Since their 1993 debut with Kill My Landlord, The Coup has made some of the best and most effective politically-driven hip-hop in existence. Boots Riley and Pam the Funkstress (and E-Roc, who left after the group’s second album) have the brains to see through political fuckery, the balls to stand up to it, and the talent to spread it to the masses with infectious music people can dance to.
The last of the three—the music—is arguably the most important, and Boots says so himself. They have received their fair share of criticism over the span of their 15-year career, and have often been scrutinized more for their political views than music. (The unfortunate timing of this didn’t help.) What happened to many uppity critics who wanted to shit on their music, however, was that they failed miserably after they heard it. They couldn’t do it. They were too good. Plus, Boots knew his shit. After all, he did begin canvassing for the Progressive Labor Party at 14 and was moot court champion in high school.
Their latest album, Pick a Bigger Weapon, dropped late April 2006 and has been referred to by many their best album to date.
Four weeks into their current Not Your Soldier! tour, Boots Riley sat down with MVRemix for the following interview. Just hours later, the Coup would rock for more than a thousand people at the UN-designated World Urban Festival, giving the best hip-hop show in Vancouver so far this year.
MVRemix: Why did you decide to perform at this [World Urban] festival today?
Boots Riley: We haven’t been to Vancouver a lot, first, and you know, we like this city a lot. It’s beautiful, so we wanted to come back and play. Two: the idea behind a peace forum, and having different artists from all over the world come together… I mean, like, we went to a party last night with a Namibian theatre group, you know? You can’t do that at Scribble Jam or whatever.
MVRemix: The tour you’re on now is called the Not Your Soldier! tour, named after the Ruckus Society campaign of the same name. How were you introduced to them?
Boots Riley: I was originally introduced to them because I was walking by their office one day and I saw that they were doing some anti [military] recruitment stuff, and I had just recorded the song “Captain Sterling’s Little Problem.” I played it for them and said, “Hey, you wanna use this for that?” They’re like, “Okay, we’ll think about.” The reason I had recorded the song was for this movie, Sir! No Sir! , which is a documentary about GIs rebelling in Vietnam; that was the theme song for that. So I just told them I was involved with Sir! No Sir! and that they had used our music, and I talked to [the Ruckus Society] about the tour and they liked that.
MVRemix: Is it true that you started working for the Progressive Labor Party at 15?
Boots Riley: Yeah. Well, 14, but I joined at 15.
MVRemix: And your father [Walter Riley] did too?
Boots Riley: Yeah, in an earlier time when they were almost like a different organization.
MVRemix: Why did you do that? I mean, at 14, 15, some people’s priorities are a little different.
Boots Riley: Well, actually, no. At 14, 15, people are making all sorts of hard life decisions, like what kind of career you’re gonna go into…
MVRemix: Well, they should be.
Boots Riley: Well if you’re a rich white kid, you get to be a youth until you’re 35; you get to travel the world, figuring out what you’re going to do and stuff like that—if you have the resources. If you don’t, if you’re 18 and you don’t know what to do, and you’re still trying to figure it out, you’re thought of as being a burden on society, and usually that’s black people. I mean, 17 years old, there are people 17 years old fighting the war in Iraq. My brother was 16 when he joined the Navy and that’s not uncommon. People have figured out by the time they’re 15 whether their family has enough money, what their options are, and there are many 15 year olds that sell dope. So I’m just putting it in the context of that; 15 year olds, they’re not in a situation where their parents are like, “Don’t worry.” But it’d be good if they were like, “Don’t worry, we got you. You gotta figure out your life. You wanna go to college? We got some money for you.” With most people though, it’s like, “Three years from now, you’re gonna be on the street. We don’t have enough money for you here.” It also gives you a feeling of importance. Kids want importance in their life, like, “What is my life doing?” If you can figure out how to have your life be part of changing the world, then it’s like, wow, you feel like a superhero.
MVRemix: How was your brother’s experience in the Navy?
Boots Riley: He got in trouble a lot as a juvenile and some recruiter said, “Look, I can get the judge to throw out all your charges and you won’t have to go to jail if you join the Navy—if you can get your parents to sign,” because they expect you to, what do you call it, when you get made an adult early (emancipate). Anyway, my mother wouldn’t sign it, so my brother forged it. What’s funny is what he was in for was stealing the bicycle of the son of Al Davis, the owner of the Raiders. Supposedly, he stole this bicycle. You know, just real symbolic. The Raiders, Oakland Raiders, and your kid is going to go to jail for years for stealing a bicycle.
MVRemix: What are some other issues that are closest to your heart?
Boots Riley: I like people. I get my motivation by connecting with people. Individuals, you know? Hearing their stories, seeing myself in them. On Friday night, somewhere in the world, somebody’s saying, “What are we doing tonight?” You know? I don’t care where you are—what hemisphere or what continent—that’s what’s happening. Wherever you are in the world, somebody’s worried if their girl likes that dude over there. You know? [Laughs] And we can expand on that. I talk about the people gaining power over their lives. You know, a thing that I always say is that I think the people should have democratic control over the prophets they create, and that’s a different way of saying socialism, or communism or whatever. I break it down like that, because I think it needs to be something new. Whatever you want to call it, I don’t care, that’s the message: The people should have control over their lives. But that’s not just some far off, theoretical thing, like that’s how the world should be. I want that because I think that people would be happier that way, you know? It makes sense for me to guide my life around those things. It makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing. It makes me feel like a part of it. Like on the song “Laugh/Love/Fuck,” that’s just really talking about being involved and not standing against the wall and watching everybody else have a party. So, that fuels a lot of the things that I’m passionate about. So, like, what you asked, ‘What are some of the other issues,’ there are all sorts of sub-issues that have to do with that, like housing, wages, things like that, but it’s all centered around people having what they need and having power to say what they have in their lives.