Interview Archive: Boots Riley Of The Coup Part One of Two!! (2001)





Today (10-30-12) The Coup's sixth album dropped, "Sorry To Bother You". Boots Riley of The Coup was also the subject of our Mic Math Monday discussions a couple weeks back. Boots Riley is among the greatest writers of this Hip Hop generation. He also puts a lot of thought into his words, music and actions. He talks the talks and walks the walk essentially. I did an interview with him in 2001 for their fourth album, "Party Music", but it ended up never getting printed. I recently rediscovered it and was really impressed with the depth in which he discussed things, so I thought I would share. It is still very much relavent and extremely informative and interesting. Here it is in it's original intended form...


While typing this interview with Boots I came up with all sorts of ideas that I considered clever for an introduction. I could really try to show off my writing style I thought... Honestly, at this point after reading through this and letting his words soak in I've lost that urge. I thought, that could provide a distraction to the core of what was accomplished with the very content of this piece...intelligent, insightful, informative, thought provoking & honest talk. Whether or not your are a fan of The Coup, or even of Hip Hop, I'd like to suggest you give this a good read. Yeah, I know it's lengthy, but nearly every piece provides some insight of the key concerns in Hip Hop and society. Print it out, carry it with you, then when you finish pass it along to your friends and family. I doubt you'll regret it.

RedefineHipHop: Describe your earliest Hip Hop memory?

Boots: This goes back to a controversy. I end up getting into arguments with people about this... Until I was 6 lived in Detroit and what people used to do in Detroit was called hand-boning. People would rap and battle but with hand boning  This was  like '76/'77. It was before I even heard the words Hip Hop, rap, or anything like this. I couldn't do it but my older brothers and cousins would always be doing it. When I heard the first song that I recognized as being rap, it was Sugarhill Gang, (and) by then I had already moved to Oakland, but even people there we were  saying 'oh, that's that hand boning song'. (Handboning) is my first Hip Hop experience and this is the  controversial part because people don't include that in Hip Hop. I think the thing with the Four Elements is part of the commercialization of Hip Hop. I never saw one  article were (hand boning) was mentioned & ever time I mention it in  any sort of interview they cut it out...

RedefineHipHop: From that point what drew you into it?

Boots: I guess I already was before I realized that I wanted to be, because everyone would rap in the hallway...beat on the wall or table and rap. By the time I was in high school a lot of rappers were out big time and you could see people could make money off of it. (However), there was still mass numbers of people who just saw it as something they did, as opposed to something else to get into outside of their regular lives. I was involved in political organizing myself. I would always rap in talent shows or whatever, (but) it was to have fun. The raps weren't necessarily political or anything like that. Sometimes they were, but I was involved in community organizing from the time I was 14. In '89 I was 18 and we were (involved in a program) with these projects in San Francisco, Double Rock Projects. It was (based) around housing issues. A lot of people were getting kicked out for no reason. The police were harassing people and things like that. We would go there all the time and talk to people and we had certain programs happening, but a lot of things weren't catching on. People would agree with what we were talking about, but they just weren't motivated. One day, and I talk about it actually in a verse in a song from the first album called "I know you". There was a woman named Rossy Hawkins and she had two twin sons that were 7 years old and the police came out and were talking to her about something or the other. They were telling her that her nephew sold dope or whatever. Anyway, she started to argue with them and they proceeded to beat her up with their batons and they beat her two 7 year old twin sons up with the batons. They were all bloody. The projects (out there) are set up almost like a courtyard and there are streets that go through. People started to come out of their apartments and gathered around and they were shocked that the police wouldn't stop so they started attacking the police. By the end of the night there was like 7 police cars turned over. The police had to run out on foot. None of this got in the newspapers. It was actually a victory because the police didn't come mess with anyone there for years. I wasn't there. I was there the day after and the thing that inspired me was that I found out that at one point everyone had came out and gathered around and the police got scared and started shooting in the air and saying (things like) 'get back, we'll kill you' and people were scared and they started backing up, but someone started yelling 'fight the power, fight the power, fight the power, fight the power..,' and people went and attacked the police and ran them out of there. That was the summer that "Fight The Power" by Public Enemy had came out, so they were shouting it like that chorus. That's when I knew the power of Hip Hop.

RedefineHipHop: Let's talk about some of your life inspirations. First, where does your political background emerge from?

Boots: My father was a full time organizer for a organization called the Progressive Labor Party in Detroit. He had dropped out of that by the time | was 6 or 7. I knew his political views, but didn't know too much of what was going on, but through that time I saw that there were things they were doing in the neighborhood. Our house was like a community center. People would come in all the time. There were always people there playing cards, parties every weekend and stuff like that. There was a real sense of fun, but they were also working at doing something. Later on in life in High School I ran into the same organization out here (in the Bay). My father never really pushed any politics on me. I only caught what his views were from comments he would make about things, but I knew that if got involved in changing the world that is something morally right to do. When I was 14 the reason that I even got involved with politics didn't have so much to do with the politics at first. They had a youth group and they were like, 'We're going on these trips to do these rallies' and there's the van and the van was full of girls and I was like "Ok, I’m going". After that I got immersed in political activity and learning about how it works and how you can change it.

RedefineHipHop: Who are your musical influences?

Boots: When I first started really getting to Hip Hop was in high school, It's like everybody starts really loving stuff (music) when they get Into high school. My introduction to it was more on the party vibe. Me and my friends didn't start loving Rakim cause we were like "Ooh, do you catch the double meaning...' It was because "Check Out My Melody" was played at the parties and that was the shit. There's a lot of trends in Hip Hop which are valid, but just aren't as rhythmic and that's not what I’m in to, because of the way I came into enjoying Hip Hop was through parties and dancing and things like that. In Oakland, I remember that people were so into partying that people would come in and shoot and everyone would jump on the floor (then) security would rush the person with the gun and get them out of there. Once they were out, the music would start back up and everyone was dancing again.

RedefineHipHop: What was the Hip Hop scene like coming up in the Bay Area?

Boots: Hip Hop in Oakland started out always being real slow tempo. One reason behind that has to do with transportation. For instance, in New York there's a lot of public transportation and music was listened to through boxes or Walkmen, so it's a little more individualized. In Oakland, in the Bay Area in general, you have to have a car to exist, to be able to have a job or whatever. The public transportation is shit, so a big car culture emerged. It's also a little more open than Chicago or New York in terms of the buildings spaced together. There were things called "sideshows" which were nothing more than people getting together in parking lots, doing donuts, playing there music loud and showing off what their car looks like and these were regular events. There's also more cruising...we call it "rolling the strip". (So) if you are in your car most of time when you are listening to music you are going to have some big speakers in the least12's if not 18's. It also ends up being a way to promote your record cause people that are walking or in their house are going to hear it and maybe they'll buy it. The thing that gets the most attention is the 808 kick. For that 808 kick to really be utilized it has to really hit and expand and compress that down. If you have it going quick (tempo) it doesn't physically press the woofers out and doesn't give enough time for the sound waves to come out, but if you have it going slower then you get the best response. That combined with the fact that in Oakland black people were more recently from the south than the midwest or (east coast). Most black families moved here in the late 40s/early 50s and still on into the 60s and 70s, so in different parts of Oakland you could hear the differences. Like In West Oakland people were more from Texas and stuff like that. In East Oakland it was the families who moved from West to East Oakland during "white flight" in the late 60s/early 70s and they had been mostly from Louisiana and stuff like that. The combination of people being from the south and the music being more Blues or Funk based because that was the type of music people’s parents listened to. Out here you don't have a big group of black folks that listen to jazz like you might have in New York. That ended up changing the way people would rap. Musically, those are the things that influenced the style of the Bay Area. Now economics has taken a hold of all that. People don't have the money to put those speakers in their cars any more or even to keep their car up, so you've seen people gear their music more towards clubs again and the tempos are getting a Iot faster. Combine that with the fact ADATS are a lot cheaper for recording your stuff and the bass response isn't as great.

RedefineHipHop: As far as your production history, you incorporate a lot of live instrumentation in your tracks. Do you play any instruments?

Boots: Not performance wise. Growing up I started playing different things like trumpet, guitar, and piano, so I know a lot of things about music and if you give me a sequencer I can play one note at a time. I was never disciplined about practice, so I just leave that to friends of mine who are real musicians. Sometimes, l just have a tune and sing it to them. A few songs I've actually played it and even when I do that I usually have the real deal musicians come in and funk it up.

RedefineHipHop: What made you get into the production side?

Boots:When everybody who was supposed to be my producer would always be faking. My partner, J MACK, at the time was supposed to be my producer and I had saved up a whole bunch of money...which was a whole bunch to me, like $400...he was supposed to meet me at the studio with the beats that we had created on his SP-1200. He faked (and didn't show up) and that was the beginning of my production (career), cause I had paid for the studio time, so I was like "Ok., I got to do it". Then I just found it easier. Then with the times that I've tried to work with other producers I end up wanting to change it so much that it ends up not being their beat. I think that has to do with my rap style, because I know how to make a beat to cater to how I want to rap. It seems to me that a lot of producers, especially producers that aren't rappers themselves, produce based on things that they are hearing out there. They'll have a beat that would sound tight if I was rappin' like such and such, but it won't sound tight if I'm rappin' like myself...or it won't be as tight (in general). That's why my music ends up being a little bit off brand. Early on I was a real big fan of Ice Cube and when I think back I really was trying to imitate a lot of the stuff he did. Luckily, I wasn't able to, so it just came out sounding like my own style. 

RedefineHipHop: What were some of the equipment you've used over the years?

Boots: First, before (The Coup) really came out it was the SP-1200. (We didn't own one ourselves). It was just we knew a person (here & there who had the equipment). A lot of the stuff on the first LP was done with the AKAl S950 and the CREATOR sequencing program. A lot of Roland keyboards. The first LP, we did it at the studio, so a lot of actual organs and keyboards. On the first LP, my partner Carl Wheeler,(who is) Toni Toni Toni's keyboardist, played a lot of the keyboards on the final versions of it. We also used a lot of old Moogs on the first album. We couldn't get a lot of real good sounds, so everything else was like cheesy Roland sounds that we put a lot effects on. A lot of things came out not sounding how I envisioned them from the get-go. With the 2nd LP, a couple of the beats I had done on the EPS 16 Plus. Then I had the AKAI S2800 and the R-8 for the 808 and I sequenced it all with this ATARI computer and the (Atari) Notator program. This last album (“Steal This Album”) was all that same equipment. The messed up thing about it is that for those 3 albums it was the same ATARI computer and that's one of the reasons it took a little while for the third album to come out. That was all I had and you'd try to turn it on sometimes and it would take two hours just to turn it on. You'd have to hope, rub it, blow on it and all that kind of stuff to try to get it to turn on. I'd have an idea in the middle of the night and by the time I'd get able to start doing a beat it's like 3 hours later and I'd be hella tired and be like fuck it…

RedefineHipHop: Have you done much work as a producer outside of The Coup material?

Boots: l've done a couple of things. There was a group we put out called Point Blank Range...that was around the time "Genocide & Juice" came out. I did some production work on this group called Closed Caption. I got a beat on the new Dead Prez. As a rapper, if I make a beat and I put a lot of work into and it's tight I'm going to be like "I'm going to use this one myself". I've passed up a lot of opportunities. Now I'm starting to do more because I have more equipment, so l'm doing some remixes.

RedefineHipHop: You had this message in the first LP liner notes about allowing people to sample from you and you were cool with it. What made you put that there?

Boots: If you listen to a lot of music from the 60s/70s they were sampling from each other...taking riffs. I got this record, Great Hits of Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd St Band (and) If you get that album you will hear nothing, but the Rolling Stones who took a lot of their songs only 4 or 5 months later and made tremendous hits out of them. Now Charles Wright is playing at little bars to 15 people. Mick Jaggernot only took the music from him, but his whole vocal would think you're listening to Mick Jagger. One time some one came to me for the sample we used on "Gunsmoke". I’m not even going to say who it is, but it's from a rock group. We actually played it over, but their publisher called us and was like, “That's our groups song...' (I told them)."It is? I didn't know, because it sounds like this song from this Blues guy…if wanna take me to court on it then l'm going to have to call their publishers too." I never got a call back on it. It wasn't until (Hip Hop) that they came into the idea of paying for riffs. On there (in the liner notes) I say if you are going to use it, just keep it tight (and gimmie my props).

RedefineHipHop: Let's take about the first release. It was an E.P., what was it called?

BOOTS: [sarcastically] It was real creative. It was called the EP. A Iot of the songs on the first LP were on the EP. (The EP) had “The Coup" and "Foul Play" and those were the same versions (as on the debut album). We had a different version of "I Ain't The Ni**a". Then we had this short Acapella called "Economics 101".

RedefineHipHop: Is that the one with the human beat box?

Boots:Yeah, that was actually my partner, Osagyefo, who ends up rapping on the second album (on "Interrogation"). Before that though we had a couple songs on this compilation called "Dope Iike A Pound or a Key". It was actually that first thing that us, Spice Oneand Tupac's brother, Mo-sades was on. That had a different version of "Foul Play". That (compilation) and the EP were in '91. What it was is this; Me, Eroc, Spice and this dude named G-NUT from 187 Faculty (editors note: he's also does the intro to the Coups 2nd LP) were all working at UPS and we knew Pizzo the Beatfixer, who was Too Short’s DJ at the time and we all hooked up with him. He took our masters and stole them and put them out, but we were real happy cause we were hearing people bumping our stuff. They actually supposedly sold like 20.000 copies, but the thing is they didn't put anybody's name on it. We (The Coup) don't say our names in any of our raps, but Spice One and 187 Faculty (did), all through (their songs), so people just thought our stuff was them (too).

RedefineHipHop: From there, how did the connection with Wildpitch Records come about? It was interesting to me, because not only were you the first West Group signed to Wildpitch, but also the first group to break their signature "traditional Hip Hop" sound...

Boots: Just the right place at the right time. Which was the Bay Area in the early 90s. Everybody wanted to have somebody from the Bay Area and even better Oakland. We had the EP out and was selling a lot locally. It was as simple as them going to a record store called Leopolds and asking who are the best independent (local) sellers. They had an independent wall and it was out of us, E-40, and Dangerous Dame. E-40, as we all can see, had bigger plans. He was already selling way more than we were, but not in the Bay, they were selling all through the Midwest. In Oakland people weren't really up on him as they were in other places. They just called us because we were the next biggest local seller. At the time we were on this thing that we weren't going to sign with a label and were going to do it all independent, so we actually recorded 90% of that first album on our own. Which accounts for why I really didn't like it afterward, because we would record and mix everything in four hours for each song. Just as far as budget. it was like 'Hey if it didn't come out right, sorry, that's the song'. Anyway, (Wildpitch) called and luckily for us the owner (Stu Fine) of Wildpitch was kind of eccentric and crazy, because we didn't fit the mold of anything that was going on. Actually, before we decided to do it independent we had shopped around and a few people looked at us and were like 'You don't sound like this or that we don't have any category for you.' Stu was a person who I feel, although (Wildpitch) didn't know how to work most of their records, they signed some good groups just based on 'Ok. I like it'. He was a much better A&R person than a label president. Normally, we wouldn't have gotten signed if there wasn't a rich guy who was arrogant enough to not care. Not that he didn't care, but his ignorance about business...if he had been more business savvy he would have been like 'Hey, what am I doing'. It did take a long time for us to find our market, but once we found it we were able to sell a lot of records. We sold a lot of records compared to the other records they had on Wildpitch. We just had to find our people that wanted to hear what we were doing and then we had to convince everybody else.

RedefineHipHop: One of your strong points as an MC is your ability to come up with interesting and entertaining concepts. Let's discuss some of the ones you've done. On the first album it seemed as if you were challenging some of the things that the bulk of Hip Hop artists were endorsing. Particularly with songs like "Last Blunt" and "I Ain't The Nigga". What made you want to make those statements?

Boots: "Last Blunt" was more of a personal thing, but when I wrote that and even afterwards for a Iong time, maybe like a year, I still smoked weed a lot. Political I knew it was wrong. In that song I don't say I don't smoke weed. I just say that this is fucking me up. I was dealing with the fact and looking around me and everybody I knew were raw ass rappers who sat around smoking weed all the time and didn't do shit. It's about the practical-ness of things. If we really are going to be trying to make change...this is the function of this particular drug…it makes you lazy and not want to do shit. That's why I say "Ain't no revolution going to come from the blunted". It also makes you accept shit. That's the reason why people smoke weed after work. (You can be) hella frustrated with your life and then you smoke weed and you're not frustrated any more. The thing l'm saying is, keep that frustration and do something with it. (More so) I was just noticing my own contradictions and that's what the song was about. "I ain't the Nigga", that's (about) something that I've gone on different sides of the fence for in my life at different times. Basically, the idea was to talk about the argument that nigga doesn't mean the same thing any more. It was more of a self identification politics thing. Even though I agree with the lyrics I say on there, that's not really my main stress. A lot of that probably came about cause at the time I was going to San Francisco State and you get into all these theoretical debates. It's identity politics, what's your name and what do you call yourself? I think that's important and I'm not down grading that, but the real idea is the fact that politics are material things. On the last verse on "Piss On Your Grave" I say "True liberation ain't no word in the head/I'm yelling murder 'em dead for some fish, steak and bread". The change from the inside will happen when we figure out how we are going to make change on the outside. You'll notice a lot of times people will have a worldview that supports whatever they are doing. It's very rare that someone has a worldview that doesn't support what they are doing, so if you change what you are doing that's going to change your worldview. That's going to change your view of yourself. That's going to give you self pride if you figure out how to stop people from economically raping you every day, then you are going to have tremendous self pride and you probably won't call yourself nigga. Just to say, don't call yourself nigga and everything else is the same, that's not changing anything one bit. Political l still agree with it, but if I was where I am today (when I wrote that) I probably wouldn't have made it. There's a lot of songs (on that first LP) that have to do with identity politics, that I think has to do with the fact that's what I thought of the movement at that time, from being in that intellectual crowd or whatever. (For example), I have this song called "Fuck a Perm" and one time in Milwaukee or somewhere like that, we had just did a show and we were out signing autographs. Someone yelled from the back of the crowd, 'Hey Coup. Fuck a Perm? Fuck you!' I didn't do that song that night, but everyone in that crowd had long perms. The point is that they had followed us around all day and were bumping the album in their cars...rapping to everything fiercely, knowing all the words. Its like they took (the song "fuck a Perm") to heart and they were hurt by that, as opposed to it being that there are more important things to talk about. I think self pride comes from power. Feeling that you have power over your world. I don't think self pride comes from just some inner spiritual thing, but its when you've figured out that you have a way to exert some power in this society. That's a part of being in a movement which is changing material situations; how much you are getting paid, how much food is in your refrigerator, how comfortable is it for you and people around you? A lot of times in the movement we turn people off by (stuff like) 'If you don't got dreads you're not conscious'. On the cover of my first EP I have dreads. I'm holding the big X-Clan type cane or whatever. I started realizing that image was alienating to a lot of people that I'm talking too. The idea a lot of times that is put out there by pseudo revolutionaries is that to be revolutionary you have to (look or be a certain way). Therefore people say 'Ok if I want to be a part of this movement I have to change who I am first and that's not me so therefore I'm not revolutionary'. The key to all my songs is that I'm saying, "I am you and you are revolutionary. You can be revolutionary. The things that you go through everyday proves these things about this system and you can join the movement". Songs like "Fuck a Perm" and "I Ain't the Nigga" are almost like blame the victim sort of things and that's something that I've moved away from.


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