Five Million Ways to Kill a Montreal Show
Boots Riley of the Oakland-based revolutionary hip-hop group The Coup sets his sites on fakers of the funk, conservative columnists, and the future US President
By: Brendan K. Edwards
Boots Riley still wants to kill his landlord. Fifteen years since he first explored this theme on his debut album, issues of economic inequality remain at the core of the MC’s lyrics and funk-fused production. The Coup’s latest album 'Pick a Bigger Weapon' featuring The Roots and Dead Prez brilliantly mixes the political with the personal and highlights Riley’s ability to pen both dope narratives and powerful anthems. For all of those disappointed by the fact that The Coup were M.I.A. for a scheduled Montreal performance last December Riley assures that the group's appearance at this year’s Jazz Fest is likely to be lethal.
Siafu: What can people expect from your show on Sunday?
Riley: Well there will be a mixture of stuff from all of our albums. We’ve got a real tight funk band but you know edgy, and Silk E will be singing. The sound is very much Ohio Players and Funkadelic but the discipline is James Brown.
S: What makes The Coup unique in the rap world in 2007?
R: There are very few lyricists that can hang with me. At the same time I have a focus in my music and do my albums thematically. I want my albums to feel like songs in the key of life. I want it to feel like Prince ‘Around the World in a Day’ or David Bowie ‘Ziggy Stardust’. That’s something that isn’t there in hip-hop or hasn’t been executed well when it’s been tried. A lot of times when people haven’t heard my music and they see the interviews they expect the music to sound a certain way which is like Public Enemy or whatever their view of what “political” hip hop is. I’ll tell you this, although I used to be an organizer, and am very motivated by the idea of changing the world, I would not be doing what I was doing if I didn’t think that I was doing it well enough. I would move into another field. I would write speeches or I would write books or pamphlets. One thing that I really hate with a passion is music that’s supposed to be political but sounds terrible and where people have not mastered their craft.
S: I read that you’ve seen yourself as a communist since the age of 14. How did you come by this political awareness at such a young age?
R: It was probably more like the age of 15, but I’ve been an organizer since 14. I became involved with the Progressive Labor party and through a series of different things (at the age of 15) I ended up leading this walkout strike at my high school that was really successful. Out of the 2200 students 2000 of us not only stayed home but walked out and marched down and won a victory right there just because the school board was so scared.
S: What was the strike about?
R: The whole campaign had to do with how the state was spending less money on the schools. The media kind of put me in the limelight right then and I became president of the Youth International Committee Against Racism (ICAR). So, I went around the country setting up chapters.
S: How has your perspective on US politics changed since you released your debut album 'Kill my Landlord' in ’93, if at all?
R: It’s just become more detailed. In general the things that I said in ’93 I would still say today.
S: ‘5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO’ is one of the songs that was most criticized by conservative columnists in the US. What led you to make this track?
R: I’m talking about CEOs of major corporations. In art, in media, and in music there is a lot of villainizing and criminalizing of certain people. We’re always talking about the person who does wrong to this one person and seeing them as a monster and we’re never talking about the people who do wrong to thousands of people with the swoop of one pen by making policy that they know will starve people or by ordering killings by funding killers to go wipe out towns so that they can move in on that area. When they’re found out, (CEOs) are kind of thought of as bad boys and they get a slap on the wrist. I’ve even heard people who say that because they’re far removed, even though they’re evil, they’re not psychologically as dangerous a murderer. It’s harder for someone to strangle someone to death than to shoot him because you’re removed from the actual killing. Well, someone who sits in their office and types out a memo that sets into motion hundreds of people being killed is looking for that same amount of disconnection. I wanted to put those folks in their rightful place.
S: That song came out right after the scandal surrounding the 'Party Music' Album’s art work? (which was designed the summer before Sept. 11 and depicted the World Trade Center being blown up). This must have enhanced the scrutiny given to the album and the song '5 million Ways' in particular. Tell me about some of the responses that you received from the US media?
R: The conservative columnist Michelle Malkin said that I should live in a capitalism-free cave with Al Qaeda and sit around a campfire or something like that. Also, I was on Hannity and Colmes (Fox News) and when they couldn’t out yell me they brought (conservative author) David Horowitz on to analyze the lyrics to that song while I was off the air.
S: Which one of your songs would you want the future president of the US to listen to?
R: I’d ask him or her to listen to the chorus of the song ‘We are the Ones’.
S: Was there a particular moment when you realized the potential that hip hop had for social empowerment?
R: During the time when I was in the international committee (against racism) and we were doing some work in the Double Rock projects (Hunter’s Point San Francisco) where we’d be every Sunday (at the time I’d been rapping in high school and just playing around and didn’t really see it more than a part-time thing) a situation happened where the police beat down Rossy Hawkins and her twin sons who were eight years old in the middle of the Double Rock projects.
They started beating her, saying that the kids were selling drugs or something like that. A week before a guy had died in police custody who they had beat and wouldn’t take to the hospital. So the neighborhood came out of their houses, and as the police tried to drag Rossy and two kids into the police car the people were like "no we’re taking them to the hospital," and tried to get in between the police and them and the police got their guns out and fired into the air of course making everybody run…So the police dragged Rossy and her kids who were still fighting, over and put them in the car.
But, at some point everybody turned around and came back and by the end of the night two police cars had been turned over and more police had been called in and they got Rossy and her kids to the hospital in their own cars. This wasn’t even in the newspaper the next day but when I came on Sunday, everyone told the story and what I’ve said so far is pretty much what everyone who was there said. There was one other thing that everybody said. They said that when everyone started running because of the gunshots somebody started chanting “Fight the power! Fight the power!”
This was the summer of 1989 The song ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy was a big hit at the time and when that chant started going and everybody started chanting it, people knew based on the fact that they all loved that song…that they had to do what was right and they turned around and faced the police and maybe saved some lives. Then I knew what the power of hip-hop was.