Talking with Raymond “Boots” Riley, you get the impression he was born for social and political activism. The Oakland, Calif., native and co-founder of hip-hop group The Coup has been in and around protests and organized movements since he was a kid, and three-plus decades of such experience has prepared him for anything—even trips to Montana.
In a recent phone interview, Boots almost immediately brings up his first trip through Montana during a tour immediately following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It’s a story he “always tells,” he says, in part because it puts into perspective the importance of trusting his message, no matter the audience.
“After 9/11, during all of my shows I would stop the music and speak out about what was then just the bombing of Afghanistan, and we got tremendous response in support of those statements,” he recalls. “When we were going into Montana, though, some band members at the time were kinda scared, saying, ‘You can’t say that antiwar shit in Montana, man. It’s like cowboys and shit—we’ll get lynched.’ In some ways, that’s the way ‘they’ get us—they make us think that everybody else is less progressive than we are.”
Despite his band’s reservations, Boots’ speech went off just as well in Bozeman and Missoula as it had in Oakland. “I realized people all over have the same feelings.”
The anecdote only grazes Boots’ opinions on war, the antiestablishment movement, the omnipresent “they” and music—all of which are captured more thoroughly in his band’s recently completed fifth album, Pick a Bigger Weapon. The new release comes at a time when antiwar songs are flooding the mainstream—Neil Young’s album of protest songs, Living With War; the Dixie Chicks’ unapologetic follow-up album to their 2003 Bushwhacking; Bruce Springsteen’s pointed We Shall Overcome and so on—but Boots’ effort stands out nonetheless, partly because he’s been spreading his ideas nonstop through The Coup for 13 controversial and celebrated years and, even more so, on a personal level his entire life.
Boots was raised by his father, a single parent who split time between home and work as a public defender of clients including former Black Panther leader David Hilliard. An early baby picture of Boots shows him holding a copy of Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. When Boots was 15 years old, he joined the Progressive Labor Party and the International Committee Against Racism, flying around the country for rallies and meetings. By 19 he’d started rapping, and when party music was all the rage he stuck to his beliefs and kept rhyming politically conscious lyrics. Now 35, his track record remains consistent: The Coup’s albums have never pulled any punches (“Why would ever I do that?” Boots asks bluntly). In 2003 the group appeared on the “Tell Us the Truth” anti-Bush tour, and Boots himself lectures across the country on topics ranging from racism to grassroots organizing. The band’s most recent partnership finds them teamed with The Ruckus Society to promote its “Not Your Soldier” campaign, which aims to educate youth on military recruitment myths.
“It’s so people don’t fall prey to military recruiters and die in a war where they thought they were going to some way get out of battle and just get their college paid for,” explains Boots, who’s named his current tour, which includes a Missoula date Tuesday, May 30, after the campaign.
Parts of the “Not Your Soldier” effort rely on lessons learned from the Vietnam War as a tool to educate today’s potential recruits, but the same historical teachings don’t apply musically, according to Boots. While the prevailing opinion is that mainstream music was an integral part of the counterculture movements during Vietnam, the MC sees music as following larger trends, rather than setting them.
“What happened in the ’60s was there was a giant civil rights movement, a free speech movement, a black power movement, a women’s rights movement and an antiwar movement,” he says. “The war was going on as early as ’63, but a lot of the songs that you hear were from the late ’60s—there was already a big, giant movement going on [before the songs entered the mainstream]. Today, I don’t think there’s a big, giant movement. There are a lot of people against the war, but as far as a movement, or things happening all the time, or something dealing with material change? No…I think we essentialize what happened then, so therefore we don’t see what’s happening now, which is, with a much smaller movement, way more music is coming out.”
Boots ticks off comparative examples: James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud” came out in 1968, after the singer spent the majority of the decade as “the Puff Daddy of the time, just silent and making party music.” Marvin Gaye “was silent through the ’60s as well” before writing “What’s Going On?” in 1971. He then lists modern day hip-hop songs that have already been released with no such movement afoot.
“I’ll say this,” says Boots: “you wouldn’t have heard Stevie Wonder in the ’60s say anything like what Kanye West said,” referring to West’s famous “George Bush hates black people” line during a nationally televised Hurricane Katrina fund-raiser.
What makes Boots and The Coup—the duo includes DJ Pam the Funkstress, who will not be at the Missoula show—so effective is the musical accessibility of their message. Boots’ lyrics and delivery are often more humorous than threatening (“Ass-Breath Killers,” for example, is about lozenges that remove the odor that results from kissing The Man’s ass) and, especially on Pick a Bigger Weapon, the music is full of live instrumentals and beats that are increasingly funked out.
“It’s, at times, more aggressive than I’ve been and faster,” Boots says. “Usually, when I make an album, I take the first 10 or 12 beats that I like and then start conceptualizing. But with this one, there were 100 beats, and not just beats but beats that I liked. It took me a long time to home in on the sound.”
Pick a Bigger Weapon is a more refined album than 2001’s critically acclaimed and controversial Party Music—an unprinted version of the album cover created months before Sept. 11 showed Boots and DJ Pam blowing up the World Trade Center by pressing a guitar tuner like a detonator—an unfortunate coincidence that was leaked and, in combination with label troubles, crippled the album’s sales. One highlight on Weapon is a typically lighthearted anthem, “Laugh/Love/Fuck” with Boots delivering an infectious chorus of “I’m here to laugh, love, fuck and drink liquor/And help the damn revolution come quicker.” It sounds like the activism is an afterthought, but Boots explains the song cuts to the core of his message.
“That song says I’m here to be engaged in the world,” he says. “If you stand on the wall and miss everything, how are you going to change your surroundings? It all starts somewhere.”
It’s exactly that sort of party-love-revolution mix that’s connected The Coup to audiences for so long, whether in the more immediate community of Boots’ home in Oakland or the distant outposts of Western Montana.
“The music will just hold us over until the movement grows,” Boots says of the uprising finding voice in the contemporary mainstream. “Even if you’re not in the ‘movement’ but you are looking for a way to be a part of change, hopefully this music will inspire people to go down the path they want to go.”
The Coup plays The Other Side Tuesday, May 30, at 10 PM. Tahj Bo. Snuph and Shovel open. $10.