Boots Riley

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Boots Riley
Boots Riley in a leather jacket.jpeg
Riley in 2010
Raymond Lawrence Riley

(1971-04-01) April 1, 1971 (age 49)
Years active1991–present
Musical career
Associated acts
WebsiteBoots Riley on Tumblr

Raymond Lawrence "Boots" Riley (born April 1, 1971), is an American rapper, producer, screenwriter, film director, and activist.[1] He is the lead vocalist of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. His feature-film directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You (2018), which he also wrote, was released in July 2018.

Early life[edit]

Riley was born in 1971[2] into a family of social justice organizers in Chicago. He is the son of Anitra Patterson and Walter Riley, an attorney. His father and maternal grandfather are African-American, while his maternal grandmother was a German Jewish refugee from Königsberg, who fled Europe with her parents as a teenager in 1938.[3] By the time he was six, the family moved to Detroit and then to Oakland.[4] His interest in politics began at a young age, inspiring him to join the International Committee Against Racism at age 14[5] and the radical Progressive Labor Party at age 15.[4]



In 1991, Riley founded the political hip hop group The Coup with a fellow United Parcel Service worker E-roc.[4] Pam the Funkstress, DJ for the group, joined in 1992.[citation needed] Riley was chief lyric writer and produced the music on the albums. They released a song on a 1991 compilation album called Dope Like a Pound or a Key along with fellow former UPS worker Spice-1 and future Thug Life member Mopreme Shakur, then known as Mocedes. The album was released on Wax That Azz Records, which was owned by Pierre "The Beat Fixer" James, Too Short's DJ.[citation needed]

In 1991, he and other hip hop artists created the Mau Mau Rhythm Collective.[6] They put on "Hip-Hop Edutainment Concerts" which allied with and promoted the campaigns of community-based organizations like Women's Economic Agenda Project (WEAP), Copwatch, International Campaign To Free Geronimo Pratt, and the Black Panther Alumni Association.[citation needed] The Mau Mau Rhythm Collective was actively involved in the campaign to stop the FBI's "Weed And Seed" program (which was used in the '60s in conjunction with CoIntelPro) from coming to Oakland. They used the growing popularity of their concerts to bring a large number of youth to take over a closed Oakland city council meeting and hold a public meeting.[citation needed]

In 1992, The Coup signed to Wild Pitch Records/EMI.[citation needed] The group released their debut album Kill My Landlord in 1993. Two singles from that album, "Dig It" and "Not Yet Free", received play on BET, Yo! MTV Raps, and mix shows on national Black radio.[citation needed]

In 1993, E-40 released the video for "Practice Lookin' Hard", a song based around Riley's lyric, "I got a mirror in my pocket and I practice lookin' hard", from the song "Not Yet Free" on Kill My Landlord.[7] The video featured Boots Riley singing the chorus while he, Tupac Shakur, and E-40 reflected light into the camera from a handheld mirror while dancing around.[8]

In 1994, The Coup released their second album, Genocide & Juice. It featured guest appearances by E-40 and Spice-1. Fueled by video play and some radio play for the single "Fat Cats And Bigga Fish", the album shot up the charts, but stalled when EMI suddenly absorbed Wild Pitch.[citation needed] At this point, E-roc left The Coup on amicable terms.[citation needed]

1998's Steal This Album, released on indie label Dogday Records, was called "a masterpiece of slow-rolling West Coast funk" by Rolling Stone magazine.[9] The single from that album, "Me And Jesus The Pimp In a ‘79 Granada Last Night", was an eight-minute song about the grown-up son of a prostitute driving his mother’s killer to a secluded place in which to murder him.[citation needed] A novel, Too Beautiful For Words by Monique W. Morris, based on the story characters and descriptions in the song, was published by HarperCollins in 2000.[citation needed] The album also featured a guest appearance by Del The Funky Homosapien on the track "The Repo Man Sings for You".

The group's fourth album, Party Music, was released on 75 Ark Records in 2001. It was re-released in 2005 by Epitaph Records. The original cover art depicted group members standing in front of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center as they explode.[10][11] Riley is depicted pushing a button on a bass guitar tuner and DJ Pam the Funkstress is shown holding conductor's wands. The photo was taken in May 2001. The album was scheduled to be released just after the September 11, 2001 attacks. In response to the uncanny similarity of the artwork with the attacks, the album release was delayed until an alternative cover could be prepared. The album hit #8 in the 2001 Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll- the most important year-end critic's list, was named "Pop Album Of The Year" by the Washington Post, and "Hip-Hop Album Of The Year" by Rolling Stone. The album included a guest appearance by dead prez on the song "Get Up." Boots Riley released a controversial press release one week after the 9/11 events, which was later published in the book, Another World Is Possible. The press release stated that "last week's events were symptomatic of a larger backlash against U.S. corporate imperialism." The controversy surrounding the cover art, press release, and the lyrics from Party Music (specifically the song "5 Million Ways To Kill A CEO") led to Riley appearing on local network news affiliates all over the U.S. He also appeared on Fox News's Hannity and Colmes and ABC's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. During this time, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin called Boots's lyrics "a stomach-turning example of anti-Americanism disguised as highbrow intellectual expression".[12] The Independent concluded it was "protest album of the year, by a million-man march."[13]

In 2003, Vibe Magazine named Boots Riley one of the 10 most influential people of 2002.[citation needed]

That same year, Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello invited Riley to be part of the "Tell Us the Truth Tour". The tour was meant to shed light on the monopolization of the media and the coming FTAA agreements.[citation needed] It featured acoustic performances by Riley, Morello, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Mike Mills and Jill Sobule. It was hosted by Janeane Garofalo and Naomi Klein.[citation needed]

Boots Riley produced the score for the 2005 episode of The Simpsons entitled "Pranksta Rap".[14]

In 2006, The Coup released Pick a Bigger Weapon on Epitaph Records. The album was named "Album Of The Year" by Associated Press.[citation needed] It featured guest appearances by Tom Morello, Talib Kweli, Black Thought from The Roots, and Jello Biafra.

Riley holding a microphone onstage
Riley performing in 2007

In 2007 and 2008, Riley toured heavily with New Orleans-based band Galactic.[citation needed] The band performed Coup songs behind Riley's vocals and they also performed their collaboration, "Hustle Up". In 2008, while performing with Galactic in Norfolk, VA, police interrupted the concert and Riley was charged with "public profanity"- a charge that had, until then, never been used in its 26 years of existence.[citation needed]

Back in 2006, Morello approached Riley to form a band together under the name Street Sweeper. The duo who later changed their name to Street Sweeper Social Club, releasing their self-titled debut album in 2009. They toured in support of it along with Nine Inch Nails and the recently reunited Jane's Addiction.[citation needed] Two songs, "100 Little Curses" and "Promenade", from their self-titled debut received rotation on Rock radio in major markets.[citation needed] On May 24, a press release went out announcing Street Sweeper Social Club as one of the headliners of the 2010 Rock the Bells tour. Street Sweeper Social Club released The Ghetto Blaster EP in late July 2010.

In 2010 and 2011, Boots Riley recorded with Ursus Minor again on I Will Not Take "But" for an Answer and toured with the group in France.

Riley holding a banner and microphone
Riley speaking at a rally for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2017

Film and television[edit]

Boots Riley began working on a screenplay for "an absurdist dark comedy with aspects of magical realism and science fiction", inspired by his own time working as a telemarketer, which he finished in 2012.[15] In 2017, he was able to begin production on his screenplay for Sorry to Bother You, directing it himself, with stars Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, and Steven Yeun.[16] The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2018, and was theatrically released in the United States on July 6, 2018, by Annapurna Pictures. The film received praise for its cast and concept, as well as Riley's screenplay and direction.

In June 2020, he announced plans for a new TV series entitled I'm a Virgo, starring Jharrel Jerome.[17]


Riley identifies as a communist.[18]

When E-Roc left The Coup in 1994, Riley decided to stop making music in favor of forming an organization called The Young Comrades, with a few other radical, black community organizers.[citation needed] The organization mounted a few important campaigns in Oakland which yielded some minor victories, such as the campaign against Oakland's "no cruising" ordinance.[citation needed]

In 2000, Riley, through his workshop on Art and Organizing at La Peña Cultural Center, led a group of young artists to create "Guerilla Hip-Hop Concerts" on a flatbed truck which traveled throughout Oakland to protest California’s Proposition 21.[19] The workshop also distributed tens of thousands free cassettes of "The Rumble", which he called "newspapers on tape".[citation needed]

In 2002, Riley taught a daily high school class, "Culture and Resistance: Persuasive Lyric Writing", at the School of Social Justice and Community Development in East Oakland.[20]

During the fall of 2011, Riley became heavily involved with the Occupy Oakland movement.[21] In 2018, he spoke at the Socialism 2018 conference.[22]

In February 2020, Boots announced his support for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2020 United States presidential election.[23]


with The Coup[edit]

with Street Sweeper Social Club[edit]

Guest appearances[edit]


Boots Riley filmography
Title Medium Year Director Writer
Sorry to Bother You Film 2018 Yes Yes
I'm a Virgo Television series TBD TBD TBD


  1. ^ "Boots Riley on How His Hit Movie "Sorry to Bother You" Slams Capitalism & Offers Solutions". DemocracyNow!. July 17, 2018. 17:50 minutes in. Retrieved July 26, 2018.
  2. ^ Kelley, Robin D.G. (2018). "Sorry, not Sorry". The Boston Review. Retrieved September 13, 2018.
  3. ^ Kelley, Robin D. G. (11 September 2018). "Sorry, Not Sorry". Boston Review. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  4. ^ a b c Weiner, Jonah (May 22, 2018). "How Boots Riley Infiltrated Hollywood". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved May 23, 2018.
  5. ^ "Boots Riley: Activism Before Art". PULSE Magazine. 2019-02-20. Retrieved 2019-09-19.
  6. ^ Cook, Dave (1996). "Should rap artist run for political office?". Archived from the original on January 11, 2017. Retrieved January 11, 2017.
  7. ^ "E-40's 'Practice Lookin' Hard' – Discover the Sample Source". WhoSampled. Retrieved January 11, 2017.
  8. ^ E40VEVO (November 24, 2009), E-40 – Practice Lookin' Hard, retrieved January 11, 2017
  9. ^ "Coup de grace". The Rep. The Arizona Republic. December 9, 1999. p. 51. Retrieved January 11, 2017 – via
  10. ^ "Album cover of WTC blast pulled". Archived from the original on November 13, 2001. Retrieved July 9, 2018.
  11. ^ "The Coup Cover Art". Snopes. Retrieved July 9, 2018.
  12. ^ Malkin, Michelle (December 30, 2001). "Stop giving America a bad rap". Townhall. Archived from the original on January 11, 2017. Retrieved January 11, 2017.
  13. ^ "Album: The Coup". Independent. November 9, 2001. Retrieved July 24, 2018.
  14. ^ Riley, B. [BootsRiley] (August 23, 2014). 4those watching The Simpsons marathon: Episode 9 of Season 16, "Pranksta Rap" is scored by me. I did not write those raps tho. Twitter
  15. ^ Gross, Terry (July 2, 2018). "Boots Riley Mines His Experiences as a Telemarketer in 'Sorry to Bother You'". Fresh Air. National Public Radio. Retrieved July 3, 2018.
  16. ^ Busch, Anita (June 15, 2017). "Tessa Thompson, Lakeith Stanfield, Steven Yeun To Star In 'Sorry To Bother You'". Deadline Hollywood. Penske Media Corporation. Retrieved June 27, 2017.
  17. ^ Sodomsky, Sam. "Boots Riley Announces New TV Series I'm a Virgo Starring Jharrel Jerome". Pitchfork.
  18. ^ Hughes, Casper (January 3, 2019). "Boots Riley Talks About a Socialist Alternative for Society".
  19. ^ Pollard, Mark. "An Interview w/ Boots of the Coup". Archived from the original on January 11, 2017. Retrieved January 11, 2017. We had a flatbed truck and basically make it into a stage and we’d get rappers and we’d drive around neighborhoods and do a show – guerilla theatre. We’d called them guerilla hip hop concerts.
  20. ^ "Boots Riley | Speakers Bureau and Booking Agent Info".
  21. ^ "Usa, tensione tra sindacati e Ows", Peace Reporter, December 14, 2011.
  22. ^ "Seeing ahead from the high points of Socialism".
  23. ^ "I have never voted for a candidate in my life. But I will be voting for Bernie Sanders in the democratic primary and the general election. If I'm doing that, there are probably tens of millions in that same position. Let me explain why I'm doing this now".

External links[edit]