In a rap world filled with one-hit wonders, one-album wonders, nihilistic and opportunistic beat-biters, and rappers whose worldview is drawn solely from Martin Scorsese films, Boots Riley and his Oakland-based band The Coup are an anomaly: a rap group that has not only stayed at the top of its game, but actually improved with every album. Formed in 1990, The Coup released its stellar debut, Kill My Landlord, in 1993, and followed it a year later with the even-better Genocide & Juice. After that record came out, however, The Coup parted ways with former label Wild Pitch, signed with Oakland-based indie Dogday, and, after a four-year break, released Steal This Album, a compassionate, politically adept, deeply humane, and joyously irreverent album that's damn funky to boot. The Onion recently spoke with Riley about his career, his politics, and the burden of being a Communist in a capitalist world.
The Onion: What did you do between Genocide & Juice and Steal This Album?
Boots Riley: Let's see… I've been working with an organization called the Young Comrades, doing community organizing. I had a kid. But I kind of had to take a break from music: My life had become so much involved in the whole music industry, and I didn't want my music to become solely about the music industry. I didn't want to be like rappers who are only talking about other rappers, or their deal, or whatever. That sort of music only reflects one side of their lives, so it can't reflect what other people are going through. I want my music to be not only representative of other people's lives, but also contributing something to the struggle that people are going through. And if I was only involved in the music industry, my music would just be about stuff I've already written about rather than being inspired by real events. I just wanted to wait until I felt really hungry to put something out, as opposed to just putting something out every year because you're supposed to.
O: Were you concerned that because you haven't put out an album in four years, you would kind of be forced to introduce the world to The Coup all over again?
BR: Yeah, definitely, from a promotions standpoint. That's why people put out albums every year or twO: They have to do less promotion that way. We're actually finding out now that a lot of the people who are buying the album have never bought a Coup album before. That's good, but what's bad about it is that because we're doing everything in an independent way, our core audience from the last two albums might not know the new album is out.
O: It seemed like there was a lot of buzz around Genocide & Juice, whereas this time you kind of have to track the album down.
BR: Well, hopefully, what will happen is that when we film the video, it will almost be like the album is starting up all over again. Our biggest sales area has always been L.A., but we've found out that there's not a lot of retail awareness out there among store owners or managers that the album is even out. We've got to get that out there. It's moving slow, but I don't really know if that's because we've taken four years off or just because we're doing things differently. But for an independent release, we've already sold like 20,000 copies, which is pretty good.
O: What's the first video going to be?
BR: We actually have to come to a decision about that today. We've got a couple of options right now: "Me And Jesus The Pimp In A '79 Grenada Last Night" is obviously one, but also… [Riley's toddler loudly recommends Lauryn Hill's "That Thing" as a potential video choice.] They already did that video.
O: I'm sorry, what was that?
BR: Oh, nothing. She was just saying "That Thing" because I mentioned videos.
O: But that would probably be a good way to sell some albums, if you somehow found a way where you could just do another video for "That Thing" and pass it off as your own song.
BR: [Laughs.] Yeah, I guess so. The songs we're considering are "Me And Jesus The Pimp," "Cars And Shoes," and "The Shipment."
O: On your album, there are numerous references to revolution and armed rebellion, but it also sounds like you're active within the community. Do you think that it's possible to enact meaningful social and economic change from within the system?
BR: I think that you have to work with what you have wherever you are, obviously. If you're working within the system, obviously you need to work for change at that level. What change has always come from, however, has been pressure from the people, people who've said, "Hey, we're willing to make less money if you give in to us." You know, with things like strikes or work stoppages. We talk about social change, but most of the social policy is actually based on economics. Where the power lies is in the private sector, in the sector that exploits the people and forces them to work for five dollars an hour while their companies make millions and billions of dollars. So organizing needs to be done in the community to make smaller reforms. But these reforms have to be working toward an ultimate goal, which may or may not be achieved during our lifetime, which is to destroy the system that makes these inequities and makes this problem, and this system is capitalism. The ultimate credo of capitalism is to exploit people. It's not like this is just an incidental problem; it's inherent in the system. It's based on something that's bad. And while anyone can say that there are problems with other systems, with socialism or communism, at least those systems have as their goal to provide for their people and make sure everyone gets what they need. People aren't perfect, and it certainly takes struggle to make things better. But if you're struggling, at least you're not struggling for a system that, in its most advanced stages, advocates things like chattel slavery. But that revolution is a ways off, so I talk about things in the here and now.
O: So you don't see things as an either/or proposition?
BR: As in either reform or revolution? No. I think that in order to make revolution, you need to make reforms, but you should make these reforms with revolution in mind. In order to make revolution, you need masses of people who are ready to fight. I think most people say, "Yeah, we need a better system." But problems arise when people say things like, "Oh, things will never get better" or, "We can never get rid of this current system." Things will never change that way. But people do change things for the better, and one way to do this is through the power of numbers, and this comes from little things, like rent strikes and cooperative supermarkets. As you struggle, you don't struggle for just one reform, but you work toward overturning the system that destroys these reforms. Do I think it's good to make reforms without revolution? No. Because if you do that, you build a movement that doesn't have any sort of direction, so people are divided. They might fight for one reform, but they aren't necessarily going to struggle for the next reform, you know? So you must have both reform and revolution. You can't have one without the other. Do I believe that electoral politics are the way to reform? No. Because a lot of these politicians are just managers for the bigger system, and even if they make reforms, they still aren't helping build the movement. That whole way of thinking just sort of feeds into the big lie that struggles are based around one big person or one personality, when in fact all movements are based around mass action. The media will do things like attribute the entire civil-rights movement to somebody like Martin Luther King, even though in a lot of ways, he came into the movement right during the middle of things, when he might not really have had much to do with the politics of what was actually really going on.
O: Do you vote?
BR: I haven't during the past few elections. Not because I think things are fucked up and I can't do anything about it, but because voting is really the least amount of work you can do politically. A lot of times, people vote and that's their only form of political activism, and I really have a problem with that. I have no problem with voting, per se, but I think that voting in many ways gives people the illusion that they're living in a true democracy where they have some power, when in fact they really don't.
O: Do you think it would be easier for you to sell albums if you weren't so overtly political?
BR: I don't know, because if I weren't as overtly political, I might not even be rapping. If I wasn't rapping about politics, then I might have been just another person trying to sell albums, and I might have sounded like everyone else out there. So it might actually have been a lot harder. I think that my politics are a problem for the gatekeepers. It poses a problem for me because of the gatekeepers, not because of the people. Every story that I hear about people buying our stuff is like, "Man, I didn't even want to listen to it, but someone played it for me," and even though they weren't necessarily into the politics of it, they liked the music in an artistic sense. And the artistic side is the most important part of our music: If I just wanted to put out my beliefs, and I didn't want to entertain people, I could always just go around making speeches. I want to entertain people, but I also want to make them think about stuff. But, like, The Box banned [the video for] "Takin' These" because we had someone getting thrown out of a window in a joking sort of way. It wasn't the first time that sort of thing had been done in a video, and it's been done many times since then, but we edited it out and sent it back to them. And they still said, "No, we still can't air this. We don't like to see things, like, where you're taking things out of the Rockefeller Mansion and distributing them on the street. We don't like the ideas that it might be giving people. It might cause burglaries," or whatever. And, you know, this is The Box.
O: The station that Luke built.
BR: Yeah, and at that point, we were through with it, but the label said, "Look, we'll do like one of Prince's videos, where we'll just print the lyrics on the screen." And they said, "No, we think the political ideas will incite unrest." That was their written statement to the label. And through that, they were able to get BET to lower their rotation of that song. Then, when we had "Fat Cats, Bigger Fish," it was released around the same time [Notorious B.I.G.'s] "Big Poppa" was out, and they had a pick-pocketing scene in that. We had a pick-pocketing scene in our video, but our video wasn't shown because of the pick-pocketing scene. We had to take the pick-pocketing scene out of our video. So, definitely, I think we're more heavily scrutinized because of our politics. It's like, "Oh, they're saying something; let's make things as hard as possible for them." A radio station in Los Angeles told us something similar when we brought them "Fat Cats, Bigger Fish." They said, "No, it's too political. People won't like it." But we somehow managed to get it put on one time in the morning, and they ended up getting requests for it all day. And we're not a local band, but they kept getting requests for it, and it ended up being their number-one song. So, our politics don't cause problems with the people who are buying our albums, but it does cause problems as far as getting our message out. EMI bought Genocide & Juice from Wild Pitch for $500,000 while it was climbing the charts, just to shelve it. EMI wanted to get rid of Wild Pitch, but the powers that be at EMI were concerned that they could lose their jobs if something they had on that label were to go on and become successful.
O: So you felt like they sort of sabotaged Genocide & Juice?
BR: Yeah. They cut ties with Wild Pitch and let them keep all their albums, but they bought Genocide & Juice for $500,000. We got excited, thinking, "Wow, they really want to exploit us. They're gonna put it out there and really try to make some money off of it." But when we called them up a few days later, they said to us, "We're not currently working on that project." It could have been because of the whole Wild Pitch thing, or it could have been just because of what we were talking about. You'd think they'd want to make their money back, but for some reason, it seemed like they just didn't want to.
O: Is that why you signed with an independent label for Steal This Album?
BR: What that was about was I wanted to do some stuff that was different from what I had done before, and I knew the people who ran Dogday. They were able to offer me a 50/50 deal, so that was cool with me. If we sell less than half of what the last album sold, I can still make a lot more money, which was sort of the motivation behind that.
O: And it must be nice to know that if you end up selling a whole lot of albums, you're not just making a lot of money for some huge corporation.
BR: If it makes a lot of money, the corporations will still get their money through the distribution and the chain stores. They just won't make as much directly.
O: How do you think the rap world has changed since you put out Genocide & Juice?
BR: I've actually been thinking a lot about that, and I have a couple of theories about some of the more extreme changes. When we put out Genocide & Juice, there were very few hip-hop shows going on. Very few. In any city. Now, it's a lot easier to have shows but, the thing is, a lot of these shows are in college towns. In a lot of the cities that are mainly black, hip-hop shows have been outlawed. Here in Oakland, hip-hop shows are basically outlawed. In a lot of the black cities in California, the city council or whatever won't allow hip-hop shows. But at the same time, you're seeing more hip-hop shows, either in college towns or at clubs that traditionally feature alternative-rock bands. This is something going on in the real world, and it has a lot to do with the police. If you have a show that a lot of black people are attending, a lot of times the police are going to shut it down. There have been hip-hop shows here in San Francisco where they don't pass out flyers in places where there are a lot of black people. It's something that's sort of the fault of both the promoters and the police. The police are basically saying, "If you're gonna have a show that a lot of black people are going to attend, we're going to shut it down because we're afraid of them." So promoters, who care more about making money than preserving what hip hop is all about, are like, "Cool, we'll just do this in the suburbs." It's been sort of a contradiction, because it's good for the artists, but a lot of people don't want to acknowledge not only that racism exists, but that it's actually shaping the world. It's affecting the job market, it's affecting the economy, and it's shaping the way hip-hop shows happen. The reason I don't think this whole phenomenon is being talked about in, like, The Source or Rap Pages, a magazine I actually like a little bit better, is that there's always been this false sense that police are shutting down hip-hop shows because they're hip hop. Like they're doing it because they don't like the sound of the kick or the snare. But the reason they're shutting these shows down is because they involve people of color, and the police have always been racist. Not that they don't shut down other shows, but they shut down shows with black performers far more often than they do shows with white performers or rock bands.
O: Are you going to tour behind Steal This Album?
BR: Hopefully. You know, if anyone's reading this article, we're trying to get shows wherever, whenever we can. We're gonna play wherever people want to see us. We want people to hear our music. Even though, when I'm rapping, I'm generally rapping about situations that have to do with the black community, I'm also a revolutionary, I'm an activist, I'm a Communist, and I'm an internationalist. I think the whole working class has to have a revolution and overthrow the ruling class. That's my end analysis. So I'm talking about things that I see, but they should have universal meaning with anyone who's in the working class because they're having the same experiences. I want everyone to hear what I have to say. My message can go to anyone, and hopefully, I can help inspire people to become involved with movements to enact positive economic change. But we have to deal with these big booking agencies that are too big-time to have anything to do with us.
O: So you're trying to buck the system.
BR: Yeah. I'm booking my own tour. We're trying to set up some shows in college clubs, because I know that a lot of colleges have funding to bring groups in. We have a full band; we perform for an hour and a half. It's a fun show. We want to get out there and do our thing. Aside from videos, I think our shows are our biggest promotional tool. Right now, we've got some great musicians. Our drummer used to tour with Don Cherry. His name is Josh Jones. We've got this guy on guitar named Bernard, who's got an album out on Verve Records; he's a jazz guitarist, but he's playing our stuff. We play an hour and a half of Coup music. It's an hour and a half of our stuff that we make into party music.
O: In a lot of your music, you rap explicitly about poverty and the various different elements of poverty. That in and of itself seems to be a response to the sort of crass consumerism and materialism you see in a lot of hip hop today. Were you consciously thinking about that when you were writing this album?
BR: I don't think I was trying to consciously contradict those images, but I think I was consciously trying to reflect what was going on. I want my music to draw inspiration from what's happening in the world, and I think that a lot of [commercial hip-hop] songs—not all of them, but a lot of them—are based on fantasy. Not that it's not true for the artists who are performing, but when people listen to them, it's fantasy because it doesn't reflect what they're going through. So it's a problem. You end up having music that people don't feel down deep in their heart. They're not saying, "Man, this is about me. This is about where I've been and what I've been through." I think music is at its ultimate when people feel like it almost comes from them. They know that somebody else is doing it, but they're like, "Man, I really connected with that song." I don't think that kind of music is being made, because you have rappers whose music is all about how they have so much more than you. People are being talked down to. That's what gets me. Like, for instance, I was reading a review of Lauryn Hill where people were saying that she was preachy because she was talking about problems that were going on. But really, a lot of these other songs are being preachy in that they're saying, "You're stupid because you don't have as much as me." Things didn't used to be like that. In hip hop, even when people bragged about how much they had, they still didn't talk down to the listener. They didn't say, "You're weak, you're dumb." And now there are songs that literally say that. I think music like that is eventually just going to turn people off. Personally, I just want to talk about things that I'm going through.
O: Do you think rap music has grown more apolitical over the last couple of years?
BR: Yes, in that I think there are fewer acts that are known that are trying to use their music to help form some sort of a movement to help people change the things around them. But I think a lot of stuff that does speak to what people are going through gets passed up because people dismiss it as "gangsta" rap. A lot of the stuff that's called "positive" is just stuff that's abstract, or just battle rhymes. There are a lot of rappers out there who get called positive just because of their rap style, and not because of the content of their lyrics. Like, for example, Juvenile's current song ["Ha!"] gets described as negative, but it's one of the most political songs out right now. When people hear that he has a Southern accent, or they hear that he has beefs, they dismiss him as gangsta rap. The same thing happened when Ice Cube came out around the same time Black Sheep came out. Black Sheep was called positive while Ice Cube was called negative. Black Sheep was talking about macking women and shooting people, and they were considered positive because of their rap style. And while there were definitely problems with Ice Cube's album, it was one of the most revolutionary albums to have come out. The same thing with DMX. No one puts the words "gangsta rap" and DMX together, because he's from New York. So even though he's not considered positive, he's not considered as negative as gangsta rap either. So there's a lot of stuff that gets pushed to the side that has a lot of political content to it. When we came out with "Not Yet Free" as our first single, a lot of people dismissed us as gangsta rap just because of where we were from.
O: Do you think people dismiss a lot of rap music just because it's from the West Coast?
BR: Possibly. I think a lot of writers who end up classifying music dismiss stuff that comes from the West Coast. A lot of the stuff that is classified as gangsta has less killing in it than Mobb Deep or DMX.
O: How do you think the death of Tupac Shakur affected the rap world?
BR: I think it touched a lot of people. I think one of the reasons people responded to his music is because he was in touch with his own feelings and his own emotions. He mastered that. He could talk about things in a way that made people cry. That's an art form in and of itself. I mean, a lot of people can say witty or irreverent things, but not everyone can touch people on an emotional level. More than anything else, that's what got people. When people say that he was "real," they're talking about the songs that touched people where they were, that spoke to them. I think his death affected people in that there are a lot of people who try to imitate his vocal style, but I think they're trying to capture the wrong thing.
O: What do you think of Chuck D's assertion that Tupac is still alive?
BR: Well, I know Tupac's mother, so I know that he's not still alive.
O: Speaking of Chuck D, what do you think of Public Enemy?
BR: Public Enemy inspired me. I remember I bought their first album just because they had on berets and they were in the basement. I remember thinking, "This is the shit." Unfortunately, when they and X-Clan came out, a lot of people started wearing African medallions and stuff, but there wasn't a material movement to go along with that. Political music, to be viable, has to have a movement to go along with it. If you're wearing the clothes and memorizing the lyrics, but you go home and you don't have anything in the refrigerator, you're gonna say, "This music doesn't have anything to do with the material world." So people will latch on to other ideas that actually do affect them in the real world. That's why the movement that I would like to align myself with is a movement that is about bettering your standard of living and getting paid, but also about a better way of getting paid, about getting paid together, and about enacting real, lasting change.
For information on how to book The Coup, or where to buy Steal This Album, visit www.illcrew.com/thecoup, or write to Dogday Records, 4432 Telegraph Ave., Box 72, Oakland, CA 94609.