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Twin Town High (vol. 8)
The Coup Begins At Home
Wednesday 05 February @ 14:18:55
by Robert Czernik
Boots Riley is the mouthpiece for the Radical Hip-Hop band The Coup. Since releasing their first album “Kill My Landlord” in 1993, The Coup have carried on the “raptivism” tradition started by groups like KRS-One and Public Enemy. Their newest album, “Party Music” was set to be released on November 6, 2001. It’s full of deeply funky, humane, soulful music. The original cover art was pulled after September 11, because it portrayed Boots and Pam the Funkstress blowing up the World Trade Center. Boots recently talked with me about music, politics and that weird Minnesota phenomenon known as Prince.
Pulse: Tell me about Prince. I read somewhere you started doing music cause of Prince.
Boots Riley: (Laughs) Well I don’t know if because of him, but I definitely wanted to be like him. I really liked his music a lot and wanted to be, when I was like 12, really wanted to be a rock star like Prince. With the guitar you know? That was my first idea of music, that it makes you famous, it makes everybody love you. I think that’s related to the idea of everybody really wanting their life to mean something. That’s what we’re all striving for, meaning in our life, like what are we here for? And some people answer that by saying “Okay, I’m gonna make some music that everybody loves, that means I’m important, that means I have a function.” I think with me, that’s part of why I do music, but that’s also part of why I want to be part of making change in the world. That’s my way of being. I talk about it in the song “Heaven Tonight.”
Let me back up. At one point I stopped, when I got politically active, I just wanted to be involved in music for selfish reasons, not to make the music, but because I wanted people to like my stuff and wanted to be famous. I realized that what I’m doing, being involved in the community and trying to change the world is that same thing. I want my life to mean some thing. Whether people know my name or not is a whole different thing. I want there to have been a reason I’m on this planet. So organizing, changing the way the system is, stopping exploitation, stopping oppression, if I make headway doing that, even if know one knows my name or my face, I will have affected the generations to come, until infinity. I will have affected the way the world is moving, and therefore my being here has an impact for eternity.
P: So you went in a better direction?
BR: I think it’s a similar direction I came to realize that the need is similar. And that’s part of the struggle. We’re all cogs in the machine; we’re all cogs in the Capitalist system, this machine. We want power, we want to have something to do with our lives. Many times that’s expressed to us that the only way to that is to get on TV. We all go to work, go to school, we come home and watch TV and those are the people that we see, but the rest of it isn’t glamorized. What we need to do is make it so that people do have power and say in their lives and do feel that their life is meaningful. They don’t have to be a rapper or a singer or feel like they are leading a march of twenty thousand people in order to, first, feel like their life is worth something, and that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about power. We talk about making important decisions in our lives and the lives of the people that we love.
P: I know you have political leanings where you describe yourself as a communist. How did you go from wanting to be the next Prince to being Boots Riley, radical hip-hopper?
BR: Early on with the whole Prince type thing, I started getting involved in political organizing through youth organizers who came to my door with a van full of girls that were my age—said, “hey we’re gonna go to this march and then afterwards we’re gonna all go to the beach, you wanna come?” Of course, afterwards, through things like that I started becoming politically involved—but like I said, I made this false dichotomy between organizing and art because of the way that I thought about the art. The way that I thought about it as being selfish—and wanted to be this famous person. Later on, through maturity and organizing and realizing what the basis of what the struggling was about. That this was about wanting meaning in our lives—about wanting meaning in my life and that they were really connected. I remember, early on, when I was kind of being recruited to be a youth organizer. I remember somebody saying, “hey, what do you guys think about all this communism and socialism that they keep talking about?” And I was like, “yeah, it sounds like a good idea to me but I can never be a communist because I want to be famous.” (laughs) I remember that that was like my first statement to a group of people about any sort of political leanings.
P: How old were you?
BR: I was probably like thirteen, fourteen maybe. Yeah, I was about fourteen. Soon after that, I became an organizer and started doing these summer projects working on building farm workers unions. Down around Delano and Bakersfield, in central California. A lot of the lessens from that and the analysis of what was going on with the growers and the workers there allowed me to make the same sort of analysis on what was going on in Oakland. I came back and little by little I became an organizer and through doing different things in high schools it kind of catapulted me into a leadership position of, not just the organization I was in, but just around the high schools—because like I led this walkout that was real successful where twenty two hundred out of twenty five hundred students walked out and went and took over the school board offices and we won a victory for what we were fighting for that day. Different things like that put me in almost a false leadership position, it’s not false, but I was learning as I was going and I was also rapping—and I didn’t put the two things together until later on during high school, that the art could be used for organizing.
P: How did you get hooked up with Pam?
BR: We had another DJ at first, for our first EP, called DJ-O, and he just was coming to the studio drunk all the time, not being able to do his thing. Missing studio time, missing shows and missing shows back at that time when it was just me, E rock and the DJ—that meant that we didn’t have any music. It was real bad. Pam was Deejaying at a lot of different events. We’d see her deejaying and scratching. A matter of fact, she was scratching for the Fear, back in the day and another group called Funk Lab All-stars. As a matter of fact, they did a video and were signed and had a video on BET before she was even in the cool, so if they ever find that they can see Pam before she was in the cool. We just kind of approached her—as a matter of fact, it was at 2-PAC’s record release party. She was deejaying and I was like, “look, you need to hook up with us, we’re serious and bla bla bla this and that.” So, she came through and we recruited her basically—and stole her away from other groups. That was like early ’91.
P: What did you do in the couple of years between “Steal This Album” and ‘Party Music”?
BR: Just basically toured and told the label (75 Ark) that we’d have the new album finished next week. I did that for about a year. (laughs)
Original cover of Party Music
P: Want to tell me about the symbolism of the original cover art (for Party Music)?
BR: I had a whole different album cover at this first. This was actually the cheap album cover. I wanted something that symbolizes that our music is destroying capitalism. The photographer was like “Okay let’s have you in front of the White House blowing it up”. I thought that had been done thousands of times, that it was cliché to blow up the White House. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that’s were the seat of power is. So that wouldn’t have been clear with my politics. . So then we thought let’s have us blowing up Wall Street.
Well have me with a drum machine or something as the detonator. I saw the bass tuner and said let’s use that, since a heavy part of our music is bass, bass lines, and funk. And have Pam holding the wand, to symbolize that our music is destroying capitalism, symbolized by the financial district. We went down there and I realized that nobody would know what these buildings are on Wall Street, except for people that live In New York. They’re not going to get what the idea is. So what’s a better symbol than Wall Street? The corporations, the big banks, global finance. What better symbol of capitalism than the World Trade Center? So we did it and the publicist sends out different photos, headshots, cover art, to the publications so they can choose what they want to use. 80% of the places chose the album cover art. Everyone’s like Hey, best album cover this year, great artwork, and so on. That’s why it got used, and printed in a bunch of magazines before September 11th.
P: You’re the rare artist that appears in both the Washington Post and the Revolutionary worker. Do you find it ironic that “Party Music” was raved about by the corporate media and yet it is an attack upon mainstream institutions?
BR: Well it was an attack upon capitalism, and nobody thinks that they’re a part of capitalism, right? You and I are part of capitalism, even though we say “Hey I’m the person working against it”. That’s the case with everyone. There are very few people who are for capitalism. A lot of these writers, many of them may even agree with what I say. That’s how capitalism works. We all silently go along with it. (So much of what I say in my lyrics and in my politics) The myth is that the world disagrees with everybody having their fair share. The truth is, even middle America, the white suburbs, people believe the world should fairer than it is. People believe that capitalism shouldn’t exploit people in this way. It’s just that we’re told that there’s no way to change that. It’s like when Rage Against The Machine, I don’t know if you heard this’ but when Michael Moore directed that RATM video on Wall Street. It was guerrilla filmmaking and they just wanted to see what kind of thing they could get. So supposedly they got this crowd of 200 Wall Street workers in suits coming out and chanting “Suits for Rage!, Suits For Rage” (Laughs)
P: Do you think “Kill My Landlord” and “Genocide and Juice” were overlooked because the early ‘90s was the era of gangster rap?
BR: With our first two albums we weren’t worried about bad reviews, we were worried about getting reviewed at all. Hip-Hop at the time, the way some of these magazines would only write about it was if it was something that was brought to somebody by a high-powered publicist. The ones who the labels were spending loads of money on. So very principled, respectable reviewers would only be reviewing the stuff the labels pushed. With us, we were coming from a strange place. We didn’t fit any of these categories. You know writers would say we sound real West Coat, and that the lyrics didn’t match that as far as they were concerned. When our first single, “Not Yet Free” was issued, we got a lot of reviews, and a few that said and I don’t know if you know the song, but in no way can it be mistaken for gangster rap, and like 5 of these reviews said it was more gangster rap from Oakland or more West Coast gangster rap. And they downed it for that. I was mad, but that’s what helped us out later, was people read it and said “More gangster rap? For Real? Let me go get that”. So we had a crowd that was a lot different. Hip-Hop was a lot different, as far as who would come out to shows. Our crowd was considered to be by police and everyone else as too rowdy. Promoters would say there were too many fights. There wouldn’t be, it was because we were still bringing a black crowd to hip-hop shows. And that’s because we were labeled as gangster rap. It wasn’t until after ‘Steal This Album” that people went back and starting giving good reviews to “Genocide & Juice”. I think we got overlooked in a lot of ways, not just because of what was popular, but because mainstream magazines like Rolling stone didn’t write about hip-hop unless you were Ice Cube.
P: Who are your musical influences?
BR: Prince. A lot of down and dirty blues like Muddy Waters. Parliament. Al Greene. Stevie Wonder. I get into a lot of that. I like certain songwriters. It’s all over the board. Tell you the truth I really don’t like that much jazz. Rock ,Soul, Funk. I really like soulful music. I listen to Brazilian music, Afro beat like Fela. The Clash, ‘80s British Invasion, Gary Neuman. Dollar Brand The jazz I like is the more melodic stuff. South African. A lot of the stuff I end up liking sounds real poppy. I like the big open chords and major riffs.
P: Who do consider your contemporaries? Bands like dead prez?
BR: Their are few people out there trying to do the same thing we are doing. There e are e people that are coming up that are still kinda in training. There’s a conflict between being an organizer and being an artist. Sometimes one takes over the other, luckly I’ve been able to let the artist side over step the organizer side. That’s helped my art a lot. It’s %@!#$&ed up other things, but it’s helped the art, which makes people want to listen to it. That’s one thing I think dead prez does to a certain extent. There are a lot of people with their hearts in the right place, but they haven’t mastered their idiom. They haven’t mastered their art form. It might not come across as good. It might have the right politics; it needs development in the art form. My political leanings, the discipline I got from being in organizations, helped me to be self critical of myself when I was starting. So I realized when I started out that my music was %@!#$&, and I would get better at it. I learned how to listen to peoples comments about my work, how to ask the right questions. Having a self-critical outlook, and applying dialectical materialism to my process of growing as an artist. It helped me out a lot. In saying that, there are a lot of artist who wouldn’t call themselves revolutionaries, who I think do similar things, just haven’t had the same political experiences that I've had. There are a lot of people that put good commentary in their stuff that is helpful and very progressive. From Nas to sometimes even someone like Trick Daddy. Even Juvenile when he came out with “High”, really had some good commentary, some good comments about the world and how the system works. People overlooked it ‘cause it was bounce music. There’s a lot of music coming out of the South that’s really progressive and has some political things to say about the world. People over look it ‘cause of the genre.
P: How did you get involved with the Blood Money show and the Student Anti-war conference?
BR: They just called me up and I was available. I like performing at First Avenue, you know why.
I wanted to come through again.
P: Visited Paisley Park?
P: Maybe this time.
BR: Maybe Prince will come to the show.
P: You might not see him, he’s short. Speaking of First Avenue, last year you swung through town on a Sobe sponsored tour. Why the decision to do that? Would you use corporate sponsorship to get the message out?
BR: Most of the big tours are sponsored by big companies, and we don’t’ have the following to get outr own tours yet. It wasn’t a Coup tour, it was an X-ecutioners tour sponsored by Sobe. Most of these big tours go to places we’ve never been to before. We’ve been playing since 1991, and last yea r (2002) was the first time we’ve been to Minneapolis in was 11 years later because we were on that tour. I can say the same thing about 30 of the 40 other cities we hit on that tour. Similar to what you said about RATM or Chumbawuba, there’s a line I won’t go across, like endorsing a product. There’s a certain complicity that comes from being an artist and putting out product in a capitalist system. You end up being part of, you have to use the venues that are set up by them. When our videos have been on MTV and BET, you’ll see a Coke ad. We’ve been on commercial radio in LA and it’s the same thing. For that reason, I wouldn’t say let’s not put them on TV. I need to have songs on the media that the people are watching. I’m trying to get my message everywhere. Our first album (Kill my Landlord) was on EMI, who are no doubt evil. If we hadn’t done that, nobody would have played our records. I would have had to get a 50 hour a week job and not been able to write anything after that. I don’t think independent capitalism is better than multinational capitalism. The small, independent capitalist is independent cause that’s were they’re at right now. I’ve been on indy labels. The only difference is they don’t have any money. They’re just as much of a bloodsucker as the multinationals. They want to be that big company. To me it’s not any more revolutionary to be on an indy label, unless the label is a collective. Because I’m a communist /socialist, I want to teach people to change the system, not figure out how to live in it. I want to influence people to overthrow the system. I can’t just say”%@!#$& it, let’s move to the woods and join a commune”, cause I know that everybody is going to be left in the city, and be exploited. Soon that commune is going to get destroyed cause I’m not battling capitalism. Even I wasn’t doing music; I don’t want to be an exploiter. The rest of the world is not looking at alternative forms of media. The rest of the world is already looked into to this matrix. I have to get into that matrix and %@!#$& it up.
P: So what do think about Chumbawumba selling their song to Ford Motors then turning the money over to anti-car groups?
BR: This is the first time I heard about that. I wouldn’t do that myself. Like I said, everybody’s got their line. I used to work telemarketing. It was a lot of musicians would do it, cause it was quick. You know come in and make some quick sales. It was flexible. Since a lot of musicians would do it, a lot of punk rockers would do it. So I think a lot of anarchists were there. Every now and then they would offer managerial positions, which meant less work. Politically I’m like “%@!#$& that, I’m not doing that”. In the manager’s position was this anarchist, so I’d always %@!#$& with him. “You know Boots, you could have wrapped that sale up quicker and moved to the next call.” I’d reply “Anarchy! Anarchy!” to %@!#$& with him, and he’d get mad. That was my line, not theirs. They didn’t feel like they was selling out. To me, I thought they were. Everybody has their line. They asked me to do this Levi’s thing, where we would all be wearing Levi’s in Interview magazine. I said %@!#$& that, hell no, cause that was us endorsing a product. We’ve had endorsement offers. What I want to say about Sobe tour that we got paid way less than we do on our own tours. The reason we did it was the access to the audience that the X-ecutioners would bring us. We went into debt because of that tour.
P: What’s on your plate for 2003?
BR: Working on a new album.
P: What’s it called?
BR: No idea yet. Were just making the music and letting it come together.
P: Any special guests?
BR: a lot of people have been coming through, but I can’t really say that right now.
P: What’s in the Cd player right now?
BR: Right this second, it’s “Talking Book” by Stevie Wonder. Right before that was Maxwell. Right after that is Cody Chesnutt. I don’t really listen to a lot of new stuff. Michelle N' Degeocello “Bitter.” Everyone who’s a Prince fan will like that one.
The Coup headline the Blood Money anti-war benefit with comedian David Cross (see page ?) and local artists Atmosphere w/Heiruspecs, DJ K-Salaam & Immortal Technique. Saturday Feb 8 @ First Avenue Mainroom. Tickets are $10 for the all ages event. Show starts at 4;30 pm.
WARP.con Students organize Conference & Concert
This weekend the WARP.con (War Ain't Right People Conference/Concert) will be held in Minneapolis.
The conference will start on Saturday, February 8 with workshops and panel discussions at 9:00 AM at Coffman Union on the U of M East bank campus.
Workshops on Saturday will include discussions with leaders from the Somali community, AFSCME Local 3800 and a teach-in featuring Boots Riley from the Coup from 12-1pm.
Saturday evening the conference will shift to First Avenue for the $BloodMoney Anti-War Benefit Hip Hop show featuring The Coup (See interview to left), David Cross (See interview page 6), Atmosphere, and others. The concert at the First Avenue Main Room, 701 First Avenue N. Doors: 4:30PM, All ages, $10.
On Sunday the conference will reconvene to take up action proposals for building a regional student anti-war network.