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He is best known as a post-Black Panther, post-Public Enemy street documentarian who spins colorful yarns laden with socioeconomic and political messages. "In terms of political music, he's one of the greatest ever," enthuses Andy Kaulkin, who signed the Coup to Epitaph in 2005. Kaulkin believes Riley's message and appeal ultimately transcend hip-hop. Noting that Boots toured with Billy Bragg and Steve Earle last year, he thinks the group can resonate not only with punky anarchists and conscious hip-hoppers, but with older, mature listeners hungry for substance in their music. "What he does is really, really catchy, really accessible," he says. "The message sort of sneaks in."
Boots often conveys his message with humor or irony, something that separates him from preachier, more didactic political rappers. "Humor teaches a lot," he says. "Contradictions are humorous. The system is nothing but contradicting." Consider the notion of "Ass-Breath Killers" lozenges that remove the distasteful odor that comes from kissing the rear end of the Man or the image of a Lewinskyesque liaison between Saddam Hussein and one or both Presidents Bush, as suggested on "Head (of State)."
In addition to his knack for making subversion sound humorous, Boots also is an underrated producer. His skills have been overshadowed by his outspoken political activism, yet every one of his efforts has been more musically sophisticated than the last. The progression toward an original, funk-based sound unlike that of other rap acts became evident with Party Music, and has continued with the new album, which uses more live instrumentation than ever before. In addition to basslines, guitars, strings, claps, and congas, Pick a Bigger Weapon experiments with instruments not typically associated with rap, including a B-3 organ, mini-Moog, and Rhodes electric piano. With all the live musicianship, there's noticeably less turntable scratching, although Pam the Funkstress remains an integral part of the group.
Finally, amid the hypermasculine sexism of so much mainstream rap, Boots exudes the confidence to give women equal footing. While misogyny has become commonplace to the point of acceptance in rap music, Boots not only writes odes to female empowerment such as "Wear Clean Draws" or "Tiffany Hall," but shares the spotlight on his album covers with Pam, herself a rarity in a male-dominated arena. Through it all, he is forthrightly militant, yet not so gung-ho that he's afraid to show some tenderness. This dichotomy is brought to life by the group's logo, a silhouette of an African woman toting a machine gun on her back and suckling a child at her breast.
But then, as Boots himself puts it in the opening lines of the new album, he's a walkin' contradiction, like bullets and love mixin'.
Bullets are nowhere to be seen or heard at the Riley household, but love is in plain view. There's a new addition to the family: On March 4 Boots' girlfriend, Dawn-Elissa Fischer, gave birth to a healthy eleven-pound boy. Dawn looks radiant, flush with a rosy-cheeked glow. As for the baby, he's a handsome little squinty-eyed dude who seems much lighter than his birth weight. Dressed in a yellow-and-white striped jumper and already sporting a thick tuft of black hair, he seems fairly uninterested in what's going on around him, although Dawn says being around his dad makes him happy. Boots burps the baby and makes googoo faces at his son.
Boots is nothing if not consistent; even the newborn's name Zola Dessalines Amilcar Fischer-Riley blends love and politics. Dawn says Zola is a Xhosa word meaning "tranquillity." The second name pays homage to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a comrade of Toussaint-Louverture in the Haitian revolution. The third name comes from Amilcar Cabral, a writer and activist from Guinea-Bissau. Boots tends to leave out the third name, which Dawn added, because he believes it spoils the rhythm of Zola's name. Yet he knows that for a relationship to work, there has to be some compromise.
Dawn's effect on Boots is obvious in many ways; he is more reserved and gentle in her presence. She's also the inspiration for the romantic material on the new album. "This is the baby that came after mommy told daddy, 'Let's have a baby before Bush do something crazy,' after laying around all day in bed the night after we laughed and drank liquor at the Lucky Lounge," she announces excitedly. And indeed, the new album features a slow, soulful turn by the female vocalist Silk E, "BabyLet'sHaveaBaby
Boots and Dawn aren't married, yet they share a deep love; they've been together for about two and a half years. "Her vision of her mission in life is very much parallel to mine, which is more than just sharing the same worldview," Boots says. In the era of the hip-hop generation, he believes the term "family" should be redefined "in terms of love and commitment, not in terms of who's married to who, what their legal status is, or the members of their household." He says the old notion of a nuclear family "wasn't even real in the '50s."
Nor was it real in the Riley household. Ray's own parents split up when he was eight, and he lived for a while in Stockton and Pasadena before his family settled in East Oakland. At first, he saw his mom regularly, but less frequently after she took a job as a lab technician in Saudi Arabia. She wrote regularly, and the children (Ray has three sisters and one brother) knew she loved them, yet it was still tough at times.
"It's bittersweet, in the sense that kids are always gonna miss their mother," he says. But Boots understands that his mom had her first child at age fifteen, and may have felt she needed to grow as a person. "This is a woman that's put her life aside, or put her hopes and dreams aside," he says. "Now she has a chance to see the world. It allowed me to see that many women don't get a chance to realize their dreams. It's always taken for granted that the man is gonna make his dreams happen, while the woman is stuck with the baby." His mom, Anitra Patterson, has since moved back to Oakland, and the two are close today, albeit in an adult-friendship sort of way.
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