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Boots Riley: “One of the problems, with political movements or music, is the fact we don’t think we matter”

Boots Riley: “One of the problems, with political movements or music, is the fact we don’t think we matter”

Boots Riley, from the Coup, is a true MC. He always manages to grab your attention, whether it’s on record, during a show, or discussing with him. Because he’s a rapper who speaks with power and he’s also an organizer who acts with power. As this year marks the 20th anniversary of his group’s first album “Kill my landlord”, and the 2nd anniversary of the occupy movement in which he was involved from his hometown, Oakland, La Voix du HipHop sat down with him, in Paris, while he was on tour promoting The coup latest album, “Sorry to bother you”.
How MC Hammer’s success (and also Digital Underground and Too Short ones) helped him get signed, HipHop activist Vs organizer, the lure of black capitalism, the criminalization of black cultures, the shutdown of Oakland Port and its meaning, but also The Coup’s strategy to be heard and evolve (among other topics), Boots Riley provided us with some useful, entertaining and pertinent food for thought. In the true spirit of the MC.


Did you have the thought or the ambition of being a rapper when you would grow up, like kids of today?
No. When I was 12, I wanted to do something Big. I think I wanted to be like Prince or I wanted to be on TV. And to me, what I knew was important was what was on TV.
Growing up as a child you learn about the terrible things in the world but you learn about them in a way that says  there’s no change. You learn about them with no sense of power, no sense of your own agenda in that world, except for maybe you could escape. You have the power to make yourself better and to guard yourself from that…
By  the time I turned 14, I joined a revolutionary and political organization. I started learning that the way the world is, it is able to be manipulated by the people, not just by the few who are in power. I understood there were certain steps I needed to take to be effective in this possible future that may happen. I was learning, not only things that were happening but also dialectical materialism, the idea that things happen for a material reason, and also that things always change. And that what you do has an effect how those things change. All these learnings gave me a sense of power and made me feel like I was doing something important. Like, “Ok, you don’t have to be on TV to be important, you don’t have to be on TV to matter…”

What led you into HipHop?
Everybody was rapping at school, it was just something you did like playing basketball or baseball. Lot of times, it was just people beating on the table and then it’s your turn! And at that time I was stealing my raps from a very good rapper named Schoolly D. I was saying his rhymes and people would be like oh shit!! In my town, nobody knew Schoolly D.
Then, since I was involved in organizing rallies, I was trying to get a couple of my friends to come. I was telling them that if they come to the rally, they could get on the mic and rap, there will be hundreds of people, and it will be like a rap show. My friend Johnny was like, ok, I’m only doing this if you’re my hype-man. So I became his hype-man. That’s how I got started… And at that time, we had the dream he would get a record deal. But his idea of what a record was a freestyle. I mean, we thought all records were freestyle and that all the albums we heard was like somebody just got in the booth and started rapping and that it was easy. Then, I started asking around about the techniques to master how to do it actually. From there I was learning and practicing… And  my school was doing a play called “Eastside story”, that was a take-off of Westside story which was a take-off of Romeo and Juliet. They wanted to make it a rap musical play and I wrote all the raps for it. I was actually in the play and nobody booed the raps. So I was like wooah, I can do it! And for the record, the girl who was playing the opposite me in that play was Hiep Thi Le who ended up being a star in an Oliver Stone movie’s “Heaven & earth”.

How did you end up signing with Stud Fine’s Wild Pitch records, which at that time was an east-coast oriented rap music label with Main Source, UMCs, Chill Rob G, Lord Finesse, Gangstarr, etc.. For us, as fans, it was a huge powerhouse…
First of all, at that time, in the early 90s, MC Hammer, Digital Underground and Too Short went multiplatinum. And the record industry works like this: You got a blonde girl sing and you go multiplatinum, then every record label has 50 blonde girls in their roster. So because of these three artists, every record label had to have somebody from Oakland or from the Bay area.
Once I decided to do this rap thing seriously, because of political organizing, I knew how to launch a campaign, I knew how to plaster an area with a poster or an idea, or how to go to door to door. So we applied that to the music. We had an EP, and we put posters everywhere in Oakland. The EP was available at this independent record store in Oakland and I guess basically the record label, Wild Pitch, went in that record store and asked who were the top 3 selling local artists. And it was us, The Coup, E-40 and a guy named Dangerous Dame. Dangerous Dame has just come off a major label record deal, he wanted a gang of money… E-40 and the click? they had other income sources. So we were just the cheapest one of the 3.
And there’s another reason we got signed. Stu Fine, the owner of Wild Pitch, is a great A&R person and a terrible business person. So he signed stuff that he didn’t know how to make money on, just because he liked them. The way he got into this business actually is that He had been first in the music industry in the 70s and hen he had to quit to do baseball management or something like that. He was walking down the street and there was a LL Cool J concert, he walked in and decided to stop with the baseball stuff and start a HipHop label that day. So he decided he would just sign things he liked… So he had people like Gangstarr, he hooked up with Guru and them, he hooked up with DJ Premier, who was in Texas, and put them together. But the point is most people wouldn’t even sign them and put them out, same thing with The Coup. We’ve been shopping stuff, nobody was interested. Stu signed us just because he liked us, but he didn’t have any idea on how to market us at that time. You know Gangstarr didn’t really sell records until they went to somebody else… Same thing with Lord Finesse… He was signing people nobody else would sign. And if Stu was a good businessman, he wouldn’t have signed any of us.

You’ve been on a major label. You’ve been in independent label. What are the pros and cons of being independent, today. Especially when you do the type of music you do?
It’s all capitalism at the end of the day. The idea of independent capitalism that is better than corporate capitalism is bullshit. Slave masters were independent capitalists. It’s not necessarily better. It’s not necessarily worse.
Sometimes, when you have a small label, you can get more attention, but you don’t get as much coverage… Epitaph records for “Pick a bigger weapon”, for instance, was the best experience. The same label 6 years later, as music industry changed, had different tactics and strategies, and I felt that they didn’t have as much faith in our record. It’s not their fault. That’s part of the reason, a small part, that is, not so many people who like the Coup know the new album, “Sorry to bother you”. Anyway, I don’t think there’s any formula to our type of music.
The really small independent label I was on for “Steal this album”, they still owe me 60 thousand dollars. They stole it…

Talking about “Steal this album”, there is a lot of misunderstanding about “Me & Jesus the pimp”… Personally, I saw it as a critic of black capitalism, as it repeats the same violence to the same people.. Could you elaborate on this one. What’s the message?
Actually there’s quite a few messages. The main idea, to me, is Jesus the Pimp, symbolizes the idea that we can be free by black capitalism & black entrepreneurship. You know the things people get caught up in their struggle, for some sense of power in their life.
But first and foremost, I wanted to write a song about sexism. I started to realize that how sexism (that is taught to women) actually affects men’s lives in terrible ways. So in that song, I wanted to talk about that.
I went to film school, I always liked to tell stories, I liked to write descriptive things, and also after “Fat cats & bigger fish”, I started seeing people thought I had a talent for that, so I decided to write another story song…
The choice of title? Before I was on internet a lot, I had just remembered there was a revolution in Grenada in 1979. So I was like I’m going to use that for title, because it was a social revolution.

I want to address “fuck a perm”… I mean, in the early 90s, lots of black folks had jheri curls, especially on the west coast… Weren’t you dissing people who could have been fans of your music?
Back then I had natural hair and people were criticizing it like ‘what you’re doing with your nappy ass hair!’. I wrote that song as a response to the critics about my hair. Also, I think at that time I was at San Francisco State University where there were folks who changed their names with stuff that meant King or Queen. So I was influenced by the culture around and it did have an effect on my writing. A lot of those who considered themselves as revolutionary or conscious were preachy, like you need to change yourself…
Now, you said lots of people had jheri curls back then. Actually they didn’t  so much by the time the song came out in 1993. Even Ice Cube had cut his curls…And to get back to the fans, here’s an interesting story. We were on tour promoting “Kill my landlord” and we went to Milwaukee. Milwaukee in 1993, stylistically, fashion-wise, looked like Oakland in 1986. We were on the stage performing and I remember E-roc saying to me, don’t do “fuck a perm”. We didn’t do it as it was obvious 90% of the crowd had curls. It wasn’t about politics, it was just style. Then we got out to sign autographs, and a group of dudes walked by and they were like “Hey Coup” – [because of a lot of people called us “Coup”], “Hey Coup, fuck a perm… Fuck you”. And they kept walking and got into their car. And they were just sitting there, not so far from us.
Then we left the venue, and they followed us, bumping the whole album loud in their car and they kept yelling “fuck a perm”. And they all had curls… They really seemed hurt. But they were bumping the album. We went to different clubs, they were still following us… So it became clear there are lots of things on the album those dudes could relate to, but the song made about appearances w as the one that touched them. And that wasn’t even the intention of the song, as if the appearance was what was all about. And things are still that way today. We had all these articles about young people sagging their pants, etc.

So you say, the problem is not how we look like nor our culture…
For years after the civil right & black power movements, we’ve been endoctrined by the media that told us the problem wasn’t the system, but the problem is people being lazy, irresponsible, savage, etc. And some of black intellectuals response to this was chiming and said yeah, but it’s because of these culture conditions: Which was we don’t know ourselves so therefore we’re lazy, violent, etc. But the reality is: That’s bullshit.
We’re so much endoctrined that what we actually see black people as dangerous, ignorant, savage. They might be black people who are dealing with drugs, yes because that’s what exists in all our society. There might be like one person hustling and doing nothing, yeah, but you got that all over the world. The problem is that Black culture has been criminalized so they look to some other culture that doesn’t exist right there to say that’s what it should be. But then afterwards, that culture will be criminalized as well… It really stems from people running away from having class analysis.
Culture in everything is dictated from how people survive. From the beginning of the humanity, things have been organized for survival. In this system, that survival has to do with labor and economics. You work for money to survive. There can’t be new paradigm on how to look at addressing that problem. But until you do, you end up blaming the people…

How would you define yourself: An activist? A HipHop activist?
I wouldn’t call myself as a HipHop activist or activist. The activist , to me, is someone who moves from event to event, like a rally or a demonstration, which is kinda what’s being pushed as opposed to an organizer which has to do with more long term campaigns, with building something. I’m an organizer.
HipHop activism is a term that came about in the early 1990s. There was a bunch of us who wanted to see the landscape of political organizing change. It was boring at that time. The idea was : Trying to make this thing (political organizing) more artistic. And in the early 1990s, we had set up this thing called HipHop edutainment concert with the Mau Mau Rhythm Collective. And a few years later, people who were in the non-profit organizations picked up on stuff like this (on what we were doing) and started selling it to foundations to get money. Like HipHop activism is the new thing.
You had these non profit organizations that would come at you like ‘we want you to come and sit at this roundtable discussion. We’ll pay you a thousand dollars, come over here”. I go there it’s like a closed door discussion about political organizing… And then they take pictures of me, use it in a flyer or brochure, and after that, they’re like “we do HipHop organizing, give us some money, look we even got Boots Riley involved”… So, many of these non profit organizations make 10s of thousands or hundred of thousands dollars off of that and say that I’m part of these things.

It was on your Facebook page: Oakland Port, December 2nd, 2011. We did it. What does the shutdown of Oakland port mean to you?
A lot of the folks in non-profit organizations in Oakland are politically radical and revolutionary. But they have a job. And some of them in these organizations are not necessarily politically radical revolutionaries, some of them are liberal progressives, and they’ve been the ones doing certain struggles that stayed away from economic wages struggles. They’ve been the ones doing stuff around “Stopping the violence”. We gotta stop the violence in our community, ok. But they do not address the fact violence comes out of the fact there’s an illegal business that’s happening that needs violence to regulate  it. This business needs violence to regulate. You can’t come in and just take the money without fear of the police coming and locking you up. How do you eliminate the need for that illegal business? When you have jobs that pay decently. When people have jobs with decent wages, they’re going to be involved in that job, instead of the illegal business and the violence associated with it… But that’s too much, like class struggle, for certain folks. Especially for foundations, what they talk about is limited. That being said, some of those political organizations, not only non-profit ones, don’t have any base in black communities or in communities of color. Because they’re not handling what these people are doing on their everyday life which is trying to put some food on the table. And some people are like “Fuck marching on the streets, it’s not doing anything…”

We managed to achieve that shutdown because people saw it as something possible, as an economic blow to the system and as a way to have some economic leverage. That’s why people came out and drove for that.
Also we announced that at the exact right time… A few days earlier, a young white ex-marine from Occupy Oakland got shot in the face by the police.. So because it came out he was an ex-marine, a young white guy and also because it was caught on video, it blew up all over the place… people kept coming to the park Occupy Oakland demonstrators were occupying, and police kept coming back… And we knew it costed the city millions of dollars, so they couldn’t sustain doing that… So we put it out there, that we would just keep coming back, they’re gonna spend tens of millions of dollars, til they give us the park back. So they gave us the park, they opened it up, there were thousands medias from all over the world there.. So the idea of many of the organizers was like we got this world stage right now, let’s take it up one notch. It was a 3 thousand people meeting. 3 thousand people voted to have a general strike in one week from then. So the fact we didn’t say from 3 months from that, but one week, which seemed crazy for me at that time, most of us didn’t even think that would happen. We were just like we would put the call out there, put the idea that economic leverage can do something. People were like “Hell, yeah!” and it was all up in the media. And since it was connected to all the occupy movements in other cities, it made people felt like it had more power as well.

One of the problems with political movements or anything, even music, is the fact we don’t think we matter. Like you have a local rapper, a local band, and they might be really good to you, but you know they are only known in your city, you’re like “they’re only local”, and people don’t like “local”. Because if it’s only local, it can’t be that good. That’s what happened to us too. All of sudden when people from our city started seeing people from other cities liked us, they were “oh, they must be good”. Because people of other cities are better than me. That’s how we started getting a big local group of followers. Similar with this movement, people see that it is attached to something bigger. They feel they have more chance to win. So 50 thousand people came out and shut down the port.
The outcome of it? 3 years ago, a labor contract would come up and the Union wouldn’t even fight it. Workers would just lose their benefits and everything… Right now, what’s happening in Oakland is the BART workers and the train operators are on strike, the librarians are on strike. Other cities workers are striking, they’re striking and are supporting each other. That wouldn’t have happened in any other time. That’s illegal. But we put this tactic on the table. Because that’s the only way things are gonna be done, through solidarity strikes…

HipHop (especially through videos and records) plays a big role in shaping the views and opinions of millions of people worldwide when it comes to the representations of Black (youth) life and experience. The Coup is known worldwide, today. How do you deal with these issues of representation black lives and experiences in front of the world with your music and now with the movie “Sorry to bother you”?
There are plenty of mafia shows on TV all the time, and people are not scared of Italian people all over the world… Most of those representations and images of black people come from portrayals of news medias and the political of what happens in a city and why it happens.
The image of black people that people put out or that artists put out is just the image that they are talked too or that they see on the news. It’s not necessarily the image that comes from what they know.. See, you could live in a city and have most of your information about that city given to you by the news. And often that’s the case, and you make certain assumptions and logic based on the some of these basic facts you hear on the news.
And also what is being said on some of those songs is exactly what they are taught about what the world is supposed to be about in school. They are taught that if you have money, it’s because you work hard, be smart about it, and figure out how to hustle… If you don’t have money, it means it’s on you, it’s not the system. So, that leads to everything else.
Now, whether people are afraid or not of the image of black people, has to do with how they categorize people. There’s a TV show called Dexter, about a blonde white guy who is a mass-murderer, he’s the hero of the show because he only kills the bad people. Nobody is afraid of blonde white guys. So, it’s not just videos. It’s everything, the news, the movies. We hear on the news, a random shooting happened. NO.You can explain clearly, like this is the dope game, there are no jobs paying 12 dollar/per hour in the area, it’s not random. It happens because of these things… You have non profit organization that would be like we need to stop the violence and talk about interpersonal communication. But it’s not about that. If you talk to people from these organizations, they admit it’s not about that, they admit the solution is having jobs that pay more. The question is how to get that? You only get that through making a radical militant mass movement. It’s a hard thing to do and who wants to spend their life doing that? But we have no choice.

I remember Digable Planets saying that they capitalized on their pop success (Reachin’) to put out their master plan into action (Blowout combs) which, lyrically, kinda hit as hard as any PE album HipHop. When you deal with Art & Revolution like you, is there any strategy to adopt to get your message heard?
It must be a very long strategy because I’ve been doing this for a long time… More seriously, I have strategies, the question is whether they work or not. I had a strategy with “Steal this album”, back in 1998. But at that time, there were no downloading. So back then, if you steal an album from a store, that store still has to pay for the album. We had a lot of fans, a lot more fans than those who were represented by record sales. So for instance, for me, besides an Ice Cube album, every album I ever had was dubbed on cassette tapes. One person would get an album and we would dub it, that’s how it went. HipHop when it was just in the black communities didn’t even go gold. A lot of people were listening to it, but it wasn’t what you were spending your money on.
So “Steal this album” was based on the idea that what if you have 3 millions of fans, but your 3 millions of fans are among the brokest people on earth and someone else has hundred thousand fans, but those fans are wealthier. It’s gonna look like more people like that person.  It’s gonna change how people make records. So here’s the solution: Steal this album.

What’s the coup business plan today?
Today, touring is our main way of promotion, we can’t really rely on anything else. We have some fans who are more well-known, so we try to enlist them to help us. We have for example, Patton Oswalt, who is a well-known comedian in the USA. He made recently (In june 2013) a video doing an interpretation of “Magic Clap”. We’re trying to get Dave Chappelle… So that’s one of the strategies. I think I’m also going to do sort of political comedy talk shows, so I also could stay at home, I need to.

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