Two nights before Barrack Obama's second Presidential election in Nov. 2012, I tracked down political activist, songwriter, public speaker, Coup frontman and all around bad muthafucka Boots Riley to talk about the latest Coup record, the instant classic Sorry To Bother You, the live Coup experience vs. the records and the impact of social media on political activism. It was the second time I've interviewed Riley and he remains one of the best, most open interviews I've ever done. If you're not fucking with the Coup you're fucking up. Mad respect to Boots, one of the most important brothers working in the game today. Great talk. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed having it.
And if you're in my neck of the woods in BC, check out the Coup hitting Victoria and Vancouver on Feb.28 and March 1, respectively. (Get your tickets for Victoria here.)
Boots Riley: How’s it going?
Rags Music: It’s going great, man. Glad to get some minutes with you. Thanks for taking some time for me.
BR: Cool, where are you calling from?
RM: Victoria, Canada. Getting revved up for the Coup show here in town.
BR: Okay, cool. It’s gonna be good.
RM: How’s the European tour going?
BR: It’s going good. We’re performing almost every night. We maybe have four days off in this whole month. It’s exhausting but at the same time things are getting tighter on stage, so everybody, the people that are hearing it are getting the benefit of us working so much.
RM: Sweet. How are those new songs going over? How are they reacting to them?
BR: They’re reacting really good. I assumed that the reaction wouldn’t be as strong because they’re new songs, compared to the other songs that people know, but yeah they’re going over really well. The shows have been wild as far as the crowds. It’s satisfying to finally play the new songs.
RM: Congrats on the new album, it’s amazing. It sounds so immediate and important. It’s a fucking burner. What’s your favourite thing about the record?
BR: I think it’s just that with this album…On this album I worked with a good friend of mine named Damien G, we co-produced the album together. I used to have a studio in his same building and we’d spend a lot of time talking about music together and things like that and he played a little on the last album. This time instead of wasting time away from making the album at his studio I was like “Let me just do the album here.” I think what happened is just that it allowed me to let in a lot of influences that I probably kept out of my other stuff because of some idea of what the genre is supposed to sound, some allegiance to the aesthetic of the genre. Because it was just like a cool back and forth, us just trying different sounds and stuff, there was nothing that was off the table. We’ve always done stuff that didn’t fit into whatever else was going on and this time I think I just had more things to play with, things at my fingertips to play with. The drum sounds…I was allowed to play with a lot of different things, the moving of it. It’s kind of hard because now as I’m saying this I would say that maybe my favourite thing about the record is the songwriting. I’ve been slowly, each album…early on I was known as a “lyricist”. That’s an honor but it also means you have to stay within a certain framework. These one-liners that are witty and funny and whatever, but to do that a lot of times you’re supposed to be kind of cold and not passionate. I wanted to write songs that were maybe more in the classical songwriting idea, songs that had an economy of words. That got across things…One thing people can accuse this record of is having shorter verses. Other verses I’ve had, easily 80-something bar verses. This one we got 24-bar, 16-bar, sometimes 8-bars. There’s a challenge that comes with that. You can do an 8-bar or 16-bar verse and you can sound like someone who guest-rapped on a Brandi album, really meaningless and airheaded and things like that. So if you’re going to do that it takes a different sort of songwriting. I just cut to the meat of things, to pick and choose my words correctly in a way that gets across my emotion. I think this is more of an emotional record for me.
RM: The verses are definitely shorter, but they’re no less dense. There’s so much to pick up in those verses. I’ve been reading the lyrics sheet for a week, staring at it, picking up more and more all the time.
BR: Thanks, man. I don’t know, to me it doesn’t sound like it aesthetically, but this more influenced by literary writers. Not literary writers, that’s redundant, but literary figures like Michael Ondachi or Leonard Cohen or Pablo Neruda, things that I want to be able to stand alone on paper. I’ve always have written my lyrics that way to where it would look good if you read it but I think this one I used a different style. At the same time it’s kind of like that short and sweet thing of it is kind of like a Beatlesque thing, like, “Here is a really good song and it’s only 3 minutes and that’s all you’re gonna get.” I’m not gonna try to make it better by going on for 10 or 8 minutes.
RM: It’s an amazing art to be able to write a concise song and not have it go on and on but still make it effective. It’s a great art and I think you’ve got pretty close to getting it right. Do you ever second guess yourself when you decide to put something like a kazoo or an accordion on a record?
BR: No. I mean we had harmonica way back in the day. We’ve always brought in all sorts of things. A song that almost made it onto Party Music, I forget why it didn’t make it on at the last second, but it was all whistling. I’ve always produced stuff like that. To me that’s more of a Hip-Hop thing than anything else. When we would go get crates and crates of records from the thrift stores and we’d look for samples we didn’t say something like, “Oh we need something with a bass and guitar that sounds like this.” No, we would sample accordions or bagpipes or a vibraphone, anything that we could make a beat with. I think that this is more of an extension of that openness that came from starting out producing in that way.
RM: Yeah, I dig that. How did you manage to take so many different pieces, every song sounding so different but like they belong together in a unified whole, was there a trick to that or is it just how it happened?
BR: I think it’s just how it happened. It’ll start with one idea and then we’ll go. And I think some of it is the sonic carving that’s done out by Damien, my co-producer who helped engineer it. Sometimes I can get really jumbled up in there and so he, just as far as doing things the right way. But he and I went at it because I think coming from that Hip-Hop background I don’t have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong in music. It’s just “This is what I’m doing.” Often musicians will tell me that’s wrong, that doesn’t go together or a singer will tell me that’s wrong. A lot of it solving a problem, “How do I make this go together?”
RM: It’s almost like a childlike innocence in making music.
BR: <Laugh> Yeah. With ‘Violet’, the original idea was to have drums and then it just wasn’t sounding right, and I was like, “Alright, no drums.” Sometimes you have to make productions choices…that’s definitely a division. That’s not like tambourine or cowbell, that’s a big stylistic decision. And even with ‘Your Parent’s Cocaine’ I knew I wanted it to have that weird sound on my voice, so what we did was we just record it through a really old mic and pumped it hard through an amp and went from the mic, into a guitar amp, into another mic. Folks are like “Okay, that sounds like a good idea, but you might change your mind later. You should just do it in pro tools and add the effect later.” I was like, “No, I want to make the decision now, I don’t want to be able to get out of this.” I think that’s how things came out. When you start mixing things and other people start talking to you about things, you start second-guessing it and you’ll talk yourself out of some really good ideas once you start doing that.
RM: I can dig that. A song like “Violet,” it’s a bit of a bold move to have that song in the middle of that record, this sonic storm, this serious – not that’s it not all serious, you know what I mean- in the middle of everything. Why not keep it for the end of the record?
BR: I don’t know. It’s not really scientific, I just listen to the song, I start building it, like, “What should come next?” Then I listen to those two, then I listen to three in a row. I just kind of figure out what would be a good thing to hear at that point. I think maybe it works because it gives a breather to all this stuff.
RM: Yeah, that makes sense. Like the eye of the storm. Does each one of these songs have a direct place in the movie or are they “inspired by” sorts of tracks?
BR: Some of them aesthetically have a place in the movie but they’re not directly related lyric-wise to the movie. The music, the theme of it sometimes is something that’s happening in the movie. The most direct one is “We’ve got a lot to Teach You, Cassius Green.” Cassius Green is the main character in the movie and although the storyline of the song doesn’t happen in the movie, it’s supposed to be a dream he’s having based on a situation he’s in the movie. But that dream doesn’t happen in the movie, that’s in the inspiration for the song.
RM: Cool, cool. How is the movie coming along?
BR: It’s coming along good. We’re tightening up a few things. It’s being produced by Ted Hope who produced 21 Grams, the Ice Storm, American Splendor, a lot good and well-received independent movies. It’s being directed by Alex Rivera who’s only directed one feature so far but it good a lot of good critical reviews and it’s called Sleep Dealer and it’s a science fiction thing. The movie has a lot of science-fiction in it. We won’t be filming until spring and it’ll probably be out in the summertime.
RM: Man, it takes a whole lot more time to get a movie done than an album, eh? Not even close.
BR: You’re dealing with a lot more money and assurances people want. It’s an independent record so we’ll still be working this record. It’s not a major label thing where we do two months of promotion and that’s it. No, we’ll still be touring.
RM: What do enjoy about touring?
BR: I mean I guess it would just have to be performing the songs. Everything else I could do without. I don’t like being away from family and friends. It really can wear you down.
RM: I could only imagine. The initial reaction seems to be overwhelmingly positive – I’ve only read a few reviews that can even be called “tepid” – no one seems to have anything bad to say about it. What’s it been like for you to have such an overwhelmingly positive response?
BR: It’s definitely affirming. Although the reviews are mainly good but some will say something like, they expected this to be this way. It’s interesting. The Pitchfork review said that some of these things were the result of my idiosyncrasies, to me the opposite of idiosyncratic is trendy, on top of where everything is. That’s something I’ve never able to be accuse of is being trendy. <laughs> I mean I have an afro and sideburns no matter whether it’s in or not. So the idea has never even been…I’ve been in studios with people, where no matter what the new trend is in the music, you’ll go to some studios that are all slick and stuff and you’ll have some producers in there being like, “Aw yeah, we making beats that sound just like Mannie Fresh,” or, “We making beats that sound like the Neptunes,” or, “We making beats that sound just like Timbaland.” You get all these independent rappers paying money for these beats for these beats that sound just like somebody else. I was just never able to write to that type of stuff. It never inspired me. I have to do stuff that inspires me to write and most likely that’s going to be a sound that’s not out there right then and I have to create. That’s the only reason I became a producer was to make stuff that I could write to.
RM: Well, it’s good. All your records sound different and fresh. This album, there’s just nothing around it. My little brother has always respected the Coup stuff, coming from a different place than me, and we were driving around bumping it yesterday and he was blown away. He was like, “What is this?!”
BR: And I would say that the other part of the album is that it more represents what we’ve sounded like live since the late 90’s. Usually when the label wants to promote something they go the path of least resistance. So they didn’t promote the Coup as a band. And some of that has to do with hardcore Hip-Hop fans. We just did this gig in Helsinki last night and every single person had a t-shirt and baseball hat on. And I think before we started they were kind of like, “What is this? The Coup has a band? What are they doing?” I’m imaging just from the looks on their faces before we started. There are all of these conventions that you’re supposed to hold to. I’m sure it happens in a lot of music but definitely in Hip-Hop – “This is what Hip-Hop is supposed to be.” They do that in music, like if you change the hi-hat a bit then “Oh, it’s this kind of beat.” If you put a kick on this beat and that beat – it’s that kind of beat. It’s not just music. I mean we change their minds when we play but what I’m saying is this album represents how we’ve been sounding for awhile.
RM: For sure, I can see that. It’s always different hearing a beat on a record then seeing it performed by a band.
BR: So that’s why I wanted to also close that gap. I personally was okay with having a different sound on the record than live, just like it’s a different experience. But we would get so much more energy from the live show, I mean us, how the songs came across, that I wanted to make an album that had that energy.
RM: That makes sense, obviously. This upcoming Coup show has some of the cheapest tickets I’ve ever seen, what’s up with that? Why is that?
BR: I have no idea, I have nothing to do with that. You can thank the promoter. What are they charging?
RM: $7.80. I think it came to $9 after the store got their service fee. I’ve sold people on coming just based on the price alone, people who have never heard the Coup.
BR: Aw man, cool! We definitely do deals with the promoters so that the prices can be low. We don’t control directly. If they’re charging too much we’re definitely going to say something. We want the ticket prices to be low, why? We want people to have more money to get drunk. That’s what it’s all about.
RM: <laugh> It seemed like a logical thing for a band like the Coup, very community oriented, getting closer to the people and all that.
BR: We want to relate the music to people. We’re not making the music in a vacuum. It’s all just part of one same thrust.
RM: What made you decide to go with the Kickstarter campaign and how was that experience for you?
BR: It was overwhelmingly positive. I miscalculated some of the expenses but we actually have a bus now. 96% of the people have gotten their stuff now, but there’s been some problems, some people still haven’t gotten their vinyl, but it went really good. We have a bus and it’ll allow a different touring experience for us. One where we can come into town and do things in town and connect with the community or whatever while we’re there. And it allows us to do more stuff in the sense that we won’t have hotel expenses.
RM: Yeah, that’s a huge thing. I’d be remised if I didn’t get into a couple questions about politics while I have the great Boots Riley on the phone…You guys got your Presidential election coming up in a couple days…do Presidential politics even matter any more?
BR: The truth is that every single in life matters so I won’t say it doesn’t matter because it has to do with what people are thinking and how or whether or not they think change can be made. But the truth is is that if you have a radical mass, direct-action, militant labour movement that can shut things down at points of production and points of sale to stop profit you can make any politician do whatever you want them to do. Without a movement like that you could elect Ché Guevara he would capitulate to the capitalists or he would leave the job. Those elected positions aren’t positions of power and no change that we’ve got, no substitute, that has come in the last 100 years or more than that has ever come from electing the right politician, it’s always come from there being radical mass movements going on. The way that the New Deal in the US came about with social security and unemployment insurance and all those things, the way that that happened was because there was because there were sit-down strikes going on all over the Mid-West. There were miner strikes going on all over the South. The Communist Party USA had over a million card-carrying members and their obviously more supporters. WWI veterans marched on the White House, 200,000 of them, with their guns out, because they hadn’t gotten paid their bonus money. At the same time there were revolutions going on all over the world. The New Deal came because they were scared of a revolution growing in the US. Similarly, even Civil Rights legislation did not come…there was no big campaign to elect JFK because he was going to enact Civil Rights legislation, that didn’t happen. As a matter of fact, a year before, he said wouldn’t support anything like that. So that happened because there were people shutting things down. There was a large movement growing and they didn’t want it to grow anymore. Affirmative Action got put in place when Nixon was in office. He was a right-winger and it wasn’t because he had some change of heart it was because there was a movement that was shutting things down and there were revolutions going on all over the world.
RM: The Occupy Oakland movement, from what I’ve been able to gather, seems to be one of the only ones that has continued on really well. Is there a specific reason it’s done so well there but has faded out of the news in lots of places?
BR: It’s fading out of the news is just that, it’s fading out of the news. Often it’s still going on, it’s just the news decided that they don’t want to cover that anymore. You can draw your own conclusions or infer motivations behind that but that’s just the truth, but a lot of places it is still going on and they just decided to stop talking about it. That’s the fault of the movement itself for relying too much on the mainstream media to get that word out that it’s happening. For instance on the East Coast those groups are still there because they all jumped into place after Sandy. Those folks haven’t been gone, they’re there, it’s just the mainstream media decided not to talk about it anymore.
RM: How do you get people’s interest back?
BR: I think people are still interested, they just want to know that it’s there. And so I think that when people are, it’s not that the media isn’t interested, sometimes there are arbitrary decisions that are made that have to do with whether they think, at what point are they helping the movement grow or just reporting on it once it’s too big. If they feel like it’s just helping the movement grow they’re not going to report on it for a long time. There’s so many giant movements that have happened that you don’t hear much about. Wal-Mart workers across the country walked out. You didn’t see that on the mainstream media anywhere. That should be some of the biggest headline news ever. 50 different locations. And those were retail workers. Before that the warehouse workers in Michigan walked out, they were on strike, and they sent in militia type police to try to put that down. That’s not on the mainstream news either.
RM: No, it’s certainly not. Wow. I guess a company with Wal-Mart with so much money and power can keep stuff like that off the mainstream news.
BR: I don’t even think it necessarily has to be a direct thing coming from Wal-Mart. It’s that the folks that own the media have an interest in things like that not growing. Reporting on that would only inspire people in all sorts of places. We didn’t hear anything about the 8 month strike going on. The reason I heard about it was because people posted it on my Facebook page. But in the US, something going on a few miles away, with all the students striking against fee hikes [in Quebec], didn’t get reported here. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we both know that if that had of been reported here it would probably inspire students to do things here.
RM: Oh, for sure. Only trickles of that came through in Canada. There wasn’t mainstream media outlets covering it as much as they should. I found out about it on Facebook. Word of mouth and social media is a powerful tool.
BR: I think that social media is important but we have to be aware the algorithms of what comes up on your Facebook are very much guided by mainstream media. If something comes on the 5 o’clock news all across the country and when they talk about it, it shows up at the top of your timeline or twitter or whatever. Then it seems like it’s coming from the community but it’s guided by that. I think we need a combination of social media and actual, real-world visual media. Like taking over billboards, putting up posters and things like that, that people see in the real world and on social media to counteract what’s going on.
RM: I think with social media, the people you associate with on Facebook are probably already leaning towards your point of view and if you get those visual elements you mentioned out there, it has the chance of reaching a bigger scope of people. Again, I appreciate all your time, I know you’re super busy with touring and whatnot. Do you have any words of advice for the readers?
BR: You are exactly what the movement needs right now.
RM: That’s fucking beautiful. Love it.