Weapons-Grade Funk by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 16, August 2006]
Pick A Bigger Weapon, The Coup, Epitaph Records, 2006
The fifth album from political hip-hop act The Coup continues their evolution from underground West Coast US rabble-rousers into international recognition and acclaim. This process was helped no end when their early-2001 cover design for Party Music – a metaphor for the revolutionary destruction of capitalism featuring DJ Pam the Funktress and MC Boots Riley brandishing drumsticks and guitar tuner with the World Trade Centre exploding in the background – was hastily withdrawn by their record label after 9/11. The resulting publicity gave Boots an unanticipated mainstream media platform to air the insurrectionary class-struggle views familiar from the lyrics of Kill My Landlord (1993), Genocide and Juice (1994) and Steal This Album (1998) – conveyed, as in the new release, via pithy, witty tales of woe, frustration, anger, humour and hope in everyday life on the mean streets of Oakland.
The group’s progression is further audible in the album’s synthesis of 1970s soulful funkadelia and the whole sophisticated gamut of hip-hop referentiality – so that Pam’s stellar turntablism and Boots’ accomplished delivery reach another level in the instrumental company of sundry Parliament, Gap Band, and Frankie Beverly & Maze-era veterans along with Silk-E’s beautifully-pitched R&B vocals. Whereas if The Coup’s compelling beats ever more satisfyingly integrate the strengths of their musical antecedents with present demands, the same cannot be said of political prospects from their, and our, perspective. The injunction to Pick A Bigger Weapon refers to the failure of our tactics thus far, and the contents reiterate the grass-roots grounds of any worthwhile future movement.
Preceding his music career, Riley spent four years on the central committee of a Leninist group before realising the arrogant sectarian irrelevance of such forms of organisation. Since then he’s emphasised the potential of the lower classes to overcome their situation – which art has the capacity to engage with, share in, crystallise and facilitate rather than summon up or dictate. Avoiding the superior preaching disappointingly prevalent among many prominent ‘raptivists’, he twists ghettocentric narratives to signal what becomes possible when individuals interpret their lives in terms of collective understanding and action. So the street hustler’s soul-searching in ‘We Are The Ones’, drudge work subversion of ‘Ass-Breath Killers’, celebration of shoplifting in ‘I Love Boosters’, and social/sexual yearning of ‘Ijuswannalayarounalldayinbedwithyou’ and ‘BabyLet’sHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethingCrazy’ all acknowledge the painful intransigence of daily struggles. Meanwhile the rebellious class pride and explicitly political themes of other tracks on Pick A Bigger Weapon focus precisely on the centrality in any genuinely liberatory impulses of such acknowledgement from experience – a poetic balance encapsulated in the opening metaphor of the Intro: “I’m a walking contradiction / Like bullets and love mixin’.”