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The Boston Phoenix Class Consciousness

The hip-hop Marxism of the Coup

By Josh Kun

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  Hip-hop strategies one and two for black life within American capitalism: (1) believe the hype and chase paper no matter how you have to get it; (2) examine the hype and, à la Master P and Wu-Tang, work within the rules to build and control the mega-units of your own empire (the hip-hop-as-critique-of-capitalism theory).

This year, we've seen both strategies collide in the film Belly, Hype Williams's failed attempt to cure the evils of the "get money" virus with Farrakhanian nationalism and back-to-Africa romance. And we've been reminded, with the release last month of the regressive N.W.A Straight Outta Compton 10th Anniversary Tribute (Priority), of the place where they first found an eloquent voice together, N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton. When that disc was released, in 1988, it marked a vexed turning point in the hip-hop capitalism machine: it was both a manifesto of black rage and the birth of the commercial gangster, both a dopeman lecture in crack economics and a blueprint for urban-outlaw commodification and wigger lip-synching.

Neither Belly nor N.W.A consider that there might be a third way to drink capitalism straight out the eight bottle. That's right, refuse the hype and, workers-of-the-world-unite-style, rip off your Tommy jeans and show the world your red diapers. Which is precisely what we get from East Oakland class warriors the Coup over the laid-back rhyme avalanches and harmonica-fried beats of Steal This Album (Dogday), hip-hop's first black Marxist masterpiece.

Steal This Album is about as far away from the gleaming ice and Gucci of Puffy's Benjamins splendor as hip-hop gets in the age of rapped Sprite commercials. The Coup write (and laugh) about the everyday realities of being black and poor, not with their eyes on the profit prize but with their eyes on good old-fashioned economic revolution. For Boots and Pam the Funkstress, hip-hop moneymaking misses the point. Just because you're black doesn't mean you haven't bitten down hard on the rules of "the ruling class" (a phrase that pops up all over Steal). "If you ain't talking 'bout ending exploitation," Boots spews on "Busterismology," "then you're just another Sambo in syndication."

The characters that populate the repo-man-cruised streets, furniture-less living rooms, and two-steps-from-the-junkyard rides of Steal -- a world where "arguments about money usually drown out the Tec blasts" -- don't brag about the money they don't have; they just try to get through jobs at McDonald's, make it across the Bay Bridge without their car breaking down, and sneak into movie theaters through back alley doors. You're welcome to ride shotgun in Boots' '81 Datsun; just watch out for the alternator and be sure to keep your knee in the right place: "I'm trying to keep the glove compartment closed, playa."

Most of the Coup's class-roots activism comes from Boots, the son of late-'60s Third World Strike parents who as a teenager helped organize migrant farmworkers in Delano and cut his bookworm teeth with the Mau Mau Rhythm Collective (arming himself with Fanon, Marx, and Mao). Hip-hop indie Wild Pitch put out the group's first two records, Kill My Landlord and Genocide and Juice; when the Mau Mau got lost in a corporate buyout shuffle, Boots took a gig at UPS and headed up the Young Comrades, a Marxist-tinged Oakland youth organization that, as he recently told the San Francisco Bay Guardian, was meant to bring "class conscious politics to the forefront of struggles in the black community."

Throw in slack-jawed sarcasm, nuanced insight, and gifted storytelling (not to mention Pam's molasses-thick turntable layerings) and you could say the Coup do the same for hip-hop. Instead of taking the usual "ghetto capitalism" line on pimping and pushing, they flip the discourse. They advocate pushing politico mind narcotics more potent than "indonesia or china white" on "The Shipment," and they deliver a street-corner econ lesson: "Now what you make is .01 percent of what the boss make and what the boss take is keepin' us from living great." The seven-minute murder morality saga of a pimp, his prostitute, and her vengeful son, "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night," casts out the pimp-and-ho faithful as system-sold obstacles to black liberation.

Steal's brilliant centerpiece is the sobbing, after-midnight blues of "Underdogs," a song Boots dedicates to all those "who got bills that are due." Instead of cataloguing indiscriminate consumption and "money ain't a thing" Prada shout-outs, "Underdogs" laundry-lists tactics of the dollar-deprived: bringing Tupperware to all-you-can-eat buffets, returning used clothes for new ones, and "eatin' salad, tryin' to get full off the croutons." Boots doesn't need to tell us that "the crime rate's consistent with the poverty rate," but he does. The Coup's revolution -- ducking the flying Dom P corks first, tearing the motherfucker of black commodification up second -- can't afford to mince its words.

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