This Coming Mic Math Monday Discussion will be on Boots Riley of The Coup!! Some history below and focus tracks to listen to on the weekend at the very end!
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The Coup has been putting out albums since 1993 and they have built a loyal following. However, I don’t feel that, front man, Boots Riley is given the due accolades deserving of his talent and work as a producer or a lyricist. The Coup has remained true to their mission as much as their music. They have continued to make music that challenges the powers that be, often with scathing depictions that are hard to swallow, the truth often is. Yet, their albums don’t sound like an ongoing recycled re-preaching of the previous. Unfortunately, there are plenty of things wrong, some have been so for decades and others have more currently arisen, and Boots Riley confronts them head on. One of his greatest qualities is the ability to speak articulately and well informed on these complex issues, as well as also offer viable resolutions, and do this all without any noticeable sacrificing of the artistry. He speaks in plain language, but the words are skillfully thought out and often written with a complexity generally reserved for a battle/freestyle rapper, particularly on the first three albums. In essence, Boots Riley is among the finest rhyme writer’s of his generation and the fact that the words are teeming with purpose is a bonus. I suppose that is best said the other way around, but for our focus here that seems fitting.
The Coup hit the scene in ’91 with a local distributed EP, but took things national in ’93 when they aligned with Wildpitch Records. Wildpitch is a label that is well known for having an A&R ear that was in tune with gifted lyricists (EX: Chill Rob G, Lord Finesse, Hardknocks, Main Source, Ultramagnetic MCs, O.C., Guru, etc…). However, they also had a long record of focusing strictly on East Coast based artists, but that changed circa ’93 when they signed Street Military (Houston), Foul Play (Seattle), Tony N Dave a.k.a All Natural (Chicago) and The Coup (Oakland).
Boots Riley wasn’t content on just making impact statements through the lyrics. He continued these bold sentiments in their logo (one of Hip Hop’s best), album titles and cover art. Their debut album was the unforgettably tiled, “Kill My Landlord”*. The second album’s title, “Genocide And Juice” was a play on the popular song by Dre and Snoop and the visuals are assumably referencing the now-famous Pen & Pixel cover art style made famous by No Limit. Surely, they alarmed some retailers by naming their third project, “Steal This Album” and the cover cleverly places them behind the lines of an enlarged UPC code that was imprisoning the group as they stood on the other side. Their fourth album cover had to be switched last minute, as the world wasn’t ready for a photo of Boots Riley blowing up the World Trade Center. Eerily, 9-11 shortly followed. All of this plays a part in Boots Riley’s creative mindset.
“Kill My Landlord” is Boots still perfecting his craft and mastering his vocal style while creating some great music in the process. The lead single, “Not Yet Free”, is an excellent introduction to Boots Riley, there is challenging commentary, stark visuals, creative rhyme schemes, playful inflections, and sudden transitions from loose relaxed to rapid precision flows.
While much of the album is directly aimed at challenging political and corporate agendas, on several tracks he also confronts some largely accepted standards in inner city communities that have forgotten histories and toxic ramifications, mentally and/or physically; smoking weed, use of the word ni**a, and jheri curls/perms.
“I Ain’t The Ni**a” challenges the use of this word as a term of endearment or revolutionary statement. It gives an alternate history of the word and questions how it applies to now, “Ni**a hasn’t always meant a man with melanin/It used to be a piece of wood that sat on the cotton gin/Massuh put it there and it wouldn’t move…smoove/So what does it mean to be a ni**a with an attitude?!”
“F**k A Perm” is more than just justification for his Afro. The album version is only 47 seconds long, but it gets a bit deeper into the issue on the extended 12” version where he ends his second verse, “Don’t style your s**t like Claire do/Cause it’s your mind that’s whipped, not your hairdo”
On “Last Blunt”, Boots makes the proclamation to stop smoking weed. He does so in intoxicating stylistic fashion and features what is probably the best example of technical writing and creative vocal rhythms on the record. One of the highlights comes at the end of the second verse, ‘They say that junk is good for meditation/If you smoke a sack, take some Ex-lax, it’s mental constipation/There’s no hesitation when I’m talking about political friction, stopping evictions/Government made afflictions and I have an addiction/that’s a big contradiction so I must confront it/Cause ain’t no revolution gonna come from the blunted!”
The album ends with the title track, “Kill My Landlord”, which features Elements Of Change. Every verse is well done and excellently captures the theme, but Boots Riley is the clear stand out and towards the end drops one of the best flows on the album. It is a perfect way to bring things to a close and prepare for the next album.
“Genocide and Juice” is just a year later, but shows significant growth. The album takes an ambition start at being a tightly knit concept album, seamlessly weaving together the first several tracks. Unfortunately, it abandons that mission about four tracks in. I once spoke to Boots about that and he said he originally planned to do the whole album that way, but upon finding how difficult and time consuming it was he opted not to see it through. On that note, the album is a bit top heavy. The first five tracks (excluding the intro) are what I would call the clear best on the album. The only other song that I would consider in the same caliber is “Santa Rita Weekend”, which owes at least some of its appeal to the guest verses from Spice 1 and E-40. I assume credit should be given to Boots Riley’s organizational and tactical skills with that one, as he was able to find a perfect topic to keep his guest MCs in their lane, but at the same time do something that was not completely typical to their style. Truthfully, those were two MCs that I hadn’t been checking for a lot and this song made me curious about them.
Stepping back, “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” is the first official song on the record and you are extremely hard pressed to find a better-written story in Hip Hop. There are a handful of songs that could be considered comparable, but better is going to be pushing it. It’s virtually perfect. It is certainly one of the best structured stories in Hip Hop and is broken in to fairly distinct sections, which is one of the pillars of great story building; 1)description of the character and his situation, 2)witnessing him in action; wallet theft and fast food hustling, 3)setting the scene for the main theme; in the garage, 4)building to the climax; as he works the room, and 5)Finally, the turning point were he realizes that he’s not a hustler, but rather the hustled. Perfection.
His conversational style is excellent. There’s such a mastery over words that is displayed in the eloquent way he can lay out the discussions. I was also impressed with his use of the girl in fast food restaurant as a character. She fits perfectly with the proper voice and attitude, as well being a natural to fit his rhythm. Most frequently he speaks for the other characters from the position of a narrator, allowing the listener to understand those people from the perspective of how the main character perceives them. An effective tactic in helping you connect with the plight and personality of the main character.
The “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” comes to its dramatic conclusion with the small time hustler making a dash for the door and as he exits, the focus shifts into a first person narrative from the type of characters we had just had described to us. “Pimps (Free Stylin at the Fortune 500 Club)” features The Coup rhyming from the perspective of Rockfeller, Getty, and Trump. The song’s content isn’t as effective when singling out particular quotes. It is most impactful when digesting as a whole.
‘Takin’ These” (I highly suggest the remix version) is packed with powerful talking points and great writing. It is also a great representation of the complimentary contrast between the voices of Boots and E-Roc, as they rock the mic back and forth, at different intervals, for the entire track.
On Monday afternoon I’ll drop Part Two of this piece and look at the next three Coup albums and have everyone preparted for Mic Math Mondays at 6 PM!! Here’s some weekend listening for you (selected purely based on Boots Riley’s writing):
-Mic Math Monday Focus Tracks:
“Not Yet Free” (from “Kill My Landlord” 1993)
“Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” (from “Genocide and Juice” 1994)
“Me And Jesus The Pimp…” (from “Steal This Album” 1998)
“Heven Tonite” (from “Party Music” 2001)
-Other Recommended Listens:
1)“Kill My Landlord” album: “Dig It”, “I Ain’t The Ni**a”, “Last Blunt”, “Kill My Landlord”, “F**k A Perm” 12” Extended Version
2)“Genocide and Juice”: “Pimps”, “Takin’ These “ Remix, “Hip 2 Tha Scheme”
3)“Steal This Album”: “Busterismology, “Cars & Shoes”, “Sneakin’ In”
4)“Party Music”: “Ride The Fence”, “Ghetto Manifesto”, “5 Million Ways To Kill A CEO”, “Lazymuthaf**ka”
5)“Pick A Bigger Weapon”: “We Are The Ones”, “Captain Sterling’s Little Problem”, “The Stand”
Written By Kevin Beacham
*To this day my Mom still references this title. I’ll admit she probably never listen to the music of her own accord and probably won’t know who you were talking about if you mentioned The Coup, but that title is forever locked in her memory.
Also, This is a Microphone Mathematics piece focusing on the lyrical skills of Boots Riley, but don’t sleep on the great formidable writing of E-Roc who has a strong vocal presence on the first two albums. Also, super shout out to Pam The Funkstress because she’s a bad lady on the turntables!