Steal This Album
Reviewed by Steven Rubio
Wednesday, February 24 1999, 2:07 PM
To get the most important stuff out of the way right at the start, Steal This Album from Oakland artists The Coup is a terrific record. The lyrics effectively blend evocative imagery and concrete specifics while the music evokes the laid-back artistry of Bay Area hip-hop icons like E-40 and Too Short. The album's title is equally significant. Copped from Abbie Hoffman's seminal urban guerilla survival guide, 1976's Steal This Book, The Coup's incendiary rhymes and anti-establishment beats metaphorically position themselves as the artistic heirs of the New Left's unruly political legacy.
"I'm a Communist," lyricist and rapper Boots Riley confesses in "Breathing Apparatus," a tough song about a lower-class man whose "medical plan was to not get shot." Boots' alliance is similar to that of a gangsta rapper who shouts out that he's a playa in order to establish his street cred. Just as the gangsta assumes his audience will equate certain trappings of street life with an honest, legitimate understanding of contemporary urban life, Boots assumes his Communist leanings offer him a better understanding of what's happening on the real streets of the underdogs. As he has said, "The statement is really about not having respect for the capitalist system." He wants listeners to use the album "almost like a manual with information that people need to survive and make sense of the world around them."
Steal This Album generally avoids two of the most unfortunate aspects of much current rap music: the romanticizing of daily violence and the glorification of making lots of money that too often passes for revolutionary thought today. About the closest The Coup gets to romanticism is in the nostalgic "Sneakin' In," about getting into events without paying ("although it ain't considerate, I get in wit no scrilla spent ... back then half the fun was sneakin' in"). While many of the greatest rap and hip-hop artists such as E-40 make a powerful case for the importance of using money to create a space of power within an oppressive society ("this rap game's been good to me ... hope I don't go back"), for The Coup, there is no respect for capitalism.
The kind of life E-40 doesn't want to go back to is deadening, to be sure, and some of the best songs on Steal This Album offer bleak pictures of that life, where "newborns get fed intravenously" ("Underdogs,") and "businesses that love payin' minimum wage ain't gon' let you take they shit unless you showin' a gauge" ("20,000 Gun Salute"). But if the problem is in the system, it doesn't help the revolution if you get yours within that system:
Now hella my folks got respect for you, killa
wit' a raised black fist and a pocket fulla scrilla ...
now what's your net worth?
if you ain't talkin' bout endin' exploitation
then you just another sambo in syndication ...
and while we gettin' strangled by the wage-slave grippers
you wanna do the same,
and say we should put you in business?
so you'll be next to the ruling class, lyin' in a ditch
Just as vital as the lyrics, The Coup's music, guided by the DJing of partner in arms Pam the Funkstress, lays a bottom that is easy to hear, inviting the listener into the details the lyrics provide. But The Coup, and perhaps Boots Riley in particular, need to remember the importance of the music, if they want their message to be heard. The politics of Public Enemy, to take the most obvious example, didn't get dumber over time, but when the Bomb Squad left, the music was less interesting and the message was heard by fewer people.
My guess is that the kind of left-wing music fans who read Bad Subjects music reviews would be happy if fans of Steal This Album moved on from The Coup to Karl Marx. However, my own wish would be that those left-wing fans expanded their musical horizons as well. Too often a certain kind of hip-hop album will cross over to folks who normally wouldn't listen to hip-hop. Lauryn Hill exudes intelligence and her album sounds great; in fact, her album IS great. But it's also safer than lots of other rap and hip-hop that is also great, and so it appeals to fans who want to dabble without getting more than their feet wet, like pre-rock grownups who found rock and roll problematic but thought Rubber Soul was mature.
Similarly, lefties who want to believe that popular music can make a positive change in the world are perhaps too willing to praise an album like Steal This Album, because within the confines of leftism, Steal This Album, is safe. If you like The Coup (or Lauryn Hill or the Beatles for that matter), take a chance ... there's more than one "manual with information" out there. The next time you're at the record store, grab an E-40 album to listen to along with The Coup. And give your extra copy of Das Kapital to the kid down the street who likes hip-hop; you'll both be better for it.
Steal This Album is a Dogday Records release.