Immensely talented but perennially slept on, The Coup were one of the best hip hop groups to emerge during the nineties. But if there’s ever a band that could never catch a break, it was The Coup. Whenever they managed to get some momentum going, outside circumstances always seemed to get in the way. Most of The Coup’s albums quickly went out of print during unfortunate record label closures, and their 2001 long player, Party Music, was pulled from release at that last minute when the cover art – depicting the band members gleefully detonating an explosion in the Twin Towers – eerily coincided with the September 11 terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, scores of inferior groups – not possessing an ounce of The Coup’s musicality or verbal wit – have ridden the hip hop bandwagon to massive multi platinum success. But Steal This Album is a genuine overlooked gem. It’s The Coup’s most cohesive and consistently inventive musical statement, and deserves recognition as one of the very best hip hop records of the nineties.
Released in November 1998, Steal This Album’s defiantly retro sound didn’t sit very comfortably with the prevailing trends in hip hop at the time. Mainstream hip hop was moving ever steadily towards Casio ring tone beats and super slick blingified club music production, while the underground was striking out into ever darker and more experimental musical directions. Next to all this, Steal This Album sounded like a throwback to the playfully bent funk stylings of early Ice Cube or Cypress Hill. But this doesn’t mean it sounds stale. Steal This Album features some of the freshest funk grooves heard since the hey-day of Parliament in the mid seventies. The beats are constructed largely from live in the studio instrumentation rather than samples or digital programming, giving the album an unashamedly big and brassy sound, full of memorable hooks, musical flourishes and unstoppably funky rhythms. Steal This Album is one of the most seamless and cleverly crafted fusions of studio instrumentation and hip hop beat programming yet seen.
But at least as impressive as the sheer musicality on display is the vivid and memorable wordplay of chief MC, Boots Riley, surely one of the most underrated lyricists in hip hop. There is no clearer demonstration of Boots’ skills on the mic than the album’s second track, Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night. Over a laid back, soulful P-Funk-esque groove constructed around a sighing female vocal loop, Boots lays down a near operatic narrative about a kid whose prostitute mother is killed by a pimp, and how he obtains his eventual revenge. It’s an example of everything hip hop can be when it gets away from the tired old gangsta’ bling bling clichés, a brilliant vehicle for musical narrative as theatrical and expressive as anything by Johnny Cash or John Lee Hooker.
Boot’s greatest achievement as a lyricist is to create music of powerful political protest, without ever resorting to heavy handed preachiness or stridently Marxist declamations. There’s no doubt where his political loyalties lie – Riley is a self proclaimed socialist with militant overtones – but he’s always ready to undercut his message with a sly, biting sense of humour. It’s music born of anger and social injustice, but Boots lets the listener draw the political message out from his evocative lyrical scenarios, rather than trying to club you over the head with it.
The Repo Man Sings for You is another entrancing example of The Coup’s ability to mingle pointed humour with sharply observed social commentary. Musically, it’s probably the album’s high point, with a twisted funk beat in an odd time signature complemented by an eerie, blunted sitar synth line to create an intoxicating sonic backdrop. It’s about dead end credit culture ensnaring the poor in a never ending cycle of interest repayments and eventual destitution.“Gimme your fax machine, PlayStation in the basement adjacent, to the big screen television
You can’t tell the system no, we gotta get the dough The company want they G’s, or the keys to the convertible, and hey, nothing personal”
The track is funny, but it ends on a plaintive, even chilling note as a woman brought to the brink by poverty can’t prevent the man from taking away her bare essentials, seemingly never able to satisfy her loans no matter how many payments she makes. The Repo Man Sings for You segues directly into Underdogs, a rueful rallying cry for all the down and outers of the world. It’s this unsparing portrait of America’s poor and brow beaten that perhaps goes some way to explaining why The Coup appear to have trouble attracting a wider audience. Despite the liberal doses of humour, there was always something that rang a little too unpleasantly truthful in The Coup’s lyrics. They’re rapping about being poor. Dirt poor. Not as if poverty was something romantically “authentic”, but recognising it for what it is: a condition of hardship and indignity. In other words, The Coup are prepared to tell the truth about the experiences of America’s under classes, as opposed to dressing them in a glamorous faux-outlaw sheen as propagated by the likes of 50 Cent or P. Diddy. And that’s just a little bit too close to the bone for some listeners to get a handle on.
It’s their loss of course, because Steal This Album is simply loaded with gems from start to finish. There’s Busterismology – an amped up reworking of Funkadelic’s Mommy, What’s a Funkadelic? – protesting America’s minimum wage McJob culture. Piss on Your Grave is a massive, infectiously funky rave up with hilariously offensive lyrics; it fully deserved to be recognised as an all time classic hip hop anthem. Breathing Apparatus is reminiscent of the twisted, tripped out hip hop of Dr. Octagon with its ominous keyboard chords and spaced out synth beats. It’s a satirical take on America’s failed health care system with such sarcastically barbed lyrics as “Well, I’ve been looking at the patient’s stats / It seems as if he’s lost his will to pay.” Apart from the slightly monotonous and uninspired U.C.P.A.S, there’s not a weak cut on the entire album.
Out of print for so many years but recently reissued on a vinyl double LP, there’s never been a better time to get yourself acquainted with this lost hip hop classic. As hip hop music gradually descends into stagnation, formula and cliché, it’s fantastic to revisit a record like Steal This Album, a musically coherent listen from start to finish, crafted with real skill and dedication. Boots Riley’s lyrics are simply not to be missed; he’s been one of the most incisive, colourful and politically astute MCs to come along since the prime of Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Steal This Album is a classic example of everything that’s right about hip hop when it comes together successfully in a blend of imagistic narrative and booty shaking funk beats. If you can’t afford to buy it, then just do what it says on the cover and Steal This Album.