The Rap History of ‘Sorry to Bother You’ Director Boots Riley
With a score of 95 on Rotten Tomatoes, Sorry to Bother You, the writing and directorial debut of Boots Riley, is one of the most acclaimed films of 2018. But before he moved into films, Riley had a lengthy career in hip-hop as the leader of the Coup, an Oakland-based group known for their political, anti-capitalist lyrics.
After putting out an EP in 1991, the Coup went on to release six albums between 1993 and 2012, as well as another EP, La Grande Boutique, in 2014. With Riley's star on the rise, greater attention is being placed on his music. So here's a brief overview of what he's done to date.
Riley Started By Writing a Rap Version of 'West Side Story'
Years before Lin-Manuel Miranda popularized hip-hop on Broadway, Riley wrote rhymes for a high school production of the classic musical West Side Story. He told Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air that although he couldn't remember what he wrote, the lyrics were "really corny." But they were "the first raps I ever wrote, which is how I actually got into rapping is because I did that for the play and nobody booed. So I decided maybe I could figure out how to do it."
The Coup Got Signed Because Labels Were Looking for the Next MC Hammer ...
Riley attended film school at San Francisco State University, but, as he told Fresh Air, he "found it to be more focused on experimental film and documentary. You know, I was interested in narrative and things that could reach many people."
At the same time he was starting to get dissatisfied with college, the local hip-hop scene was exploding and labels were signing up everybody they could find. "We just happened to be at the right time and the right place because the Bay Area, specifically Oakland, was a place that every record label decided they needed a group from," he continued. "So we rode that wave that was started by people like Digital Underground, Too Short and MC Hammer."
... But They Almost Gave Up After Two Albums
Their first two records, 1993's Kill My Landlord and Genocide and Juice a year later, had trouble finding an audience, especially after EMI bought their label, Wild Pitch. "This was years after Public Enemy had been out," Riley continued. "And also we didn't fit the mold of what people thought West Coast rap was supposed to sound like or talk about. So the labels always had a hard time putting us into a genre that they could easily sell."
With the departure of E-roc (Eric Davis) from the group, the Coup took a break, and Riley took a day job as a telemarketer, later drawing upon those experiences for the screenplay to Sorry to Bother You. He also formed the Young Comrades, a community organizing group. He subconsciously took cues from his father, a civil rights activist. “I’d see flyers and stickers, and there’d be meetings at my house, but as a kid you’re not paying attention," he told Mother Jones. "[My dad] was never like, ‘Let me tell you how the world works.’ That’s the only reason I got politicized. If it was his thing, I wouldn’t be able to find my place in it.”
People Didn't 'Steal This Album'
The Coup got back together for 1998's Steal This Album, which included the single "Me & Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night." It became their highest-charting record to date, reaching No. 51 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop and No. 37 on the Heatseekers Album charts.
'Party Music' Suffers From Bad Timing
For the cover of the follow-up to Steal This Album, Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress created a cover for Party Music that showed them blowing up the World Trade Center with a guitar tuner. Unfortunately, the record was scheduled to be released in September 2001. After the attacks of 9/11, the artwork was changed to that of a hand holding a flaming martini glass and its release pushed back a few months. Despite strong reviews, in particular for the single "5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O.," they couldn't sustain the momentum gained by Steal This Album.
Riley Wants to Hear the Truth
In 2003, Riley took part in the Tell Us the Truth tour, joining Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Lester Chambers of the Chambers Brothers and folk-rockers Billy Bragg and Steve Earle to rail against corporate globalization and media consolidation. "A few massive corporations will soon control all we see on TV and print and radio," Morello told the Boston Globe. "There's a very narrow number of gatekeepers, and that can be very destabilizing for a democracy. Ten years ago, 50 corporations controlled the major media outlets. Now it's down to six," he says. "And everybody loses except the super-rich at the top."
Boots Goes to Springfield
Riley provided the music for "Pranksta Rap," a 2005 episode of The Simpsons that centered around Bart Simpson attending a hip-hop concert against his parents' wishes and winning a battle rap. The episode features a cameo by 50 Cent, who tells Bart to stay in school.
Looking for Love and a Bigger Weapon
In 2006, the Coup signed with ANTI- Records and released Pick a Bigger Weapon, which contained the single, "My Favorite Mutiny," featuring Black Thought and Talib Kweli. The record centered around the search for love amid difficult economic times. "All we have on earth are our seconds and minutes, and in order to survive, we're forced to sell that time. We sell our lives off to the highest bidder," Riley said in the press release. "The question is how would we use those seconds if we had control of that time?"
Sweeping the Streets
His friendship with Morello led to the two of them forming the Street Sweeper Social Club in 2006 with Stanton Moore of the New Orleans funk band Galactic. They put out a self-titled album in 2009 and The Ghetto Blaster EP a year later, and served as the opening act on the Nine Inch Nails-Jane's Addiction tour. "You can call it rap-rock," Riley told the Riverfront Times. "It's kind of hard to say it's a straight hip-hop record. It's made like a rock record. And it has a rapper on it. I don't care what someone wants to call it. Listen to the record."
Dropping F-Bombs in Norfolk
In 2008, Riley's set with Galactic at the Bayou Boogaloo Music Festival in Norfolk, Va., was cut short due to his use of profanity twice in a two-minute span. The police then charged Riley with abusive language.
"City officials claim that they are making the statement that profanity will not be tolerated," Riley said. "Obviously, since no one has been charged with this in 26 years, profanity IS tolerated. The statement they are making is that the culture and the people they feel I represent won't be tolerated. I was already off stage; the man they asked to leave the stage was Trombone Shorty, another Black man who looks nothing like me."
He's Been Sorry to Bother You for a While
After writing the first draft of the screenplay of Sorry to Bother You in 2012, Riley wrote an album for the Coup based on the story in the hopes of drumming up interest in the movie. "I needed a way to get a buzz going about the script because I didn't know anyone in the film world," he told Gross. "So I made an album that was inspired by the screenplay. It's been so many years since we put that album out that we actually made a new soundtrack album, which is by the Coup, for the movie."