If you are a student of politically charged rap music, (and if you aren’t you really should be) then you have heard of Boots Riley. Boots hails from Oakland, California and he is the revolutionary MC of the hip-hop group The Coup. Riley has put The Coup on pause for a minute, and he has joined forces with RATM guitarist and like minded activist Tom Morello to form The Street Sweeper Social Club. The “club” is a mix of rock, hip-hop and incendiary, left leaning politics. The two are gearing up to release “The Ghetto Blaster EP”, a mix of covers (including LL Cool J’s Mama’s Gonna Knock You Out”) and original music that actually has a bit more energy than the band’s debut disc. While en-route to a video shoot, Boots Riley took time with me to chat about politics, music and he even gave our President a grade on how he has been handling things, in the White House.
Boots Riley Talks Politics, Music, and Gives Obama an "F"
Interview David Carr
Boots, what motivated you and Tom to put out “The Ghetto Blaster EP?”
We wanted to put out some music for the summer. We had these songs brewing. The originals are songs we were actually doing on stage that were not on our first release. When we played them, the audience dug it so we figured we should just put the tunes out now.
So which one of you is the LL Cool J fan?
We both are! LL is truly an inspiration to both of us!
With The Street Sweeper Social Club you have been able to hit some big stages including Coachella and you have toured with Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction. What is the main difference about playing these big places?
Well David, when you play in a place that only holds 500 or 600 people, the audience there is mainly drunk. In a place that holds 1,300, the audience is on drugs! HA!
Alright then, that’s a keen observation!
Ok seriously, in any show you play you get an immediate sense of love from the crowd and when the crowd is that big; when it’s a huge crowd, it really makes you feel like you have arrived. On a personal level it tells me that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. I mean, I am an artist and I am a writer but I have always wanted to affect the world and affect change around me. Sometimes I have questioned being an artist but the audience’s reaction to what I do tells me, what I am doing is right. Their reaction makes me feel ok with choosing to do this.
Do you still feel that you are affecting change? Are you having some type of influence on the kids who are coming to the shows?
People come to the shows all the time and tell me how my lyrics have inspired them to join different organizations and/or campaigns. They come to the shows with my lyrics tattooed on their arms.
Let’s shift gears to politics. We are getting close to the two year mark with regards to Barrack Obama’s presidency. What grade would you give our president when it comes to how he has dealt with issues facing poor people?
I would have to give him an “F”! He is doing the same things other presidents have done. He could have really helped the poor by reversing everyone’s foreclosures. Instead he put money back in the hands of the ruling class by bailing out the banks! He is using the same trickle down theory that other presidents have used. Between that and escalating the war, I would give him an “F”
Now to be fair, during his campaign he did say that he was going to get troops out of Iraq and get troops into Afghanistan. He was up front about that.
Most folks felt he was an anti-war candidate. The thing that was so great about his election was that people voted for him because they wanted change. They wanted radical reform but so, far we have not gotten it.
Ok, let’s turn to your hometown of Oakland CA. I am sure you watched the Oscar Grant trial. The BART officer who fatally shot Oscar Grant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and will be sentenced to 2-4 years in jail. In your mind was justice served?
No I don’t think justice was served. I don’t think this officer made a mistake. Watch the video. You can hear the other cops yelling things like bitch, nigger. You can hear Oscar Grant saying please don’t shoot me. He was on his belly. His hands were behind his back. Why would you even need a taser?
Why would a police officer gun someone down with so many witnesses?
I think the police just handle people of color differently. There’s a fear. I have been to rock shows and rap shows. I have seen some serious fights break out at White rock shows and I have seen the same things go down at Black hip-hop shows. The way the police have handle these incidents at these different types of shows is just different. It’s like they justify their racism thanks to stereotypes or one or two examples.
There are a lot of folks right now that are not hopeful with regards to the issues we are facing as a society. Are you hopeful that this generation of young people can get it together to push society forward?
I am definitely hopeful, that’s why I do what I do. I try use my lyrics to influence hope and faith. I use my lyrics as a way to inspire people to come together in order to overcome these obstacles. I use humor, I use happiness…you know, before the politics come into play, my goal in The Street Sweeper Social Club is to make music that will make people move. I want them first to be able to rap along with the lyrics or bob their heads or go crazy at the shows. The politics inspire me to write but the bottom line is the music has to be some shit that can make people move. The first few listens to our music people are just digging the music, that’s it. On the 10th or 11th listen, that’s when they really start checking out the message and start to understand what we have to say.
What’s next for you and for SSSC?
Our EP comes out next week. We are doing some shows with Warped Tour and with Rock The Bells. There will be another full length SSSC disc and there will also be new music coming from The Coup later this year. I will also be working on a script for a feature length movie.
You may not agree with all of Boots Riley’s positions on the issues but you have to admire the conviction he has with regards to mixing his music with a socio-political message. Catch The Street Sweeper Social Club on tour and feel free to strike up a debate with Boots as he takes his rhymes and rhetoric to the stage this summer.
8/10 - Vans Warped Tour - San Diego, CA
8/21 - Rock The Bells - NOS Events Center - Los Angeles, CA
8/22 - Rock The Bells - Shoreline Amphitheatre - San Francisco, CA
8/28 - Rock The Bells - Governors Island - New York, NY
8/29 - Rock The Bells - Merriweather Post Pavilion - Washington, DC
10/29 – Voodoo Festival – New Orleans, LA