Boots Riley of the Coup on striking at Walmart, the Occupy movement and the art of rebellion
The Coup is a hip-hop group that makes no bones in its critique of the system, with song titles like the now infamous and powerful, "Five Million Ways to Kill a CEO," from its classic 2001 album, Party Music -- the artwork of which originally featured members Boots Riley and Pam the Funktress blowing up the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
But what sets this Oakland-based outfit apart from many other acts who make pronouncements against the evils of society is that the Coup invite you to be part of a larger narrative of social change rather than simply telling you you're not doing enough. Now touring to support its latest record, Sorry to Bother You, the Coup hasn't exactly reeled back its sharp but thoughtful and intelligent commentary on American society today. We recently spoke with the friendly and insightful Riley about Prince, the Occupy movement and the aesthetics of rebellion.
Westword: What was it -- and is it -- about Prince and his music that made an enduring impression on you?
Boots Riley: When you're that young, it's hard to discern what's happening. But I remember when Controversy came out: It was a lot funkier and new and cutting edge, as far as we were concerned being ten year old kids, [than a lot of other music at that time]. When 1999 and Purple Rain came out, [it contrasted with the music of] the other gigantic black pop star, Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson was asexual. That was his whole thing. Prince was definitely anything but asexual. There was some force there, and he was badass. Not that Michael Jackson didn't seem badass, but it was in a different way. Michael Jackson didn't seem like he had any human wants or needs. But Prince was definitely all of his faults and still badass.
How did you end up working at UPS, and did that job give you the time and space in your imagination to explore things in a way another job wouldn't?
Yeah. In this particular case we were loading packages onto the bellies of planes. And the planes were always late, and a lot of the time, we were just sitting in the bay out there at the airport for the plane to come in. Some of that time was sleeping, some of that time was rapping. Other times, when we had unloaded the belly of the planes, we would hide in the belly and sit there in rap. That was me and this dude that ended up blowing up and selling platinum albums called Spice 1; the other guy was G-Nut from what became the 187-Fac. There were times we would sit there and talk about stuff. I think there are other ways that people steal their time back at various jobs. That was just the way that we did it.
Some of your music is reminiscent of Love if Arthur Lee had gone a more funky route than he did. Would you say that his music had an impact on your own?
Huh. I'm only familiar with a couple of those songs. I had the records. I still have three thousand records, but I had way more. But a lot of it got to a point of just listening to stuff for research. "Oh, this is what they did then." And I wasn't really enjoying it, so I got rid a lot of stuff that was like that I was listening to in an archival fashion. So I narrowed it down to three thousand records that I actually like. That may actually be there, but he's not necessarily one of the artists I remember and hold on to.
Obviously, funk is a big part of what I do. But I'm more of a fan, as far as what I really like, in terms of music that inspires me; it's not necessarily the kind of music that I would make. For example, there's this guy named Swamp Dogg who is a really good songwriter. But I wouldn't make music like that. You know, Leonard Cohen. Those are folks that I really look up to for their songwriting. It inspires me, and it makes me feel good listening to their songs, or feel bad, or whatever. I feel it.
However, aesthetically, there are things I would do differently. So what I'm saying is that there are other pieces of music that are closer, aesthetically, to what I would do, but it's not necessarily what moves me by itself. I can hear Parliament records right now, but I can't feel 'em. I don't know why that is. Maybe because I get this feeling that they're making music to just show what they can do.
How and why did you get involved in Occupy Oakland?
Friends of mine kept tricking me saying, "Hey, we're going to go for drinks over here. Come on, meet us." Then they kept being, "Oh but we've got to keep walking this way to Occupy Oakland." And I said, "No we don't. That's out of the way! Why are we doing that?" Before that, my initial idea [came out of my experience being in New York]. It didn't match the textbook movement that I had seen. It was chaotic and unorganized. And that's exactly why it grew. People felt welcome. It didn't feel like it was done by specialists.
I started meeting people there, and on the night they got evicted, I started helping to get people there the next day for the rally to take back the plaza. Because I had done that and I had been there, people were expecting me to be part of it more. Little by little. By the end of that day I was part of Occupy Oakland. So I went there and got on the bullhorn and gave a supportive speech.
Then somebody whispered in my ear that we were going to take back the plaza, and I said that. I didn't realize that I was the first and only person to say that. Then everybody cheered and were like, "Let's go!" And I was like, "Oh, shit." So I started marching along with it. Someone hands me a bullhorn and were like, "Which way are we turning?" I said, "I don't know! Who's organizing this?" And everybody else replied, "We don't know!" That's kind of how it happened.
What do you feel is the significance of that movement for our society as it stands today?
Right now we're in the middle of a buildup to a strike at Walmart that already started last Friday and [today] there will be over one thousand Walmart's on strike. That was something that a year, a year and a half ago people would have said, "Hell no. That would never happen." They would have thought you were living in a delusional, revolutionary, idealistic reality somewhere and were out of touch.
It's possible that the circumstances wouldn't have been right. But the point is that people change, and how did they change? Because everything was put out there by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Not only the idea of the 99 percent, but also what was we did at Occupy Oakland with the general strike and shutting the port down put those tactics on the table. I think the militant, Chicago teacher's strike wouldn't have happened that way without the Occupy Wall Street movement.
I think we're in a new phase of a movement that will turn into a radical labor movement involving direct action. And one that will hopefully defy the Taft-Hartley laws. Those laws were put in place so that unions don't win. Which is why there are very few people in unions. It's only about seven percent of the populations. That has to do with unions not winning. I mean the unions aren't as militant as they once were. Part of that has to do with the laws and part of that has to do with them being co-opted.
So I think we're in another phase where people are seeing the interconnection of things that were considered just community issues. But now connecting it to labor issues and their connections to the community. The way that the Chicago teacher's strike happened, they very much connected it to the community. They also communicated the message that it wasn't just tied to their pay.
There's a song called "We've Got a Lot to Teach You Cassius Green"? Who is Cassius Green, and what inspired that song?
Cassius Green is somebody at a crossroads and trying to decide whether to just go for himself or worrying about people that he comes from. And getting moved to the other side and also about how if you get to that point, you have already jumped to the other side. Cassius Green is also the character in a movie that I wrote, Sorry to Bother You, that's being produced by Ted Hope, who was involved with 21 Grams, American Splendor and The Ice Storm. A long list of great movies. It's being directed by Alex Rivera.
What is "Your Parents' Cocaine"?
That's a story about billionaire kid having a coming out party. All his friends are just hanging out around him for his cocaine. It's also alluding to the idea of folks inheriting their wealth and where it comes from in the first place. It's just a crazy scene at the party.
Oh, so it's kind of an interesting metaphor in a way.
Yeah. That song is just something that came out of this keyboard I bought. That was the first thing I hit when I turned it on -- that bassline -- it sounded like a fart or something like that, and I was like, "Oh fuck it, let's just use it."
A number of your songs have, thankfully, gotten under the skin of a number of people who probably need to have their cage rattled. Is that something you aim for in writing a song?
No, I mean, I think of my songs of not trying to be preachy like, "You should do something different," as opposed to, "Hey, we have a common enemy, let's go after it." I think that's the difference in most of the songs. It's not telling people that they have something that they need to fix within themselves, but someone else has something we need to go fix. So it's more inclusive.
Some of the songs might get under some folks' skin -- "Five Million Ways to Kill a CEO." There is a very small percentage of the population that are CEOs. Sometimes on some of the YouTube videos there are a couple of people that are staunch Ayn Rand followers. Like the Ayn Rand folks have latched on to commenting about a couple of things. There aren't that many of them but somehow they're on all of my [stuff on the internet].
You taught a class called, was it, "Culture and Resistance: Persuasive Lyric Writing"?
It was just called "Persuasive Lyric Writing"? That was a high school class.
What did you try to teach your students, and how did that opportunity come about?
I was working a lot with teachers who had gotten their students to be very active and involved. They managed to close the school down a few times. Then the school district came and asked the teachers, "Hey, how would you like to have your own school?" Like, "Get out of here and do your own thing and get out of our hair." So they did their own school called the High School of Social Justice. They invited me to teach a course, so that's what I taught.
It was kind of like how I wish a poetry class would be taught. Which is analyzing what other folks did and then giving assignments. But the point was that it wasn't just appreciation; it was looking at tools that people used to be persuasive. You know, making songs that aren't just observational but are trying to get someone to want to do something. We listened to all sorts of songs and talked about various techniques and styles people used in describing things. Those sorts of things.
How did you get involved in Galactic, and what it is about their music that you found interesting?
A couple things kind of happened at the same time. Galactic was on Epitaph, and they were already thinking of asking me to do a song for an album. Separately, me and Tom Morello were in New Orleans doing a benefit. We happened to walk into this bar, and there was a band playing. We were talking about Street Sweeper Social Club, which we were about to do. Then the band was playing in the other room, and Tom was like, "That is the best drummer I have ever heard in my life? Who is that? Who is that guy? We need him to play in Street Sweeper Social Club. It was Stanton Moore. We didn't know who he was, but we talked to him, and he said, "Oh, I'm in Galactic."
Separately they asked me to do a song, and I did that. Then they asked me to come with them to SXSW and Bonaroo. I did those, and they ended up saying, "Let's not just play our songs; we learned some Coup songs." They had me come out, and little by little, it turned into this whole thing where I go and play five or six songs with them in the middle of their set. I liked it because they're cool people and easy going. They're very skilled musicians. The reason for doing so was a way to get the Coup's music out there.
However, I found, unfortunately with that scene, it's about getting drunk and getting high, and nobody's hearing whatever the hell I'm saying, so it was very unsatisfying. When people are drunk and high, they're going to be dancing all night no matter what. I could say my name or the Coup's name over and over, they don't know what I'm saying. They all thought I was part of Galactic.
Why did you invoke the name of the social realist painter David Siqueiros and Andy Warhol in "You Are Not a Riot"?
I wanted to talk about art and the aesthetic of rebellion that people use. Even in rock and roll, there's this rebellious aesthetic. I don't care if it's the Beatles or the Rolling Stones: "We're against something!" Why is that attractive? It's attractive because we know that the system is fucked up. And we know that we should be rebelling against it. So folks get that rebellious aesthetic, not only without being rebellious, but by selling us the opposite of rebellion and using that rebellious aesthetic to reinforce the ideas that the system gives us, that not only should we stay in our place, but that anything that challenges the system is problematic. I think Andy Warhol fell into this category.
But I wanted to talk about that in general, and David Siqueiros was like a crazy dude. He actually was in the Mexican Revolution and rolled with Pancho Villa and [Emiliano] Zapata and all that kind of shit, right? He was a revolutionary, and just through rumors years later, he was accused of having tried to kill [Leon] Trotsky. He wasn't only revolutionary that way; he was also revolutionary aesthetically. He did these big murals that were cutting edge but also got his point across.
He wasn't only social realist. It was clear, pretty much, what he was trying to do. He also invented the technique of putting paint in a fire extinguisher to be able to hit up walls real quick. At one point at the Venice Biannale, in the '50s, he started chiding all these South American artists coming there with all this abstract art. There were revolutions going on all over European countries and all of the world and you choose to do some shit that nobody knows what the fuck you're talking about? He was probably going overboard, but he was accusing artists of being CIA agents and things like that.
Now, he was kind of crazy, but it turns out there is a little truth to what he was saying, in that the FBI was giving money to foundations to fund abstract art -- apolitical art -- purposefully to counteract the movement because artists were drawn to the Communist Party and were drawn towards doing art that meant something. So the FBI wanted to counteract that by making sure there was funding for a movement in art that was abstract and they funded Jackson Pollock through foundations.
And Andy Warhol was famous for the idea of being disconnected -- like none of it matters. This is all a show. And being all about the money. So it's like this cutting edge aesthetic and different, as if it's challenging norms, but it isn't really. I used those two figures to talk about something more. So I imagined what would happen if Andy Warhol had sent David Siqueiros an invitation to a party. And the song was David Siqueiros' answer, his RSVP.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.