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Interview and performance: Boots Riley and the Coup

(Lenny Gilmore / RedEye )
January 04, 2013|Matt Pais, @mattpais | RedEye movie critic

Never before has an interview subject assumed/joked that RedEye was a communist newspaper. Fans of Boots Riley’s veteran, socially conscious hip-hop act The Coup probably won’t be surprised that he mentioned it.

“Do people assume that [it’s a communist paper] that don’t know [it’s not]?” asks the Chicago-born rapper, who moved away when he was one and has long called Oakland home. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think that.”

He’s kidding (I think), but, contrasting with the band’s often-danceable music (including the recent “Sorry to Bother You”), Riley’s frequently very serious both on record and in conversation. At Mayne Stage in late November, after the band performed “Magic Clap” exclusively for RedEye and before the group’s official performance that night, Riley, 41, talked about making people pay attention to both the music and the words, that the album “Kill My Landlord” wasn’t actually about killing his landlord and why he liked “Skyfall” but still questioned James Bond’s agenda.

Click here to watch video from this interview

You left Chicago when you were one year old. So you must remember it pretty well.
[Laughs] I also remembered I was a youth organizer and I helped lead a real successful walkout when I was in high school. So the organization I was in had me help with youth organizing in different places. So I would come to Chicago a lot as a high schooler. I remember back then they were really into the “jack your body.”

I’m not sure I know what you mean.
You’re not from Chicago then.

I am.
No. You don’t know what “jack your body” is?

I don’t think I do.
[Looking into our video camera] This guy doesn’t know --Chicagoans, this guy doesn’t know what “jack your body” is.

Just to make sure our viewers know, why don’t you explain it.
It’s a dance. It’s a house dance. Jack-jack-jack-jack your body. Jack your body.

We can do it right now.
You know, you gotta wait ‘til later for the show. I’ll do it on stage to get some real Chicagoans to get hyped.

The recent album “Sorry to Bother You” continues a long, awesome career of thoughtful hip hop. What do you think of the challenge, especially after doing it for so long, of making fun music where people still pay attention to what you’re saying?
I think that people pay attention to what I’m saying as long as I make music that I enjoy. If I enjoy it I know there’s somebody else who’s just as strange and weird as I am and they’re going to enjoy it. People pay attention to me also because I talk about things that I’m thinking about. And that are going on in the world and the music is relevant not because I mechanically try to figure out how to talk about something people would think about. But because we’re all thinking about how we fit in the world, how we interact with it. Music is about engaging in life. So the music itself engages you with the life and what I’m talking about is the urge and the struggle to engage with life. To be part of everything.

I didn’t know if you ever think about the balance, if the music is supporting the lyrics in a way that will accentuate both as opposed to drown one out in the audience’s mind. Or if that’s not really an issue.
I don’t know. I think I make music that is hopeful, that you can dance to, and I think that when people hear any kind of music at first they just hear the music. If it’s good music they just hear the music, no matter what it is. And then they learn the lyrics later.

It seems like your landlord was cool recently when you didn’t pay rent for a while, when you were involved in Occupy Oakland. I was wondering if he knows your first album was called “Kill My Landlord” and what he thinks of that?
Uh, I haven’t asked him about that yet. I’m sure if he Wikipedia’s enough he’ll find it.

You think you would have heard about it?
No, he’s too cool of a dude. He wouldn’t bring that up.

He knows you didn’t mean it.
I meant it, but I meant it in a general way. In the same way that [our song] “The Guillotine”’s talking about getting rid of the working class.

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