There's a Riot Goin' On entered the Billboard Pop Album and Soul Album charts at number one upon its release, while the album's lead single, "Family Affair" (1971), topped the Pop Singles chart. By 2001, it had sold one million copies and been certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Received with ambivalence upon its release, the album is now praised as one of the greatest and most influential recordings of all-time, and ranked at or near the top of many publications' "best album" lists. In 2003 it was ranked number 99 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Having achieved great success with their 1969 album Stand! and performance at Woodstock, Sly & the Family Stone were due to have submitted an album of new recordings to Epic Records by 1970. However, Sly Stone missed several recording deadlines, worrying CBS executive Clive Davis, and a Greatest Hits album was released in an eighteen-month stretch during which the band released no new material, except for the single Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). Relationships within the band were deteriorating, with friction between the Stone brothers and bassist Larry Graham. Epic executives requested more product, and the Black Panther Party, with which Stone had become associated, was demanding he make his music more militant and reflective of the black power movement, that he replace Greg Errico and Jerry Martini with black instrumentalists, and replace manager David Kapralik. After moving to Los Angeles, California in late 1969 Stone and his bandmates began to use cocaine and PCP heavily rather than recording music. During this time Sly & the Family Stone released only one single, "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" / "Everybody Is a Star", issued in December 1969. Although "Star" was a positive song in the vein of their previous hit "Everyday People" (1968), "Thank You" featured a darker political theme.
By 1970, Stone had become erratic and moody, missing nearly a third of the band's concert dates. He hired streetwise friends Hamp "Bubba" Banks and J.B. Brown as his personal managers, and these enlisted gangsters Edward "Eddie Chin" Elliott and Mafioso J.R. Valtrano as his bodyguards. Stone assigned these individuals to handle his business dealings, find drugs and protect him from those he considered enemies, among them his own bandmates and staff. A rift developed between Sly and the rest of the band, which led to drummer Gregg Errico's departure in early 1971. Speculation arose as to the release of new studio material. In a December 24, 1970 article for Rolling Stone magazine, journalist Jon Landau wrote;
"The man from Epic tells me that Sly hasn't recorded much lately. His last album of new material was released well over a year ago and even 'Thank You', his last single, is old by now. Greatest Hits was released only as a last resort in order to get something salable into the record stores. It was a necessary release and stands as the final record of the first chapter in Sly & the Family Stone's career. Whatever the reasons for his recording abstinence, I hope it ends soon so that he can get back to making new music and we can get back to listening to it."
Stone's intention of a darker, more conceptual work was influenced by drug use and the events that writer Miles Marshall Lewis called "the death of the sixties"; political assassinations, police brutality, the decline of the civil rights movement and social disillusionment. According to The Austin Chronicle, "slowed down, quest for post-stardom identity mirrored black America's quest for post-Sixties purpose."