Never before has an interview subject assumed/joked that RedEye was a communist newspaper. Fans of Boots Riley’s veteran, socially conscious hip-hop act The Coup probably won’t be surprised that he mentioned it.
“Do people assume that [it’s a communist paper] that don’t know [it’s not]?” asks the Chicago-born rapper, who moved away when he was one and has long called Oakland home. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think that.”
He’s kidding (I think), but, contrasting with the band’s often-danceable music (including the recent “Sorry to Bother You”), Riley’s frequently very serious both on record and in conversation. At Mayne Stage in late November, after the band performed “Magic Clap” exclusively for RedEye and before the group’s official performance that night, Riley, 41, talked about making people pay attention to both the music and the words, that the album “Kill My Landlord” wasn’t actually about killing his landlord and why he liked “Skyfall” but still questioned James Bond’s agenda.
You left Chicago when you were one year old. So you must remember it pretty well.
[Laughs] I also remembered I was a youth organizer and I helped lead a real successful walkout when I was in high school. So the organization I was in had me help with youth organizing in different places. So I would come to Chicago a lot as a high schooler. I remember back then they were really into the “jack your body.”
I’m not sure I know what you mean.
You’re not from Chicago then.
No. You don’t know what “jack your body” is?
I don’t think I do.
[Looking into our video camera] This guy doesn’t know --Chicagoans, this guy doesn’t know what “jack your body” is.
Just to make sure our viewers know, why don’t you explain it.
It’s a dance. It’s a house dance. Jack-jack-jack-jack your body. Jack your body.
We can do it right now.
You know, you gotta wait ‘til later for the show. I’ll do it on stage to get some real Chicagoans to get hyped.
The recent album “Sorry to Bother You” continues a long, awesome career of thoughtful hip hop. What do you think of the challenge, especially after doing it for so long, of making fun music where people still pay attention to what you’re saying?
I think that people pay attention to what I’m saying as long as I make music that I enjoy. If I enjoy it I know there’s somebody else who’s just as strange and weird as I am and they’re going to enjoy it. People pay attention to me also because I talk about things that I’m thinking about. And that are going on in the world and the music is relevant not because I mechanically try to figure out how to talk about something people would think about. But because we’re all thinking about how we fit in the world, how we interact with it. Music is about engaging in life. So the music itself engages you with the life and what I’m talking about is the urge and the struggle to engage with life. To be part of everything.
I didn’t know if you ever think about the balance, if the music is supporting the lyrics in a way that will accentuate both as opposed to drown one out in the audience’s mind. Or if that’s not really an issue.
I don’t know. I think I make music that is hopeful, that you can dance to, and I think that when people hear any kind of music at first they just hear the music. If it’s good music they just hear the music, no matter what it is. And then they learn the lyrics later.
It seems like your landlord was cool recently when you didn’t pay rent for a while, when you were involved in Occupy Oakland. I was wondering if he knows your first album was called “Kill My Landlord” and what he thinks of that?
Uh, I haven’t asked him about that yet. I’m sure if he Wikipedia’s enough he’ll find it.
You think you would have heard about it?
No, he’s too cool of a dude. He wouldn’t bring that up.
He knows you didn’t mean it.
I meant it, but I meant it in a general way. In the same way that [our song] “The Guillotine”’s talking about getting rid of the working class.
Not Joe, your actual landlord.
Yeah, that’s not going to help change the system. But it’s talking about the one percent. The ruling class. In this country and the media we talk a lot about lower class middle class and upper class. That was a guise that came up in the early 20th century to get people away from talking about the rulings class vs. the working class. Because really those are the two classifications that really matter that have to do with the function of society. Yeah, there are various people in the working class that make more than other people in the working class. The question is not only what your income is but what is the function. What is your function? So what I’m always putting forward is a class analysis. And that cuts through all of the other stuff. So “Kill My Landlord” was an attempt at putting class analysis out there. Pretty much a lot of my stuff is talking about [ways] to see the world that explain it and that also give you a platform to actually change things from.
All your songs have such deliberate purpose. Do you have a sense of a track that seems to have gotten people riled up the most?
What do you mean by riled up?
Either positive feedback, “thank you for bringing attention to this” or the flipside, “I can’t believe you’re putting it this way”?
We were at an [event] supporting folks doing foreclosure defense when we were on tour in Portland. And the crowd was marching down the street chanting [from the song “The Guillotine”], “We got the guillotine! We got the guillotine, you better run!”
So that felt good. That was a connection. Definitely seen other songs, like the song I did with Dead Prez called “Get Up” that’s played at numerous demonstrations, rebellions and riots. Sometimes I do wonder what the hell I’m doing and why I’m doing it, and every now and then I will see that music does end up being part of people’s lives in a way that is useful.
On that note, I read you commented from album to album you’re talking about the same things.
The same way the Beatles talked about the same things on all their albums.
But they weren’t commenting on things the way you do. Is there any frustration that comes when you sit down to write and feel all the things that were upsetting are still an issue now?
I don’t think that what comes across in my music, I don’t put it that way … I don’t think what comes across in my music is that I’m upset. It’s not that I’m upset with the world, it’s that I see something wrong with the world and I think there’s an opportunity to change it. It’s much more optimistic. If anything I’m more optimistic than I ever was.
Because there’s a much larger movement in the United States than there was, say, 10 years ago. Definitely more than 20 years ago. Right here in Chicago you guys had a very militant teachers’ strike that was connected with the community. Many of the folks involved in that Chicago teachers’ strike were also involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Definitely the atmosphere created by the Occupy Wall Street movement opened up some space for that. The Wal-mart strike. Or not strike but the actions that are going on, some places they’re on strike. That wouldn’t have happened a year ago even. On the East Coast 200 fast food workers have walked out to create a fast food workers’ union. There are things going on all over, just a few miles up from here in Canada 200-and-something-thousand students had an 8-month strike that was able to stop fee hikes and get the national government to answer to them and negotiate and they won. All over the world there are actions, and not just demonstrations but people are taking the strategy of stopping profit to create change. And movements are building up. I had to make “Kill My Landlord” because class analysis wasn’t in the regular dialogue of the day. Now with 1 percent versus 99 percent, people are very familiar with that idea. That the 99 percent creates the wealth for the 1 percent.
I want to touch on some lighter stuff too. What’s a guilty pleasure movie of yours?
I don’t know if this is a guilty pleasure: “Idiocracy.” It’s a pretty good movie; it shouldn’t be a guilty pleasure. I love that movie. I went and saw James Bond.
What did you think of “Skyfall”? I liked that a lot.
I liked the movie, but it’s a guilty pleasure for me because you’re getting hyped off of imperialist powers going into other countries and murdering leaders who they don’t like because they don’t serve the empire.
He sleeps with some of their women too, though. He doesn’t kill everyone.
Yeah. He kills them after he sleeps with them. [Laughs]
The best thing he saw during his work with Occupy Oakland: “The general strike Nov. 2. That put the strategy on the table or the tactic on the table of workers stopping profit to affect an immediate change. Two months after that, which didn’t get covered here, in response to and inspired by and because of what we did at Occupy Oakland, Occupy Nigeria shut down their whole country for a week. I’m talking about every single city. There were no railroads running. There were no airports running. There were no stores running. You can look it up online and see video and stuff. The question is why wasn’t it on TV. It was the first time they had any sort of anti authoritarian movement since they’ve had independence. It was a big thing.”
Why he thinks it wasn’t on TV: “Because too many people would get inspired. That’s the reason why there are things going on right now that aren’t in the mainstream media. Right here we just met with Occupy Roberts Park, or Rogers Park, they’ve been physically defending victims of foreclosure and moving people into homes. Seems like something that would be really inspiring to other folks, but it’s not seen. At least not seen anywhere where I am. Same thing’s happening in Oakland, same thing’s happening all up and down the East Coast. Seems like important information to be shared.”
On Street Sweeper Social Club, his project with Libertyville native Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine: “We’ll do another album. Tom doesn’t like to tour so there will be another album out. I’m sure we’ll do a show in Chicago since he’s from here. We’ll do shows in special places that he wants to come out to.”
On the movie script he wrote: “[‘Sorry to Bother You’] is the soundtrack to a movie I wrote. The movie’s a dark comedy with magical realism and some science fiction, inspired by my time as a telemarketer … I’ll be playing the main character. David Cross will be playing my white voice … And Patton Oswalt will be playing my manager … I think we’ll be filming in late spring. And they think they can get it out by the end of summer.”
The story behind his nickname: “It was a name that was given to me when I was in high school that I hated, that I would not answer to for years that everyone knew me by. Thousands of people knew me by Boots actually, and that I wouldn’t answer to, so when I started making records, I was like, ‘[Bleep], I need a name so everyone will know it’s me.’ … So in the Bay Area, in the East Bay you have this thing for your senior year called ‘Senior Fling’ where every single high school in all the cities on the East Bay, so this is like eight cities on the East Bay, they all go down to southern California for a five-day weekend. You’re planning on this for your whole entire high school career. It’s five days of debauchery … With no parents, some sort of counselors but they’re off having sex with each other anyway. So you go to Magic Mountain, Disneyland, you go to Catalina Island, all this sort of stuff. The catch was Disneyland, they didn’t like kids coming and being drunk and rowdy so they made it from midnight to 8 in the morning and you had to wear a suit. And I didn’t usually wear suits. I like the occasional suit now, but I didn’t wear it then. So I bought myself a suit, but I forget to buy dress shoes. I had my father run and get me some dress shoes real quick before I got on the bus. And I didn’t really get to have anything to say about picking ‘em. And be brought me these Florsheim boots with the zipper up the side. I could really appreciate them stylistically now, but in high school anything that’s different that’s fair game; it could be something really good that’s different but it’s different and they got you. So I got on the bus and somebody starts saying, ‘RayRiley’s wearing boots!’ ‘Cause before that my name was ‘RayRiley.’ Not “Ray Riley” but one name. People would be like, ‘RayRiley, what’s your last name?’ So, ‘RayRiley’s wearing boots!’ And it kind of went around all over the place. Then there was a talent show, so like 20 schools were watching the talent show. I was in the talent show. Even though I didn’t have on boots then, a group of the folks that were on the bus that I was on started chanting, ‘Boots! Boots! Boots!’ So hundreds or thousands of kids were saying, ‘Boots! Boots!’ So I was immediately identified as Boots. I came back to Oakland, people just driving by were like, ‘Boots! Boots!’ People that I didn’t know. I would act like I didn’t hear them. They would just keep saying, ‘Boots!’ I just wouldn’t answer until they said, ‘Ray!’ and I would turn around. What they also did was while I wasn’t there in the hotel room they took the Mickey Mouse doll from Disneyland and put it in the boots next to all these other Disney characters and took a picture. And the big album of the time was by Biz Markie—‘Nobody Beats the Biz.’ It had these yellow old English letters that said ‘Nobody Beats the Biz.’ They blew the picture up to about 10 by 10 feet and put ‘Nobody Beats the Boots’ on it and hung it in the student commons … It was a name that I hated, that I wouldn’t respond to … [I like it now]. Only when someone asks me how I got the name do I even make the association.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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