Words By Patrick M.
While we celebrate the good in 1998 this week, I’ll always think back on it as a time when Hip-Hop started to schism. It was a time of specialization; the Southern game was new to the rest of us and many rappers eschewed the mainstream for a more “conscious” (or snobby,) form of MCing. Fans reacted through reppin’ their group and hating on the rest. More than any time of my life I remember the late 90’s as a time where I was quick to dismiss acts on the basis of their image rather than their sound.
Like all who do so, I was the victim, missing out on several albums that became staples years later. Foremost for me from that year is The Coup’s Steal This Album. Why would I want to listen to a rap album by a bunch of Commies from the snobby underground? After all this was the late 90’s: The Wall had been down for 9 years and the world was headed towards peace driven by capitalism (remember those days?)
What I was missing was the group’s finest album, a masterpiece from the Oakland duo. Even in a time when everyone was supposedly doing alright, Boots Riley was there to remind us that behind the scenes where I wasn’t looking, people will still struggling. On “Underdogs,” the ultimate rap anthem of the downtrodden, you can hear the pain in Boots’ voice as he raspingly describes the downward spiral of poverty. Other tracks such as “Breathing Apparatus” and “The Repo Man Sings For You,” mix serious situations with humor to emphasize the message.
But Boots doesn’t stand there and preach message to us, he grabs our attention by creating vivid stories that must border into biography for their depth of detail. “Me And Jesus The Pimp,” is a seven minute ballad delving into the life of the son of a prostitute. Born into a life doomed to watch his mother be abused, Boots’ narrator pulls no punches. His mother’s cry of love for her son “You’re just too beautiful for words,” contrasts with her cold-blooded murder by Jesus. It remains one of the all time great story songs, for its poignancy, descriptiveness, and commentary on treatment of women.
The other great thing about Steal This Album: It proves you can come harder as fuck without referring to yourself as a giant crime boss, gangster, or drug dealer. “Busterismology” takes on faux-gangsters and those who exploit their role as black spokesmen for their own personal gain. They get branded with the scarlet “S,” as those who’ll rat out their peers to the powers that be. But when it comes from Boots, whose social commentary is so spot on, that label takes on much more power.
Ten years later, the commentary of Steal This Album remains relevant. Part of this is due to the album’s artistic merit. And part of it’s the world we live in. A lot of shit’s changed since 1998, but some harsh realities remain the same. But Boots would have you believe there is a way out. The first step, however, is toâ€¦.