Boots Riley is one of the most outspoken and influential musicians of our generation. He founded The Coup in 1991, a critically acclaimed hip hop group with thought provoking lyrics about our culture. On top of that, he formed Street Sweeper Social Club with Rage Against the Machine’s guitarist, Tom Morello, in 2009. He is also well-known for being a community activist, being a spokesperson with Occupy Oakland. I got an awesome opportunity to speak with Boots Riley to discuss Rage Against the Machine, Street Sweeper Social Club, Superbad, stage presence, mental health awareness, and much more.
Alex Obert: What are your earliest memories of listening to music?
Boots Riley: I don’t know if I remember it as much as I was told this story over and over. But me and my cousin, we were four, we got into a fistfight over who That’s the Way (I Like It) belonged to. I said, “That’s my song!” and my cousin said, “No, that’s my song!” That’s the earliest thing I remember.
Alex Obert: How did you bond with friends over music in high school?
Boots Riley: I think more importantly, junior high, music was about identity. But in reality, it was about cliques. Long before Street Sweeper Social Club, Tom Morello reached out to me and we were doing a lot of acoustic stuff. I had always liked a lot of rock, but I had never really been into metal. At one point, I was just like, “Hey, the reason I never got into metal was cause the girls never liked me. And the girls that listen to metal never liked me.” And then he’s like, “The girls that listen to metal never like anybody!”, that was his response, “You’ve gotta do it because you like to hang out with dudes.” But in junior high, I listened to British Invasion stuff. But it was like you’re only supposed to listen to that if you dress this way. You’re only supposed to listen to Dead Kennedys and these other bands if you like to write on your jeans. There were so many different rules, just like there are now. There’s all these sorts of rules that music allows kids to set up for themselves, all these new social rules that are different than what your parents have set up for you.
In high school, I feel like I went to a school where almost everybody liked the same kind of music. That music was R&B and hip hop. Whatever they played on the radio, basically, was what we liked. Then there was the new stuff coming out that they would never play on the radio. In our mind, we thought we would never see the day where they would have LL Cool J on the radio or Ice Cube. This is when they were hard, when you just listen to their voices and it just reeked of fire and danger. And so you turned it up louder. We would sit on the bus and ride from San Leandro to Richmond, it’s probably only a ten mile ride, but with the bus stops, it would take longer. But we would do that, go back and forth all day during the summertime playing the music out of boxes just because we wanted everybody to hear that. Then a little bit later, when somebody got a car, we’d ride that same route playing the music loudly. Just trying to get that feeling out there.
Alex Obert: You mentioned Tom Morello earlier, and before I get into Street Sweeper Social Club, how did you discover Rage Against the Machine?
Boots Riley: In ’96, there was a dude that had moved back to the Bay Area from L.A. named Troy. He was like, “Hey, you guys, listen to Rage Against the Machine! I was in this warehouse collective that Zack was in and he really likes The Coup!” They’re not talking about the same thing I’m talking about, so whatever. Later that year, we had developed a political organization and Troy was like, “Let’s go ask Zack for some money!” Troy was just playing me their music all the time and I read an interview with Tom in Guitar Player magazine. And that’s probably where I started getting into them. A lot of groups were calling themselves rebellious or political. There are dozens of punk bands that were always calling themselves rebellious and political. It was an aesthetic. The interview I read in Guitar Player with Tom, he has a hat that says “Commie” on the front. That gave me some respect for the idea that they had something big going on. So then I went with Troy to the Shoreline Amphitheatre where Rage Against the Machine was doing a show. We went backstage and watched the show from the side of the stage. And even though I had been getting played this music, I had heard it out of context. Hearing it recorded is out of context because live, there’s a whole nother layer of feeling that happens. I just watched them rock thirty thousand kids. They come right off the stage, I get introduced to Zack and he’s like, “Pleasure to meet you.” And within a few seconds, he had told me that this is not his crowd. I’m like, “What are you talking about?” He’s like, “This is not my crowd. I’m more of a hip hop guy.” And I’m like, “Well, you’re serious about what you’re about, so you better make this your crowd.” And he was like, “They don’t even really listen to what I’m saying.” (laughs) Only later, during Street Sweeper Social Club, did I think there is some truth to that. A large portion of the audience of any large band, people listen to music first and only years later, they sometimes think about what the lyrics mean. I think that was frustrating for Zack. I didn’t get into Rage Against the Machine from being inside a culture of people that were already into it. I got it from people that were reporting it to me, almost from another world at the time.
As a matter of fact, at that same meeting, we went to Zack and straight up, we said, “Hey look, we need some money.” And he was like, “We give all our money to the Zapatistas. That’s where the revolution is right now.” I said, “Okay, I can respect that.” First off, the respect came from the music and the passion. I learned from reading the interviews what they were about. And then seeing it live, it all came together and I saw how it was put forth. Rage Against the Machine had an effect on me right then and there because I was like, “Wow! All of these ideas and stuff don’t really mean anything if you can’t convey the emotion of the ideas when you’re doing it live.” A lot of hip hop, at the time especially, was a one or two note emotion being broadcast on stage. It was that you were cool and in control and you might be dangerous. The way that that came off on stage, it was lacking in nuances and passion. Right then, that first Rage show that I saw was one of the best that I’d seen, ever.
Alex Obert: You mentioned watching Rage Against the Machine from the side of the stage. When you did the big tour with Street Sweeper Social Club a couple years back, did you ever watch Nine Inch Nails from the side of the stage?
Boots Riley: No, we were out of there. We got off the stage and cut! I’m just kidding. Yeah, we watched them. I know I saw everybody every night.
Alex Obert: What was it like backstage with Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction?
Boots Riley: All those folks are really friendly dudes. If there were egos going on, it was all done under layers of politeness. I’m sure maybe when those guys were younger, they had some more of that going on. But at that point, it was all cool. They were very supportive. I think they all knew that that was my biggest tour that I’d ever been on. They would come and watch our show. We were on first. They didn’t just watch our show the first night. During many of the shows, I’d look on the side of the stage and Trent would be there or you’d see Perry and everybody. It was all a really good experience.
Alex Obert: Getting into this particular band, how did the name Street Sweeper Social Club come about?
Boots Riley: Well I have the lyric in a Coup song called 5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O. and I say “If you a janitor, get a street sweeper”. Me and Tom for years had been doing some acoustic stuff together, doing Coup songs acoustically. At one point, he asked me, “What does that line mean?” I told him that street sweeper is slang for this certain kind of machine gun that shoots shotgun pellets, you would basically shoot up the whole street with it. Coming from a shotgun shoots a wide blast, so they had invented the only machine gun that the NRA was okay with the banning of. But that was mainly because they probably felt like it messed up competition in hunting. When Tom came to me and said we’re gonna make this band, he said we’re gonna call it Street Sweeper after that line in the song. Originally, we were gonna call it Street Sweeper, but somebody else owned the name. Everybody was racking their brain at the last minute trying to find a name. We found that out a couple of weeks before we were gonna go on tour or something like that. So I just decided to slap Social Club on there. That way, there would be no confusion.
Alex Obert: Getting into the 2009 self-titled album, what are your thoughts on Stanton Moore’s drumming on it?
Boots Riley: The way I met Stanton was from when me and Tom were in New Orleans doing a benefit thing for victims of Katrina. We were in this small bar, Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge. It was a really small bar. The place used to be a small house with a living room and a dining room. We were in the tiny little living room part. From where the dining room would be, there was a band playing. Me and Tom were drinking and talking and in the middle of it, he was like, “That is the best drummer I have ever heard in my life!” When he finished his set, he came over and Tom said to him, “Hey, I’m Tom Morello. How would you like to make a record with us?” So that is how that happened. What I didn’t know is that I had already been set up to do some stuff on a Galactic album because they were on Epitaph. In between that meeting and actually recording Street Sweeper Social Club, I ended up touring with Galactic, so I already had a relationship with Stanton. Stanton, he’s really studied everything about drumming and he’s very precise. You could tell him to take the eighteen hi hat out of a thing with a thirty two hi hat pattern and own that eighteen hi hat. He’s very in control of everything he does. I think it worked for what we were doing.
I didn’t like the process by which we recorded the first album as opposed to the EP though. The EP, we all did it live in a room and I feel like a lot better energy came out in that way. With the first album, you didn’t really get a sense of how good of a band we were because it was all overdubbed. There was something lost in it. Obviously, you get the sense of the musicality of everybody playing on it, but you don’t get that same vibe there, that same excitement that happens when people are looking at each other. Not everything was overdubbed, but there were overdubs that happened and so on and so forth. I just like how we did the second one better.
Alex Obert: And speaking of the first album, I’d like to get your thoughts on Fight! Smash! Win!
Boots Riley: In a certain way, I think it was the most daunting to me because honestly it’s the one that most sounds like a Rage song. So I was like, “Okay, I lose here either way.” It sounds like a Rage song and people that like Rage are gonna be like, “That’s not Zack.” (laughs) And people that like me are gonna be like, “That sounds like a Rage song.” And as a matter of fact, I think it was actually something that Tom had in mind to be a Rage song long before Street Sweeper Social Club. But on the other hand, what does Rage Against the Machine sound like? Musically, they sound like Tom on guitar. But there’s obviously there’s a lot more that goes into it. Consequently, it’s not my favorite song on the album. There are others that I feel where we do something different that neither of us had done before. I’ll put it like this though, it was fun as hell to perform. It was definitely something that started a mosh pit.
Alex Obert: Before we move on to The Coup, what’s this about you teaching a writing and lyric class at a high school in 2002?
Boots Riley: Some friends had started a high school and they had me teach a lyric writing class. It started like a regular poetry class. We wrote poetry then listened to it and analyzed. People wrote lyrics, people wrote verses and we also listened to and analyzed lyrics of other songs. It was in Oakland, so three students already had albums out at the store. And others were working on albums. It was interesting. I taught there for one year and it definitely taught me something about working with people.
Alex Obert: How did The Coup end up being on the Superbad soundtrack, a film which heavily featured soul, funk, and R&B?
Boots Riley: Well, The Coup has a lot of funk in it. It makes a lot of sense to me. I don’t exactly know, but I know that the makers of that movie, somebody must be a fan because they also did The Daytrippers in the nineties. That was the first film to have a Coup song in it. Somebody there is a Coup fan, I would think.
Alex Obert: What are your thoughts on Superbad?
Boots Riley: It was hilarious and we got the best music placement that somebody could ask for. Our song plays when the cop is dancing to our song when it says, “No justice, no peace. Fuck the police. No justice, no peace.” Everybody remembers that part. (laughs) I hope they put me in some more of their movies.
Alex Obert: Another project you took on, how did it feel to produce the score for a Simpsons episode?
Boots Riley: That was fun. I didn’t get to meet anybody at that time. They just called me and sent me some files and I sent them some files back, but yeah, it was a lot of fun. I think there was some part where Harry Shearer raps and so I had to do the guide track for him to rap. It’s an honor to have a whole episode that I did the cues for. But I didn’t get to go in the studio and talk to Matt Groening and huddle about how we’re gonna make this episode funny. But I did talk to the guy that was the writer of that particular episode. And Matt Groening is a Coup fan because he had selected us for this festival that he curated.
Alex Obert: What do you feel are the most important factors regarding stage presence?
Boots Riley: You have to look people directly in their eye. None of that just picking one person to look at. You have to look at every single person in the crowd at some point. So that means moving and shifting your focus around. And really looking at them, not just shifting your head around. You have to communicate with them. You have to embody the music. You have to emote what you want the song to emote. You can’t just let the music or the lyrics do it. You are physically there in front of someone, so you have to use your body to do that, whatever that means for you. You’re there to put on a show and theatrically embody that music. And that’s gonna make people feel that more. That comes off in different ways I’m sure. If you’re an opera singer, it would mean doing something different physically than somebody that’s doing something that is heart-poundingly fast. And for me, that means figuring out how to embody that chaos. Feel the music and enjoy yourself. Be the person you want to see on stage, the person that would get you hyped on stage, you’ve gotta be that person. Basically, be David Lee Roth.
Alex Obert: Is that who you admire?
Boots Riley: That’s one of the people. Yeah.
Alex Obert: Who are some of your other favorite frontmen?
Boots Riley: Prince, Sly Stone, David Byrne, Mick Jagger, and Little Richard.
Alex Obert: I know you’re a community activist, so I’d love to get your thoughts on the state of mental health awareness and treatment in America.
Boots Riley: Whatever is happening in our brain, it’s chemical. However, that chemical change or chemical process is not happening in a vacuum. The way they try to treat mental health is, “Hey, this person is doing this thing. That means their brain is chemically doing this. And we want it to chemically do that.” So the only answer is medicating. However, even experiences change the way our brain chemically acts. So often, they’ll treat someone without even trying to treat their life. Sometimes, people are depressed because some real terrible things are happening in their life. Now, nobody is really looking into that. They’re just treating it all like it’s all on that person. They’re not looking into whether that person is getting the right amount of sleep, maybe they’re working their ass off, getting four hours of sleep a night and are stressed the fuck out. Maybe there’s someone in their life that’s abusing them and they should be fucking mad. Maybe there are all these things going on in their life. What I’m saying is that those things should be looked at first and treated at the same time. All of those factors should be treated because otherwise, the medication is not gonna have any effect either.
I think we have to look at what’s happening in that person’s world that’s causing them to feel this way and causing them to react that way. Having a personal connection to some of those issues, what I see is people trying to come up with answers that just assume that whatever the problem is, it’s happening inside that kid’s head. And that’s it. They should be able to deal with things. And so therefore, let’s medicate them so they can deal with things, not let’s stop whatever fucked up situation they’re in. I think that there’s an industry going on and anytime you get something in which money can be made, it’s hard for the average everyday person to trust what’s coming out of pharmaceutical companies’ mouths.
Now we’re finding out all of these things where doctors receive bribes to push certain drugs over the others. Dr. Drew got caught taking bribes to lie about certain antidepressant medications. And then we find out that medical journals were put out which were advertisements fully paid for by pharmaceutical companies, published articles which were not peer reviewed. But it looked like they were. And articles in which the pharmaceutical companies wrote and paid scientists to sign. And then there’s other meta analysis, studies of some of the antidepressants and other things in which a guy at Yale went back and looked over all of these studies that had been done to prove the validity of antidepressants and found that they messed up the placebo process. And he was able to prove this by saying that what these studies initially said was, “Hey, all of these people, this many people took a test with a placebo and the ones that didn’t get the placebo said that their depression was gone.” And they went back and looked at all of the data, this meta analysis by the guy at Yale, looked at all the data and said, “Okay, all of these medications that were given, the actual medications had high amounts of side effects.” Everyone given the medication knew they were in a study and every single person that didn’t have a side effect said that the medication was not working. And every single person that did have side effects said that the medication was working. So for instance, some people got the real medication, but had no side effects and they said the medication isn’t working. The point is that the placebo part didn’t work because if they weren’t having side effects, they figure, “I have the placebo and I’m still depressed.” They did have the side effects, they said, “I have the real medication that I’ve been wanting to get.”
The psychiatrists nowadays, the way they work, they don’t do an analysis anymore. It used to be that they did an analysis with patients, the old stereotype of them sitting on the couch and asking about your family and about your life and what’s going on with you, why do you think this and that, and they’re jotting things down. That doesn’t happen. They sit you down for a half an hour and they prescribe you something. It might not be the thing you came there for, they may diagnose you with something else. That’s all they do.
I’ve actually ended up talking to a couple of esteemed psychiatrists and asked them what their diagnosis rate is. The last guy basically admitted that it was ninety nine percent or more. I was like, “Wow, so you haven’t met a person that you don’t think is worthy of some sort of medication.” And he’s like, “Well, it’s not like I’m just picking people off the street. They’re coming here because they have problems.” And I’m like, “Exactly, so everybody that has problems needs medication.” He says, “Well, they’re referred here by the psychologist.” So if the psychologist refers them, then you’re using that as an excuse for why you can diagnose and medicate ninety nine percent of the people. And what you’re saying is that they have as much knowledge as you do to know that these folks need to be medicated. Even though you’re a medical doctor, they have the same qualifications as you do. And basically, as a psychiatrist, you’re just rubber stamping something that someone else is saying that supposedly is not qualified to say. A certain kind of a psychologist decides this person needs medication. They send them to the psychiatrist, the psychiatrist is never gonna say, “No, this person doesn’t need medication.”
Referring someone to a psychiatrist now means they get medication. It doesn’t mean anything else. They don’t even get help if they ask a psychiatrist for help in figuring out how to deal with people better or how to deal with their problems better or how to think about things in a better way. Psychiatrists don’t care about that, they don’t have the philosophy that tells them that it’s anything else but chemical imbalance that’s at the heart of everything. And more than that, they think that all of these chemical imbalances and traits are all genetic. They’re only psychiatrists because they believe that.
Alex Obert: On the topic of mental health, how do you advise musicians to avoid burnout?
Boots Riley: Always make the music that gets you excited. Don’t be around people that are negative or not supporting you, get rid of those folks. If you’re touring all the time, develop real friends and spend time developing real friends among your group or in places or wherever it may be.
Alex Obert: Great stuff! In closing, I’d like to thank you very much for your time and getting to know more about you and your incredibly interesting life.
Boots Riley: Alright, man. Thank you!