Political MC Boots Riley, of funky Oakland hiphop band the Coup, discovered he was on a white-supremacy group's hit list. So he got a gun—the legal way. One day, Boots was driving his brown Oldsmobile Delmont 88 and he got pulled over by a cop. The gun was locked, legally, in the trunk. The cop saw a box of shells on the floor, and freaked.
"Nobody move!" the cop screamed, waving his .45. "Who's got the gun?!"
He sent for backup and three jeep loads of soldiers arrived, jumping out into surround position.
"Open the trunk! Now! Get the box out! Get it out!" the cop yelled. Then the cop tried to make Boots pick up the gun, and that's where Boots said, "Uh, hell no." Boots wasn't going to give anyone an excuse to shoot him. The cop again commanded, "Pick up the gun!" Boots adamantly refused: "Hell no!"
Boots never did pick up the gun. He locked it back in the box and put it in the trunk. The situation eventually pacified and Boots received a traffic citation. Were three jeep loads of soldiers needed to issue a traffic ticket? No. But this is Boots Riley, the activist son of a Black Panther. He is used to controversy.
Riley's 'fro is spherical, his sideburns are angled like knives, and his mind is a kiosk of information to support the underdog. He's a man wired musically with political knowledge and wiles. His songs are about the working class defeating the upper class. He thinks education and health care should be free and that minimum wage should be raised by a dollar an hour. With his band, the Coup, Boots takes his politics on the road.
The Coup (including Pam the Funkstress) are touring as a full band in support of their Epitaph Records debut, Pick a Bigger Weapon. They drop tight and low hiphop grooves with Moog synths and an 808 paralleling the live drums. It is old school and indebted to Funkadelic, but Boots says it is "now" school, not old.
As producer of Pick a Bigger Weapon, Boots brought in guests Tom Morello of Audioslave, Talib Kweli, the Roots' Black Thought, Eric McFadden of P-funk, members of the Gap Band and Toni! Tony! Toné!, and Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys. The album has an edge, but it bounces. The bent beats point to Dirty Mind–era Prince and late-'80s Too $hort.
The album weaves a storyline throughout. If you kiss too much corporate ass, you get ass-breath. From the song, "Ass-Breath Killers": "Take this pill and say what you wish you said/It hardens backbones—they might wish you was dead/MLK took half a pill, procrastinated/Once he took a whole pill, they assassinated."
In "Head (of State)," Boots raps, "Bush and Hussein together in bed, billions made and millions dead." "The CIA worked for Standard Oil and other companies to whom they're loyal/War ain't about one land against the next/It's poor people dyin' so the rich cash checks."
Like his politics, Boots keeps his music vital. Sometimes he raps to Morello playing an acoustic guitar. "It's different," he says. "And I like it." But Boots never strays too far from his beloved funk, and his mission: "To collectivize the individual struggle. We're all in the struggle," he says. "The struggle to pay the bills and live right. These are things I think everyone should be involved in together."
In 2003, the Coup joined Morello, Mike Mills of R.E.M., Billy Bragg, and Janeane Garofalo on the Bush-slapping Tell Us the Truth Tour. Boots says, "The corporations control the media and the politicians. Who's gonna stand up for the people?"
Boots is, that's who. Public Enemy's Chuck D said that hiphop is the black CNN. Boots says, "The Coup is the black Al Jazeera."
"Every year in Oakland, the media predicts there will be a record number of murders. But by year's end, the numbers show the murder rates have actually decreased. Poverty rates have risen, but violence has not. People are getting more peaceful, even though they are suffering more."
That's just one of Boots' many interesting points. You can hear more of them Sunday, August 6, at Neumo's, where the Boots kiosk will be open on stage for all, with him informing and directing. Bring your questions, and witness the Bigger Weapon—which is funk, email@example.com