Street Sweeper Social Club ready to rock

BMS talks with Boots Riley about the new band

, Staff Writer

Boots Riley first gained notoreity as half of The Coup, who have at times been referred to as the best hip-hop group of the 90s. These days, he is touring with the likes of Tom Morello with his new group, Street Sweeper Social Club. The band is currently on tour with Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction, stopping in on Boston Wednesday, and Boots was kind enough to answer some questions about his new band.

Boston Music Spotlight (BMS): Well, first things first, how’s the tour going? What’s it like being on a supertour with so many famous musicians?

Boots Riley (BR): It’s a lot of fun. Getting a lot of good reaction. I was kinda worried with how people were giong to react, but they responded to us really well.

Touring with so many people, it makes me think of the old hip -op tours of the 80s, like the Run DMC Raising Hell Tour, where they had LL Cool J and Run DMC, Houdini, Public Enemy… Everbody’s pretty much like a family, everyone’s cool.

BMS: There’s a lot of buzz going around about Street Sweeper Social Club now that the tour’s really underway. How does it feel being really involved in a new group?

BR: I think it’s good. For me it’s kind of like about time. I’ve been doing this for a while and I think that the buzz is very justified – we’ve got some songs that will just cut through a lot of the other bullshit that’s out there and that are hard and are undeniable. I’m happy with that happening and people just finding out about it. It’s weird because even with my fans, there are a lot out there who don’t know about this yet, or Audioslave fans who don’t know about it. So it feels like there’s this whole new audience, but I think there’s a lot of excitement because people know about our stuff separately and are wondering what [Street Sweeper Social Club] sounds like.

BMS: Street Sweeper Social Club is musically pretty different from The Coup. Lyrically, do you approach it differently from The Coup?

BR: I think I approach every single song I do differently – based on the piece of music that I’m writing. I don’t have one mind that clicks between The Coup and Street Sweepers.

BMS: What’s your approach when a song is given to you?

BR: For me, the cadence and rhythm is a big part of it. I complement the music. It’s all about cadence, flow, delivery. I come up probably with the flow first, or I might have a few catchphrases that would be particularly poignant, and that may start me up on a concept. Here’s someone saying something on the street, and they say it to someone else and it sounds like a flow, and if it resonates with me then I might copy that. In "Fight! Smash! Win!", Tom dared me to put the phrase "up in the club" in the song, and I was like "okay, how I can I do that and have it fit with what I’m talking about?"

BMS: A lot of people are throwing around the term "conscious hip hop" these days. Do you think there’s actually a fair amount of "false consciousness" coming through the misuse of the term?

BR: I’ve always hoped that we [The Coup] were not labeled consious hip hop. I don’t like the term. As far as what it literally means, I do not know. There are a lot of people, including my friends, who are called conscious hip hop with the politics they’re putting out, but they’re not trying to get people to change the system. They use a different aesthetic.

In the 90s, the difference was they didn’t use funk or blues based samples. They used jazz. That made them conscious. Like, I love A Tribe Called Quest. It’s nothing revolutionary. They rap about the same stuff that supposedly the "negative" rappers are…pimping women, things like that…there are lots of people that are called gangsta rap that are making commentary about how the system is run. It comes from our need to categorize and not just listen to what’s going on around us.

I think it comes from the music having culture references and tropes. You hear a beat that sounds like it’s from down south, and even if they may be saying something that’s relevant and poignant about the system, you may not listen to it. The Coup’s first single was called by 23 different magazines "more gangsta rap from Oakland", even though it was called "Not Yet Free" and we had the logo with the baby and the gun on our back, they listened to the beat first. Why did that beat make them think of gangsta versus anything that had to do with the idea that…you look at the media, and the media tries to give reasons as to why there are a group of people who are left out of the American dream, poor and broken, and the news and media [tell you] that they’re all wild and savage.

So then you have this idea of the "intelligent" black person – more gentle – and that’s why when they’re using the bebop sample and if they’re only talking about partying, it sounds like a gentler, nicer people. It plays more into the idea that people talking about the hard shit and things they’re going through are savage folk and people talking about having a good time just aren’t in the same position because they’re smarter.

BMS: Has this led to too much complacency in people?

BR: I think that’s the problem, somtimes, with saying that any culture is [necessarily] political action. People can get involved with culture, painting, music, even going to hear someone speak. Being close to being someone that’s supposed to be speaking to experiences of community, and they had a good time, feel involved. The only way it works is as a part of something bigger – if there’s people that are organizing around that. People can come to a Street Sweeper show and go home and not do anything, and I’m sure that’s gonna happen. But maybe there’s somebody that comes to a show that has been thinking about joining the work action that’s happening at their job, or has been thinking about, you know, organizing a rent strike in their apartment building, and we [become] the tipping point in that decision. That’s where we come in.

BMS: So, what can we expect from you guys in Boston?

BR: Fire. And I don’t mean pyrotechnics.

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