Two Realists

The Coup are pure Oakland, a cross between David Hilliard, the Black Panther leader whose autobiography tops a reading list on which Riley also recommends Manning Marable and Saul Alinsky, and Too Short, whose deep-bumping beats are a key source of the Coup's live-in-the-studio funk (although where Too Short treats all women as hos, Riley's coconspirator is female DJ Pam the Funkstress). Musically as well as verbally, Riley goes for a coherence that would have sounded old school when the Bomb Squad was def, which combined with his incitements to armed rebellion— "20,000 gun salute!/Get rowdy like you got a substitute!"— virtually guarantees that he'll never take his message nationwide. But putting aside fashion-driven notions of progress, he's a lot better at his chosen beats than Redman (or tough-fronting hack Erick Sermon). The essence of Redman's musicality is a staccato flow that suits both his jumpy imagery and the surrounding cacophony ("Fu-u-u-ck you-ou" echoing through brick canyons, say). The Coup's music is bass-heavy riff-and-chorus jams hung with simple hooks— harmonica, string synth, Tower of Power horns, vocal backups galore. You could wake up humming Alan "Dr. Blues" Werblin, M.D.'s harp part, or Del The Funkee Homosapien's nervous and/or demonic repo-man la-la-las. But they wouldn't mean much if they didn't underpin Riley's casual, comprehensible, rapid, verbose delivery.

Because Riley is a propagandist and propagandists want to be understood, he declines another hip hop usage that's more than a fashion by now— the subcultural references, private jokes, and other carefully tended obscurities that shield it from prying ears. There's even a crib sheet, which isn't essential but sure comes in handy. Storytelling and theme-following are the rule, and after four years Riley has some rhymes for the people. Steal This Album's tour de force is "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night," a corny, well-plotted tale where a 24-year-old kills the surrogate father who long ago murdered his mom, which climaxes by flipping a surprisingly street Microsoft-Macintosh metaphor. But every track impresses in its own way, including the virtuosic music-as-dope opener, the revolutionary call to arms, the brutal medical exposé ("It seems that he's lost the will to pay"), funny stories about sneaking into the movies and driving the broken-down hoopties that transport more folks than Beemers where Riley is from and everywhere else. The painful repo-man burlesque is ratcheted up by "Underdogs," which translates Manning Marable on poverty and exploitation into terms any ghetto dweller can recognize, even from a few levels up the stepladder. Ideologues believe communist artists are never this humorous, this balanced, this concrete. They're wrong.

Humble antihero Redman, humorous propagandist Boots Riley
Nina Schultz; Saul Bromberger/ Sandra Hoover Photography
Humble antihero Redman, humorous propagandist Boots Riley

Other ideologues, some of whom fear the new black music and some of whom live for it, no doubt believe this can't be real hip hop. They're wrong too. The very different ghetto realisms of Redman and the Coup both happen to be to my taste, but I wouldn't think of trying to point rap that way even if I had the power to do so. Both merely reaffirm what's clearer all the time— the genre's so far unlimited capacity to get artists off their asses, doing stuff no one's ever done before.

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