Boots Riley—activist, Marxist revolutionary and writer-producer for Oakland’s hip-hop outfit The Coup—recalls the first record he bought: The Message 12-inch by Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. Quite appropriate. And quite accidental.
“I wanted Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang,” he says. Instead, he grabbed their label mates’ ode to urban alienation. “I’m looking for party music—but I put it on, and it’s some depressing shit about broken glass and people pissing on the street!”
His taste for political music may have blossomed late, but Riley grew up steeped in actual politics. He performs with The Coup on Sept. 28 at Pagoda Lounge as part of the C2SV Music Festival.
“I was definitely a red-diaper baby,” he says.
Riley’s father, a bus driver and community organizer turned lawyer, was a model pre-hippie radical. The adults Boots knew were, as he puts it, “dyed-in-the-wool communists.”
Riley went through his own radicalization at the age of 14, when he joined a United Farm Workers splinter group that was organizing undocumented laborers in the Central Valley.
“Basically, I did it for social reasons,” he confesses. “The other 14-year-old activists were all girls.”
He may have come for the girls, but Riley is staying for the revolution. When he’s not mobilizing the disenfranchised, he’s making thoughtful music that’ll mobilize your ass.
“When people think ‘political music,’ their reaction is, ‘Oh, that means angry.’ But the people I know from organizing are not angry people,” he says. “They’re funny, they’re engaged with the people around them and they’re enjoying life.”
Over the course of six albums with the Coup, Riley has won critical acclaim for songs that reveal his witty, raunchy and deeply human vision of a world starkly divided between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. Any excess acid in the lyrics is kept in balance by Riley’s toothsome arrangements, which blend the heavy techno-funk of Computer Games-era George Clinton with lush ’70s soul.
“Before I became an organizer, I wanted to be Prince,” he says.
The Magic Clap
I talk to Boots Riley as he’s preparing for his show at C2SV Music Festival, San Jose’s newest musical offering with more than 50 bands and 70 technologists (Sept. 26-29).
I’ve got a notion he might have an opinion about the Valley’s tech moguls or their fetish for “disruption.”
“There’s been a shift in how work is done, but there’s not less work that needs to be done,” Riley says. “People say technology has changed the rules and it’s a different system. Well, there’s different colors, but it’s really the same.”
Even online, capitalism remains capitalism.
So, how has technology affected him as an artist and entrepreneur?
“I think it’s helped, in the sense that people can hear things they couldn’t before.” Then he deadpans, “[With] the monetizing part, though, it’s not necessarily the case.”
The glut of free digital music, Riley explains, has made live performance more important than ever—and not just to the bands whose livelihood depends on it: “The live experience becomes the thing. People aren’t necessarily going out just for one band. They’re going out for the scene, for their friends, for the music that complements that.”
Accordingly, Riley is composing with an eye to live instruments—a move that suits his musical instincts, even as it puts him at odds with conventional hip-hop.
“I’ve tried to make stuff that is catchy,” he hesitates, “because, you know, I like that stuff.”
This wasn’t always such an easy admission. When Riley was starting out in the early ’90s, fellow producers used to joke, “Boots doesn’t make beats, he makes tunes.” They didn’t mean it as a compliment.
The Coup’s latest release, Sorry To Bother You (2012), is Riley at his most adventurous and eclectic. It also shows the influence of the rockers he’s been hanging out with—notably Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine (with whom he collaborated as Street Sweeper Social Club) and punk godfather Jello Biafra.
The most obvious departure is “You Are Not a Riot,” textbook hardcore, through a pop-funk prism. But there’s also a fractured take on Louie-Louie frat rock (“Your Parents’ Cocaine”), and a droning chorus that is pure Berlin-era Bowie (“Gods of Science”). Opener “Magic Clap” is a high-energy number that simultaneously evokes OutKast and the pop stomp of the Bay City Rollers.
But The Coup is still funky as hell. The smoothly strutting “This Year” (with vocals by bandmate Silk-E) is a worthy tribute to Prince. Standout track “The Guillotine” is a dance-floor anthem gleefully inciting us rabble to get out our pitchforks. It could be hip-hop’s answer to “Rock the Casbah.”
The Coup at C2SV Music Festival
Sept 28 at Pagoda Lounge