Boots Riley is not a morning person, but he is a deep thinker. Whether it’s with the legendary Coup or Street Sweeper Social Club, Riley represents himself fully and gets his point across. While touring with Rock the Bells, he took the time for a phone interview. SSSC is currently supporting their new “Ghetto Blaster” EP.
You were just in Oakland, correct?
I am in Oakland. I live in Oakland.
How has the city of Oakland changed over the years, in your eyes?
Let’s see…it was a place where, and to a certain extent is still…there is a lot of media hype about how dangerous Oakland is. A lot of nonsensical stuff that gets puts out there. There is violence in Oakland, but it’s usually folks struggling and hustling for money and involved in dope, right? That violence happens with people in this underground economy. Not just people goin’ wild and crazy, thieving savages as the media puts out there. But because they put that out there for a long time, there were people that wouldn’t even come to an event during the daytime in Oakland on a Saturday if they weren’t from Oakland. They thought they would get carjacked, just get shot randomly like “Oh, somebody’s at a stop light. Shoot him!” It really makes no sense with how humans act, so people thought of black people in Oakland as being subhuman things.
Oakland has been gentrified a lot in the last ten years and part of that has been to have public areas free and clear of black and brown people. You had all sorts of laws about cruising, or gathering in parks. Things like that, to make developers able to advertise it as being less black populated than it is so that people would move here. So, there are a lot of people who move here with the hopes of not interacting with the community that already exists here. That being said, there are a whole bunch of new restaurants and clubs and things that weren’t here before. I think it’s going to be interesting when the population that people were taught to fear start going to these restaurants and clubs.
Do you see a difference between touring with a rap group from a rock group?
Let me say this, The Coup has always rode that line: between funk and rock, and if people have seen our live show and we’ve been touring with a live band since the 90’s. People that have seen me perform, they see me put out energy and dance and jump around and all that. I’m trying to embody the music, like visually embody it, as well. As far as how the show is going, for me, it’s the other side of the same coin.
As far as the crowd, here’s the truth: if you’re dealing with anything that’s culture in the United States, selling records, the crowd is going to be that cold word “diverse.” When black folks in hip-hop use the word “diverse” they mean it’s not all black people.
I think the hip hop audience, the people that mainly buy and go to shows, are mainly white. I think that what I’ve noticed from all a lot of these shows is that it’s the same kids from the same area. It might even be the same family! That doesn’t always hold true, but there is not a whole lot of difference. I think standard rock n’ roll shows have way more dudes than women. As it is with some underground hip-hop shows, there are way more dudes than women. It’s a lot of white dudes with t-shirts and baseball hats and backpacks. Then you go to the frat rock shows, and it’s the same white dudes with t-shirts and baseball hats.
Just no backpacks this time.
How did you guys get involved with Rock The Bells?
The Coup has been Rock the Bells and Rage Against The Machine has been on Rock The Bells before, so I think they contacted us because we both have a history with it and I think our music shows the influence of hip hop. Every culture’s art that has been created since hip-hop got big has been influenced by hip hop. So I think it just makes pure sense. Also they heard we could rock the crowd.
Like, our show is not the regular rock show or the regular hip hop show. Two and a half songs into our set, every band member is covered and drenched in sweat. I’m talking about all of our clothes are drenched in sweat by the third song.
And you’re wearing long black coats.
And we’re wearing some hot ass uniforms!
How hard is it for Rock The Bells to get all of these musicians involved across all of the country?
It’s probably just as hard as Lollapalooza was. It’s kinda weird with hip hop, that’s something that gets talked about, people asking “How hard is it to get all these folks together? We’re musicians: it’s what we do.
Sure but you have some real heavy hitters on this tour. From Rakim to Lauren Hill.
How hard is it to book it? I’m sure it’s hard for all of that, but you know what? People want to do Rock The Bells. People want Rock The Bells to succeed, the artists and the audience. It reminds people of the old school Fresh Fests, the old school Def Jam Tour, the old school…the one with Run-DMC and Beastie Boys. Especially if you weren’t old enough to go to those things, they remind you of that and people still want hip hop to succeed. It has that thing. Even though there are people on this bill that have, by all standard measures of capitalist success, made it. People still feel like this music represents them and they want to get it onto a bigger stage. The crowd is excited and the musicians are excited, so people seem to bend over backwards to do this and I know we did.
Who are you looking forward to seeing the most?
Well there are a lot of folks I’ve never seen. One is Lauren Hill, Slick Rick, Rakim…Snoop I never saw. I heard he has a raw band. Tribe Called Quest, although I’ve seen them numerous times, I’m sure it will be crazy.
You worked with Stanton Moore before, from Galactic, right?
He recorded the drums on the first album.
Who is your touring drummer right now?
Eric “The Claw” Gardner. He was also the drummer for Gnarls Barkley. I toured with Stanton and Galactic quite a lot.
I read about that. You got in some trouble in Virginia, right?
Norfolk. Of all places, a town with the word “Fuck” in its name gave me a citation for cussing! I was going to have to serve jail time, but we beat them and made them change the law.
That’s poetic. The last question involves a quote from you shortly after 9/11. The quote is “last week’s events were symptomatic of a larger backlash against U.S. corporate imperialism.” My question is: a decade later, do you still agree with that, disagree with it, do you modify it?
Come on man, I’ve been proven right!
I know you have, I’m just wondering what your stance is?
At the time, it was shocking to a lot of folks that I would even say it. Not because people didn’t believe it, but because everybody was scared to talk. What was crazy was a couple of weeks after that, I was part of the “Not in our name” campaign. They asked me to get folks to sign on against the bombing in Afghanistan. It was started by the families that suffered during 9/11 who was saying they wanted no war in their name. I tell you what; I know a lot of artists in R&B, Hip Hop, and the Rock world. If I don’t know them, I have ways to talk to them…most of the people I talked to said “I agree with this.” But my record label told me that if we get involved with something like this, we won’t sell records. And if we don’t sell records, they can’t fund the project, so therefore I can’t sign something like this.
We talk about 9/11 and we talk about the wars that came after and that are going on. But we don’t talk about the suppression of speech that’s able to happen in this country. When I was saying those things, there were a couple of people that were in places where they could say those kinds of things on the news. One of them, out of all craziness, was Viggo Mortensen who was promoting the Lord of the Rings movies. He was saying he didn’t want to talk about the movie; he wanted to speak out against the war.
We talk about 9/11 in this vacuum. But we don’t realize that the stuff is going on right now, they have been doing it before and the debate wasn’t even out in the open. The only reason the debate is a little more in the open is because the U.S. has gotten bolder. The other part of that statement was because the US had just been found guilty by the World Court of killing 30,000 people in Nicaragua. 30,000 people, you know, with funded death squads with directives of where to go and attack illegally. They were found guilty and ordered to pay some astronomical amount, it was in the millions, and the US said they will not adhere to the bindings of the World Court. Some pundits were saying “Why don’t we try Osama bin Laden in the World Court, that way we get other countries behind us?” The reason they didn’t because the US had dissolved the World Court by saying “If we don’t like what it says, it doesn’t matter.” We were there complaining about 3,000 deaths and there were 30,000 documented deaths that the US had ordered.
It happens all over the place and it’s been happening and when the US has a business interest, they are going to protect that business interest with guns and bombs. And they are going to create business interests with guns and bombs.
Well, I don’t want to leave it on a bummer, so what should people expect from your show on Saturday?
Sweat. Rock. Funk.