Catching Up With Boots Riley

Music Features

For two decades, Oakland hip-hop group The Coup have given new meaning to the term political party, turning out music that is not only socially charged but irresistibly engaging and danceable. 2006’s Pick A Bigger Weapon included whip-smart, beat-tastic burners on topics ranging from wartime injustice to workers’ rights, and given the political climate of the years since, fans have eagerly anticipated a follow-up.

That finally came on Oct. 30 with Sorry To Bother You, a 13-track populist uprising that will also serve as the soundtrack to a 2013 film by the same name, a “dark comedy” filled with “magical realism,” according to Coup frontman Boots Riley. In the meantime, The Coup will be on tour through mid-December, and Riley will continue his major role in the Occupy movement. Paste talked to Riley about the new album, his ground-up political philosophy and his broadly influenced approach to songwriting.

Paste: You’ve said you don’t believe that electoral politics solve society’s problems, but what are your thoughts coming out of the recent election?
Boots Riley: It doesn’t matter who you get in there—if you have a mass militant radical movement that can stop profit at the production or retail point, you can make any politician do what you want them to do. And if you don’t have that, you could elect Che Guevara and they would still contribute to the capitalists or they would have to leave. I don’t feel that oppression causes dissent. While George Bush was in office a lot of Democrats were like ‘well, we just need to get a Democrat in there.’ And so, I think part of the reason people were fed up enough for Occupy Wall Street to expand was that people couldn’t make the excuse that there wasn’t a Democrat in office.

Paste: You’ve been extremely active in the Occupy movement, which is still going strong but has lost some of its urgency in the media over the last year…
Riley: Well I think that urgency is created and dissipated by the media.

Paste: Exactly, the media itself latched onto it and then decided it was less of a story. So what are some of the recent developments in the movement that you feel should be getting more attention?
Riley: There have been some major things happening, such as the Wal-Mart workers in 50 different locations walked off just about a month ago. And, the Chicago Teachers Union had a militant strike that was not reported anywhere else other than that area, and it is pretty significant that a major city like that had so much support. And then just a few miles up from that, hundreds of thousands of students in Canada went on strike for eight months [to protest tuition increases] and forced the national government to capitulate to them…they actually had the government asking them what they would accept. These were undergraduates that went on strike. And certain parts of that are still going on, with some of them planning to go on and fight for free tuition. However, the thing is, that’s an editorial decision not to report it.

Paste: Getting to your music, many people have been waiting for a new album since 2006’s Pick A Bigger Weapon. Why did it take six years? Was it political involvement and projects like the [Tom Morello collaboration] Street Sweeper Social Club?
Riley: Well, I don’t make a whole lot of money at this, so what that means is that you need to work more for less money. So a lot of it is just gigging and putting that sort of thing [a new studio album] off. Now, I also have four kids so a lot of time is devoted to that.

Paste: Your music has always been extremely political, but this album seems like the most aggressively political release yet. Do you feel now an even greater responsibility to be an activist musician? Are the issues now more dire?
Riley: I think that the aesthetic of the music feels a little bit more urgent and aggressive. I kind of feel like I have the same themes that I always have and try to look at things differently, like with “Your Parents’ Cocaine,” which is about a coming-out party. There are a couple of love songs in there that are two artists bickering at each other. I just want my music to be able to be used in certain situations in which people are needing inspiration to continue on in the movement that they are doing, or they need something to connect with, or help if someone is thinking about whether they should join a movement. On the other hand, the music has always been just how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking… even when I’m thinking of some macro-economic idea because I’m an organizer, I also think about how that feels on a day-to-day level. So, I think it’s just as an artist, me putting myself out there. And rather than try to figure out what the best way to make music is, I’ve realized that if I feel it more and if I’m passionate about it, then there is somebody out there who is going to like it.

Paste: Is there any music by other artists that you’re listening to a lot right now?
Riley: The last few years I’ve listened to more singer-songwriters. In 2003 we had this tour that was me, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, and night after night we’d have these songwriting discussions and they actually made a big change in me. I don’t know if it was those discussions per se, but just the idea that I realized that a lot of the songs that I like are from people that are really good songwriters. And that, to me, is much different than what is called a ‘lyricist.’ And so I wanted to do that more. I listen to a lot of Jolie Holland, Leonard Cohen…lots of parts of this album, to me, are like Bob Dylan-influenced in the style of writing. And then I tried to put some more literary influences in there. Magnetic Fields are my favorite group but I don’t think that I did anything on this album that was like that. So I think that’s what I pay attention to. Also St. Vincent and Dirty Projectors, I like them a lot. Basically I just like good songs and people doing different things with the sound.

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