THE COUP / “Me And Jesus The Pimp In A ’79 Granada Last Night”
In the early nineties, the Bay Area hip-hop crew The Coup seemed poised on the edge of stardom. It was a time when Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions videos still aired in heavy rotation on BET and MTV; X caps, Africa medallions and the colors red, black, green and gold were all considered stylish. The Coup’s overtly political style was in favor. But as the end of the decade neared, it all seemed to be over. The biggest stars in hip-hop were Dr. Dre and his acolytes Snoop Dogg and Eminem; Africa medallions had gone gold, and soon platinum; P.E. and BDP were all but done.
To make matters worse for The Coup, the trio’s second rapper E-Roc abandoned ship, trading in his microphone for a UPS package truck, a turn of events ironically apropos for a group whose music usually focused on the day-to-day struggles of the working poor. (Not that UPS drivers, thanks to the Teamsters Union, are all that poor. But still....) The remaining two members of The Coup, lead rapper Boots Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress, could’ve packed up their shit and joined their former partner in 9-to-5 hell. Instead, they dropped the best album of their career, 1998’s Steal This Album.
The album begins with a blistering and beautiful narrative – an epic length (and epically titled) hip-hop blues number, “Me And Jesus The Pimp In A ’79 Granada Last Night.” At only (I know, “only”) seven minutes long, “Me And Jesus The Pimp” is better paced and plotted, has more character development and a better ending than a lot of movies I’ve been to. Boots has a great eye for the little things that make specific people specific. He also has a dry, sardonic way of describing those details, like when he says about Jesus the Pimp, “his head kept nodding up and down like he agreed a lot.” The irony being Jesus is a particularly disagreeable sort of individual. That little piece of information along with the description of how Jesus liked to smack women around with his prosthetic arm gives you both a strong visual and at least two good reasons to dislike him as much as the narrator of the story seems to.
Thinking of “Me And Jesus The Pimp” as a movie instead of a song, I’d call it a period piece. The time is the late seventies. The place is Oakland, CA. Just as a good movie uses time-specific details to put you in the place of the story, The Coup uses samples to do the same. The vocal loop that repeats throughout the song—“Oakland, do you want to ride?!”—sounds like it’s from a live P-Funk show, and if I know anything about seventies-era black Oakland, I know they loved their funk music. And because most of Boots’ story is set right there in the ’79 Granada, the repeated use of the sample also helps to give you the feeling of being stuck in a car, riding around and around a city, feeling increasingly helpless as it slowly sinks in that the guy sitting next to you is more of a monster than a man, a la Denzel Washington’s psychotic narc cop in Training Day. And like Ethan Hawke’s character in that movie, there comes a moment in “Me And Jesus The Pimp” when you realize you’re getting more, way more, than you bargained far. You’re way past ready to get out of that car, but you can’t. Boots’ story is like an amusement park ride gone bad: it sends you skidding helplessly through both place and time. More than once, the details are so visceral you have to fight the urge to duck.
Keeping the movie theme in mind, Boots is also careful to include set details. His story is character driven, but he knows the eye wanders. To that point, Boots pays as much attention to what happens around his characters as he pays to what happens to his characters. Check the way he begins verse two:
City lights from far away
Can make you drop your jaws
Sparkling like sequins
On a transvestite at Mardi Gras
There’s beauty in
The cracks of the cement
When I was five I jumped over them
Where ever we went
To prevent whatever it was
That could break my Mama’s back
Little did I know
It would roll up in a Cadillac
Kalamu often bemoans the lack of metaphor in hip-hop lyrics. It’s a fair criticism. In the rap world, metaphors are few and far in between. But Boots’ line (“there’s beauty in the cracks of the cement”) is a monster. I hear that line and think about his Mom walking the pavement for a living, I think about the beautiful things that happen in the midst of all the hard ugliness of the inner city, and I also think about it in a literal sense, in the sense of a little kid skipping over cracks in the sidewalk and maybe finding a marble, or a penny, or a shiny piece of glass. It’s a hell of a line in a hell of a story.
I said earlier that “Me And Jesus The Pimp” is a period piece. Technically though, that’s not true. The story actually occurs in the present tense, in the car. The period details are there because most of the action occurs in the main character’s mind as he flashes back more than a decade to the events that led up to he and Jesus being together in that car. And then, it’s even a bit more convoluted than that, because, as the “last night” in the title implies, the entire story—the “present” parts included—is being told in the past tense. All of it has already happened. I know my description makes it sound confusing and the first time through, it might be. Once you hear the story a few times though, it’s fairly straight-forward. But in the same way Tarantino famously did it in Pulp Fiction, Boots uses the unusual time sequence to his advantage. He gives you the story in bits and parts. He jumps ahead then falls back. He drops hints, lets you in close, then pulls away, changing the subject. Just when you’re riveted, wondering what happens next, he says, “Oh wait. Let me tell you about this other thing that happened.” He’s not doing it just to be cute or to play games with your expectations – he’s doing it to develop the characters, engage you in the story and most of all, to keep you from fully anticipating where he’s going with it all. When the end comes, he wants you to be as surprised as you’d be if you were sitting right there in the car too. And his story telling is good enough that you just might feel like you are.
“Underdogs” - About as close to heartbreak on wax as hip-hop—or any other music—is ever going to get. It’s like a eulogy for lost girlhood. “They’d tear this motherfucker up,” says Boots, “If they really loved you.”
“Piss On Your Grave” – A cross-country road trip to deliver an in-person liquid salute to our nation’s slave-owning founding fathers. “Your fifth period history teacher tells you lies like a tweaker.”
“Cars And Shoes” - Boots boasting and bragging about how he rolls in a different car every few months. But we’re not talking ’08 Bentleys and Maybachs; we’re talking ’81 Datsuns and ’76 Pintos – piece of shit cars that break down on the Bay Bridge during rush hour.
All of this week’s songs from The Coup are from their 1998 release, Steal This Album. Buy it…or do whatever you do…today.
—Mtume ya Salaam
Ride on, brother, ride on
I just have one question I want to ask. Where we going?
It occurs to me that the most popular rap favors a lumpen proletariat mise en scène—psychologically if not, as is usual, physically. Moreover, rather than analysis we generally get reportage—often witty and sometimes even lucid and luminous as if they were artistic anthropological field notes. But I be suspicious.
In the case of The Coup, I don’t doubt Boots’ sincerity, nor do I doubt his seriousness. I’ve met my man and I’ve got much respect and love for him.
What gives me pause is my work in the public high schools of New Orleans. The children of the lumpen have deep, deep scars. Deep, deep problems. The streets are a motherfucker. You don’t come out of situations such as described in “Jesus The Pimp” feeling good about yourself. You don’t come out clean after struggling to survive through a shitstorm.
Our young people are hurting. Boots presents a narrator who is literally the son of a pimp and a whore, a young man who kills his father after his father some time before had killed his mother. I know it happens. I know those stories and more. (BTW, I liked “Cars and Shoes” more than “Jesus The Pimp.” Talking about keeping it real!)
I am, however, more interested in the aftermath than in the conflicts. What kind of parent does that son-of-"peculiar"-parents become? What becomes of young people who have been systematically, systemically and personally abused. The beatdown, broken up, confused and abused ones—tell me how their lives turn out.
Listening to The Coup made me think of some of the young people I work with during the week. Deep down, underneath all the flash and bravado of youth, beneath the physical beauty and the seemingly “got it going on” attitudes, deep, deep in the inner recesses, these young adults are hurting. Bad. Maimed—too often irrepairably. Or at the very least, they are throwed off.
There’s a reason substance abuse, homicide, domestic abuse, STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), and sundry other social ills are running rampant in what used to be Black communities.
I’m not expecting music to deal with this (even though I certainly would love it if more of the music did). I’m not even putting down music that doesn’t deal with some of the social ills enumerated above.
I’m just saying: I was listening to this music and thinking of my students and… you know what I’m saying?
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Listening to Boots
I'm not sure what you're saying, Baba. I could be wrong, but it seems like you're saying "Me And Jesus" would be a better record if it started at the end and talked about what comes after. For me, that's exactly what's good about it. He does tell you what happens after. You develop from a fucked up little kid to a fucked up man. A man fucked up enough to treat women the same terrible way your own mother was treated and fucked up enough to actually off your own father. You want to know what happens after that? Use your imagination. I'm pretty sure more fucked up kids are part of it.
More than any of that, you have to understand the context. Boots is a rapper from Oakland. Oakland is the home of 'the game,' i.e. pimping. Most rappers are, at best, ambivalent towards pimping. Many even glorify it. Boots' record is a creative, artistic way to say, "Pimping isn't cool. Pimping never was cool. It's fucked up and it's helping to destroy our communities and our children."
Despite his drastically more evolved political positions, Boots is friends with most of the major Bay Area rappers (and probably a lot of the rest of them too). It takes a lot of personal and artistic guts to go directly against the modern-day grain. To make records that you KNOW aren't going to sell because the status quo is ignorance and stupidity. And you have to do all that knowing you have to sell records to eat. That's some harsh shit.
For me, it's much, much deeper than reportage. When you're reporting (and I believed that particular bullshit justification orginated with N.W.A.) you simply state the facts. You don't judge right or wrong. You don't have a "point." You're just saying, basically, "shit is real." Which, of course, we all already know. But Boots' record isn't some ambivalent snapshot or picture show. It's a message directed at all of our young men (including his fellow rappers) who think using women for money is a cool occupation. I think both your specific high school and black America as a whole would be better off if our young people were listening to Boots as opposed to whatever foolishness most of them actually are listening to.
—Mtume ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Monday, February 18th, 2008 at 1:13 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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