Born in Chicago and raised in East Oakland’s Funktown neighborhood, Boots became a teenage community organizer, but later switched from a clipboard to the microphone, forming the Coup with rapper E-Roc. Pam the Funkstress, the first female DJ star in the famously competitive Bay Area turntablist scene, later signed on.
As a producer and lyricist, Boots Riley has crafted critically acclaimed albums for The Coup that have graced the year-end Top 10 lists of Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and more. They have also received “Album of the Year” honors from The Washington Post, Time Out New York, while Billboard Magazine declared the group “the best hip-hop act of the past decade.” Born in Chicago and raised in East Oakland’s Funktown neighborhood, Boots became a teenage community organizer. From his history of student organizing in Oakland’s public schools, serving on the central committee for the Progressive Labor Party, being the President of Youth InCar (Youth International Committee Against Racism), organizing to build California’s Anti-Racist Farm Workers’ Union, to developing “guerrilla hip hop concerts” (mobile concerts on flatbed trucks), Boots Riley has been an integral part of the progressive struggle for radical change through culture.
The Coup’s 1991 self-distributed EP landed them a deal with Wild Pitch Records. Two singles, “Dig It” and “Not Yet Free”, cracked BET and national black radio. Their debut, 1993’s Kill My Landlord, went on to wide acclaim. The next year, Genocide and Juice shot up the charts, but stalled when EMI absorbed Wild Pitch. E-Roc then left the group.
1998’s Steal This Album, released by indie label Dogday Records, was received as a masterpiece and sealed the Coup’s rep. But the band’s next record, Party Music, scheduled for release shortly after 9/11, became a cultural flashpoint amidst Cheney-Ashcroft hysteria. The album’s original cover (completed three months prior to 9/11) depicted the crew setting off an explosion in the World Trade Center using a guitar tuner and drumsticks. The band’s label, 75 Ark, pulled the cover immediately after the attacks.
“As far as the record industry was concerned, it was the end of my career,” Boots says. Instead, Boots’ defiant refusal to “ride the fence” and the album’s undeniable funk made it an underdog favorite. The album hit #8 in the 2001 Pazz and Jop Poll, the most important year-end critic’s list.
At the same time, Boots visited South Africa’s World Conference Against Racism with the Black August hip-hop tour, where he distributed tens of thousands free cassettes of music in the Oakland community, what he calls “newspapers on tape”. He also founded Shoyoass Words, Sounds, & Pictures, a record and media company specializing in music and art that he calls “relevant to social change.”
In 2003, the Coup joined with Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Tom Morello, and Janeane Garofalo, on the barnstorming, Bush-slapping “Tell Us the Truth” tour. Working with those artists proved influential on Pick A Bigger Weapon. “This album took a bit longer, because all of these influences were getting a chance to settle,” says Boots, also citing the Clash’s “Bankrobber” as another substantial influence.
The record achieves a musical and thematic unity. “I like albums like Songs in the Key of Life, Death Certificate, Beatles albums,” says Boots. “I like feeling like I’m getting a presentation, rather than a bunch of Polaroids of people in the studio on a certain day.”
Boots just finished touring North America fronting Street Sweeper Social Club, a band where he Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave) joined forces. This tour took them across North America playing arenas with Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction. Their debut album, Street Sweeper Social Club debuted at #37 on Billboard and has been receiving continual spins on major market alternative rock and hip hop stations around the country, including Chicago, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
The Coup is here. They say it’s a democracy. You decide.