Boots Riley Interview (Pt. 1)
The Boots Riley Interview Pt. 1
Five albums and 15 years deep, The Coup are perhaps the most consistant (and consistantly underrated) politcal minded rap groups of all time. But you probably already know this from the few occasions that this blog slipped into full scale Coup fan site mode. I had a chance to talk to Boots about the groups history, from their involvement in the near-infamous Dope Lika Pound or a Key compilation to their lastest album Pick A Bigger Weapon, which just so happens to drop today on Epitaph (Needless to say it’s a must cop).
Noz: What are your earliest memories from both political and musical standpoints?
Boots: Musical would have to be you know um listening to records that my sister and my parents had. My favorite records… I remember I would always play “Funky Worm” by Ohio Players, the 45, I would always play that. My sister would always be throwin parties at the house. Until I was six I lived in detroit and there was this dance people would do that was kinda like… it was called the Errol Flynn and you made your arms like swords. The Errol Flynns were a gang in the neighborhood that we lived in and that was the dance everybody did. I remember music being played at parties my parents were having but I realized later that those weren’t supposed to just be parties those were [political] meetings that would then turn into a party. There was very little line between community and political activity and partying and music. I have a lot of memories like that. I know that later on when I was like 11 I was really hyped on Prince. I wanted to play guitar on stage or something like what Prince did.
N: Yeah I can hear the Prince influence in the new album.
B: Yeah Definitely.
N: At what point did you start rapping?
B: In high school we all rapped. And my first raps would be a combination of my own corny stuff and stolen lines from Schooly D who I thought not that many people knew at my school. We would just rap back and forth at lunch or at break or in art class. All those sorts of things. It was something the way people pounded on the table and rapped, but it wasn’t really nothing serious.
N: When did you think about pursuing it as a serious thing?
B: I think a lot later, like when I was maybe 18 or 19 that I really think it hit me something serious because I didn’t see the connection between what I wanted to do politically [and rapping]. Because I had already been an organizer, from the time that I was 15. When I was 15 I joined the Progressive Labor Party which was a revolutionary organization. And by that year I had already been part of leading this walk out at Oakland High and it was 2000 of the 2200 students, we all walked out and marched down about two or three miles to the school board and won our struggle right there. So it propelled me into a leadership position and I was doing all kinds of stuff, going all around the country, helping out with youth organizations and it pretty much set me into what I thought was going to be my life’s path – being an organizer, helping to build a movement. But I didn’t see how my other interest, which was in in music, because up until then I had also taken piano, guitar and trumpet at various times, and I didn’t see how my other interests could combine with that until an incident where we was doing work later on in the Double Rock Projects in San Fransicsco and there was an incident that I talk about on the song “I Know You”, about an incident where this woman Rossi Hawkins and her two twin sons that were eight years old got beat down out there by the police and the whole neighborhood came out and stopped them from dragging her into the car afterwards. They were concerned with what they were going to do with them – were they gonna beat them more? Were they gonna take them to the hospital? Or what? So they rushed down there and the police started shooting into the air and everybody ran away from them. And at some point they turned back and by the end of the night there were police cars turned over, [with] the police running away, running out of there on foot with their guns taken away from them. And when the story was told to me some days later by many different people that were there what happened, you know there were a lot of different details, but there was one thing that was constant, and that was that when the police started shooting in the air and everybody ran away in fear of their lives, somebody started chanting “Fight The Power! Fight the Power” and this was the summer of 1989 when this song was big, when it was on the radio, all over the place. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” was out and that song gave people what they needed, it helped them understand that they were all on the same page as far as what they needed to do. It helped them make the decision to go back and take their place in history. Now, when I say take their place in history, none of this got in the newspaper the next day or anything, but when I heard that I realized that’s what music does. It allows you to feel a general unity of thought with thousands of people. It is able to be an anthem for the fight and anthems are important because you’re not singing that anthem by yourself, you’re singing it with other folks. And I saw right then what music, in particular hip hop, could be used for in a struggle, in a movement. That was when I figured out what I was doing, when I heard that story a few days afterward from everyone involved.
N: So after this did you form The Coup?
B: Yeah, I guess, around that time, there were some variations of things. Like just before that we had a group called Underground Funk. Back then you could have twelve different groups with different people and it’s like half hearted. The idea of even getting into a studio and recording a song just seemed like a dream. Like something you’d talk about but will it ever happen you don’t know. And that was different because studios weren’t all over the place then. It was just that idea of the studio, there was some mysticism behind going to the studio. But yeah, shortly after that the beginnings of what would be The Coup formed.
N: And you guys all linked up with Spice 1 and them for Dope Lika Pound Or a Key?
B: Yeah what happened was me E-Roc, Spice 1, G-Nut, who ended up in 187 Faculty, and another dude that went by the name of Point Blank that we helped put out something from, was in there too, we all worked at UPS, at the airport. And we would be all unloading the packages and stuff like that. And the first way that I knew Spice 1 rapped, i mean, well that he was serious about it, cause we would all be in there rappin and alot of times we’d purposely take a long time unloading the belly’s of the plane, so we’d crawl up into the bellys of the plane to put the stuff on, but we’d all be rapping. Spice 1, interestingly enough was always talking about his partner Del, like Del was his best friend or something like that. “He’s Ice Cubes cousin, we rap together.” They were doing shows, they were in a group together called TDK and we would all be rapping. And at one point seperate from that I was at a ralley at UC Berkley for something and I got up and I rapped at the ralley and this dude Pizzo the Beat Fixer, who was Too Short’s DJ was in the crowd. And he came up and was like “Yeah man, that’s the type of shit that could make some money now.” And it turns out that me and Spice ended up all being on his compilation together, Dope Lika Pound or a Key. What was funny is that that was the first time I heard my music bumping out of cars, but I didn’t say my name in there I don’t think and Spice 1 had more songs on there, so people just thought that I was somebody else in 187 Faculty. So it didn’t do a whole lot, although it did something in the sense that it allowed me to actually hear somebody bumpin it or whatever. I didn’t even know it was out and I stopped somebody at the gas station and I was like “yeah that’s me” and they were like “no I thought that was Spice 1”
N: There wasn’t really information on the tape.
B: Yeah and he sold like 20 somethin thousand of those. What was funny is that he had us on there. He had Spice 1 and he had a dude by the name of Mocades who at the time, his only claim to fame was that he had been on Toni Tony Tone’s song “Feels Good” [recites verse] – “Mocades / the mellow / friday night fellow”… but he had a little brother that really wanted to be on that compilation, And we were all supposed to be on that label Wax Dat Azz, but Mocades was the one that was more famous from the Toni Tony Tone song for some reason Pizzo wasn’t trying to sign his little brother. His little brother was 2 Pac and Mocades was really Mopreme from Thug Life, so there’s a whole bunch of connections there. So Pizzo could’ve had a label with all of us on there, but he was just kickin it, smokin weed, partying, telling stories and not really on his job about making it happen. So Spice ended up signing with Triad, and in a little while we put out our own EP.
N: So you went on with your own label [Polemic] after that?
B: Yeah we did our thing. We put it out and we just happened to be… We were postering up the whole bay area, puttin up paste late at night, putting posters all over the place and it just so happened that, I guess when there was a Gavin Convention over here, every label had to have somebody from the bay area and every week we just happened to be selling the most or something like that at Leopolds in the local section. And so I think Wild Pitch just went and said “oh give us your top sellers.” I think it was us, E-40 and Dangerous Dame and they were trying to figure out [which to sign]. E-40 he obviously had some bigger plans and Dangerous Dame was just getting out of his deal with Atlantic and they needed a whole lot of money. He had that one song that came right after Atlantic – “Same Ole Dame.” And us, I was just like “put it out” I didn’t care, you know, a deal was a chance for me to move out of my fathers house.
N: Do you regret that you ended up going with Wild Pitch at that time?
B: No because there would’ve been nobody else crazy enough to sign us. This was before The Fugees, this was before anything else, so if you weren’t fitting into a strict category that was already there, there was no selling [?]. People in the industry always talk about this, in hindsight, that they feel like they should’ve marketed us like they did The Fugees, but the reality is that the [lyrics were] supposedly political, as far as they were concerned, but the music didn’t sound like east coast or public enemy, so that threw people off. It sounded to west coast for the people that thought they were buying conscious music and at the time, too, the idea was that what they call political rap was already outdated. So there was no easy way to market it. The thing we lucked out on was when “Not Yet Free,” the single came out, the only reviews we got must’ve only listened to the music and not to the lyrics because they said “Oh this is more gangsta rap from Oakland,” and we were mad like “They didn’t even listen to it, did they look at the logo even? What?” But people looked at the reviews and said “More gangsta rap from Oakland? Cool!”
N: So it helped you sell in Oakland?
B: Not just in Oakland, because at that time the bay area sales were not just oakland but it was the south and the midwest. I had heard of e-40 already, but the first time I heard that music was when we went on a promotional tour for that album. All over the south, all over Houston – Houston was a big thing for The Click – and in the midwest and people in Oakland hadn’t even heard 40. And when they heard it they was like, and this is to be real, I did some work with a producer that was a famous Oakland producer that ended up later working with E-40 a lot, right? And being known for working with E-40 a lot. But when he saw “Practice Lookin’ Hard” come on the video, I was at his studio, and he was like “That’s some weird shit. This dude is weird. He don’t rap right.” And a lot of people in oakland that was there thing, they weren’t open to something new. And E-40 sold so much all over the place that people started listening here in Oakland. E-40 was from Vallejo and that made a big difference at the time.
N: It’s weird for me because, growing up in Jersey everybody waslistening to Black Moon or whatever and that shit wasn’t even on our radar. And everything else was local music. But it seems like the east was stuck in our region while 40 was selling all over the country.
B: Like I said, I hadn’t even heard his stuff, but then we were in St. Louis and somebody came mad into the record store like “Y’ALL GOT B-LEGIT IN YET?! Y’ALL GOT THAT B-LEGIT THE SAVAGE?” and they were like “naw, it’s supposed to be in here…” and they was mad as hell. I was like “wow, they’re selling all over the place.” But Oakland was slow to pick up on it. But Bay Area stuff was all over at all kinds of other places. Like the whole idea that you could sell 40,000 in the bay area, that wasn’t true. Bay area groups could sell 40,000 but those sales would be all over the place. But then the Bay area suffered when those areas got their own sound.
N: Yeah, southern rap is completely influenced by 40’s sound.
B: Oh definitely, definitely. And even some of the Frisco [acts], a lot of the south is influenced by JT The Bigga Figga and stuff like that. There definitely is an influence – of course, Too Short. So yeah, our stuff was not fitting into any one category, which made it harder to market at the time. Now they have different ways, different ideas of how they do that. But at the time it just wasn’t really happening. And Wild Pitch was always good, the dude there he signed a lot of groups that were innovative or strong in their areas. They signed Main Source, Gang Starr, OC, Chill Rob G. You know they weren’t good at marketing. Chill Rob G had one of the biggest hits in hip hop music but not on Wild Pitch. Somebody else had to take his song [The Power]…
N: And made it a hit
B: You know, with Snap. So they weren’t really good at the marketing aspect of it. They were good at finding some good groups. At the time I think we did the right thing, because any other label we wouldn’t have even gotten to make a second album. Our first album, in the end, I think it ended up selling like 100,000 but before Genocide and Juice came out, it was only at like 70,000. And that’s not enough for most major labels. So we wouldn’t have been able to keep going and getting to where we are. And us being able to get on BET and MTV helped carry us through to Steal This Album and so on, so we got a big base of people that were listening to us.
Read Pt. 2, where Boots talks about the myth of conscious rap, industry rule 4080 and we get hyphy hyphy hyphy hyphy hyphy hyphy.