The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

It is, literally, a bit rich for Boots Riley, mastermind behind The Coup, to release a record entitled Steal This Album, and then barely four years later (seems more like two, but the label says 1998) reissue it, retitle it Steal This Double Album, throw in a second live CD and two extra tracks to the original, and double the retail price. For what is otherwise one of rap’s most unabashed attacks on trickle-down capitalism, one is certainly tempted to steal the record. Indeed, the copy which HMV in the Piccadilly Trocadero did have already had its “Security Protected” strip half torn off and the shrinkwrap unwrapped, so it would have been relatively easy for me to steal it.

For those familiar with the original, you needn’t trade your copy in for the new one; the two additional tracks (“What The Po-Pos Hate” and “Swervin’”) are perfectly serviceable but aesthetically and thematically redundant to the album as originally conceived, while the one-track 73-minute live CD illustrates, for all Riley’s belief in “live band” contributions, that The Coup really need the studio in order to function meaningfully. If you don’t have the original, however, then you will need to go out and get this (by whatever means) – it’s one of the monoliths of recent non-mainstream hip-hop.

Paramount among its many merits is the album’s crowning masterpiece, “Me And Jesus The Pimp In A ’79 Granada Last Night,” which also happens to be one of the great and most harrowing death discs. Over a regretful keyboard/harp background, Riley relates the story of meeting up with his father (who is Jesus the Pimp) upon the latter’s release from prison. The Pimp is in a bad way, with his “plastic prosthesis”; now 50, “his belly hangs lower than his dick” and he is unrepentant about smacking Riley’s woman “in the dental just for asking silly questions,” meaning that the son has never found his Other. There is clearly something unresolved here; Riley remarks to the listener, “Don’t be Microsoft, be a MacIntosh hard drive.” The sampled soul revue refrain comes in: “Do you wanna ride?” over a hysterical Apollo audience, as if we are mocking him for his fate. Riley then moves on to remembering his mother and how, after marrying the Pimp, “she went from beautiful to battleaxe.” Then there comes a heartbreaking glimpse of Utopia; the beat stops, and harp cascades embrace Lady Blue’s tender but despair-ridden voice singing “You’re just too beautiful for words,” a lullaby to the child. We shift back into reality and Riley relates how his father killed his mother when he was nine with his “plastic hand stuck in (her) face” and how he watches his mother die with words of love spluttering out from her wrecked body. Three years later the Pimp goes to the penitentiary for another murder, and Riley has to admit that the letters his dad sends him from prison were the “only friend I had in my youth.” This, however, does not now deter him from doing what he feels he has to do. He turns a pistol on his father, explaining that “Microsoft motherfuckers let bygones be bygones/But since I’m a MacIntosh I’m gonna double click your icon” before shooting him dead. Its seven minutes are amongst the bleakest which hip hop has ever thrown up; even Eminem at his most nihilist (“Bonnie and Clyde ’97,” “Kim”) hasn’t yet managed to sound as traumatising as this.

The sound of the album is primary coloured and in your face. “Busteriesmology” is a diatribe against jobsworth middle managers with the refrain “When we start the revolution, all they’ll probably do is snitch” set against a thrilling “Whole Lotta Love” guitar thrash and an electrifying band dynamic. This album, whatever else it is, is most definitely made in Technicolor. It is tremendously exciting.

About halfway through the album, the personal/political focus becomes sharpened and the record becomes a very effective, bleakly black comedy of protest. In “Breathing Apparatus,” an attack on Medicare-dependent health, there is a scarifying moment where Toni Braxton’s “I shall never breathe again” motif is introduced quietly, to be followed by comments from the “doctors” – “he’s lost his will to pay” and must therefore die. In the following “U.C.P.A.S.” Riley angrily exclaims “We don’t make no damn Mickey Mouse music!” before we settle into an “I Shot The Sheriff” backdrop.

Things, as they do, come to a head in the apocalyptic and brutal “The Repo Man Sings For You,” a blistering assault on the capitalist culture which calls in repayments, wrecks lives and destroys futures, all done by jobsworths who are paid to be blank and uncaring. The systematic destruction of the family with “debts outstanding” who have fallen behind on their “repayments” is itemised in stark detail and balanced by the sadistic sing-song of the repo men (note that this motif sounds suspiciously like Jewish klezmer; you’re surely not saying what I hope you’re not saying, Riley?). The hysterical screams of “I can’t take this shit no more” from the “repo victim” (Kamilah Bolling) which end the track are hard to take, as they should be. This is in fact the start of the mini-suite which concludes the album; the screams segue into the next track, the claustrophobic ballad “Underdogs” where Riley examines the minutiae of an unfulfilled life, about how they would get into such situations in the first place, and the rotten system which feeds off their naivety and encourages them to suck out their own blood. With no money, Riley sets off to try to find some kind of a life (there are parallels here with Mr Lif’s recent I Phantom) and tries to sample the good life of clubs by “Sneakin’ In.” When this fails, he and his accomplice (Dawud Allah) are reduced to gatecrashing a funeral to find something to eat. In the skit “Do My Thang” he pretends to be the paralysed organist whose wheelchair has broken, getting his “assistant” to carry him into the church and threatening to sue if they are not let in. They discover that this is the funeral of a “Filthy Rich Banks,” precisely the sort of capitalist leech who has suckered people into financing his life by hiring them at six dollars an hour. When solemnly seated at the organ, they then pay tribute by urinating on his coffin. Which leads us into the climactic “Piss On Your Grave” an ironically celebratory rockout in which they exult at their payback. On discovering that George Washington is buried in the same church, they then proceed to similarly piss on his grave. America, you failed us. That’s what you were built for. It’s a great, liberating climax to this fantastic album, and certainly their masterpiece; last year’s Party Music is more electro-focused, and although it has great tracks like “Ghetto Manifesto,” the storming “Pork And Beef,” the hyperreal hiphopdelia of “Nowalaters” and Funkadelic-style guitar overloads like “Thought About It 2” (where Riley almost seems to dissolve underneath the guitar ocean) and “Lazy Muthafucka,” it lacks its predecessor’s extra dimension.

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