Elevator 28: Boots Riley


For a while Ice Cube’s grimace was a potent symbol of post-Black Panthers, pro-Black, anti-government resistance. Somewhere along the line he traded it in for a Hollywood smile.

There are painfully few sharp-tongued, politically active rappers who are willing to put their community before their own career. Boots Riley seems to be just such a character. He is part of two rap groups: The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club.

My brother and I were mesmerized by The Coup’s ‘Fat Cats, Bigga Fish’ music video when it was shown on Yo! MTV Raps in 1994. Twenty years later The Coup is still going strong.

Boots pulls no punches – his lyrics are peppered with critiques of capitalism, local and global dirty politics, racism and police harassment. On the surface that doesn’t sound like party music, but Boots and his crew have for decades tried to make political dissent funky. Sometimes these musical experiments fall flat, yet frequently they’re brilliantly realized songs like this track from their 2012 album ‘Sorry to Bother You’.

Boots grew up in Oakland, California and his Bay Area summery tone, wit and killer slang inject brilliant colours into his acidic, angry soapbox sermons.

Here’s that ‘Fat Cats, Bigga Fish’ video I was referring to. If you start watching it, watch the WHOLE thing.

Boots formed Street Sweeper Social Club with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. They’d met at numerous political rallies. Together they’d been “tear-gassed at the barricades while singing songs of mirth and freedom”.

Tom Morello continues: “Boots’ verses are very subtle and they’ve filled with venom and satire. [However] the choruses are really party jams. You don’t have to remember too many words when you’re torching Wall Street: Fight! Smash! Win!

Only Boots could pen both an odd square dance-esque stomper like ‘Promenade’ and a hypnotic political song actually called ‘Show Yo Ass’

Ultimately Boots writes love songs and that’s what’s distinctive about this emcee. He’s willing to be a potentially reviled and derided left-wing lightning rod in a sea of anchorless materialistic rappers. He values community, he has compassion for the streetwalker and the blue-collar worker, and he loves the underdog.

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