Oakland-based rapper and community activist Raymond “Boots” Riley has stood behind the mic for the fiercely political hip-hop group the Coup since their 1993 debut. He’s been the driving force behind critically acclaimed albums like Steal This Album, Party Music and their latest, 2006’s Pick a Bigger Weapon; along the way, he’s been busted for obscenity and attracted the unwanted attention of right-wing rabble-rouser Michelle Malkin. Tom Morello went from high school anarchist to rock superstar when he became the innovative guitarist for Rage Against the Machine in 1991; when they disbanded in 2000, he went on to further success with the supergroup Audioslave, and furthered his own political agenda with solo acoustic shows and recordings as the Nightwatchman. It was during Nightwatchman shows in 2008 that the two first started performing together; this year, they became Street Sweeper Social Club, two radical firebrand tastes that taste great together. Joining up with the Nine Inch Nails/Jane’s Addiction tour, they’ve been opening to rave reviews; their self-titled debut album dropped on June 16th. Just before the tour began, Riley and Morello talked to The A.V. Club about how they work together, balancing rock and revolution, and how they intend to finance their future endeavors.
The A.V. Club: Talk to me a bit about how you first started working together.
Tom Morello: We first met in 2003, on the Tell Us The Truth Tour, which was a folk tour with Billy Bragg and Steve Earle—and my first Nightwatchman tour. I invited Boots to be part of the tour, and he ended up stealing the show every night. Since then, we’ve done a lot of shows together, almost all acoustic; that’s how I’ve learned the subtle nuance of Boots’ great lyrics and the satirical force of them. When Audioslave broke up, Boots and I had a quick meal, and I gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Boots Riley: He didn’t even offer it to me. He told me, “We’re gonna make a band. It’s gonna be called Street Sweeper. It’s gonna be anthems for the revolution. Here’s a tape of acoustic songs; imagine them rocking, and write something.” And that’s it.
AVC: Was it pretty easy putting the songs together, given that you’d worked together before? Did you take a different approach to the songwriting at all?
TM: For me, it was pretty free. I just took my old Radio Shack tape recorder and an acoustic guitar, and in the course of a week’s time, wrote about 24 songs. I sent ‘em off to Boots, and he put lyrics to them.
BR: For me, the association with rock is one of force and anger and aggression. And definitely, in the past, I’ve made songs that attack like that. But what I usually try to appeal to is peoples’ everyday feelings, the things that they’re going through as they deal with the system on a one-to-one level. My theory is that everyone is already in the struggle; they’re just in it individually and we have to collectivize that struggle. So the things that I talk about aren’t always “let’s burn the system down”; a lot of times I’m talking about more specific things that people can relate to. I do mean for people to come to the conclusion that they should burn the system down. But I’m not always saying it like that. Listening to the music, I had to find where my style would fit in with the music. That’s what my approach to it was.
AVC: Listening to the record, you both are coming from a very resistant position, but there’s a lot of hope in it, and a really good-time vibe; I was reminded a lot of Party Music in that sense.
TM: That’s one of the things I’ve heard in Boots’ lyrics from the beginning, and we really tried to capture it on the record. It’s also something that I’ve seen throughout my career, whether it’s Rage Against The Machine or Audioslave or Nightwatchmen shows – they’re not these dour lectures. They’re exciting, kick-ass shows. The added element I think we have with Street Sweeper is that in addition to having serious hard-rocking funky jams, the element of satire is pretty biting. There’s a lot of humor interwoven in it.
BR: I always have thought that part of being involved with life is the same thing as just wanting to kick it with your friends, and being involved with life on a deeper level is wanting to change the situation that you’re in. So that’s the way I’ve always approached organizing—this isn’t separate from wanting to be down with your friends, going to the club; it’s just an extension of that. You know, my training was with some old British communists, who had organized unions in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And their philosophy was, if you can’t drink a pint with a man, how are you gonna get him to go on strike and risk his life? That has always been part of where I’m at, and I’ve never been down with this idea of division, that you can’t be this way or that way, and this or that isn’t correct, and you gotta go around looking like you’re mad at the world in order to be serious. I just can’t accept that.
AVC: It’s a strange time for radical politics. On the one hand, you’ve got a popular president, perceived as a liberal, in office, but the economy is also collapsing, and there’s a widespread feeling that things are getting worse. Is this the right time for an album like this?
TM: Absolutely. We’re in the middle of the biggest financial crime in history. These bankers and CEOs, through their greed and mismanagement, have not only wrecked the U.S. economy, but it’s starting ripple out into the international economy. And they’re being rewarded for it with a billion-dollar check. At the same time, we’re still involved in two immoral and illicit wars overseas, and while it’s fine to be swept up in the euphoria of the upgrade in the Oval Office, I think the only real chance we have for substantive change is if the people take action, and not wait for it to come from above.
BR: This record is maybe even more needed now that it would have been a few years ago. Right now, you have a lot of people who are maybe thinking that they don’t need to take action, because there’s someone at the top who’s going to take care of things. Whereas my position is that in terms of exploitation, in terms of who’s really in charge of the things that people struggle with day to day, it doesn’t really matter that Obama is in charge now. That’s not going to make any real difference in terms of a lot of the major issues in many people’s lives.
AVC: Do you think that the most dangerous time for a system is when it starts to reform? Is now a critical time for progressive action, or do things need to get worse before we’ll see real change?
BR: I’ve never really subscribed to the theory that repression breeds rebellion. I don’t think that’s really true. But I will say that the whole question is moot, in the sense that we don’t really have a large movement built. For us to analyze what’s the best time to build a revolutionary movement, at what point we could win, is a lot of theory—a lot of people sitting around watching the game, basically. We have a movement that’s been disconnected from the struggles that the average person is going through for a very long time, and that has taken on a lot of issues that are not the entry issues that person wants to deal with, which are food, clothing and shelter. That’s what we need to be dealing with to build a movement that could ever take advantage of any strengths or weaknesses in the system.
AVC: Playing auditoriums and stadium shows like you’re doing on this tour, is it sometimes a struggle to make those issues relatable to an audience that’s almost by definition on the other end of the class struggle?
TM: Well, you’re talking about what I’ve been doing for the last two decades. [Laughs.] This will not be my first shed show. It’s not entirely new territory. Let me be very clear: there are maybe going to be those in the audience who were maybe fans of my previous bands, or of the Coup, but these are Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails shows we’re playing at. These are big summer festival shows. But I think they’re going to attract music fans who are nonconformists. These are bands who have not traditionally drawn audiences of fraternity brothers, but of people who see themselves as culturally not in the center, if not politically, at least culturally left of center, and they’re more likely to be receptive to Street Sweeper. But again, these are not college lectures; these shows are not about “fill out these forms and we’ll collect them at the end.” We’re going to kick your fucking ass, and when it’s not being kicked, it’s going to be shaking. That is the motto Boots and I have lived through on the Justice tour, and it’s melded into the DNA of Street Sweeper. We’re there to feed the poor, fight the power, and rock the fuck out.
BR: There’s a lot of righteous, very political… wack-ass groups. [Laughs.] I’m down with what they believe in, but we wouldn’t be here talking to you if the main thing we were known for was commentary. The main thing we’re known for is the talent and the skill with which we bring the music to you. After you feel that, you start thinking about what the message is. Later on, you’ll go home, you’ll buy the album, and you’ll listen to the lyrics. Not to dis anyone, but you have to be an artist first in order for anyone to care about what you’re saying. You can’t keep both eyes on the correctness of what you’re saying, or people won’t feel it.
AVC: There’s been some pretty massive changes in the music industry since both of you started performing. Has that been positive, overall, for you?
TM: There certainly has been a democratization of the music business, brought on by the fact that music is as free as water. Metallica’s MySpace page and the MySpace page of a garage band in Peoria, Illinois in some ways have equal footing. As far as what it means for Street Sweeper Social Club, it remains to be seen. It’s a constantly morphing landscape, and there’s no one reliable model for how people get their music.
BR: There are new ways and new models for how people can make money with music. One of the things we’re doing is we’re offering “A Night With Tom Morello.” [Morello laughs.] He doesn’t like the idea, but for a mere eight figures, you can spend the night with Tom Morello. We’ll see if that helps sell any records.
AVC: When you say ‘spend the night’, do you mean in every sense of the phrase?
TM: You have no idea what my nights are like. You have no idea what you might be signing up for with that. It may be Nietzsche, it may be cattle prods. There’s no telling.
BR: You get the keys to his house and a roofie. After that, it’s up to you.
TM: Make sure you print that it’s eight figures.