Born in Chicago into a family of radical organizers and raised in Oakland, Boots became a community
organizer at the age of 14, 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.
Their 1991 self-distributed EP landed them a deal with Wild Pitch Records. Two singles, “Dig It” and “Not Yet Free,” cracked BET, Yo! MTV Raps, and national Black radio. Their 1993 album Kill My Landlord debuted to wide acclaim. The next year, Genocide and Juice shot up the charts. E-Roc then left the group on amicable terms.
Steal This Album, released in 1998, was called “a masterpiece” by Rolling Stone and sealed The Coup’s reputation. It was reportedly the most stolen album of 1999. The single from that album “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ‘79 Grenada Last Night” was an 8-minute opus about the grown-up son of a prostitute driving his mother’s killer to a secluded place in which to murder him. A novel based on the story characters and detailed descriptions in the song, “Too Beautiful for Words” by Monique W. Morris, was published by HarperCollins in 2000.
The band’s next record, Party Music, scheduled for release shortly after 9/11, became a cultural flashpoint amid 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 cover was pulled 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 and was named “Pop Album of the Year” by the Washington Post.
At around the same time, Boots, through his workshop on Art and Organizing, led a group of young artists to create “Guerilla Hip-Hop Concerts” on a flatbed truck that traveled throughout Oakland to protest California’s racist Proposition 21. The workshop also distributed tens of thousands of free cassettes of “The Rumble,” which he called “newspapers on tape”. Boots also founded Shoyoass Words, Sounds & Pictures, a record and media company specializing in music and art that he calls “relevant to social change.”
In 2006, The Coup released their critically lauded album Pick a Bigger Weapon, which was named album of the year by the Associated Press. Rolling Stone wrote of the album: “Riley’s rhymes work so well because they’re more about real life than rhetoric...it’s the rare record that makes revolution sound like hot fun on a Saturday night.”
In 2007, Boots and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine formed Street Sweeper Social Club. SSSC combines Riley’s humorous, witty, and incisive lyrics and vocals with Morello’s fiery rock riffs. They released their self-titled album in 2009 and toured amphitheaters, hit the main stages of music festivals across the United States, and played the late night network talk shows. The new turn in Riley’s career has exposed his work to a new and much larger audience. Their follow-up The Ghetto Blaster EP will be released this summer.
Boots Riley is currently working on The Coup’s next album, which is the soundtrack to a film script he is writing—a dark comedy with magical realism, inspired by his time as a telemarketer. The film’s title is Sorry to Bother You.