Originating in Oakland in 1990, the Coup (as in coup d'état) was built around the witty, indignant social criticism of the mega-'fro'd Boots Riley (born Raymond Riley) and his pal E-Roc. Its first DJ was quickly replaced by Pam the Funkstress following the release of their now-impossible-to-find self-titled debut EP. It was Pam who upped the rap unit's ante by adding thumping, bass-heavy, '70s funk grooves and scratching to the Coup's Black Panther Party, manifestolike lyrics for its first full-length effort.
Recently rereleased on Wild Pitch Records, Kill My Landlord, the Coup's ferocious debut album, still sounds like a ghetto erupting, but it was especially poignant upon its release, coming as it did on the heels of the Rodney King-inspired L.A. riots in 1992. On a song titled "The Coup," Boots dropped such Panther-like threats as, "'Cause the word is heard across the bay and in L.A./ In New York, N.Y., Chicago, and Atlanta, GA/ We give a fuck if you've got money in the millions/ 'Cause, motherfucker, we've got posse in the billions/ So break yourself, Bush/ It's collection day/ So break yourself, Trump/ It's collection day/ You stole the shit from my granddaddy, anyway."
That's right -- some serious black rage is on display here. Kill My Landlord features militant tunes like "I Know You," which ranks with such classic, controversial, "off the pigs" anthems as N.W.A's "Fuck Tha Police" and Ice T's "Cop Killer," although "I Know You" is perhaps even more harsh and grim. "Funk," meanwhile, is another Coup masterpiece, combining a live bass riff that won't quit with some jazzy piano, a sample from Grandmaster Melle Mel, and some ultra-snazzy rhyming. On "Not Yet Free," the Coup sends shouts (and shots) out to Pete Wilson, Tom Bradley, Bill Clinton, and the Oakland Police Department. Then there's the title song, on which they evict their landlord from this planet -- permanentlike, if you happen to catch their drift.
"I consider myself a communist, you know, a socialist, whatever you want to call it," says Boots, as a means of explanation. "But basically, I'm not afraid of calling myself those things. I know those are just titles. But the basic idea is that the people should control their own resources and should have a say in what's done with the profits they produce. Therefore, with the community itself having more control, it's also more democratic. You can have it one of two ways -- either you have a few people controlling all the resources or you can have everybody sharing them. A lot of times, it's bullshit debating over anarchy, communism, and socialism. I mean, it all comes down to: Do you want a ruling class or not? That's the question. And I would answer, 'Not.'"
1994's Genocide & Juice finally brought the Coup a little prosperity. The song "Fat Cats, Bigga Fish," a hilarious number about small-time hustling, garnered the group a small bit of commercial radio airplay. The song's narrative has Boots hopping on the bus with his stolen bus pass, pickpocketing some unlucky fellow, scamming free food from a gal who works at Burger King, and then sneaking his way into a stuffy dinner party in a borrowed tux, where he tells a partygoer, "Fuck, nah, I ain't got no Grey Poupon." A minor hit, "Fat Cats, Bigga Fish" induced EMI, then the parent company of the Coup's indie Wild Pitch Records, to license Genocide & Juice for $500,000. The label then simply shelved the album the very next day with no explanation. Two weeks later, EMI dumped Wild Pitch Records completely. The record's shelving may or may not have had something to do with the fact that Genocide & Juice sounds unlike any other typical major label product. As with all of the Coup's records, the album's lyrics are meant to stir things up and provoke revolution by any means necessary.
"I need to be heard," says Boots. "I'm not trying to shoot for just the insular crowd of fans that come and support us every time. I mean, we need that, too, but if they are already down with what the Coup is about, then they know we need to get more people -- and the only way we can do that is with good distribution and exposure."
Genocide & Juice also included a would-be hit-that-never-was with "Repo Man," which very likely wasn't inspired by the cult movie of the same name. A funky, infectious, hilarious ghetto tale, "Repo Man" sounds like it's based on real-life experiences. The chorus features a female singing, "Who is that motherfucker rolling through the 'hood?/ Who is that motherfucker who is up to no good?/ Who is that motherfucker taking your bank?/ Who is that motherfucker always on the gank?" Then, over a sweet piano riff, guitar, and drums, Boots raps: "I be scraping, scratching for bones/ I got the cellular phone I just picked up on loans/ Keeping up with those loans put my ass in debt/ Now who's that motherfucker trying to take my shit/ It's the repo man and the interest rates/ He's got 'Break Yourself' on his license plate/ He took my color TV, the dining room set/ The microwave, my daddy's Corvette/ If you're in debt, he's going to get your ass for something/ I heard there's no future in your fronting/ So let it be known/ Black folks don't own/ They just give us this shit on loan."
Following Genocide & Juice, there was a four-year lull. It was during this period that the deeper-voiced E-Roc left the band. "He got a job being a longshoreman," says Boots, very matter-of-factly. "It pays $85,000 a year, and he has three kids. So he's on one song on the last album. But basically, I wasn't going to ask him to quit his job to do all this stuff, because it really doesn't pay that much."
Late in '98, the Coup -- now essentially just Boots and Pam the Funkstress -- returned with Steal This Album, released on Oakland's Dogday Records. Without any significant radio airplay (other than college stations), and with only an occasional showing of the video for its "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night," Steal This Album nevertheless has managed to sell 80,000 copies.
Again, it's an awesome piece of work. Boots manages to rap thoughtfully and furiously about a variety of political topics without ever sounding stale. Some of the music on Steal This Album is a bit repetitive. And although there are hooks here, they don't come as often as they should. But this doesn't detract from what has to be among the deepest words ever put to music on the subject of poverty: "Breathing Apparatus" is a messed-up song about showing up at the hospital uninsured and poor. "Cars and Shoes" is about Boots driving around in a beat-up '76 Pinto or an '81 Datsun, "wit' my alternator rollin' shotgun."
And yet this guy opts for broken-down cars rather than mass transit, as he raps: "Catchin' buses be getting me to work late/ And you know that slow down my pay rate/ Down to zero/ No alignment make it kinda hard to steer, though/ They need to pay me for all these adventures/ Tell 'em to my grandkids when I got dentures/ Makin' a buck really cost a buck fiddy/ It's only that cheap if you car's shitty/ Muthafuckas laughin'/ But it beats the AC Transit blues/ My car is better than my shoes."
There's also a sequel to "Repo Man" called "The Repo Man Sings for You," featuring Del the Funky Homosapien, which lacks a real groove but still has a lot to say. Then there's "Underdogs," a slow dirge of a rap about being desperately down-and-out, including the line, "You could make eight bones an hour till you pass out/ And still be ass out." "Sneakin' In," meanwhile, is Boots' ode to his favorite pastime -- finding any which way to get into concerts and movies for free, including stashing five people in the back of a minitruck and sneaking them into a drive-in movie theater.
Boots then goes on to rap about rich folk and po' folk with a horn section (trumpet, sax, and trombone) behind him: "Have you ever hurt from your back?/ Ducked from rat-a-tat-tats?/ Seen your mama on crack?/ Lived in a Pontiac?/ Drank baby Similac/ So you could have protein?/ Just for enough energy to hustle up some mo' green?/ I could paint some mo' scenes/ Vergin' on the obscene/ But I'd rather show up at your palace/ With a mob scene."
The Coup managed to get Universal to distribute Steal This Record in England, which led to a peculiar offer for Boots and crew to tour with Puff Daddy this spring.
"Somebody just asked, 'Do you want to be on the Puff Daddy tour?'" says Boots, "and we said, 'All stadiums, all 10,000-seaters, sold out already. I think we need to talk to all those people.' Wembley Stadium, Birmingham, and Manchester, and all that kind of bullshit. Then we are going to do our own club dates."
One can only imagine how the Coup (which now features guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards in its live show) will go over with the Puff Daddy crowd. Now, rather than sneaking into big hip hop concerts with fake laminated passes (which he raps about on "Sneakin' In"), Boots can hang out at center stage and preach his fiery rhetoric to whichever type of confused folks show up at Puff Daddy concerts. The scene should be an odd juxtaposition because, as Boots howls at the beginning of yet another Coup song, "U.C.P.A.S.": "We don't make no damn Mickey Mouse music!"