Hip-Hop And You Do Stop is a series chronicling Nathan Rabin’s deep love for (and growing estrangement from) hip-hop through the filter of golden-age and ’90s hip-hop. Each entry documents a year in the genre’s development, beginning with 1988 and concluding with 2000.
Memory is a fuzzy, dishonest, and untrustworthy instrument with a maddening tendency to distort and misremember. Nevertheless, I have a vivid memory of coming home from high school as a 17-year-old junior, plopping myself in front of a television that was my primary reason for living, turning the TV to BET’s Rap City, and seeing a stark black-and-white video for a song called “Dig It” from an unknown group on Wild Pitch Records called The Coup. The video opened with a charismatic man (Boots Riley) who was sporting a majestic Afro that made him look like someone out of a Black Panther recruitment film from the late ’60s. He was boarding an Oakland bus along with his groupmates, a skinny black man (E-Roc), and a stocky black woman I later learned was DJ Pam The Funkstress.
The individual members of The Coup didn’t walk onto the bus so much as they sauntered. They strutted. They swaggered. Through attitude alone, they made public transportation seem effortlessly hip, though the quietly insistent, insinuating bass groove that provided the soundtrack certainly helped. The Coup made riding the bus seem gangsta. It made riding the bus seem punk rock and cool. I didn’t know how to drive at the time. Hell, I still don’t, so I could never relate to hip-hop’s enduring obsession with car culture and sweet rides. But riding the bus? Now there was some subject matter I could relate to. In a hip-hop world of fantasy and escape, that was some real shit, something I could feel.
I was hooked before the guy with the Afro even opened his mouth. So you can only imagine how overwhelmed I was when the group started delivering rapid-fire, tag-team lyrics that were even gutsier and more subversive than filming a rap music video onboard an Oakland bus in 1993. The Coup’s rhymes were so incredibly dense and packed with references that they damn near required footnotes. And not just any footnotes: We’re talking David Foster Wallace-level annotation here. Even the names I would have recognized flew by at such a dizzying speed that I could barely process them.
The Coup isn’t the type to go in for half measures, so in the very first line of the group’s first widely disseminated single, Boots boasts, “Presto, read The Communist Manifesto,” before referencing “A Guevara named Ernesto” (an artfully indirect way of mentioning Che Guevara, best known as the subject of a popular T-shirt). Without stopping to explain or give the slow kids time to catch up, The Coup goes on to reference Mao Zedong, Kwame Nkrumah, Bush’s refusal to allow Haitian immigrants to settle in the country, H. Rap Brown, “dialectical analysis,” and COINTELPRO without ever missing a beat.
In a realm where artists dumb it down to reach the widest possible audience, The Coup was willing, even eager, to fly elegant loops over its brainiest listeners’ heads. “Dig It” was the rare pop single and music video that benefited from an accompanying reading list. It wasn’t enough to know hip-hop slang to really understand “Dig It.” Listeners had to be smart. Well-read. Politically engaged. Turned on. In the know.
The Coup isn’t cool in spite of being brazenly smart and political; it’s cool because it’s smart and political. It was funny and clever and irresistible to smuggle a Commie music video onto the capitalist airwaves and spit dialectical analysis in between ads for soda and laundry detergent. True, the “Dig It” video does feature a few network-pleasing shots of The Coup rocking a house party, but those standard shots pale in importance and significance to the shots that bookend the video. “Dig It” opens with the trio at a bus stop waiting for public transportation, and ends with The Coup joining the struggling masses waiting in a long line for employment assistance. The implication is clear: Even the hip cats rocking the house party have to pay the rent and put food on the table. In a capitalist society, that can be an eternal struggle.
I bought The Coup’s Wild Pitch debut Kill My Landlord on the basis of the “Dig It” music video, but I didn’t fall in love with the rest of Kill My Landlord the way I have with every Coup album that followed. Revisiting it as a 36-year-old man in 2012, I understand why: Kill My Landlord is a strong, confident debut that nevertheless finds the group struggling to define itself. The Coup’s music soon became timeless, but more than any of the group’s other albums, Kill My Landlord is rooted in the sound and styles of its time. Boots is one of rap’s true originals, but there are times throughout Kill My Landlord when he sounds uncomfortably like Del The Funky Homosapien (who was one of the only guests on The Coup’s 1998 masterpiece Steal This Album) or De La Soul.
As a lyricist, Boots’ genius lies in making the political personal, in making abstract, complicated sociopolitical conceits about the distribution of wealth and the corrosive, corrupting nature of power live and breathe and sing. He’s uniquely gifted in being able to travel easily and confidently from the macro to the micro, from the big picture of draconian government programs to the sharp, vivid image of a desperate single mother looking out a window, wondering how she’s going to provide for her children and herself without a job or government aid.
But mostly, Boots managed to pimp an ideology rooted in Communism in a post-Cold War world where Marxism has been widely discredited as being hilarious, in addition to cool, smart, and political. The activist, intellectual, polemicist, politician, propagandist, humanist, and comedian all co-exist comfortably within Boots. It helps that he possesses the sort of magnetism and charisma that lead some to become musicians and activists and others to form their own death cult and abscond with their flock to a remote island free from international laws and the prying eyes of those who do not understand.
Boots can be an effective salesman for some singularly unappetizing notions. Weed is such a beloved fixture of hip-hop that trying to convince fans to stop smoking pot is about as easy as convincing the homeless to send their collective spare change to Mitt Romney. But on Kill My Landlord’s “Last Blunt,” Boots nevertheless attempts the impossible by articulating why the stoner lifestyle is not conducive to revolution. (And in the fiery world of The Coup, revolution is the endgame for pretty much every human endeavor.)
How do you convince rap fans to not smoke pot when seemingly every rapper in the world who isn’t Will Smith or MC Hammer is preaching the opposite, and a thick cloud of pot smoke is nearly as much a staple of hip-hop shows as crowd-participation bits beseeching audiences to throw their hands in the air and wave them like they just don’t care? By acknowledging the appeal of pot and then linking, in quintessential Coup fashion, the political and the personal by framing that argument less as a dry screed than as a funny, candid, and insightful first-person narrative.
Like KMD on Mr. Hood, The Coup samples Sesame Street repeatedly on Kill My Landlord (a good indication it doesn’t take itself too seriously despite the innate seriousness of its mission and rhetoric). “Last Blunt” opens with Kermit inquiring, “Do you know what’s green,” before a scratched sample of Cypress Hill provides a non-family-friendly response. The song finds its protagonist in a familiar situation: He tells himself that he’s smoked his last blunt but is forced to concede that he’s made that vow time and time again. Even though he vows to stop every time his life “has come to a crescendo,” he’s finally ready to “let that indo go,” yet finds himself “kissing it like I’m under the mistletoe.”
The protagonist goes on to elaborate that he first began smoking pot in 1988 when a friend told him that it would make sex more enjoyable. From the very beginning, sex and drugs are inextricably intertwined, and it isn’t long until he’s going through his days in a pot-filled haze. This track is incredibly smart and incisive about the psychology of pot addiction. The protagonist considers himself a “saint” for not drinking or using harder drugs, yet finds himself entrenched in a poisonous cycle: He smokes pot to ease the stress and strain of being broke and unemployed, while realizing in the back of his mind that he’s broke and unemployed in no small part because smoking weed and watching Looney Tunes is preferable to doing the long, hard, soul-crushing work of looking for a job. And there’s not always enough money in a struggling man’s budget for pot and the electricity bill.
In the marathon second verse to “Last Blunt,” the protagonist emerges from his stoned haze and comes to a brutal realization that instead of freeing his mind, “ganjah was a jailer” and that weed-addicted brothers aren’t getting “fucked up”: They’re straight-up getting “fucked.” In case there’s any confusion as to the song’s ultimate message, Boots lays it all out when he argues, “Ain’t no revolution gonna come from a blunt.”
The Coup is all about expressing the innate dignity and humanity of the poor, but its exquisite humanism and profound empathy does not extend to folks at the upper end of the socio-economic ladder. My editor Keith Phipps once remarked that in songs like “5 Million Ways To Kill A C.E.O.,” Boots’ mental image of the ruling class seemed to be Rich “Uncle” Moneybags, the top-hat-wearing, walrus-mustache-sporting oligarch mascot of Monopoly.
This didn’t bother me when I was younger: Recognizing the humanity of the wealthy would have only interfered with my blinding hatred of everyone who had more than me, which was just about everyone. But I find the group’s tendency toward broad stereotyping more problematic today. Listening to “I Know You,” a timely attack on racial profiling and police harassment of black people, I found myself wishing that Boots had at least attempted to acknowledge and empathize with the struggles of individual police officers—many of whom wrestle with the same deep-seated problems as the proud proletariat Boots uplifts in song after song—rather than seeing them as a monolithic force of “pigs” and “motherfuckers” out to destroy the black community for its colonialist white masters.
Without that additional level of empathy and understanding, “I Know You” feels like a heavy-handed, overwrought addition to hip-hop’s overflowing canon of anti-police songs. That’s a trick both sides play: extolling the humanity of your own team while denying the humanity of the opposing side. Then again, The Coup wouldn’t feel such an intense need to vilify the rich if the rest of hip-hop wasn’t so busy singing the praises of mindless materialism and crass consumption. Its fiery rhetoric is a step toward balance, even if the scale remains tipped unmistakably on the side of the unapologetic capitalists singing the free-market gospel.
Then and now, The Coup serves as a necessary corrective to hip-hop’s warped values. That hasn’t changed at all in the 19 years since Kill My Landlord’s release. If anything, we need The Coup (whose new album, Sorry To Bother You, is due at the end of October) more than ever, given the gradual decline of political hip-hop as well as politics in hip-hop. The Coup is one of the least prolific and most important acts in hip-hop. The group is important in part because it’s so unprolific: Every album is a bold statement. Boots is hip-hop’s Benjamin Button: While everyone else gets older and struggles to remain relevant, Boots just seems to get younger and more relevant, and it all began with an uneven but ferociously alive album called Kill My Landlord.
While Kill My Landlord was an unabashed manifesto—Communist or otherwise—from a group that still wants to save the world, the closest you’ll find to a manifesto on Tha Alkaholiks’ antithetical 1993 debut, 21 & Over, is J-Ro’s line, “Now everybody wants to be a prophet / But I won’t stop rhymin’ bout my dick, so get off it,” from the track “Can’t Tell Me Shit.” But Tha Alkaholiks didn’t just rap about their dicks. As their name indelibly conveys, they also rapped about alcohol and marijuana in ways that made the hoary old subject matter vibrate with new life. While they were a fresh new presence in the 1993 hip-hop universe, Tha Alkaholiks were also a throwback, as J-Ro acknowledges on “Can’t Tell Me Shit” when he rhymes, “Rappers talking bout ’back to the old school’ / You never shoulda left in the first place, fool.”
Tha Alkaholiks kept alive the party-hearty spirit of the era before Sugarhill Gang brought hip-hop to wax, when rappers had to have big, bold personalities, flashy routines, and giant hooks to stand out in a crowded realm where no one had a single or an album to promote, and artists lived or died on the basis of their live shows, personal magnetism, and party-rocking abilities.
21 & Over’s charms are not subtle or insinuating. It’s filled with giant, call-and-response hooks that beg to be drunkenly crooned by large crowds. It’s party-rocking music, pure and simple, debauched fun where dusty samples meet clever rhymes and monster choruses. In a perfect world, 21 & Over would be a multiplatinum Thriller-like smash that catapulted the trio of producer-DJ-rapper E-Swift and rappers Tash and J-Ro to superstardom. That’s what I wanted in 1993. I was rooting for Tha Alkaholiks to break through. I wanted the rest of the world to know how awesome this group was.
Tha Alkaholiks were both emissaries from the old school and the next step forward in the party-rocking evolution: Whereas old-school flows could be stiff, awkward, and corny, J-Ro and Tash were agile, slick, and virtuosic in the way they bounced rhymes and jokes off each other. When the group’s mentor King Tee—a hero and inspiration to no less a hip-hop icon than The Notorious B.I.G.—rhymes alongside his protégés on “Likwit,” Tash and J-Ro run lyrical laps around Tee and his comparatively clunky verse.
Musically, 21 & Over is built on a rock-solid foundation of retro soul and funk samples from the ’70s and ’80s that have been augmented by nifty production flourishes. There is a moment in “Can’t Tell Me Shit” when the beat drops out for the sound of a crowd cheering (to accompany J-Ro’s line “Get that shit out of here!”), and then a cell-phone call where J-Ro indignantly tells the caller, “Man, I quit selling weed,” only to be told the caller is actually in the market for a funky break. 21 & Over fetishizes the snap and crackle of vintage vinyl being manipulated like the later productions of Madlib, who scored his first big production credit on 21 & Over’s “Turn Tha Party Out” and “Mary Jane” (though he’s credited as part of his early group Lootpack rather than as a solo producer).
In their prime, Tha Alkaholiks had the snotty belligerence of punk-rockers, the competitive drive of athletes, and the punchlines of inveterate comedians. But more than anything, 21 & Over was unadulterated good-time hip-hop that proudly broadcast its sneering debauchery via song titles like “Can’t Tell Me Shit,” “Bullshit,” and “Only When I’m Drunk.” But nothing better defined the group’s anything-goes provocation than its name. Tha Alkaholiks eventually shortened their name to Tha Liks in a bid for mainstream success that never came. But before this compromise, the trio was ballsy and irreverent enough to name itself after a debilitating and widespread social problem. Depending on your perspective, that’s either incredibly irresponsible, super-punk-rock, or both.
Tha Alkaholiks were a throwback to the larger-than-life, almost-cartoonish party-rocking MCs of the old school, in that they never won the sales or popularity that were deserved. A while back, I had the honor of spending an afternoon in the company of Grandmaster Caz for our video series Pop Pilgrims. Before he was the world’s most overqualified tour guide, Caz was the frontman for Cold Crush Brothers, a group widely heralded as the best live act of the old school. Cold Crush Brothers were Tha Alkaholiks of its time: peerless party-starters beloved by the hip-hop faithful but unknown to the general public.
Individually and as a member of Cold Crush Brothers, Caz has been referenced in songs by Will Smith, Jay-Z, and 2Pac. But Cold Crush Brothers never put out an album, had a video on MTV, or experienced success commensurate with their influence and the respect they engendered among their peers.
Caz has every reason to be bitter. Instead, he exudes gratitude and grace. He’s blessed with the wisdom of age and a rare sense of perspective. Age and experience will do that to a man. When I was a kid, I measured success in hip-hop specifically, and pop music in general, in gold and platinum plaques, Grammys, and media coverage. I now see how silly and myopic that view was. These days, I consider an act a success if it’s able to make a living doing what it loves, create work that is meaningful, and travel the country and globe performing for fans.
It was Tha Alkaholiks’ blessing and curse to remain cult figures rather than pop stars. Though they scored a few minor hits on the rap charts, a breakthrough single continued to elude Tha Alkaholiks even when they got the then-red-hot Pharrell of The Neptunes to produce and sing the hook for 2001’s “Best U Can.” The group amicably disbanded following the release of 2006’s Firewater, and J-Ro now lives in the hip-hop mecca of Sweden.
After keeping a low profile for the past half-decade, J-Ro, Tash, and E-Swift roared back into action with a group project with Beatnuts, another legendary group that never quite got its due, critically or commercially. In case anyone wonders whether Beatnuts and Alkaholiks may have grown up in the decades since 21 & Over, the supergroup is titled, of course, Liknuts. If that weren’t exciting enough (and let me tell you, the Liks/Beatnuts pairing is a joyous development for me and several other nostalgic old men), Tha Alkaholiks joined mentor King Tee and protégé Xzibit on “Louis VIII,” a Dr. Dre-produced track off Xzibit’s album Napalm. Will “Louis VIII” be the hit Tha Alkaholiks have been chasing for 19 years? Probably not, and it really doesn’t matter. At this point in my fandom, it’s no longer about winning the game. It’s about staying in the game as long as possible while holding on to your principles.
While The Coup was about saving the world, and Tha Alkaholiks were all about escaping the problems of the world through weed, drink, and partying, Alkaholiks’ labelmates in Wu-Tang Clan were about creating a fantastical new world of their own creation out of the jagged, ragged material of mastermind RZA’s pet obsessions: kung-fu flicks, spooky old soul albums, blaxploitation movies, chess, and The Five Percenter ideology (an offshoot of The Nation Of Islam).
When the album that became Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) went into production, RZA was a struggling rapper and producer whose achievements began and ended with releasing a flop novelty single as Prince Rakeem. So he had everything to gain and nothing to lose in plotting his own hip-hop empire.
A Technicolor thinker in a black-and-white world, RZA dared to dream big. He had the kind of ambition that could easily pass for the delusional big talk generally associated with people on powerful uppers. RZA wasn’t just going to start his own rap group; he was going to start a rap group with nine members, all contributing something essential. And he was going to call the group Wu-Tang Clan and rechristen its Staten Island hometown as Shaolin Island as part of his Herculean plan to fuse the seemingly antithetical worlds of Eastern martial arts and gritty East Coast hip-hop.
In addition to being the mastermind behind Wu-Tang Clan and one of its most important/deafeningly loud MCs, RZA was also going to produce their albums, by himself. Oh, and he was also going to produce every single solo album from every single member of Wu-Tang Clan. And that avalanche of solo albums? They’d all be on different labels, in order to spread the Wu-virus as far and wide as humanly possible. But that was just the beginning where RZA’s ambition was concerned. In addition to flooding the market with solo and group projects of astonishingly high, sustained quality, he also launched a clothing line called Wu Wear, a full-on clothing line to compete with the Tommy Hilfigers and Ralph Laurens of the world. But it wouldn’t end with clothes or albums or labels. No, RZA had a bigger picture in mind: movies. The inveterate cinephile and self-taught philosopher launched one of his signature multi-headed assaults on cinema as a composer (most famously with his acclaimed score for Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai), then as an actor, and then finally as a writer-director-star.
As a young man, RZA set the bar impossibly high for himself, then he cleared it. In an alternate universe, his plans for the Clan would be nothing more than the delusional babble of a mental-hospital inmate. But in this world, once RZA put his plan into action and unleashed Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), his schemes became one of music’s least likely and most glorious realities, a one-man renaissance that produced some of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, stone-cold classics like Raekwon and Ghostface Killah’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, GZA’s Liquid Swords, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version.
Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) wastes no time differentiating itself from every rap album that preceded it. RZA’s audacious musical revolution begins not with rhymes or beats, but with enigmatic dialogue about “Shaolin shadow-boxing” and the “Wu-Tang sword style” being a deadly combination cribbed from the 1983 kung-fu epic Shaolin & Wu-Tang. RZA immediately established that he was playing a different game than everyone. He was mythmaker who was creating a newfangled form of sonic cinema complete with dialogue, skits, nonsensical digressions, and even sound effects.
The dialogue fades out, and listeners are suddenly catapulted from the China of RZA’s fevered imagination to a housing-project staircase in Staten Island circa 1993. RZA ushers audiences none-too-gently into his strange new world by hoarsely screaming, “Bring the mothafuckin’ ruckus! Bring tha mothafuckin’ ruckus!” in a New York rasp that suggests what a drunk, slurring John Travolta might sound like if he lost the ability to modulate the volume of his voice and shouted everything in an agitated roar.
The beat for the leadoff track, “Bring Da Ruckus” is as radical and jarring as RZA’s screamed chorus, a dirty, minimalist breakbeat gleaned from Melvin Bliss’ “Synthetic Substitution,” an oft-sampled classic that Madlib coincidentally sampled for Tha Alkaholiks’ “Turn Tha Party Out.” RZA’s production here is simultaneously layered and minimalist, full of detail and shockingly raw.
RZA wasn’t the only shouter in the group. Wild card Ghostface Killah similarly sounded like he was on the verge of a rage-induced heart attack. Even Method Man, the heartthrob of the group and its first breakout star (in part because of his goofy solo showcase in “Method Man”), sounded like he was rapping with a mouth full of rusty razor blades.
But no rapper better embodied the defiant griminess at the core of RZA’s magpie aesthetic better than Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who famously picked up his name because there was no father to his style, but also because he seemed dirty on an almost biological level. Ol’ Dirty Bastard was at once Wu-Tang Clan’s comic relief and its ragged soul, a wild free spirit whose life has become the stuff of modern-day folklore. “Shame On A Nigga” introduced the world to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s off-kilter flow, off-key crooning, and manic charisma. Dirty was one of a handful of Wu-Tang members on the track, but his presence was so loud and blinding that he had a way of overshadowing even his larger-than-life bandmates.
Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) wouldn’t have been as influential as it was if it was all screaming, raw beats, and aggression. It needed a little silk to offset all that sandpaper grit. RZA found that exhilarating softness in songs like Gladys Knight & The Pips’ cover of “The Way We Were,” which provides the hook and introduction to “Can It All Be So Simple,” a dreamily nostalgic track that finds escape from the grim urban horrors documented throughout the album in fuzzy memories of a fading past.
RZA’s vision was unapologetically cinematic: anthemic tracks like “C.R.E.A.M.” (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) depicted the world the Clan inhabited as a Darwinian struggle for survival where greed and the will to power are the only constants.
At 12 tracks, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) has the strange quality of being at once spare and over-stuffed. The skits beg for the fast-forward button, even as they contribute to the sense that RZA is attempting to build something much bigger and bolder than mere music and succeeded. RZA’s production and the Tower Of Babel approach to group rhyming capture on a visceral sonic level the tumult of a seedy, violent, and chaotic pre-Giuliani New York where different demographics and ethnic groups are stacked atop one another and forced to find common ground in spite of cultural and economic differences.
With Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), RZA started a musical and cultural revolution with long-lasting effects on hip-hop and the culture at large that can still be felt. (Kanye West, for example, has always been very candid about the debt his production owes to RZA). Like The Coup, Wu-Tang Clan is an unmistakable product of its environment. But the group members were also masters of those environments. Though divided by much, Boots and RZA have a lot in common: They’re both masterminds and philosophers who created acts that were about much more than music, then sustained them through the decades. And they’ve both taken their ambition into exciting new realms. Boots and RZA have both written movies in which they’re starring.
The Coup’s upcoming album, Sorry To Bother You, is also the basis for a film, a dark comedy with elements of magical realism of the same name that Boots wrote and will star in, while RZA is finally set to make his dream of directing the ultimate kung-fu movie a reality with his upcoming vehicle The Man With The Iron Fists, which has a release date of November 2. Boots and RZA have come a long way since 1993, but their explosive talent and vision were apparent from the very start. Long before he ever appeared in a film, RZA was already making brilliant audio-cinematic epics like Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). And he’s still dreaming big, with enough talent and drive to transform those big ideas into concrete realities.
Up next: The Notorious B.I.G. and Nas release perfect debuts with 1994’s Ready To Die and Illmatic.