record and the nation's spotlight on him, Boots would rather talk about social issues than gold albums.
Q: What did you think of the outcry over the "Party Music" cover?
A: "I think a lot of stuff gets overblown. The people that were most against it were journalists. First of all, as it's already known, we did that a long time before. When I saw what was happening on TV, I wasn't shocked in the least bit. I was saddened wondering how many people died, but saddened and shocked are two different things. I make it my life to study the atrocities that come from this system. I was saddened when I found out that the World Court found the United States guilty of killing 30,000 innocent civilians in Nicaragua to overthrow a democratically elected government; and was ordered by the World Court to pay $19 billion in reparations. And the United States said, 'We will not adhere to the findings of the World Court.'
"I was saddened when I found out that, according to the Far East Foundation and the World Health Organization, when (the U.S.) bombed Sudan in '98, not only did people die on-site way more than they said, but the U.S. knowingly bombed (Sudan's) only affordable pharmaceutical supply, and in turn killed anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 people. As many people know, Sudan is riddled with tuberculosis and AIDS. That plant was the one place where people could get medicine for one pound a month, by making cheap knock-offs. The U.S. knowingly did this and were advised that that's what would happen if they bombed that pharmaceutical factory. That's tantamount to poisoning the water supply. Besides that, much of what they made there were animal vaccines for farmers and cattle. Whole economies and people died because of that.
"There's a list of things. In East Timor the United States funded and advised an army which, in a period of two years, killed 60,000 people. I'm only staying within the last 10 years, and not even getting into all of that (history); my political philosophy is informed by a lot of those morbid facts, so that when Sept. 11 happened, I wasn't shocked. I was surprised and saddened. If you know that there's a war going on already, secret wars that are being held from the public, then you think of that as part of what's going on. The anger that I felt was in sympathy for the people that died. My anger was towards the United States government for getting us involved in such murderous deeds.
"Let's say I live on a street and there's a bunch of people living in my house. And I say, 'Hey I'm going out to get some groceries.' And I leave and go one block down and start shooting up everyone on that block and taking their stuff. And I return with all of this stuff, and I'm saying, 'Hey this is good, pass it around,' and I don't tell them what I did. What's gonna happen is someone's gonna come retaliate and shoot up the house. Now if the people in the house are never told that I went and shot up everyone down the street, they're gonna say, 'What the hell? This is unjust. We need vengeance.' But if they find out that I went down the street and started shooting up everybody, they're gonna turn to me and say, 'You dumb (expletive)! Look what you got us into?' And that's what's happening right now. The United States is leaving out the fact that they're gangbanging. They're saying this is a war, but they're not playing the tape from the beginning. They keep saying they're doing this for the people of Afghanistan to get some tyrannical rulers out. I agree that the Taliban is tyrannical that's the reason the United States put them in power in the first place. The point is, they're gonna save the people by killing them.
"I'm not down with Osama bin Laden; I think Osama bin Laden is as evil as the United States government, which is why they were in cahoots. But I'm not trusting the United States government giving me evidence that (bin Laden) did it. When they wanted to go into the Vietnam War, there was a situation called the Gulf of Tonkin that was the impetus for Congress voting for the U.S. to go to war in Vietnam. Supposedly a naval ship got blown to pieces in the Gulf of Tonkin, which made Congress vote ... everyone except for one person voted to go to war. At the time a few journalists spoke up and said, 'Hey, we think this is a lie.' Those journalists got fired and blacklisted. Ten years later, the government admits that it was a totally fictionalized story. There was no element of truth in it whatsoever, and it was put out there in order to get people to go to war. So if the government admittedly does things like that and has done things like that in our modern history with some of those same people in office what makes you think that the government wouldn't lie again?
"The good that's come out of the controversy around the album, has been that I've been able to say some of this in a public forum. But the truth is that 90 percent of the interviews that I've done and there's been about 800 articles written worldwide, for a couple of weeks I was doing 10 interviews a day most of those articles contain no quotes from me about the war."
Q: As an anti-capitalist, did you think it was revolutionary, in some manner, to destroy the largest symbol of capitalism in the world?
A: "I didn't think it was a revolutionary act. Marx, Lenin, Mao they've all written things supporting armed revolution, but also against terrorism. The (Black) Panthers used to say you don't take military action (to make a) political statement. The revolution we're talking about is very democratic in the sense that it takes thousands of people to do it. It's not something that's done by some vanguard of people. Although I have a song called '5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO,' the reality is if you kill a CEO, the system is still there. What we're talking about is destroying a system, not refilling the job with a new face.
"But symbolically, that's the reason why we picked it for the album cover. That's the reason it's been in movies. The World Trade Center is a symbol of capitalism, and that's why somebody picked it. Those two dudes that shot up Columbine High School, remember that their goal was, after they shot up the school, to go hijack a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center. So it's not like it's a new symbol. If I'd had a picture of the White House blowing up which I wouldn't because that's so clich, and also I don't think that's the seat of where power is when I showed it to be people (they would be unimpressed). But if a plane had flown into the White House then they'd be like, 'How did you know?'
"The truth is that we here in the United States benefit off of exploitation and oppression that's going on all around the world. Our life is violent whether we know it or not. When we buy gas for a cheap price, that's because of the blood that was spilled by someone. We have houses and things like that, that's because the U.S. has gone and killed people. The point is that we gotta realize that whatever benefits we get are only off the backs of someone else. Those masses of people that are in the streets all over the world have a right to be mad. I think most of them are not mad at the (U.S.) people, they're mad at the government and the ruling class. But what's painted in the media is that they're mad at the people here.
"The media said that the CIA supported the Taliban and bin Laden to go in and fight the Soviet invasion. But the truth of the matter is that they brought them in to fight the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which was a socialist group that was running Afghanistan, and may not have been perfect but were way more democratic than the Taliban: Women were allowed to go to school, women were allowed to work, there was health care. But the thing that didn't work for the United States was no United States companies were allowed, and they had control over oil reserves. So the U.S. starts with bringing in Osama bin Laden and the Taliban: 'Here's some money, here's some guns, fight for Islam. Matter of fact, you're not doing it right.' So they bring the CIA in. A lot of these right-wing movements may have started out as people with guns and regular army tactics, the CIA was like 'You gotta strike fear and terror into the minds and hearts of these people.' Every now and then, the CIA forgets to get somebody to sign a secrecy contract, and every few years one of these people comes out against what the CIA is doing. People like John Stockwell and Phillip Agee have written things that talk about it. One thing the CIA trained bin Laden to do was have a campaign of fear. They trained him to go to the co-ed elementary schools, round up the kids in each school and kill the teachers in front of them. This is a CIA-authorized, created, funded mission that happened six months before the Soviet Union came in. What happened was the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan said, 'We can't fight the United States.' So they INVITED the Soviet Union in. It was called an invasion in the press because you see the fighting that happened, but the fighting that happened was the Mujahideen, who had been brought in already by the United States.
"In all of this media, why don't you hear about any of this history? It's obvious that's there's parts of the mainstream media that are working in direct conjunction with the government. Tom Brokaw said on David Letterman, 'I'm an American before I'm a journalist, and whatever the president asks me to do, I'm lining right up. Tell me where.' That really doesn't sound like objective journalism to me."
Q: It sure seems like people agree with that sentiment, though.
A: "If you look at BET or mainstream news, they keep saying, 'The black population is for the war. They're very patriotic.' While there are some flags here and there in my community, in Oakland it's very few and far between. And the people that are waving them are not for the war necessarily it was sold to people as sympathy for the victims. So they get this number that black folks are for the war. I haven't ran into one (local) person yet that says we should be dropping bombs on Afghanistan. And I don't just hang around with people who are involved with politics, I live in the community and I talk to people. So that's one thing, that's my personal experience.
"Usually when they want to know what the black community thinks, they go directly to the black churches. All the black churches are against the war, all-out against the war doing sermons, having signs on their churches. So none of these media outlets are talking to black churches. We know that black churches reflect and also put out and control a lot of what black people think. You don't see on the news anywhere any of the pundits anywhere that are heads of black churches. That's so they can say, 'Black people all feel this way.' They have this one statistic out there that black people are now for profiling, but it's one poll that they did. They don't tell you that they only asked a hundred people, and they won't tell you exactly what question they asked. They won't tell you what questions they asked beforehand and afterwards. So I'm looking at that.
"They don't trust the government in the first place I'm talking about black people. I'm just using that as an example. Everybody I talk to thinks that everybody's for the war but them. I'm not naive, thinking that people aren't more patriotic and for the war, but I think what it's done more is polarized people, as opposed to winning more people over to being down for war. Even when they're talking to victims' families, they're mostly talking to the families of police officers and stuff, who would've been down for ANY war. But I know two victims' families that have been trying to say to the media: 'Don't pimp' and they said those words 'Don't pimp my father's memory, who died in the World Trade Center, to go to war for your own profit.' There's been people that've written letters to The New York Times and things like that, but a lot of the stuff doesn't get out there. A lot of the victims' families aren't for the war, except if you talk to the people that are more traditionally right-wing anyway, such as the family of a police officer."
Q: Do you think some of the more political hip-hop bands overlook the musical end of things?
A: "I might have said that six or seven years ago. I don't see that many political groups out there, but yeah, I definitely think that has been a tendency, where people are just mainly focused on their message. And me somebody who might even agree with that message I don't want to hear it unless they're tight, unless they can flow and unless the music is good. Otherwise, I'd just rather hear 'em make a speech."
Q: I noticed Dead Prez is on "Party Music." Do you think their success has helped you guys?
A: "I think it helped the movement more than it helped us. By the movement being helped, that's helped out The Coup. The fact that they're on our album is definitely gonna help. Them bringing it to a new audience has helped us and will help us, because some of their fans that we didn't share in common before will buy our album now."
Q: Do you think The Coup's been overlooked in the history of hip-hop?
A: "As far as writers like in The Source, yeah I think so. I think a lot of people know us more than you'd think if you just read some of those publications. When we came out, there was a real heavy East Coast bias as far as hip-hop journalism was concerned. A lot of those writers never wanted to give us our props. For instance, the first two albums are critically acclaimed NOW, but they weren't critically acclaimed back then. Nobody dissed it, but they just didn't even write an article about it. It didn't fit into their categories. If it was political, it didn't sound the way they thought political rap was supposed to sound it sounded too gangsta for them. The first reviews of our first single said, 'Oh, more gangsta rap from the Bay Area.' We were mad at that at first, but in hindsight it was one of the best things that ever happened to us. A couple different articles said that it was gangsta rap from the Bay Area. We were like, 'Man, they're not even listening to the lyrics. They're just listening to the music and calling it gangsta rap.' But some people read that that wouldn't have ever bought anything that they said was conscious or political. But gangsta rap? 'Where can I buy it?' So we got a whole different crowd than other people might have got."
Q: Is being labeled "conscious" something that can hurt a musician's career?
A: "I think so. One, I don't know what 'conscious' means because anybody could be labeled conscious. For instance, Ice Cube's second album ('Death Certificate') came out, and if you read The Source or any of the music publications at the time, (they) said that it was negative gangsta rap. At the same time Black Sheep had an album out. They were called positive, conscious rap. Ice Cube's album was the most revolutionary record to ever have come out, at the time. The general thrust of the album was most revolutionary. Black Sheep's album was about pimpin' and getting at women, but because their music sounded East Coast, they were conscious. Listen to their raps nothing's conscious about it. Nothing's conscious about their (expletive), but these labels were put there. Is Tribe Called Quest conscious or are they just bragging about how good they can rhyme? De La Soul? De La Soul says about as many conscious things as Trick Daddy does. Trick Daddy says way more political (expletive) than De La Soul ever did. But these labels get put on things.
Q: So, at that time, we didn't have the money machine behind us to push us to the journalists or whatever. Later on, we're viewed as a critically acclaimed group, but those critical acclamations were few and far between. There was nobody that wrote anything bad about us, but they just decided to act like it wasn't important, even when we were like No. 2 on BET or whatever and people were buying our records. We just didn't fall into their categories. So we've been overlooked. On (Oakland radio station) KABL with 'Fat Cats, Bigga Fish' we had the No. 1 requested song for one whole month, but they wouldn't put it in rotation. They said, 'People don't really want to hear that.'"
Q: What happened with Wild Pitch Records?
A: "'Genocide and Juice' did OK. 'Fat Cats and Bigga Fish' did get radio play on two stations. The single was climbing the charts, we had video play. EMI, which was distributing the album for Wild Pitch, bought the album mid-campaign for $500,000. We got excited saying, 'Oh, because it's climbing the charts and they paid $500,000 for it, they're really gonna work this album.' A week later, we're calling EMI and they said, 'We're not working this album anymore,' and pulled it out of the stores. Why would anybody spend $500,000 for an album and shelve it? I have no idea. There's no answer that we were ever able to get on that. While we can talk about the censorship that is prevalent and getting a little publicity after Sept. 11, censorship has been going on way before that."
Q: I know you're opposed to the whole "bling bling" mentality that's found so often in popular rap these days, but isn't it revolutionary in some small way when kids like Cash Money go from the ghettos of New Orleans to being millionaires?
A: "Well first of all, let me see the books. I don't necessarily know if that's true. Black people have been, in this century, making it out of the ghetto a lot of times and nothing has changed for the rest of us. Because somebody's a millionaire, it hasn't raised standards of living for anybody else black, besides maybe their immediate family. So I don't think that's revolutionary necessarily, unless you're talking about 50,000 people becoming millionaires because of that or whatever. The other thing is that that's not really happening; they're not getting paid that much. Their records are making that much money, but those artists aren't getting paid that much. I know artists that have gone platinum, double-platinum or whatever, and are still as broke as me. I know them personally.
"The artists that I do know that are making more money and they may be making as much as somebody with a good tech industry job or something like that, by no means a millionaire, but by no means broke. They're able to have a house and all that stuff, but nowhere like you'd think. You'd think there's this big money difference between a superstar and somebody who can program computers, and the difference is that somebody who can program computers may be able to get other jobs. But once the artist's record sales start falling, that's the end of their money a lot of times. But the artists that I do know that have been able to get up to that level, have done so because they're doing to other artists, the same thing the record labels are doing to them. They don't really have it because they're an artist; they have it because they've worked business deals where they're helping the record company rip-off the artist.
"The reason why a lot of people may have been drawn to the 'bling-bling' on television and all that type of stuff, is because there's been a lack of a movement, and people have all these problems and all these trials and tribulations. An image of somebody that has become a millionaire from the ghetto or whatever, is the only image of somebody free from oppression that they can see, the only model. So what is really happening is people wanna figure out: 'I gotta stress to pay my rent all the time, I gotta worry about the police, I got bills to pay, I'm almost gonna be homeless.' They see somebody bling-blinging, they like 'Yea,' it's almost like raising your fist in the air. But really, the movement should be providing people pictures of people free from oppression through changing the system. But that's all that is. They look at Jay-Z and they like, 'Damn, he don't gotta deal with paying the rent.' And that's what all people want: to be free from oppression and exploitation. But that's the only image TV wants to give 'em.
"Me being in the industry for so long, I see how MTV and BET created that image. There were a lot of creative videos, ours included, that were stopped from being put on television. Through a series of what videos they would play and didn't play, (they) tailored it so they would get only certain kinds of videos submitted to them. And even to this day, they get very creative videos that a rock band could submit to MTV and get played, but a rap group couldn't."
Q: Why is that? Is there still a color barrier at MTV?
A: "Yeah, definitely. And there's a certain image that they want to portray for rap politically, what they want. There's so many things you could show on ABC prime time, on a movie, that you can't show on videos. They just won't accept it. They'll say, 'It's not hot' or whatever. I think it really was to make things less political, because at the time the creativeness was coming with a way to criticize the system. That was at the time when they started having all these rules about what you could and couldn't show on there. Right now, you don't hear them talking about the rules, even when they're showing women in bikinis and all this type of stuff. You don't hear them talking about that. You hear them go in there and kind of joke about it, like that's just what the rappers are coming with. But they don't talk about the fact that that's what they wanted. And so, somebody that isn't necessarily from a disciplined, movement background, when they're told, 'This is what you gotta show to get your video played,' that's what they're gonna show."
Q: Is it possible to be a capitalist and a revolutionary at the same time?
A: "Well, we all work in the capitalist system. You're not a capitalist because you're doing that, because you're using the tools of industry. If you're exploiting someone you can get really far out and say that everybody's exploiting someone and you have a business where you're making a profit directly off of people's labor, you're kind of getting into shaky ground. But the point is, use whatever tools are around you in order to spread the word. For instance, I have to get my message out there. I want my video to be played on BET, where right after they're probably gonna show a Coke commercial. That's unfortunate that that has to happen, but I'd rather my video be there right before that Coke commercial than some video telling people that this Coke commercial that's about to come up is the be-all end-all. I'm trying to get my message out to the masses, and unfortunately they have us all plugged into the capitalist gatekeepers."
Q: Do you think that real revolution is possible in this country today, or has capitalism sort of anesthetized everybody?
A: "It's possible and I think it's necessary. There are steps that need to be taken. For instance, there's so many things that can happen that change things quickly, and there are things that happen that change things slowly. Two months ago, even though I thought the U.S. was right wing, I never thought that I would see so many people waving flags. If someone told me that, I would say, 'You really don't have an analytical grip on how the world is working right now.' But we see that that changed. Many of the movements have been defeated for the simple fact that the government thinks that revolution is possible. And with their big intelligence-gathering system, they would probably be right.
"I think also revolutionary movements have moved away from real material reform movements (and are) combining reform and revolution. When Lenin wrote about reform and revolution, it wasn't a debate over which one you should use, it was talking about how they both work together. In the '60s, somebody went and turned that around. So now, anytime you hear somebody in a revolutionary organization talking, they have no connection to the material world as far as the people are concerned. They're not talking about any of those campaigns that could change people's lives in the next month or the next year. They're only talking about things that can happen in 50 years. It's all about knowing how to take steps. So the only people that are talking about changing people's lives in the next month or the next year, don't want to make a revolution. Those reform movements are not used in a way to organize masses of people into a revolutionary force. So those are the things that revolutionaries need to start taking up. When we talk about revolution, it's not something you can't touch. We're talking about material things. We have to connect that. I'm tired of people saying, 'I'll be down with the revolution, but I'm about gettin' paid.' And really the two are the same. In the past, successful revolutionary movements have been able to satisfy that need, that same feeling of the need to survive. That's the only way the revolution is gonna happen is when people realize they have to organize this revolution to survive, that there is an immediate benefit that comes from being involved in the movement to overthrow the system."
Q: So what can a kid working in record store or whatever, who's just trying to pay his rent, do? What's the one thing a person like that could do to make a difference?
A: "They could talk to the other people at the record store and organize a strike for higher wages. At that point they could join with other stores in the area and do the same thing. That would have a serious effect on other people around there. 'Hey, the record store did that, maybe we could do it at the ice-cream store.' That's one immediate thing they could do."
Q: Sure, but if you do that at the ice cream store, the owner just fires everyone and hires new kids at minimum wage.
A: "Well that's the meaning of a strike. That's why people stand out there with signs and don't let people walk in. Those new people that come in are called scabs and you don't let them come in. That's how a strike works. That's the ONLY way strikes are successful. You say, 'We're the workers' and when they try to bring people in, you block the way, and you have enough people with you to block the way. To me, those are the real lessons because then you see, in the midst of a labor dispute, who the police come out and support? The police don't come and say, 'You guys are making hundreds of thousands of dollars and you're paying these kids $5 an hour. Come on! That's thievery.' They don't come and say that. Why don't they come and mace the boss until he pays you enough? They're supposed to protect the people, right? So those are the lessons that people will learn. And that's what someone can do, is organize where they are. If you live in the Midwest, don't move to a big city to organize, figure out how to organize in your suburb. Because you're the only one that knows how to do that."