By David Ma | Boots Riley is renowned for speaking his righteous mind – whether raging against the machine with guitarist Tommy Morello as part of the rock/rap outfit, Street Sweeper Social Club, or most famously, fronting one of hip-hop’s most revered and fearlessly topical acts, The Coup. With the latter Riley will soon see his sixth album, Sorry To Bother You, an effort that occasionally augments his trademark storytelling and politically anchored verses with bright sonic touches (e.g. sunny piano licks, children’s choir, handclaps). Yet the rapper/producer/Occupy Oakland Movement figure’s fire remains timeless as ever. Since Boots has been keepin’ it proletariat on wax since the Clinton administration, it’s fitting, that we caught him with the recent Democratic National Convention in full swing. With Bill Clinton on in the background, Boots rattled off five recordings he credits as having profoundly changed his life and own creative output.
1. Stevie Wonder - Songs In The Key of Life (Tamla, 1976)
Boots Riley: I don’t remember the first time I heard it because it was always playing around the house as a kid in Detroit. I remember seeing the album cover around all the time. The reason it defines how I view albums because it’s a concept album – but in reality, it’s a very loose concept with no real narrative throughout. Yet while you’re listening to it, it feels complete. I mean some of those songs are definitely not strong tracks by themselves. But on the album, within the context, it works. “Have A Talk With God” is my favorite. As a producer it changed the way I heard things. Because as I was growing up, even as I got older and was making music, I still didn’t know what kind of equipment made those songs! Now I can probably tell you what kind of keyboard he was using. He used synthesizers too but it doesn’t sound new or cool or smooth – it just sounds fucking rough.
2. Prince - Purple Rain (Warner Bros., 1984)
Boots Riley: Me and my friends heard this album in junior high when it came out. The other big person at the time for black music, and music in general, was Michael Jackson. What stood out about Michael was that he always seemed asexual. I don’t think everyone identified with that even though he made amazing songs. But Prince was sexual. Michael wasn’t trying to fuck some white guy’s daughter [laughs]. My older brother knew the first couple albums and other cuts and so forth. But I really only knew Prince’s big hits because I was younger. Prince was aggressive and overtly sexual. “Darling Nikki” is my cut. It sounded like it was someone trying to do something new, at least it came across that way. In the movie he was playing a guitar. But like Stevie, he was making sounds that came off in different tones and it just sounded different. My friends and I weren’t too much into rock but always really dug it. It was rock but it was soulful too.
3. Leonard Cohen - Songs From A Room (Columbia, 1969)
Boots Riley: “Bird On The Wire” is something I’ve been listening to for a long time. I always felt like I should write in that style, something straight poetic. But the conventions of what people think is good, or even the genre I’m in, makes me change my mind sometimes [laughs]. I think I’ve always tried to balance a clever punchline that fits into stories I was telling and get some of my emotions in there too. But with Leonard Cohen, he approached writing with all feeling first. Straight poetic. He has so many turns of phrase that need no punchline. He just paints emotional pictures in a single phrase. When he says, “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir…” you realize he’s singing all off key but singing with all his heart. I’ve heard some of his recent live recordings and I didn’t like it as much because he seemed worried about his vocals — before, he wasn’t technically the smoothest singer, he was just raw emotion. This album has always been very inspirational to me in what I’ve done my whole life as a writer.
4. Sly & The Family Stone - Fresh (Epic, 1973)
Boots Riley: This was one of those records my older sister and my mom would have lying around the house. Sly’s jumping through the air in a leather outfit looking like a fucking superhero [laughs]! “Skin I’m In” goes into these horns and Sly just howls and lets loose as if it were some sort of painful release. It’s amazing. And Sly is the cool guy, even though he’s loud and out there; he’s not the ultra-cool cat who’s reserved. He acts and sings as though everything around him is affecting him and he’s just letting loose. He has some simple lines like, “The clothes I wear and the things they dare me to do…” blew me away. His clothes are daring him to do certain things! He’s setting himself up, backing himself in a corner by putting on superstars’ clothes and so he plays the fucking part. Later on as an artist, I realized that Curtis Mayfield was making songs the same time Sly was. But Fresh sounds so dirty, right? It was listening to a demo.
5. The D.O.C. - No One Can Do It Better (Ruthless, 1989)
Boots Riley: “The Grand Finale” off this album honestly changed everything for me. With this album, it’s all about this one particular track and how Ice Cube came off. He was just so hard. He was just so relentless and has so many badass references. I really think Cube nailed it and got me and a whole generation of rappers pumped. I mean, to this day, if I’m spitting a guest verse on a track someone hands me, sometimes I’ll do Cube’s verse over it as sort of a test to see if the beat works. Rappers sometimes sacrifice content because they’re too busy trying to set up the following line. There are entire verses where you can tell, “oh, this line was to set up the next line only.” Then, like half of the lines in the song can kinda be meaningless. Back then, I was listening to lyricists like Kool G Rap and Lord Finesse and they’re so different stylistically from someone like Ice Cube. G Rap, for example, flips so many phrases and makes every bar count. Cube came the same way but with his own aesthetic. Because of Ice Cube’s verse, I always told myself, “Do not waste people’s time.”