Street Sweeper Social Club (Boots Riley) by Preach Jacobs @ Vapors Magazine

Street Sweeper Social Club (Boots Riley) by Preach Jacobs
Words by Preach Jacobs
Photo by Jorge Peniche

Rap music seems to have lost its balls. Rappers have traded the ‘fight-the-power’ creed of the late 80s for a flashy, light-hearted approach to the music that was born to rebel. Thankfully, for about a decade and a half, Boots Riley has been going against that grain and doing more than just ‘sticking it to the man’. Now, he’s collaborating with like-minded guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame to form the Street Sweepers Social Club. One of rap’s most intriguing voices sat down with me. Here’s what he had to say:

Being that rap music isn’t as politically charged as it once was, how do you feel about the climate now compared to when you started? Where do you feel that you fit in?
When ‘Kill My Landlord’ came out in ’93 all of these clubs that are doing hip-hop now weren’t doing that. They were doing rock. We had a video that was number two on BET and couldn’t get a tour going. Booking agents didn’t have the connections to get touring around the country. Rap was always thought to be be bought by white kids but attended mostly by people of color. Back then rap shows got shut down before they happened, because they thought it would be too violent.

Did you feel uncomfortable that this black music was purchased mostly by white suburbia?
It was always known, even in the late 80s, that people buying hip-hop were white kids. The difference was that white people were scared to come to the shows. The white kids that came were the ones that would hang with the black crowd. Now, white kids can come to these shows and not know any black people. That’s how you can do 150 shows a year as a hip-hop artist now.

How do you feel today’s politics affect your music now? Things like Iran’s outcry with the election etc.

People are in a position where they’re stressed out. They have a hard time paying their bills, hard time keeping a roof over their heads etc. Naturally people want music to talk about the struggle that they’re going through. Stuff that’s considered political, hip-hop isn’t addressing that stuff. Artists are talking about money and people can’t relate to it; there needs to be a movement with artists addressing our problems. One thing that’s interesting about Iran is how when they felt the election was stolen, people were out in the streets. That didn’t’ happen here. The people wanted radical change, and when they’ve gotten to that point that they may get killed but they’ll be out in the streets to make it happen. Here we think we’re so free that we don’t have to worry about that.

Tell me about Street Sweeper Social Club and how did you end up working with Tom Morello?

Over the years The Coup’s live show was a rock show instead of a hip-hop show. Tom hit me out of the blue and told me he wanted me to join his ‘Tell Them The Truth Tour’ in the fall of ’03. We would play together and do stuff on stage together at his ‘Night Watchman’ shows. The one night he took me to dinner and said, “We’re in a band. It’s called Street Sweeper Social Club.” He didn’t even ask me. He just gave me a cassette with 26 riffs and told me to start writing. I didn’t give him an answer; I told him I wouldn’t answer him until we sell 30 million.