Boots’ rhyme and reason

October 30, 2012

Alexander Billet spoke with Boots Riley of the hip-hop group The Coup about the future of music and movements for social change.

I SPOKE with the Coup's Boots Riley at an auspicious time. Right before calling him, I'd returned from a downtown rally of thousands of striking Chicago teachers and their supporters. It was arguably the most significant American labor battle in 30 years, trading in the calcified, ineffective style of "union-management cooperation" for an old school, knock-down, drag-out, class struggle unionism that gets actual results.

The day before, I had e-mailed Boots asking whether he wanted to sign on to an "Artists Stand With Chicago Teachers" statement, spearheaded by area artists with the blessing of the Chicago Teachers Solidarity Campaign.

Anyone who's ever tried to get in touch with a musician of any high profile knows how tough it can be, let alone when trying to get them to lend their name to a cause. Not with Boots. He'd given me his personal e-mail address previously, and only an hour or so after asking him to sign on to the statement, he replied back with three simple words: "Sign me up!"

Boots Riley
Boots Riley (RealLowVibe)

It's this kind of informality that makes speaking with Boots a real pleasure. You get the feeling that you're simply conversing with a comrade, someone who will gladly pick you up when you fall down on the picket line.

He is, first and foremost, a revolutionary. In the '60s, his parents had both been close to the Black Panthers, and he himself began identifying as a radical in his teens. Rapping came around the same time. Still, saying that the two go hand-in-hand for Boots would be a vast oversimplification. Truth is, he sees the relationship between music and struggle to be much more nuanced.

This is perhaps why Boots has allowed the Coup to evolve so much over the past 20 years. Sorry To Bother You, due to be released October 30, is 12 tracks of mayhemic noise-rock inflected hip-hop dripping with Boots' characteristic humor, bravado and passion. It sounds quite different from the 2007 Pick a Bigger Weapon, and even more different from 2001's Party Music--the album that will be perhaps eternally remembered as the one whose original cover provoked shrieks of outrage from America's conservative right.

Both previous albums utilized what might be called the more "traditional" electronic beats and turntablism common in hip-hop. Sorry To Bother You, however, is at once more organic and far out. Boots says that there was a conscious decision to include as much distorted heaviness as possible in the beats and music. The end result has been characterized by some as almost punk rock.

"A lot of that was not intentional," he said. "The intention was just to make edgy, soulful music that technically felt rough, and that you could dance to. So, for instance, I feel like the guitar for 'Land of 7 Billion Dances' is very funky, but definitely has a punk feel to it, and the texture too. And the drums are basically a New Orleans march, but the whole thing sounds like funk and rock and soul and all of that put together."

The punk is there, for sure. That's Anti-Flag's Justin Sane jumping in on the fun-house chorus of "Your Parents' Cocaine," oh-so delicately suggesting to rich kids that they "blow your fucking brains out!"

TO SAY this is simply another embrace of "rock-rap," along the lines of Boots' work with Tom Morello and Street Sweeper Social Club, would be incorrect however. For Boots, there's much more of a holistic connection between hip-hop's roots and the album's more apparently left-field influences:

"There are differences in a lot of things, but some of it has the same root, or come from different branches of the same tree," he said. "So, with 'Magic Clap,' I wanted to make something that was pushy and edgy. But then as we did it and started messing around with the bass line, it kind brought us back to almost old Motown. But at the same time that edginess is still there and you can see the connection."

This is a somewhat unorthodox way to look at music, notably off the beaten path that much of the music industry would like us to take.

But something about this album's formula has clearly, if you will, struck a chord. After its release three months ago, the Onion's AV Club named "Magic Clap," the album's lead single, "a solid contender for song of the year." Calling the song catchy is a bit of an understatement.

"Magic Clap" is thoroughly groove-laden and danceable. In a smart production move that has long set the Coup apart, the lyrics are turned to the most crystal-clear frequency; you might be getting down while hearing them, but you certainly won't mistake them:

It's like a hotwire, baby
When we put it together
When the sparks fly
We'll ignite the future forever
This is the last kiss Martin ever gave to Coretta
It's like a paparazzi picture when I flash my Beretta
I got scars on my back
The truth on my tongue
I had the money in my hand when that alarm got rung
We wanna breathe fire and freedom from our lungs
Tell Homeland Security
We are the bomb

Wishy-washy conventional wisdom tells us that music is supposed to "bring us together." Not with Boots. Not by a long shot. His open chiding of Homeland Security is just the tip of the sword for him. Songs like "The Guillotine," one of the album's highlights, gleefully proclaim with hand-clapping enthusiasm "we got the guillotine, you better run!"

Asked why he feels the rich deserve to be mocked, Boots replied, "That's just what we've got to do until we can do more to them." He also points out that a great device of political analysis is the ability to point out the absurdity of the situation. "When having an analysis of how the system works, it's very important to point out the ironies in the system. The one clear way to do that is through humor."

ON SORRY To Bother You, this humor is employed possibly most effectively when taking up the very functions of arts and culture in capitalism, as Boots does in "You Are Not a Riot (An RSVP from David Siquieros to Andy Warhol)." Imagining a correspondence between the man who most opportunistically exploited the connection between art and commerce and a Mexican communist muralist is certainly entertaining food for thought. Boots doesn't disappoint.

"You! You are not a riot," he proclaims. "You are the tight leather pants on the old ex-general! You! You are not rebellion! I got the invite to your party and I threw it away!"

It's also an interesting glimpse into the constantly shifting conflict between those who have adopted radical chic to sell merch and those who have actually forged that aesthetic through virtue of their own struggle.

"Culture in a capitalist system is going to be enveloped by capitalism," Boots said. "I mean, picket signs are used by companies to sell clothing. You see murals that are Gap ads! So if you just have the aesthetic, it's not going to do it. [That song] is talking about artists who knowingly use that rebellious aesthetic but have no intention of actually rebelling."

The difference between the poseurs and those who can walk the walk is something of which Boots is conscious.

"There is nothing we can do until we have a mass movement that can change the material situation," he says. "That's not even the revolutionary part, but hopefully that movement can become revolutionary."

Not that he thinks revolutionaries should be sitting and waiting. His involvement in Occupy Oakland has further cemented a genuine activist cred over the past year. Though far from being a pacifist, he has been one of the Bay Area's more high-profile critics of the black bloc tactic, saying "its repeated use has become counter-revolutionary" recently. He was also a big proponent of last November's shutdown of the Oakland ports, and insists that the major link that the radical left needs to solidify is that with labor.

Yes, he has some big criticisms of the movement. "It seems that people--even people who consider themselves revolutionaries--didn't see how great of a chance this was to just get people involved in class struggle around things that they were dealing with everyday. They just saw things not being technically called revolutionary or things not looking aesthetically the way they thought revolutionary things should look."

He also sees the movement, despite its shortcomings, as an important step forward after thirty years of class retreat. If nothing else, it finally brings people together on a platform of class struggle. In fact, he sees the recent uptick in union activity as greatly affected by Occupy.

"I think that definitely, because of the Occupy Wall Street movement, there's a new militant labor movement that's going to jump off," he said. "And by a militant labor movement I don't necessarily mean the traditional labor unions; maybe they'll be involved, maybe folks will take those over. But there'll be new standards and people are going to have to defy the Taft-Hartley Act"--the notorious 1947 law that puts severe restrictions on union organizing.

Boots also mentions in particular, and more than once, the 1930s, when a militant union movement had to break the law several times to win basic organizing rights, not to mention better pay and jobs.

This naturally leads to talk about Pete Seeger, Billie Holiday, Leadbelly and all the other legendary artists who sang the sound of the struggle and whose works are intimately tied up with those years. Does Boots see his own music, or that of artists like him, as playing a similar role?

"The inspiration that November 2 [the date of last year's port blockade] gave to millions of people is multiple times more than all of the music that I've ever done in my life or Rage Against the Machine has ever done in their life. That's way more inspiring! This music is just what people can listen to afterward while they're at the bar."

With all due respect to Boots, he might be selling himself short. Of course nobody can reasonably say that playing the right notes or spitting the right rhymes is a substitute for the often grueling, painstaking work of building a real movement for change that puts power in the streets. But the effect that the music has on people's souls and minds, the potential to inject them with real confidence and remind them of their rage, is never to be dismissed.

I ASKED Boots to tell me the story of Double Rock. In 1989, Boots was regularly visiting the Double Rock housing project in San Francisco to talk politics and organization with residents. One Sunday, he was informed that two nights before, the police had beaten bloody two 8-year-old twin boys, both sons of a woman named Rossie Hawkins. When Hawkins came outside to protest the violence against her kids, the cops gave her the same treatment.

Hawkins and her sons were by no means the only African American people in Double Rock who had been dealt such treatment. In fact, a week before, another young man had been beaten so badly by police that he had died while they stalled driving him to the hospital. When Hawkins and her two sons were put in the back of the squad car, local residents knew what might happen.

Dozens of people spontaneously began crowding around the police car, demanding that Hawkins and her sons be released. The cops, in response, fired their pistols into the air; the crowd naturally scattered.

Then, something awe-inspiring happened: "Someone started chanting 'Fight the power! Fight the power!'" The crowd stopped running. "By the end of the night, police cars were turned over, and those cops ran out of there without their guns. And someone had gotten Rossie Hawkins and her kids to the hospital."

This was the summer of 1989, when Public Enemy was all over the radio, and those simple words--while they didn't flip the cop car themselves--certainly changed folks' minds. In the right moment, a change of mind can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

It's been almost 25 years since "Fight the Power" hit the airwaves, and certainly a lot has changed. A lot has also, unfortunately, stayed the same, and for far too long at that. So, is now the moment? Is now that time when everything might shift drastically? When the drab fakery of the culture of the 1 Percent might be flipped on its head in favor of a more immediate, revolutionary culture?

"I think that it will come from a movement existing," he said. "So, because there will be a movement creating the artists, I think that there will be revolutionary culture. Hopefully the revolutionary culture will be one that informs and influences everyone because there's a movement that people are involved in."

No doubt, there's a long way to go between that moment and where we're at now, but it's a lot closer than we've been in a while. What that new culture might look like is anybody's guess, but don't be surprised if you hear a chant of "We got the guillotine!" at a future demonstration.

First published at Occupied Chicago Tribune.

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