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Artist on Artist: Boots Riley of the Coup talks to ShowYouSuck

"I like to say it's like Sly Stone and the Clash, without the cocaine."

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For more than two decades Chicago native Boots Riley and his Oakland-based group the Coup have been sustaining hip-hop's revolutionary spirit, providing an alternative to apolitical pop-rap and to the type of conscious rap that in its eagerness to be thought-provoking ignores its party-starting roots. Over the span of half a dozen albums, beginning with 1993's Kill My Landlord, they've fused radical, intellectually rigorous Marxist theory and of-the-moment protest lyrics with house-rocking funk that's unapologetically fun. The Coup's latest, 2012's Sorry to Bother You (Anti-), could be their best yet—animated by a punkish experimental streak, they dabble in garage rock and kazoo-based beats.

Interviewing Riley for this week's Artist on Artist is rapper Clinton Sandifer, aka Show­YouSuck. He's a member of Treated Crew, a group of Chicago hip-hop luminaries led by Kanye's DJ Million Dollar Mano, but he came up in the suburban punk scene, where he developed a philosophy heavy on punk values (straightedge, PMA) as well as the kind of self-­effacing humor and crowd-pleasing stage presence that a rapper might need to win over a VFA hall full of hardcore kids. Recently he released his first official, nonmixtape recording, the Dude Bro EP, which features an irresistible single produced by TheWhoevers, "80s Boobs." Miles Raymer

Let me start off by being a fan. My sister first put me on to the Coup from the Genocide & Juice album. Oh wow. That's a while ago [1994].

"Santa Rita Weekend" is my joint. I was a huge Spice 1 fan, so hearing you guys with Spice 1 was crazy for me. It's really dope to be doing this. Me and Spice started out working at UPS together. We used to load up the plane—and hide from having to load up the plane, in the belly. We'd sit up in there and rap.

That's crazy. How was it then, doing music in a climate like Oakland? Was it easy for you guys to be, for lack of a better term, political? Even though everyone is political in a sense—but more so talking about how to change the problem, as opposed to everyone just rapping about what the problem is where they live? I think the idea of talking about how to change the problem, as opposed to just what the problems are, is really only solved by being involved in a movement. That's what influenced my music. I think a lot of people were writing about what was going on around them at the time, so it fit right in. They always are. Everybody's writing about what's going on around them. Now, they might not talk about what can be done to change it, but what they're talking about is an idea of what needs to be done in order to survive.

Unfortunately, some people think that, quote unquote, "That nigga down the street is trying to shoot you," or "Everyone's trying to steal your money," or whatever. And they really think that they're giving an analysis of the world. They are. They're giving their analysis of the world and advice on how to make it with that analysis. And it's only the fault of people that consider themselves in a movement, who have an analysis that says the system needs to change—it's our fault that more people don't have the same analysis that we do. It's our fault that we're not communicating that analysis well.

Because most writers are looking for the answer. They're putting out the answers that they have. Our take on things was a different answer than everybody else. But a lot of people who would be considered gangsta rappers today, or even back then, many times told me that they felt that we were in the same struggle, that we were putting out music for the people. When ODB got up at the Grammys and said, you know, Wu-Tang is for the kids, a lot of people laughed at him and it was supposed to be a joke. But what they didn't understand is that he's saying Wu-Tang is talking about selling dope and different ways to survive because they're trying to put out an analysis that they actually think will help the community.

Absolutely. That's an analysis that grew in the midst of a retreat of radical movements. Radical movements retreated, and people came up with their own ideas on how to solve the problem. Those ideas are going to be very based in the already firm capitalist movement that's here.

I'm happy that you brought up ODB at the Grammys and also capitalism. Because I remember—and I don't remember what year it was exactly—but weren't you on Politically Incorrect, the Bill Maher talk show? Yeah.

I remember that. I had never seen a rapper that I listen to on any type of network of that size before. What was that experience like, being on that show? It's a lot more choreographed than people think.

I can imagine. It's probably at the same level that many of the reality shows are. The producers do interviews with people beforehand and ask you what you think about certain things. Then they go back and do another round of interviews and tell you what other people said, and then they ask different people to do different roles. What was interesting was that on that show, there's that comedian and he was making fun of my hand gestures. I forget his name, Harland or something—the dude that's on one of the first Dave Chappelle movies.

Yeah, Half Baked. That's who it was. That guy [Harland Williams]. Yeah, he's making fun of my hand gestures, and in between he says, "Hey man, I really agree with most of what you're saying, it's just they told me I'm supposed to be the comedy relief on this."

Wow. So that's what that was like. I've seen so many people go on Bill Maher. I wasn't the first rapper on there. I've seen everybody go on there. And every time, they'd say some slightly racist quip, and people would laugh along and not want to say anything that might get them uninvited from the show. Snoop was on there, and Snoop was like, "I got three kids." And [Maher]'s like, "That you know of."

Wow. Now, Bill Maher doesn't say that to Richard Gere, or whoever else was on there. One time Chuck D was reaching to get an article, and [Maher]'s like, "Watch out, he's got a gun!" Now, all of these are jokes, but it would just get me pissed off that nobody would come back and try to get at Bill Maher on it. And I know how it is—I wanted to get invited back on Politically Incorrect or any of Bill Maher's other shows. Because I said what I said, I believe that's the reason I didn't get invited back, not in the last 12 years.

That's crazy. You were the first rapper that I saw on that show. I'm not sure what year that show aired. I just remember it was earlier for me, in my life. I was just getting into— It was right after 9/11. So I think it was January 2002.

That might have been—the wreaking of 9/11 probably got me to pay attention more to politics. That was my attempt to watch things and learn things. I think I was a freshman in high school when that happened.

But segueing from most of the political aspects: Doing world tours for a number of years now, especially with the climate of music changing, have you noticed a change in your fan base at all? Or is it evolving in any particular way? That visual change happened in the late 90s. When we first came out, in the early 90s, we were on BET, sometimes MTV—but we were always on Rap City. We would be, like, the number-two video, and so on and so forth. As a matter of fact, most of the way people heard about us at first was through video. Although we were considered an underground group, we were on Wild Pitch EMI. We got on these videos. And there was also a channel called the Box where people could call up and request it.

Yeah, that's where I first saw the Coup. We're one of the few groups ever banned from the Box, for political content at least. But that's a whole other story. At this time, we were pretty well-known. We would do maybe two or three paid shows a year—that was it. Back in the day, what then were considered "rock clubs"—and now are just venues, and maybe they skew more toward rock—these clubs, they wouldn't let hip-hop play in most cities. Promoters often had to rent out a venue somewhere and throw a concert.

During that time, while we were known in mainstream media, every single time a promoter would call and try to bring us to Louisiana or Ohio or Illinois, they'd start putting out flyers for the show, and then police would tell them that they're not allowed to have that show. The reason would be stated that they thought our crowd would be too rowdy, so police would refuse to permit the show. At the time, though, the reality of the fan base of hip-hop was the same as the reality today. The reality of the fan base of hip-hop was mainly white kids. No matter what you're going to sell in the United States—whether it's shoes, whether it's T-shirts, or whether it's music—if you're going to sell a good amount of them, the largest fan base is going to be white.

Absolutely. The thing was, except for certain cities, in the early 90s and in the mid-90s, white kids were told to not go to hip-hop concerts—the subtext was, "There's a lot of black people there, you might get beat up." White parents weren't letting their kids go there as much, and the white kids who did come to hip-hop shows were white kids that had a lot of black friends. They already were involved in the black culture. And not just the trends, the music, and the fashion—they were involved with black people. And so that was the mixture you saw. That was a different thing.

In the mid- to late 90s, all across the country there became a trend of bans on hip-hop put down by the local municipalities. City councils all over the place had bans on hip-hop concerts—meaning the police could not permit, except in special occasions supposedly, hip-hop concerts. This happened in Berkeley, this happened in Oakland, this happened in San Francisco, this happened in Cleveland—this happened all over the place. A guy named Billy Jam who's a DJ from the Bay Area documented it at the time, but it never became a big story. I think it might have gotten in the East Bay Express or something.

The point is that, even here in Oakland, Tupac could not have a concert. The police had to OK each concert that would be possibly a hip-hop concert. So they just generally wouldn't. But what promoters started figuring out—for instance in the Bay Area, they started figuring out that if they didn't pass out flyers in the black neighborhoods, that the police wouldn't mess with them. The police wouldn't call them up; the police wouldn't show up and shut it down. Promoters, even black promoters, are about making money, so they just went with the flow.

So there's a big difference. We did a concert in East Oakland one time, and this must have been '95. That was us, Eazy-E—it was Eazy-E and his group with two girls, I forget their name [Menajahtwa]—and OutKast. It was at an old warehouse. The crowd had to be 95 percent black. Not that OutKast's fan base was all black by any means, but this is just how a lot of concerts ended up, based on who was willing to go. A year and a half later, OutKast did a concert at the Maritime Hall in San Francisco, thrown by the Wake Up Show. That crowd was maybe 30 percent black. The truth is, other than people who listen to the Wake Up Show, which was hard-core hip-hop fans—OutKast definitely had more than just hard-core hip-hop fans—there weren't flyers passed out for that in East Oakland, or in the Fillmore District, or in Hunters Point. But flyers were passed out up in Humboldt, which is five hours away. Flyers were passed out in Concord and Walnut Creek. These are white neighborhoods.

I'm even simplifying it more, but that's when that trend changed. The trend wasn't a shift in the fan base of hip-hop. There was a shift in who would come out to hip-hop concerts, and who was invited to certain hip-hop concerts. If you go back and look at archives, you'll probably see all sorts of op-eds and things like that, because the black community participated in OKing basically a gentrification of hip-hop concerts, meaning the strict enforcement of dress codes started to come about. Anything that was popular in the black community was all of a sudden not OK. I'm not even just talking about gym shoes or whatever. Just various items of clothing that would become popular. There would be clubs that would have that on the list of what you couldn't wear.

The short answer is, the hip-hop audience hasn't changed. It's just the people who are willing to come to the type of hip-hop that we're doing has changed. And to be fair, the style of hip-hop I do is not the style of hip-hop that a lot of people are listening to, based on what gets played on the radio and what gets played on video shows. A lot of black folks are going there. But even those audiences—who listen to the radio and who watch those video shows, 106 & Park—it's mainly white kids too. It's just that certain kinds of music sell because of the idea that it has a largely black audience, and that's always been the trick.

Peter Guralnick has a book called Sweet Soul Music in which he talks about one of the reasons that him and his friends were more into Stax Records as opposed to Motown Records in the 60s—they had this idea that Stax Records was more of the black culture than Motown was. It had this image behind it that this is what black people listen to. So what happened was, a lot of white kids started buying it.

But in his book, he interviews people and finds out that no, they were marketing it toward white kids with the idea of authenticity behind it. Who was buying it was mainly white kids, just like any product in the United States. But what does get sold sometimes is this idea of authenticity. And if you don't have a certain image, then you must not really be authentic. Because we all know, black folks only act a certain way. And if you're not acting that way, then you probably don't have many black folks who listen to your stuff. [Laughter.]

While we're learning about how hip-hop music is marketed and who it's marketed to, does that change what your message is and how you deliver your message? No, I've always delivered my message the same. Hopefully it's developed stylistically, but I always come from a personal standpoint, a subjective viewpoint about things going on my life and my analysis of those things based on what I know about the whole world. That's always been what I do. Stylistically, my music has changed mainly because being a hip-hop producer early on, I got my education about music from just getting whatever was in the dollar bin that had a good cover.

Right on, yeah! I'm about the same thing. That opened my eyes and my mind to a lot of music that I wasn't previously open to. My tastes have grown and my musical abilities have grown as well. I think that every album, I get better at doing what I set out to do in the first place. Every album, I get more comfortable with being an artist.

I think our first album, Kill My Landlord, was just straight off the pamphlet. I put in every idea I thought that people needed to know. It wasn't hidden. It was very literal. There were a lot of instructions in there. But as I went on, I realized that, you know, I came up in organizing and all these ideas are part of me. So if I make music about things that I relate to, then my analysis is going to come out in it. I make music about anything from my relationships with my kids to sexual relationships to broken-down cars to being at a party where everybody's looking for the cocaine. And my analysis comes out in that. I had to trust that I actually understood the ideas and believed in them enough, to where if I was honest with myself about my ideas about particular situations in my life, that analysis would come out.

Also as an artist I started making music more toward not just what I thought people would like, but more in the direction of what I would like—and that's the only way I could know what other people would like. My music became more danceable.

Our first album—living in Oakland, it's a car culture. We didn't walk around with headphones and stuff like that, like they did on the east coast. Things were in cars with big systems and 808s. Our music was, like, 68 beats per minute. Seventy-eight beats per minute was a fast song to us. Then it started getting faster. When I made "Fat Cats and Bigga Fish," it was like 105 beats per minute. All of my friends were like, "Man, nobody's going to listen to that. It's too fast." But I realized that, you know, I like dancing, and that's the thing that moves me—that's the thing that connects me passionately to the music. Over the years, that's developed, and my other influences around punk and new wave have crept in there as well.

Right on. Thank you for doing this—I don't want to take up any more of your time. I really appreciate this opportunity. This was awesome, and I learned a lot just now. What's next for you right now? There's a lot of things! I wrote this movie actually, before I wrote the album—I wrote a movie that's a dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction inspired by my time as a telemarketer.

That's awesome! It's called Sorry to Bother You, and the album is that too. It got held up, but now we're finally getting to the point where we can get it made this year. We've got David Cross and Patton Oswalt signed off on it. It should be going. Then I've got a series of one-minute sketches that we're going to be doing; that's called Joyful Like Jailbreaks. It's like a comedy-sketch thing that's happening. And we're just touring a lot. I've got a book of lyrics and anecdotes coming out on Haymarket. That will be coming out in June. We're also doing this crazy, multistage theatrical version of our show called The Coup's Shadowbox, and we have multiple stages happening at the same time with other guest bands joining in, and horns, and some songs acted out by theater companies, and crazy props and things hanging and flying and stuff.

Are you traveling with that? We will be. That's not happening when we do Chicago next week. We did it once last year in San Francisco, and we just made a deal with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. They're going to help us do it in an even bigger way in August, and from that, we'll be manufacturing the prop pieces and taking that on the road, do a few days in each city.

What day are you in Chicago? We perform at Reggie's on February 7.

I'll make sure I'm there for that. Early on, we always had live instruments, except I would program the drums on the first recordings. But then for live, it was always a taboo to have live instruments. To me and to a lot of my friends, it seemed like, "Ah, that's watered down, what is that?" when people would come with bands. And especially back then, I think drummers weren't as good, so all the drummers were swinging it—especially when the Roots first started, everybody was extra swinging it. It sounded jazzy. There was nothing that sounded hard. Plus, drummers at the time—I guess as a rebellion against drum machines—most of them just weren't that good. They weren't in the pocket. Even if they could play, they were trying to do hella crazy Dennis Chambers-like fills and all that stuff. So we didn't like it.

But starting in about '97, we started playing with the live band, to represent the sound more like it was on the record. In hip-hop, you don't want to go see a show with somebody a cappella, so why not have the music live as well? So since about '97 we've been doing it, and over the years we've developed the show to the point where it's kind of like a punk-funk-soul thing. There's bass, guitar, drums, keyboards, and then Silk-E, who's like a young Tina Turner. I like to say it's like Sly Stone and the Clash, without the cocaine.

Awesome. Looking forward to it, man. Thank you for doing this. I'm going to look up your stuff too.

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