Everyone in Oakland seems to know Boots Riley, the frontman of the Coup. He's lived all over the city—Funktown, Lower Bottom, San Antonio—and has been a central figure in the music and arts scenes there since 1991. Riley's love for Oakland is palpable, but it's also clear that he has a creeping fear about the way it's changing.
Here, the rapper/author/activist tells us about his favorite Oakland spots, the local acts he's most excited about, the best food in town, and his memories of a mid-90s warehouse show with OutKast and Eazy-E.
Who is the essential Oakland musician?
Sly Stone. Yeah, Sly Stone. OK, he's Bay Area, but the key element in his band is Larry Graham, who's from Oakland. Larry Graham invented thumping on the bass. Nobody debates that or anything. They created a synthesis of culture that wasn't happening anywhere that affected music. I mean, Stevie Wonder started trying to copy them, and he puts that out there—he wouldn't say copy, I'm sure. It affected the world in a really big way, which set things off. Without him, there's no Parliament Funkadelic, which means, go on down the line.
And what about right now? Who is the Oakland artist or musician you're most excited about?
Do D.A.T. He's been involved in a lot of different groups along the way—he's been around for like ten years. But from the production to style, it's something I really like.
How has the Oakland music scene changed since you were starting out?
When I started, how people heard the new music was in cars that were rolling by. You hear something, "boom, boom, boom," somebody wanted to show off. Somebody could have a hoopty and roll up playing a song, and everybody's dancing around it if it's a nice sunny day. And that was how you heard new music. So, if you're going into the town, you find out who the popular people are with cars with systems, and you give them your tape for free, and you have them play it, and if they like it, they're gonna bump it because it's something new. So basically, there's all these DJs around.
And you also heard your new stuff from DJs at dances. We'd rent out a restaurant, or we'd rent out a union hall. One of the big places in the late 80s, early 90s, was on Hegenberger Road. Matter of fact, we did a concert right off Hegenberg Road in an old office building that was abandoned, and it was us, OutKast, and Eazy-E had some girl group that he'd just put out, and Eazy-E was there introducing them. It was like one thousand people there, of course.
Do you have a place you like to go to hear local Oakland acts right now?
There's a new place bubbling up on Fifteenth Street between Harrison and Webster. It's this group of galleries [Fifteenth Street Galleries] and clothing stores where they do Second Saturdays. These young kids called Prime, they have a clothing store, and they have a lot of energy around them—they'll have hundreds of kids out there. And then across the street from that is a place called Naming Gallery, and another one called Omiiroo, and another one called Tilde. And they'll just do this stuff on the street, live acts on the street. It kind of feels like a scene. There's an energy—everyone wants something to jump off.
Which Oakland neighborhood do you feel most connected to?
Neighborhoods are changing so much that it's really hard. I've lived in a lot of different neighborhoods—I've lived a few different times in my life in what was called Funktown, which is now called East Lake, because some committee connected to the city thought Funktown would scare people away, probably because it sounded too black.
I lived in West Oakland as a kid, and I also lived in West Oakland for a large part of my adult life, up until last year. The thing is, I have a connection to different neighborhoods that may not even exist anymore.
When I first moved to West Oakland as an adult, it was like 2004, and a lot of the families that were there had been there since the 50s and 60s. It was the biggest feeling of community that I'd ever had. People would just crack a barbecue if it was a nice day, right there on the sidewalk, and just cook something for one another. And if you didn't come through, they'd knock on your door and be like, "We cooked chicken, you didn't get some, take a plate."
And you know, it also was the neighborhood that had a lot of conflicts with the police that weren't just one-on-one conflicts, but were conflicts where the police would come and try to do dirty stuff, and the neighborhood would come out and fight the police. And that happened several times in just that little area—this was Lower Bottom. And a lot of that has changed, a lot of those folks have had to move away. But there's still an energy there that feels lively. A lot of people like it because of the beautiful architecture of the houses, but that can get lonely if people aren't interacting with one another.
As San Francisco keeps gentrifying, Oakland is feeling the runoff effects. In December, the Chronicle reported that Oakland is the fourth most expensive rental market in the country. What do you fear the city will lose with the influx of wealth?
That's a big question. A very big question. One thing that they lose is the people that existed there before. The people, the stories, the energy of those folks. It's kind of similar to what I'm saying about that West Oakland neighborhood where everyone's interacting.
One quick story: I had a studio on Ninth and Wood, a studio that used to be owned by Tony! Toni! Toné!, that Beyoncé did her first album in, and Alicia Keys. So it's a big studio, and everybody knew it was there. I'd be playing the music loud, and I'd get a hard knock on the door, and I'd be like, "Oh shit, I gotta turn the music down!" But people would be like, "That's the shit! Turn that shit up!" Because noise was the expected thing. You have to hear one another living. That's just what happens. Maybe you don't like their music, and maybe they don't like yours. But that was it. Now you hear about people getting noise complaints.
For a long time, Oakland has been the Bay Area's hub for hip-hop. With the influx of wealth, do you think the next generation of rappers will grow up in Richmond, or Antioch, or farther east?
Oh definitely. Definitely. That's why Oakland came to be. That's where those movements are. That's where people live and are struggling. I think what ends up happening in those places, though, is very similar to how Oakland has been for a long time: They get sold an inferiority complex. I remember when Digital Underground first came out, and they were telling everybody that they were from San Francisco, you know?
I remember Too $hort got an opening slot at Fresh Fest in the 80s, and people were talking shit like, "Oh, what are they doing letting Too $hort on there? He's just a local rapper." We're taught that we're not worth anything, so if something's only local than it must not be worth anything either. Even with the Coup, we only got popular in a real big way in Oakland when it got perceived that other people really liked us in other places.
Favorite Oakland Venue: New Parish
Favorite Oakland Dive Bar: Ruby Room
Favorite Oakland Outdoor Weed Smoking Spot: "I don't smoke that much, but a nature place? Hmm. I don't necessarily wanna give them away." [Laughs]