The Coup’s Boots Riley on his new album, the coming revolution, and his telemarketing skills
Published: December 5, 2012
If you’re not familiar with Boots Riley, founder of hip-hop crew the Coup, you can get the gist of what he’s all about from the group’s album and song titles: Genocide & Juice, Steal This Album, “Ghetto Manifesto,” “5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.” If you guessed that he’s a self-styled Communist revolutionary who founded the Bay Area’s Young Comrades activist collective and was a key player in Occupy Oakland, you’re right.
But you might not guess that the Coup’s music is bouncy, funky, and always funny—characteristics often lacking in message-minded music. It’s never been more true than on the band’s recent album, Sorry to Bother You, which includes the rollicking, kazoo-infused, rich-kid-mocking “Your Parents’ Cocaine,” with Justin Sane of Anti-Flag, and the punky fake-activist takedown, “You Are Not a Riot.”
The album was made to accompany a movie that Riley plans to make in the spring, which draws on his time as a telemarketer (hence the album’s title). He wrote the script and will star as Cassius Green. (See what he did there?) For a sneak peak, we checked in with Riley in advance of the crew’s show at Baltimore Soundstage Dec. 8 at 8 P.M., with Japanther.
City Paper: So what’s the plan for the film?
Boots Riley: It’s gonna be filmed in the spring and hopefully it’ll be released in the summer. It’s being produced by Ted Hope, who produced 21 Grams and The Ice Storm, and the director is this guy Alex Rivera who directed a movie called Sleep Dealer. I wrote the screenplay and I’m playing the main character, Cassius Green.
CP: Why did you want to try making a movie?
BR: A lot of my albums have story lines that motivate them. A lot of times when I’m writing songs, I’m envisioning the video, and it’s part of the process, even if the video never gets made. I wanted to write a screenplay, and one day I got the program Final Draft and just wrote the first line and pretty soon I was like, “Oh shit, I’m writing a script.” I spent a year writing it. The whole thing comes from my ideas of the world. It’s a dark comedy with magical realism inspired by time as a telemarketer. That’s where the title comes from, Sorry to Bother You.
CP: When were you a telemarketer?
BR: Every time I didn’t have some other job, I could always turn to telemarketing because I was good at it. You’re using the same sort of creative juices to be a good salesman as you are to create art, it’s just you’re using them for evil. I could work one day and get enough money to not go in for another two weeks.
CP: Did you find it hard to jump between your very anti-capitalism activism and art, and this super-capitalist job?
BR: It’s depressing but not hard. And it not being hard is probably why it’s depressing. On the job, organizing is where it’s at and any time you’re working in the system, you’re going to be part of that world. It’s retail, you’re trying to sell somebody some jeans as soon as they walk in the door, but those folks need to be organized, and organizers need to work at those places and organize them.
CP: Is there a telemarketers’ union?
BR: It’s interesting, there was one that was starting up and some of that is in the movie.
CP: It seems your music gets more expansive and diverse with each album—this one is all over the place.
BR: With every album, I try more to make music that I like. I think my first couple albums were me trying to make albums that I thought other people would like, but it came out different because I didn’t know how to use the equipment. I would make beats where other producers would tell me, “Your snare is not supposed to go there, that’s not what you’re supposed to do,” you know. In reality, my influences have always included a lot more things and a lot of those would not be considered cool. For instance, I knew that some of the people that liked my music thought that I was extra-hard and I didn’t want to ruin their false idea of me. I didn’t want people to know that I’m a Leonard Cohen fan. I definitely purposely have kept certain influences out of my music, out of this idea of what the genre’s supposed to sound like, of what people will accept happening in the genre. I think everyone does that to a certain extent. But over the years, I’ve gotten enough confidence to realize that if I make something that I like, there’s going to be a good number of people who like that too.
CP: Obviously, you write about a lot of serious stuff, like exploitation, discrimination, and poverty—is it ever hard to keep the music upbeat?
BR: No, because having correct analysis of the system gives you a sense of realistic optimism. The wealth that the 1 percent has is created by the 99 percent. That lets you know that they’re outnumbered, and that the key to the system is exploitation. All we have to do is change the system and all the problems will be solved.
CP: Easier said than done, no?
BR: Look at recent history, in the last 100 years—the optimism comes from looking at revolutions. In Russia, they were considered the least likely to ever have a revolution. China was considered backwards, a nation of billions that was able to be ruled by tiny islands of Japan and then Britain; they had billions of people who rose up with no guns, most of them. People’s nature is to rise up.
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