Brow Beat

A Beginner’s Guide to the Music of Sorry to Bother You Director Boots Riley

Where to start with the Coup.

Boots Riley
Sorry To Bother You writer and director Boots Riley attends a film screening on April 12 in Oakland, California.
C Flanigan/Getty Images

Rapper, activist, and filmmaker Boots Riley is earning widespread recognition for his feature debut, Sorry to Bother You, but he has been making unflinching political art in the same vein for more than a quarter-century. Riley, an avowed communist and the son of organizers who met during the San Francisco State University strike of 1968, founded the Oakland, California–based rap group the Coup in 1991, with local rapper E-Roc and DJ Pam the Funkstress (who died in December), adding several more members after E-Roc’s departure in 1996. Although the group’s output has been infrequent since its 1993 debut, Kill My Landlord—with Riley often taking time off to work various jobs, get involved with protest movements, or participate in other musical collaborations—its six albums make a bumping soundtrack for protest, with righteous screeds bellowed over instrumental interpolations and soul and funk samples, often with the DJ scratching in rhymes from forerunners like the Last Poets, Ice Cube, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.*

Although the Coup served an important role among the vanguard of its era’s political rap groups, including Public Enemy, X Clan, Brand Nubian, and Dead Prez, Riley’s work has mostly flourished in local underground, literary, and activist circles far from that movement’s New York hub. When the group has gained further attention, it’s mostly been for shock caused by Riley’s uncompromising acts: They briefly became infamous after 9/11, when the cover they originally planned, before the attacks, for the album Party Music, featuring Riley and Pam seemingly triggering an explosion at the World Trade Center using a tuner, took on a less symbolic meaning. (It was changed by the label despite Riley’s objections.)

With Sorry to Bother You, based on a screenplay Riley wrote back in 2012 that was published in book form with McSweeney’s in 2014, Riley appears poised to find a larger audience than ever. For those just coming to his music now via Sorry to Bother You (the movie’s soundtrack is set for an official release later this summer and is led by the single “OYAHYTT”), here’s a 10-song primer on the Coup’s fiery career.

1) “Dig It” (Kill My Landlord, 1993)
In case the title Kill My Landlord didn’t make it clear for anyone who picked up the Coup’s first full-length LP, the opening track lays out the group’s politics from the get-go: They waste no time before rattling off references to The Communist Manifesto, Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, Kwame Nkrumah, H. Rap Brown, and Geronimo Pratt alongside disses directed at George H.W. Bush, Christopher Columbus, the FBI, and the police. It’s a fitting beginning to a boundary-smashing career.

2) “Not Yet Free” (Kill My Landlord, 1993)
This song establishes a central thesis of the Coup’s ideology: The political system in the country is so tyrannical toward minority populations that a mass movement, deploying strikes and other disruptive tactics, is the only viable solution. The outro skit features a long list of ’90s political figures whom Riley and E-Roc, in character, directly threaten, a somewhat jarring detail to listen to today, considering how recently artists such as YG have been threatened with censorship for similar provocations.

3) “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” (Genocide and Juice, 1994)
An early single on which Riley showed off his storytelling prowess, rapping from the perspective of “a thief, or pickpocket/ give a fuck what you call it,” who prowls the sidewalk and snags wallets from the wealthy. He ends up sneaking into a corporate party and overhears a corrupt scheme hatched between a Coca-Cola executive and a mayor, sadly realizing the depth of corruption in the political system and the inability of any single common man to change it on his own—a theme present throughout Sorry to Bother You.

4) “Takin’ These” (Genocide and Juice, 1994)
In this Robin Hood–style wealth-redistribution anthem, Riley and E-Roc go back-and-forth sticking up rich executives and politicians, taking their money and possessions and giving all of it back to their community.* The crowds in the video resemble the spirited rallies Riley has been organizing his whole life.

5) “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night” (Steal This Album, 1998)
One of the Coup’s most well-known songs (and the inspiration for a novel by Monique W. Morris), “Me and Jesus” represents an “intersectional view of oppression,” according to Riley. A vivid, tragic, eight-minute first-person tale of a boy, his sex-worker mother, and her pimp, Jesus, the track addresses both poverty and violence against women.

6) “5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.” (Party Music, 2001)
Riley probably had predatory CEOs like Sorry to Bother You’s Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) in mind when writing this cheerful track, which is more or less what you expect from the title. (Example: “Put a 50 in the barrel of a gun/ When he try to suck it out, aha, well, you know this one.”) In the wake of 9/11, this sentiment naturally displeased some conservatives.

7) “Ghetto Manifesto” (Party Music, 2001)
With a ringing electric guitar as accompaniment, “Ghetto Manifesto” uses the objects of the exploited underclasses (“I write my lyrics on parking tickets and summons to the court/ I scribbled this on an application for county support,” he begins) to craft both a picture of urban drudgery and represent the weapons used to fight back.* The song is also notable for its shot at future President Donald Trump, whom the Coup had often dissed throughout their career.

8) “Ride the Fence” (Party Music, 2001)
If Riley were ever to run for office, as some in the past have suggested he should, “Ride the Fence,” which reads like a tongue-twisting campaign kickoff speech, gives a sense of what might be his official platform, laying out everything he’s for (“Pro–people’s control of the cash and corporations /Pro-prophylactic yet pro-creation”) and against (“I’m anti-imperial, anti-trust/ Anti-gun if the shit won’t bust”).

9) “Laugh/Love/Fuck” (Pick a Bigger Weapon, 2006)
Possibly a crude turn on the ubiquitous saying “Live, laugh, love,” “Laugh/Love/Fuck” showcases Riley’s ability to make joyous, danceable hits while never abandoning his politics or his clever lyricism. As he explains in one especially dense bit of wordplay, “I’m here to take shots and make a mark/ not just take shots of Maker’s Mark/ That just makes us marks.”

10) “The Guillotine” (Sorry to Bother You, 2012)
Back when Riley wrote the screenplay that would become the film Sorry to Bother You, the Coup also created an album inspired by the story that served as a sort of unofficial soundtrack due to the difficulty of getting the film produced as well as what Riley felt was a mismatch between this music and his desired sound for the film. The album serves as a good preview for the movie, with familiar character sketches and scenarios on tracks like “We’ve Got a Lot to Teach You, Cassius Green.”* As in so much of Riley’s work, the imagery here is certainly unsubtle, but it’s hardly ineffective.

Correction, July 19, 2018: This article originally misstated that the Coup used samples on the songs “Takin’ These” and “Ghetto Manifesto.” The article also originally misstated that the album Sorry to Bother You uses more live instruments and fewer samples than the Coup’s previous albums. In fact, the group has used live instrumentation and few samples throughout most of its albums.