Interview with the Coup's Boots Riley
The Coup's Boots Riley
The Coup has been around from the days of conscious hip hop through
gangsta rap and the co-opted ©rap that currently passes for
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
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
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
hip hop – being taught to embrace everything that is wrong with
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
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
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.