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The Coup - Steal This Double Album

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Artist: The Coup

Album: Steal This Double Album

Label: Foad

Review date: Aug. 26, 2002

Buy This Album

The Coup are one of the unluckiest groups in the history of hip hop. In spite of critical acclaim and decent popularity, not one of their first three albums has been able to successfully remain in print for any sustained period of time. Their first, two (Kill My Landlord and Genocide and Juice, both on Wild Pitch records) vanished along with the label during the late 90s. Both albums have occasionally re-appeared as official (and sorta-official) re-releases, but their availability has been hardly reliable during the past few years. Their newest release, 2001's Party Music brought them unprecedented attention due to both the album itself, as well as its outrageously unintentionally improper original cover art (which was recalled and redone). It was released on Dan the Automater's 75Ark records to widespread critical praise and drew more attention to the Coup than ever before in their career. While Party Music remains in print, 75Ark have been eerily quiet since the record's release, leading many to speculate that perhaps Party Music will go the way of the rest of the Coup's catalog.

This brings us to 1998's Steal This Album, their third and best album. It was co-released by the equally mysterious Dogday and FOAD(links are posted as they appear on the album) record labels and while it reportedly sold over 100,000 copies, for the past two years it has been almost totally unavailable. While it was a shame that the best hip hop album of the 1990's was unavailable for such a long time, it was even more tragic that this printing blackout happened to have occurred exactly at the peak of the Coup's popularity. Thankfully (albeit a few months too late), the continually mysterious FOAD Records have finally reissued Steal This Album in a newly repackaged, somewhat expanded edition now entitled Steal This Double Album. And while the bells and whistles of the new material are somewhat half-assed, the original album remains as clever, catchy and brilliant as it was in 1998.

The Coup (once a trio, now a duo) consists of MC Boots Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress. Although most of their beats and hooks are made using live instruments (played by various Bay Area musical mainstays), it seems quite clear that in fact, Boots Riley IS the Coup. While a communist like himself would never dare accept such unilateral credit, every song on Steal This Album is marked by his characteristic neo-funk production as well as the centerpiece of any Coup song: his lyrics.

Among sociopolitical lyricists, Boots stands above any of his contemporaries not only in hip hop, but in punk, rock, and folk as well. He speaks frankly and clearly about poverty, hate, social injustice and personal tragedy but does so with eloquence and humor that allow him to remain accessible to all; he's not a gangsta', but you wouldn't wanna fuck with him either. He has a near-Shakespearean way with words that can make even the most tragic scenario seem beautiful, or the most inane situation seem hilarious. These qualities are apparent on every Coup release, but on Steal This Album they are perpetual and top-notch, setting the album above all of their other releases.

The first two songs, "The Shipment" and "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night", demonstrate both ends of Boots' lyrical spectrum; a mile-a-minute explosion of politics and wit followed by a biographical gritty ballad. "The Shipment" is a catchy, upbeat funky song built around a simple harmonica melody and whirly bassline. While it is not quite as lyrically cohesive as other Coup songs, it certainly contains some of their best moments: "You salivate at the sound of a bell / I come sick and make your lymph nodes swell / nickel-plated teeth and tongue as well…", "Savage storm troopers be / less that seducin' / jailtime producin' / silly Lilliputians / This Gulliver comes equipped wit' a fo'-fo' / and twelve comrades in a box Chev fo' do…", "This ain't no macrobiotic chemical colonic / this political symphonic chemical colonic…" Boots calls upon allusions and utilizes vocabulary all but unheard of in the hip hop world. And although Chuck D was certainly hyper-educated among his contemporaries, Boots manages to flex his brain in a less ostentatious manner that is as approachable as it is real.

The second song, "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night," is a mini hip-hopera of sorts. Backed by an unchanging mid-tempo beat and a sighing/crying female vocal loop, Boots tells the framed story of his (rather, his rapping first-person) prostitute mother's murder by her pimp, Jesus, and his eventual revenge. Rather than presenting the killer's killing in a typical rap fashion (glorified and thugged out), Boots focuses more on the beauty of the troubled-but-touching mother-child relationship ("And back at home, she would cry into her pillow / vomit in the camode / I was six years old / I would crawl onto her lap and we would hug and hold"), the dysfunction of being raised in the presence of a pimp ("Well since my adolescence, cuz of his pimp lessons / smack my woman in the dental just for askin' silly questions / Relationship reduction to either rock the box or suction / ain't got no close patnas / socially I can't function"), as well as the declining state of the aging pimp ("thirty years ago Jesus could pull a ho quick / but now he fifty and his belly hang lower than his dick.") When the eventual murder takes place ("Microsoft muthufuckus let bygone be bygones / but since I'm Macintosh imma double-click your icon" gunshots), Boots has developed the characters so thoroughly that the eventual murder feels as painful as it does glorious.

He paints a similarly clear picture on "Cars and Shoes," in which he devotes an entire song to describing his dilapidated car. It's one of the most lighthearted songs of the Coup's career, but it's a welcome respite from the weightiness of the first quarter of the album. As always, Boots' words are spot-on hilarious as he instructs aloud: "Now if you're getting in my car don't sit down right away / cuz my passenger seat tilts sideways / and don't even try to lean the shit back / the whole damn thing'll fall off the track. / Stick your hand out, and signal for a right / my window's stuck, plus I got a busted turn light / naw I ain't dippin'! / Sometimes I get a stuck brake / got my rear view attached with some Duct tape. / Keep your knee right there / I'm trying to keep the glove compartment closed, playa!" Alongside songs about lost jobs, stolen money and repossessed apartments it's quite difficult to make light of poverty and discomfort, but Boots does well to paint himself as being a ghetto jackass, but not pathetically downtrodden.

This humor is not quite so apparent, however, when it goes in the other direction. Boots follows "Sneakin' In," a funny song about all of the concerts that Boots snuck into during his childhood, with "Piss on your Grave," a horn-blasting, bass-booming song about breaking into the funeral of a rich, labor-exploiting (presumably) white guy named "Filthy Richbanks," and pissing on his grave. It's funny, and under most circumstances would be somewhat absurd and offensive, but at this point in the album (track 12) the listener can't help but be entirely sympathetic to Boots (or his characters). The cumulative effect of his continued plight throughout the album is subtle and tremendous. Boots is, cliché as it may be, a voice for the streets, and a great one at that. He's also a voice for the far left, a voice for the oppressed, and voice for the silent masses whose suffering is so often trivialized, even by the sufferers themselves. So much so that, when Boots pisses on the grave of George Washington during the skit-interlude to "Piss on Your Grave," you may still not agree with the minutia of the action, but you can understand it; you can even sympathize with it.

Where the normal album contained only one song following the "Piss on your Grave" onslaught, the new Double Album contains three. The first new song, "What the Po-Pos Hate" sounds like a rough version of "Pork and Beef," from Party Music. The lyrics are more or less the same, the verses re-ordered slightly, and the music far slower and more relaxed. "Swervin'," the last song, is a re-produced version of "Drug Warz," which originally appeared on the album that accompanied William Upski Wimsatt's book, No More Prisons. The production is a bit more dancey; a bit more electronic, a bit less spacey, and considerably more effective. Its direct call for social justice cries a bit more sharply than the storytelling tone generally maintained on Steal This Album. Lyrics like: "…and don't get arrested / it's just lunacy /it's just pimplomatic immunity /is it a war on drugs or just my community" as well as its scathing chorus of "Now who gets paper and who gets perved? / Who gets slapped and who gets served? / Now this kinda shit get on my last nerve / I think about it in the car and I start to swerve." seem more fitting for Party Music, but however incongruent they seem within the album's tone, the song remains more than a welcome addition.

A less welcome addition is the 2nd disc, a live album whose date and origin are unspecified and unknown (although Boots' frequent shoutouts to "Eugene, Oregon" offer some hints) and whose quality is reprehensible at best. It sounds like it was recorded by an audience-member on a 50-year-old tape-recorder onto an equally old tape. The songs are not listed on the album's package, nor is the disc even divided into separate tracks. The mix makes most of Boots' lyrics impossible to hear, and the recording itself even cuts in and out a few times. The set seems to be from around the time when Steal This Album was first released and is played nearly in its entirety. The disc ends not with the end of the set nor with a gentle fadeout, but with an abrupt stop as the tape (or CD) runs out of space. And when it arrives it's not a moment too soon. (It should be noted, however, that this double-disc reissue is priced as a single-disc, so the folly of the second disc is not at the buyer's expense) Indeed, there are other problems with this reissue as well. While the original issue of Steal This Album included lyrics, this one only includes writing, production, and instrumentation credits. It excludes the charming photographs of Boots and Pam that originally graced the liner notes, and it even leaves out Pam's "thank you"s. Even though the whole package reeks of a last-minute operation, it would take something truly spectacular to ruin, or even tarnish, an album of such high-caliber. Steal this album, buy this album, borrow this album, burn this album; just make sure that you've got a copy before it disappears again.

By Sam Hunt

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