Happy 20th Anniversary to The Coup’s third studio album Steal This Album, originally released November 10, 1998.
When the film Sorry To Bother You hit cinemas this past summer, the dark comedy turned Raymond “Boots” Riley into a star in the making. The absurdist film, which Boots wrote and directed, depicts an alternate reality version of Oakland, California, where rich corporations continue their attempts to pacify and subjugate the nation’s population. The film was a critical and financial success, with much praise heaped upon Boots as a visionary storyteller. Truthfully, no one who ever listened to Boots’ music as a member of the revolutionary hip-hop group The Coup should be surprised.
Boots formed The Coup with fellow emcee Eric “E-Roc” Davis and the late DJ Pam “The Funkstress” Warren in the early ’90s. Boots had been an activist since his younger years, and he’d help craft the group’s albums into socially conscious essays and stories promoting radical politics and liberation. The Oakland-based group released their debut album Kill My Landlord in 1993, and followed it up with the even doper Genocide & Juice in 1994. After an extended hiatus that resulted in a shifting lineup and an even more refined approach to their music, The Coup released their third project Steal This Album 20 years ago.
Steal This Album is certainly a contender for the group’s best release. Boots even further improved as a producer and an emcee, taking more risks musically and being more creative with his rhymes, in terms of creating complex narratives and evoking emotion. Pam remained sharp on the cuts and assisted on the production end, remaining integral to The Coup’s success as a group.
The Coup released Steal This Album after a lengthy break from the music biz by Boots and his cohorts. Complicated label politics at Wild Pitch and EMI Records left the group in limbo after the release of Genocide & Juice. According to Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique 2, when The Coup signed their released from Wild Pitch, they drew attention from both Def Jam and Geffen Records, but neither move worked out. They recorded a few songs in the interim, but Boots was in the throes of what Pam called “a mid-life crisis” and considered retiring. He formed another activist group and got a job as a telemarketer in the meantime.
Eventually, The Coup began recording music again and eventually hooked up with Dog Day Records, a Bay Area based label mostly known at the time for its “gangsta” rap output. The Coup had always maintained their “street” sensibilities and very much identified with the people striving to survive in ghettos across the globe, so the pairing made sense.
In the interim E-Roc left the group after getting a well-paying union job as a longshoreman at the Port of Oakland; he had children to feed and didn’t feel like he could gamble on making it as an emcee to put food on the table. His absence is felt, as he only appears on one track on Steal This Album, but his departure allowed Boots to focus on strengthening his own voice as an artist.
An avowed communist, much of Steal This Album’s themes revolve around the working class rising up against their oppressors, be they elected officials, the police department, or their supervisors at work. Tracks like “20,000 Gun Salute” and “U.C.P.S.” (translation: “Undas, Cops, Pigs, and Shit”) are rowdy calls to arms. The blues soaked funk of “The Shipment” opens the album, as Boots warns his audience of the dirty tricks played by those in power, rapping, “Pissing in your gumbo and they tell you, “It’s all gravy!” / See, you can’t trust a big grip and a smile / And I slang rocks, but Palestinian style.”
The Funkadelic-influenced “Busterismology” is another of the stronger cuts on the album. The hard rocking track, based on the riff from “Mommy, What’s A Funkadelic?” features Boots at his most irate, rolling through the streets of Oakland after having transformed the mirror he kept in his pocket on “Not Yet Free” (the group’s first single) into a shank. Boots has later revealed that the song’s second verse, where he rhymes from the perspective of a McDonalds employee who breaks the nose of a manager that insults his intelligence, is very much based in reality.
Boots does an excellent job in making use of humor through Steal This Album. While much of the album’s subject matter remains pretty grim stuff, in some sense Boots felt he had to get people to laugh to keep from crying. As a result, he used his rhymes to evoke humor in otherwise dismal situations.
One such example is the hilarious “Cars and Shoes,” one of the greatest odes to lousy automobiles ever released. In the grand tradition of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “My Hooptie,” Boots describes his barely functioning jalopy, which he seems to hold together through sheer will power. Here he channels Too $hort’s voice and flow, creating an inverse version of the Oakland legend, who, instead of flossing down East 14th, has his ride break down on the Bay Bridge. (“And let me tell you, the motherfucka dangerous!” he adds). In terms of production, Boots and Pam collaborate, getting a live band to replay an interpretation of Silver Connection’s “Heart of Stone.”
The Coup utilizes darker humor on “Breathing Apparatus,” the last song that the group recorded with E-Roc. The track targets the nation’s ailing healthcare system, and the difficultly the economically disadvantaged often face when trying to get service. While the chorus evokes Toni Braxton’s “Breathe Again,” the two lament how a lack of income is essentially a pre-existing condition, making most poor residents radioactive to hospitals and medical insurance companies. While E-Roc describes how the lack of insurance can leave the hopeless in the most dire of situations, Boots raps, “I’m feeling hostile, with this fucking hose up my nostril / My bills be colossal, creditors be following me like apostles, I jostled the fossils.”
Steal This Album’s crown jewel is “Me And Jesus The Pimp In A '79 Granada Last Night,” the best song that The Coup ever recorded and one of the best story-raps of all time. It’s stronger than most tracks of its kind, first in the way that Boots tells the story of him, his mother, and her pimp, Jesús, nicknamed Jesus (“slap a ho to pieces with his plastic prosthesis). Second, the way Boots tells the story, in the way that he both injects emotion and detail into the tale, is truly unique relative to most songs. It’s a multi-layered narrative about loss, disillusionment, and the love between a mother and her son. At the same time, it serves as commentary about organized religion and how women are treated and valued by society. The track remains The Coup’s masterwork.
Another strength of Steal This Album is its sequencing, particularly during the second half of the album. While the tracks on the album’s first half are arguably a little stronger overall, The Coup uses the album’s second half to tell a story of psychological pain of being poor in the United States, and the measures that residents take to cope in the face of desperation.
The album’s second half begins with “The Repo Man Sings For You,” a continuation of “The Repo Man” from Genocide & Juice, which targets predatory practices by the capitalist system and this nation’s financial institutions for encouraging its citizens to go into deep financial debt for material possessions. In this installment, Boots brings in Del the Funky Homosapien, a Bay Area legend in his own right, to rhyme from the perspective of the nominal Repo Man, “just an agent, working for the man / And his manuscript say you owe him for this land.” Boots plays the role of both the hapless victim and the omniscient narrator, as he raps, “Even hillbillies at a party line-dancing / Get they Ford trucks with poor financing / Banks that give the loan figure – damn, in the worst case / We making money cause we had it in the first place!”
The album then seamlessly transitions to “Underdogs,” one of the most heart-wrenching, genuine songs about living in poverty that has ever been recorded. Boots uses a conversational rhyme style and crafts lyrics that really touch on the palpable experience of what it means to be truly poor and eeking out survival in the United States. The subject matter and experiences that Boots relates remain timeless as he really gets into the thought process of someone trying to handle soul-crushing hopelessness: “You feel like swinging haymakers at a moving truck / You feel like laughing so it seems like you don’t give a fuck / You feel like getting so high you smoke a whole damn crop / You feel like crying but you think that you might never stop.” Beyond just the crushing emotional despair, Boots also relates the physical impact of “getting strangled by the system and its tentacles,” rapping, “Whole family sleeping on a futon while you're clipping coupons / Eating salad, trying to get full off the croutons.”
After such deathly seriousness, Boots injects some much-needed levity with “Sneakin’ In,” a brief track directed at the joys of hustling to get into places for free. From the Eastmont Movie Theater to using fake laminates to get on-stage with Ice Cube at Summer Jam ’93, Boots shares his expertise at finding a way to sneak or talk his way into anywhere.
Boots finishes the story by unleashing a stream of righteous anger, in the form of urine, with “Piss On Your Grave.” The song is about as subtle as a baseball bat to the dome, as Boots relishes the opportunity to defile the graves of those who worked to oppress the Black population of the United States and those who got fat and rich off the working class without giving back, with often the two overlapping. The song is a boisterous, chaotic endeavor, filled with blaring horns, madcap organs, and growling vocals. Boots takes obvious pleasure in deflating the images of this nation's founding fathers, but saves much of his serious bile for the bloated plutocrats. He ends the track succinctly by declaring, “You pay me 10 G’s a year, I pay you fifteen million hundred? / Sorry, you just ain’t in the budget.”
The album ends with “Fixation,” originally recorded for the Rules of the Game compilation, which was released independently a few months before Steal This Album. Here Boots kicks two verses, one using an exaggerated Oakland accent, where every line ends with a word that ends in “-ation.” While, the “gimmick” seems like it would wear thin, Boots makes it work, especially over Pam’s scratches and a deep bassline provided by Brother K, the song’s producer. Boots later explained that the song was a commentary on what he thought of rappers the relied too much on stylistic flash rather than substance.
Whether or not Steal This Album was The Coup’s best album, it was their high water mark. While they have recorded some solidly dope albums since, none have reached the plateau of this release. Party Music, their 2001 release, was marred by the group having to delay its release; it featured a photo of the pair detonating explosives blowing up the World Trade Center. Of course, the September 11th attacks happened and they had to hastily change the artwork, and lost momentum afterwards.
The Coup recorded a pair of albums since then, including Sorry To Bother You (2012), which preceded the movie by more than five years. The album explored similar themes as the film, yet the film proved to be a more successful endeavor.
With the blossoming of his film career and the tragic death of Pam the Funkstress, it’s not clear whether or not Boots will ever release another album, as a member of The Coup or otherwise. Regardless, it will always be interesting to view how his work as a rapper continues to influence his output as a filmmaker as time progresses. In that sense, Steal This Album can be viewed as the Coup’s first and possibly most successful film.