Interview with the Coup's Boots Riley Interview with The Coup's Boots Riley
by Not4Prophet

The Coup has been around from the days of conscious hip hop through gangsta rap and the co-opted ©rap that currently passes for culture, and has lived to tell a story of the streets, survival and socialism. For The Coup, revolution is rap and resistance, but never rhetoric. In their music, they talk about life and liberation and all those other little things that usually slip through the collective cracks of our commercialized consciousness. The Coup wanna kill their landlord and the CEO and encourage you to steal their album while you're sippin' on that ghetto glass of genocide and juice. Yeah, they're real, and they believe in armed struggle too, but it's a war against who stole the soul and ripped off the rhyme. I met with Boots Riley, the leader of the Coup, in some posh apartment somewhere in downtown New York/Babylon where neither of us seemed to belong, to preach politics for the people and play a little party music.

N4P: The Coup has existed for over 10 years so you've essentially seen everyone from Chuck D and BDP to the X-Clan and Wu-Tang Clan, but I think when it comes to hip hop, a lot of folks' memories only go as far as MTV and Eminem. So who stole the soul?

B: I think the whole way that the history of hip hop is being told to people right now is a kind of cooptation or theft in and of itself. They've essentially taken hip hop away from the source that it came from and whitewashed it so it no longer has a clear history and origin, so we become almost stripped of our collective memory, but hip hop is not just a series of accidental occurrences where somebody moved from here to there and put the peanut butter in the chocolate and then you had hip hop. When I was in Detroit, the thing was hamboning before I ever heard anybody rap – this was in '75, '76 – so when I first heard Sugar Hill Gang, I was like, "Hey, they got a hambone record on the radio," but nobody ever talks about things like that. Hip hop is not just a series of things that happened with a few people. It's not just what you see on TV. For what hip hop is today, you have to give props to those people that helped it to become what it is.

N4P: So what would be the reason for blurring the history of hip hop?

It's an attempt to commodify the art or culture so that they can sell it, like anything else. It's much easier to sell a simplified, watered-down version of anything than to deal with the real history and the complications and questions that may exist. Even the idea that the four elements are all that drove and comprised hip hop is basically a way to commodify it. To be able to separate something in such rigid categories is in keeping with the way that they sell anything.

N4P: In terms of the history of hip hop and artists like Public Enemy or KRS who helped to pioneered political hip hop, I don't see an awful lot of politicking these days. What happened to "I'm a rebel so I rebel"?

B: I think right now with the lack of a Black mass movement out there, and with the fact that things are just getting worse economically for people, we're more and more – outside and inside of hip hop – being taught to embrace everything that is wrong with this capitalist system. We're essentially being told that it's cool to have a poster of Bill Gates on our ceiling and jerk off to him every night and we are being convinced that Donald Trump and his type are some kind of social superhero, so for many people, images in hip hop of someone that has a million dollars are the only liberating images that they've ever seen in their lifetime. It's the only image they've seen of someone that's free from oppression. A lot of people are latching onto that simply because there is no movement that they see, so they are believing in the American dream that anybody can become a millionaire and that's what some of that hip hop that exists today is there to affirm, but it's really just telling of the fact that there is no movement out there. When they see that someone has a mansion and a big car, it's almost like they're witnessing power that they've never seen and never had access to. It's not a real image but they think that it's a liberating image. That's liberation as far as they're concerned.

N4P: There was a time when some of us thought that the Hip Hop Nation itself could be that new revolutionary movement, but now we're saying that there's no movement that can move hip hop in a politically conscious or revolutionary direction.

B: Hip hop is not a movement in and of itself. Hip hop is not separate from the people. Hip hop was and has always been an outgrowth of people's struggles. It's an outgrowth of where the people are. The idea that they were putting out there that there's a separate Hip Hop Nation or whatever, and inside this Hip Hop Nation everything is politically perfect and The Nation will go this way or that way and lead the people, is an outgrowth of the fact that they tried to make hip hop seem like it wasn't an outgrowth of the people.

N4P: So hip hop is essentially just a name. It could have simply been called Black culture or Black music.

B: Yeah, and at one time it would've been called blues or jazz or rock or funk. Everything is an outgrowth of the people and where the people are at.

N4P Within the underground punk culture, there is this idea that you are automatically a sell out if you go to a major label but within hip hop, that never really existed and, in fact, the underground is often simply perceived as a kind of minor league from where you will one day get signed and step off into the majors, and many hip hop artists will say that they are simply trying to get by or find a way to survive, and so the majors are just another way to get paid. Do you feel there's a need for hip hop to try to become more independent?

B: I look at it like this – we're inside capitalism already so we have to deal realistically with what we've got. The difference between indie as opposed to major mostly has to do with the fact that if you own that indie label then you'll get more money from what you are putting out. You may also initially have greater control over what you do, but the markets are still ruled by the major labels who control the gatekeepers of the industry so if you're an indie and you pose a threat, you can still be easily shut down by the majors, but definitely, it would be better if hip hop artists had more control of what they create. It would also be better if Black people had more control over what they create, but owning your own indie label is not necessarily a revolutionary concept in and of itself. It's really just a matter of tactics as opposed to being this great liberating thing. Certainly I don't like the monopoly that the corporations have, but I think it's kind of a false idea that because it's an indie label, it's somehow a more progressive label.

N4P: Talking about The Coup, who have been back and forth between major and indie labels, or Dead Prez, for instance, who are on a major label, you definitely have a question of access. Although Dead Prez are still not being heard as much as, say, Jay Z or Puff Daddy, they still have a relationship with the big boys who essentially control the radio, TV and, potentially, billions of dollars in advertising. So the question is, would Dead Prez, who are getting some above ground recognition, be a total obscurity if they were on an indie label that didn't have all that corporate power and if they were on an indie label, would that mean that there's that many less people who could hear what they are trying to do and the vital message that they're trying to put forth in terms of the movement and the struggle?

B: Of course there's a lot of irrelevant music being put out by the majors, but is what's being put out by the indies automatically more progressive than the shit the majors are putting out? If we're talking strictly capitalism or entrepreneurial enterprises, then yeah, the indies are it, but if we're talking about the real struggle and the fact that our people have historically been denied access then the question becomes "What are you doing with that extra money you're making with that no sell out indie label?" Are you using it to finance the revolution? Are you using it to create food, shelter and clothing for people besides yourself? Are you using it to educate the masses on the streets? And what is your overall message, anyway? Is it revolutionary? Or is it the same old shit? Truth is, many times indie labels are just aspiring to be major labels and they don't necessarily give a damn what they're putting out and putting forth as long as it sells, so being part of an indie label is not in and of itself some sort of revolutionary act.

N4P; By the time The Coup came into existence in the early 90's, many of the so-called conscious hip hop artists were no longer selling and so-called gangsta rap ruled the roost.

B; Yeah, there weren't too many people doing politically-minded music on a nationwide basis, but the way we looked at it was that we were coming at it from the same angle as artists who were being called gangsta rap. If you really looked at it, we were all just talking about our surroundings although we may have had a deeper analysis of what was going on in our surroundings. If you really listen to a lot of music that people don't classify as conscious or call gangsta, it's simply saying that these are the problems we're having in our lives. The real difference is not the content but in their analysis as to why the problems are happening, but the general feel of most of it is that I'm giving you some game or advice as to how to deal with the problems and they're all coming with that, whether they are called gangsta or conscious. I think the only difference is that we may just have had a little better understanding of what was really going on in this world from a revolutionary point of view.

N4P; Do you think that what's being given to us by the major labels, as far as what we hear on the radio or see on TV, is an attempt at an analysis of what's going on or is it simply an exaggeration of ghetto life, not unlike what you might see in a cheap horror flick?

B: There are a lot of things that are not even attempting to pretend to be any kind of real analysis of what's going on and, in many cases, they are simply a saleable product like a horror movie, but in many cases, what people – artists – are still saying is that this is what's happening, this is our reality, like it or not, and in the case of stuff that gets called gangsta rap and gets written off as nothing more than a felon fairytale, they are actually trying to tell you that these are the problems that exist and these are the ways to survive them, like it or not. It just happens that The Coup's way to survive them and solve our problems is to change the system from top to bottom.

N4P Do you think that people have been getting that message?

B: Yeah, but it's really not just a matter of them truly understanding what we're saying. To really understand it, you have to get involved in the struggle around something that deals with you and your life. A lot of times, the mistake of the movement is that we try to make the struggle nothing but a bunch of pie in the sky rhetoric. You know, "When the revolution comes in 50 years, this is how we'll change the world," and what this does is isolate the movement from the fact that the struggle for revolution is a material struggle. It's not something that's based on an emotion, an intangible freedom, or anything like that. The fact is that people need food, people need clothes, they need healthcare, they need shelter and those are material things and we need to struggle around those material things. We can't just struggle only around world trade policies and things like that because we need people involved in the struggle and many people are just trying to survive day to day. We need to get involved in those day to day struggles as well, so that means we need to get more money per hour. We need to keep people from being evicted from their homes. We need to show the people that there are victories coming from the movement and then people will connect it to, "Hey, these ideas about revolution do mean something," so when they hear a Coup song or a Dead Prez song or Public Enemy, they're not just hearing these nice ideas that don't mean anything to them.

N4P;; So the music becomes a kind of bridge between the day to day struggle, and revolutionary goals and ideas and ideals?

B: Yes. We need to connect the larger struggle with actual campaigns in the community and music can help provide the analysis as to what these struggles are all about. You really understand what's going on once you get involved in the struggle but right now we're giving people the choice to either pledge allegiance to the revolution or blah blah blah. It ends up being almost like a religion instead of about anything real so that's why people gravitate towards songs that say, "OK, you need to sell dope to solve your problems," because you can sell some crack for $10 and have $10 in your pocket and that's a material thing. The movement is separating itself from that reality.

N4P: So why has the political movement in the U.S. separated itself from the real grassroots struggle in the streets?

B: I think there is an aesthetic about the movement right now that has to do with the fact that there are a lot of students that came into it in the 1960s and although that's not necessarily a bad thing – because in other parts of the world it helped to motivate and energize the movement – in the U.S., the student movement was very different than the movements all over the world and whereas all over the world the student movements embraced struggles that had to do with everyday working people, here the nature of what people were struggling around ended up being almost a more intellectual endeavor, things that didn't have to do with everyday people, whereas if you look back into the 20's and 30's, or even like the labor movement in the United States, it tended to deal with real day to day issues. If you can get 50, 60 people to show up at an eviction and, as they move a family's furniture out, those 50 or 60 people move it back in, you're dealing with real world struggles, real people's struggles, and then people see that the movement and the revolution is something that is material. It's not just something that sounds like a good idea but something that can work.

N4P: But does this lead us any closer to creating a socialist society or a communist society?

B: I don't really know anybody that says socialism isn't a good idea once it's explained to them or that communism isn't a good idea. It's just a matter of "Does it matter, does it work, is it real?"

N4P: So the question is how does talking about and fighting for possessions or material things or eating or survival or paying your rent lead to an understanding that maybe the shitstem that exists now is what's keeping you hungry or homeless? How do we make it understood that after all is said and done, we still need to dismantle and destroy the shitstem that is trying to destroy us?

B: It's just like learning scales on the piano. You don't just tell someone this is how the piano works inside and that's it because odds are they're not going to be interested at all. Even if I'm curious about how the sound vibrates and all that, I'm still not going to be interested enough to absorb that information, but when they're trying to figure out how to play the piano and then they're learning about that, then you really start to take in that information. It's all about theory and practice. The only way people learn the theory is to practice and, in terms of the revolution, that practice is the struggle to get something to eat, to survive, to live. Through practice you figure out how the system works and that's how you will eventually figure out that it has to be destroyed, otherwise it becomes theoretical and not connected to you in any way that you can really see, so the job of the revolutionary to sum up these things that are happening, to make it clear just what and why this is happening. This is what the struggle is about.

N4P: To take it out of the classrooms and into the streets.

B: And to teach through actual action. Otherwise it becomes something where you just hand people books and they're supposed to read Marx, Lenin, and Mao and ingest that and decide whether they agree with this or that based on something that they're not involved in, but all they're really doing is reading a book. For me, just from personal experience, I was in study groups that read those books before I really was involved in the struggle in a more concrete way. It really didn't start mattering to me enough to really look closely at the ideas in these books until I was involved with things that had to do with people's everyday lives, but once I did get involved, I also began to better understand the general concepts. It's then that the questions start sprouting in your head and you're compelled to go back into history to put things into context.

N4P: We hear a lot of talk about how you don't see as many black and brown faces in the streets when you look at the movements that exist today against, say, the WTO or the G8. Do you feel that this is because the activists haven't found a way to connect it to the real world struggle of just surviving day to day?

B: I think that people and communities of color are active around a lot of different things but it's just that sometimes Black people have to be more practical as to what they will get out and fight for. For instance, the WTO demonstrations, which are very important, would easily be supported by the people on the bottom rung if it were explained to them in a way that made practical sense. They'll be like, "Yeah, I'm against what the WTO is doing," but the question is, do they feel motivated enough to feel that they can change things? Has it been explained to them in such a way that they feel like they can make a difference? I don't think people feel that. When you talk about struggles that are more practical with the day to day battles, when you tie it into that, then people will understand why you're out there fighting the WTO.

N4P: And then support that aspect of the movement?

B: Realistically, I think that poor people are more likely to first get involved in something else that feels closer to home, but that's not saying that those demonstrations aren't necessary or vitally important, because they do expose a lot of realities to people, but I think right now we need more community-based reforms. I think the fact that we are not more clearly focusing on grassroots actions is one of the reason why the numbers are dwindling in the movement.

N4P: But there seems to be this political dividing line between fighting the big corporate machine or fighting for basic needs.

B: So there ends up being this false question that's come up in the last 20 years between reform or revolution, as if they can't go hand in hand. That was never a question until very recently. It was always a battle for reform and revolution.

N4P; What is The Coup trying to do musically and lyrically in terms of your message to create the link between reform, or changing shit in the streets and the eventual dismantling of the shitstem?

B: The music we make, our party music, is a kind of platform for me to talk about what I believe needs to happen, but the way that I talk about or try to get a message across is through personal trials and tribulations, things that I go through and the things that I have to deal with. I try to discuss the things that I feel are important to me and I have to just trust that these are things that everyone's going through. Hopefully, through my analysis of my own personal situation, people can see how the day to day struggle connects with the bigger issue ... which is the fact that the system needs to be destroyed.