In 1993 when Boots Riley and The Coup (Pam the Funkstress and former member E-Roc) first caught the attention of the hip-hop world with their socially & politically charged debut Kill My Landlord (Wild Pitch), hip-hop had already passed its political Afro-centric wave.
It was when gangsta rap, with Dr. Dre and The Chronic leading the way, was fast becoming the prevalant hip-hop flavor, remaining so ever since. But none of that bothered the ever-outspoken, individually minded Raymond "Boots" Riley one bit, not then nor in the 16 years since. Boots as both an artist and acitvist has remained a refreshingly consistent voice of rebelliion; one constantly questioning authority, in particular the capitalist system of the country in which he lives.
Last week I caught up with Boots by telephone to talk with him about Black History Month, Barack Obama being in the White House, the relationship between police & minorities in the aftermath of the Oscar Grant case, and of course music, among other things. Riley was in LA in the studio sitting in on the finishing stages of mixing an album for a forthcoming release of an exciting-sounding side project by The Coup frontman, which is detailed further in the conversation that follows.
Amoeblog: So what is this new album side-project you are finishing up right now?
Boots: Me and Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine have a new band. It is called Street Sweeper. I do all the vocals. It is like Rage Against The Machine but funkier and with me rapping. It will come out sometime this year.
Amoeblog: I haven't talked to you since that serious bus tour accident you had two years ago when you had to cancel your tour. How are you and everyone else now after that unforntuante experience?
Boots: Everybody is physically cool but people got really hurt. I came out fine, but Silk-E, she got three broken ribs and a punctured lung. She was in terrible pain. And DJ Big Wiz who was the DJ for Mr Lif, he got his legs broken, and the girl who was doing merchandise for us, she had to cut off the tip of her pinkie.
Amoeblog: Do we even need a Black History Month? Shouldn't every month be Black History Month?
Boots: RIght now the reason that it is needed is that it is not included. Black history is not included in everyone's curriculum and intertwined with the real story of what happened in the world in the real history of the progression of the system. So it is not intertwined. It is left out. So at this point it is needed. But in reality what we need is history to tell the whole truth about exploitation and about peoples' struggles for power and for inclusion. And if that existed there would be no need for Black History Month.
Amoeblog: Do you think we will ever get to that point where the full story will be told in American schools?
Boots: Well if we don't have a school system which tries to support the status quo and apologize for the way the system works. So right now our school system is set up to teach people that 1/2 of the population owning over half the wealth and half the land is okay... So, will we ever get to that point where the real story is told? Only once power is decentralized and once wealth is decentralized.
Amoeblog: What about the uneven ratio of black males in US jails and prisons compared to the overall population? Black males account for only 7% of the total US population, yet make up 46% of the jail and prison population.
Boots: I also recently saw statistics, a study by The American Friends Service Committee -- the Quakers basically, who shed some light on why statistics like that exist and it basically shows that there are arrests for people with drugs and other similar offenses. For instance, the police are arresting young white poorer kids all over the place, or suburban kids all over the place. But the question is what happens once they're charged. There is a difference in what the judge does. A white kid can get caught selling a lot of cocaine, even if it was rocks -- crack. And someone can vouch for them that they are a kid and that they need another chance. And that doesn't happen in black communities. That doesn't happen with black people period...So there is a difference in sentencing that happens. There is a difference in D.A.'s approach to prosecuting folks. I've heard the argument that okay because black folks are poor or they are obviously involved in crime more. But that is not the case. They are involved in crime as much as people of all ethnicities at the same economic level; it's just how the justice system chooses to prosecute. And they choose to prosecute black folks more.
Amoeblog: We just had the Oakland police chief forced out of office over chronic department corruption and of course we just had the recent case of the BART police pulling a gun on and killing the unarmed Oscar Grant. Where do you see this relationship between police and blacks and other minorities going?
Boots: Well it is going to follow along the lines of the same relationship as before with gaining power. When we have more of a say in society then we will have more of a say over who the police protect. Right now they are there to protect property and protect the wealthy. And then they lock up everyone else. When they approach breaking up a fight for instance on the BART, they are not even coming from a standpoint of "let's stop people from hurting themselves." They're approaching it from the standpoint of "let's pull our guns on some folks when we've got a chance to lock them up." Why? Because that community that they are going into are not the ones in power. And you could say the same for white working class folks, that they might go break up a brawl in a redneck bar, but the difference is is that in those communities they have a bigger piece, at least, of the pie and you never hear, or rarely ever hear of a cop breaking up a brawl in a redneck bar by pulling out their guns. It would be a much friendlier situation.
Will it ever change? Again it goes back to people organizing and having a say so in society and police feeling like they are working for the people. And right now the truth is they are not working for the people. They are working for the folks who are in power, which are not the communities that they are working in everyday...People need to hustle for money. There has always been, and nowadays especially with so many people out of work, there is an underground economy that happens with its own set of rules in order for people to just survive and put food on the table. So instead of the police protecting people by stopping this unjust system and unjust appropriation of money, they are just trying to keep people from breaking the so called rules and staying poor and broke. So the accountability is never going to be there because they are looking for the thief in the wrong place, in the first place. They're there to stop people from surviving or to penalize people for the things that they have to do to survive in a system that is fucked up in the first place.
Amoeblog: Speaking of the current economy and the worsening recession -- will it be a wake up call to many and a humbling thing? WIll any good come out of the current recession?
Boots: Not in the way that you are implying. Right now what they will be doing is reorganizing and making sure that they are able to protect themselves more in situations like this. And, believe me, those folks that had all that money, they didn't really lose it. They may have lost the company that they had but none of those folks are homeless. You know there was a Saturday Night Live sketch with one of those financial folks in a barrel who had lost all his clothes and everything. But that's not happening. It's only everyone at the bottom and in the middle that is suffering. So all they're scared of is everybody getting fed up. Will it be a wake-up call? No! They got their bailout money and spent it and won't tell anybody what they spent it on.
Amoeblog: I know, from reading interviews with you over the past year, that you have had some reservations about Obama, or rather, you maintained, it seemed, an objective viewpoint. What do you think now that Obama is the president? Do you think it is a positive thing?
Boots: I think that there are positive things in a sense that, not with him but in the people that supported him feeling like, okay this is something that the will of the people was able to make happen. The people want him to do stuff that is much more radical and progressive than he is going to do. Not only that, but I'll say that some of the things that he promises to do are terrible, which is sending more troops to Afghanistan. I mean, as a matter of fact, the US just last week bombed Pakistan along the borders of Afghanistan, killing something like 33 civilians. Is that the change that people were wanting? And on top of that, because everyone is so hyped, it received very little attention in the media. Will there be an anti-war movement against that? It will be kinda hard because everyone is in the give-him-a-chance mode.
Amoeblog: Is it just blind admiration or blind hope at this point?
Boots: Well, it's hope. People want things to change so much and we've been taught to rely on this system in order to give it to us. He actually made some great statements early on, one of which was that change is not gonna come from him. It's gonna come from the people forcing that change and that's exactly the truth.
Amoeblog: With Obama now in the White House will we witness a positive step in race relations and the further erosion of racism in this country?
Boots: Possibly. I think what it does is it changes how it happens. Like there has always been the difference between like Southern racism and California racism for instance. There has always been that California racism where people will have a black friend and won't say nigger... their idea of how race works changes a little bit. And so I think what we are seeing is that the rest of the country is getting more in that way. Will it have a positive effect? I don't know. I think it is more that he got elected [that] says something about how peoples' idea of race has changed already. I'm hoping that all of this means that people are paying attention more to what's going on in the world and will be part of that change that they so hope, we all so hope, will happen...It does say something that people are willing to take this step and elect a black president. It also says that because people are fed up and want some big change that he will have to play to folks' wants and desires to a certain extent, even if that means dressing up some of the same old policies. But that says something about where people are at and that's hopeful.
Amoeblog: I've seen you been labeled a Marxist. Do you consider yourself one?
Boots: I consider myself a communist. I wouldn't consider myself a Marxist, meaning that, I find people that sometimes call themselves Marxists or Leninists, you know, they go back to those folks' writings as if it were the bible.
And what I say is we are all still learning and we are all still figuring it out and what I want is for us to not only have electoral democracy, where we elect someone who supposedly represents us, but for capital, for profit to be democratized, for wealth to be democratized so that the people can democratically control the profits that they create.
Amoeblog: On the topic of sharing, what do you think of the illegal digital file sharing of music?
Boots: Well, what I think is all that it does is that it changes the playing field. It used to be where people would spend money on the actual physical recordings and what people do spend money on is the experience-- going to see a show, maybe buying a shirt or something like that. It just changes where the money goes. At the same time I do think it makes it that more people hear good shit and are able to decide what's bad and what's good before they support that. So they might hear an album for free or get an album for free but go to three concerts by that group in one year and the money goes more directly to the artist.
Amoeblog: Would The Coup get signed by a label like the major EMI-distributed Wild Pitch, as you did back in the early 90's, if The Coup were a new group coming out today, in 2009?
Boots: No. It was a whole different industry then. But we might have...if we came out now we would put out something on a small level and tour and keep touring and put something out a bigger level and tour and keep touring. And at some point a major label might come after The Coup at this point if we just started now. But it would only be after we went around and built our audience first. That's how they are signing anyone nowadays.
Amoeblog: Why do you think that that wave of political rap died off and why did popular hip-hop change its direction?
Boots: Because there was a bunch of people talking stuff without there been a real movement around. And that's the truth. A lot of good wishing was in the air with the music; Public Enemy, X-Clan and all of that type of stuff but there was no movement to make it real. So those ideas were not attached to something tangible for the folks that were listening to it. So you could wear the-- and I have said this statement a lot -- you could wear the African medallion and go home and there is no food in the refrigerator and you are struggling to pay the rent. And then you consciously or unconsciously start looking at that music as fantasy whereas someone making a record about how you can sell a rock (crack cocaine) and make $10, that's connected to a real movement. That's why that (school or rap) has persisted. There is no movement to create the artists right now. There is no movement for the music to live through. I won't say there is no movement, but it's smaller and right now I make music to reach new people and get them involved in a movement and to get those folks that consider themselves in a movement to reach those new people directly.