Happy 25th Anniversary to The Coup’s debut album Kill My Landlord, originally released May 4, 1993.
Somehow there seems to be an aversion to “conscious” hip-hop music. Though hip-hop with “a message” is one of the factors that helped the genre gain broader respect, the term seems to have had a negative connotation attached to it for the past few decades. Some listeners reject it out of hand, and some artists try to distance themselves from the term. Some find the delivery of the message preachy or sanctimonious, with the artists talking at the listeners, rather than to them.
The Coup were a unique type of crew when they first started making music in the early ’90s. Made up of Raymond “Boots” Riley, Eric “E-Roc” Davis, and the late DJ Pam “The Funkstress” Warren, the Oakland-based collective were serious about politics and liberation, but also brought their every-person sensibilities to the game. The group’s message and music was “conscious” and had a sense of clarity and purpose rarely found in any genre of music. However, they were able to present it in a way that was relatable to their audience. Boots and E-Roc never talked down to their listeners, and felt their pain.
Boots came from a background where resistance was central to his upbringing. Born to a pair of activists, he joined the Progressive Labor Party as a teenager and became a community activist himself. In the early ’90s, he helped create the Mau Mau Rhythm Collective, which worked with various organizations that helped promote social justice and economic advancement in communities throughout the Bay Area. He linked up with E-Roc and released a self-titled EP independently in 1991. He soon thereafter brought DJ Pam the Funkstress into the fold and signed with the legendary Wild Pitch Records, which released their first full length Kill My Landlord 25 years ago.
The lyrical content of Kill My Landlord is politically bent, as the members of the group discuss the need for rebellion against a crooked government that has continued the systemic oppression of people of color and the economically less fortunate. However, they also deal with topics that most people can relate to in a way that uses both humor and understanding, even when they might not take the most popular stances. Boots handles the production for the album, which uses a mix of sampled material and live instrumentation. The results are often stark and simple, but ideal for delivering the group’s message.
Kill You Landlord begins with “Dig It!,” the second single from the album and a screed against those who exploit the poor and spread false information to keep attention away from real problems in the communities. Over a recreation of a song by the Doors, the pair raps, “Millions off my back, the black on black crisis is a myth / The crack that did the damage was the one from the whip” and “Told the streets were paved with gold / Whoever paved that shit got minimum wage too!”
The album’s first single “Not Yet Free” details the hopelessness the members of the group face on a daily basis and their effort to survive in a hostile environment. Over a solid bassline and vocals, Boots details his struggles to stay alive, rapping, “And everyday I pulls a front so nobody pulls my card / I got a mirror in my pocket and I practice looking hard / I’m looking behind me, beside me, ahead of me / There’ll be no feet making tracks here instead of me.”
The Coup dedicate a few tracks on the album to rejecting the ancillary trappings often associated with hip-hop in the early ’90s that they viewed as negative influences. “I Ain’t the N***a” is their rejection of the rampant use of the word in the rhymes of other rappers. “’Cause when I hear it, it gets me straight stirred,” E-Roc raps. “It’s mental trash so I'm picking up the litter.”
With “Last Blunt,” Boots eschews the rampant marijuana usage among hip-hop artists. It’s not exactly a popular statement that most rappers would make, but he states his case effectively. Boots muses on his past reliance on the drug, detailing how it sapped his desire to be productive, and his eventual psychological attachment to the drug. “I get skittish when I think of how the British put the opium in Asia,” Boots raps, linking the ubiquity of cannabis in economically depressive areas of the country to the United States government’s desire to keep the residents in these neighborhoods passive and distracted. He concludes that “ain’t no revolution gonna come from the blunted,” while the song rides out with an extended and funky live organ solo.
The Coup also targets patterns of behavior in the Black community that he believes are detrimental to its growth. “Funk” details a case of mistaken identity, where Boots finds himself in danger for only bearing a striking resemblance to a neighborhood thief/drug addict named Elmo. He laments the fact that he’s forced to arm himself to protect himself from his neighbors, rapping, “Now we wonder why our revolution never grow / Killing motherfuckers just for stepping on our toes / If we had as much funk for our oppressors as we did for ourselves / The blood would never flow again.”
Much of Kill My Landlord is also about inspiring others into action. “I Know You” features Boots and E-Roc confronting the police officers that they see every day, who continue to abuse their power by assaulting and even killing friends of theirs for trivial offenses. The somber track is punctuated by simple and muted percussion and keys, paired with understated scratches by DJ Pam.
Boots and E-Roc work to lead by example and help others navigate the correct path. On “Liberation of Lonzo Williams,” the pair detail the life of a drug kingpin and certified “bad, bad man” who is eventually arrested and convicted for his crimes. While incarcerated, he undergoes an awakening, and emerges from prison a revolutionary ready to take action against the crooked government system.
The album ends with the title track, where Boots and E-Roc are joined by the group Schwinn and T-Mor of the group Elements of Change and DeFrost from the group Point Blank. On every verse of the dark track, each emcee details their struggles of living in a society that doesn’t value their humanity and works to oppress their families and communities. They all resolve to take action against their oppressors, whether they are representatives of the government or their actual landlord.
The Coup continued to refine their music and career path over the next quarter century, and have become one of the most respected political hip-hop groups recording music. They’ve lost a few members along the way: E-Roc retired from rapping in the mid ’90s in order to pursue a career as longshoreman, while Pam tragically passed this past December due to health issues. But Boots has forged ahead, known for both his music and his activism. He was one of the prominent faces of Occupy: Oakland and later this year will make his directorial debut with his film Sorry to Bother You.
Boots and The Coup’s thriving career is the logical extension of what all three set forth with Kill My Landlord. Though not everyone in the group made it to this point, all were instrumental in getting the journey going, and each was an integral part in creating an album that both educates and inspires.