"The Repo Man Sings For You" isn't exactly a signature song for The Coup, but it absolutely sums up their signature style: witty, tongue-in-cheek, anti-capitalist and humorously pissed-off. Started in 1992 by lead MC Boots Riley, The Coup always conceived its work as radical political hip-hop. Boots Riley, only 21 at the time, had already spent years as an organizer for social justice, working for groups like the Progressive Labor Party and the International Committee Against Racism. His father, who raised him, was a political radical who came out of the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and Boots says he remembers his parents having political meetings that would turn into parties at their house in Detroit when he was a child. His family moved to Oakland, California when he was still quite young, and he got his footing as both an organizer and a musician there. The Coup's first album was called Kill My Landlord.
After a successful second album, Genocide and Juice, in 1994, Boots began to think the music business wasn't for him. He went back to community organizing and working odd jobs, and The Coup didn't come back with an album until 1998, when they released Steal This Album to broad critical praise. Staunchly indie, The Coup kept changing hands as their first record label, Wild Pitch, went under, and they left their second label, DogDay, for a label they started themselves. They released Party Music in 2001 on that label, 75-Ark. Although Party Music was met with even greater praise than Steal This Album for its catchy and clever mixture of heavy-handed politics with humor and live instrumentation, the sales numbers were incredibly low due to problems with distribution.
To Riley, though, hip-hop is about way more than sales stats. It's about being a part of a movement that has always been political in nature. That history, Riley says, has been lost in more recent depictions of hip-hop in the mainstream media: "For what hip hop is today, you have to give props to those people that helped it to become what it is…[What's going on in mainstream images of hip hop now] is an attempt to commodify the art or culture so that they can sell it, like anything else. It's much easier to sell a simplified, watered-down version of anything than to deal with the real history and the complications and questions that may exist. Even the idea that the four elements are all that drove and comprised hip hop is basically a way to commodify it. To be able to separate something in such rigid categories is in keeping with the way that they sell anything."
You don't have to read between the lines with Boots Riley to get the picture: he's not that into capitalism. So how has The Coup made it as a project, albeit an indie one that's never been a source of a huge cash flow? Well, despite the image "The Repo Man…" might give you, Riley also believes that compromising with capitalism is necessary, even inevitable: "We're inside capitalism already so we have to deal realistically with what we've got. The difference between indie as opposed to major mostly has to do with the fact that if you own that indie label then you'll get more money from what you are putting out. You may also initially have greater control over what you do, but the markets are still ruled by the major labels who control the gatekeepers of the industry…" (see the full interview here). In other words, we all play the game, even if we call it by a different name. "The Repo Man…" is a classic Coup critique of the rules of the game.
"The Repo Man Sings For You" at first seemed to us like a straightforward character study ("A work of fiction in which the delineation of the central character's personality is more important than the plot," says Dictionary.com). But then we realized that the song doesn't exactly develop a character with nuance, or even with any personality traits to speak of. Instead, the song approaches the Repo Man as more of a caricature, an exaggerated depiction of a stock bad guy designed to make a point. It's more Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice than, you know, Hamlet or someone else complex. In this case, the caricature serves the purpose of making a statement against banks. The character in question, the Repo Man, played in the song by Del the Funkee Homosapien, is just mean at first:
Heh, we don't care how hard you worked, we takin yo' s---
It's too late, your payment's way past your due date
You couldn't hide from me, even with a new face
Or plastic surgery, your debt's outstandin
But as the song develops—and Boots Riley takes over the narrative voice and tells the story from the perspective of the person whose stuff is getting repossessed—the Repo Man seems more and more nightmarish:
See I was sleepin on the carpet in my apartment
when I heard my car ignition cause somebody sparked it
So I run all the way down the hallway full throttle
Don't give in is my motto, so I bust him with a bottle
He screamin, "Whatchu gon' pay me with?"
Then he started laughin singin crazy s---
Woah. The Repo Man is now being depicted as a nighttime carjacker, but a little wackier and more conniving. And Boots, as the narrator, is willing to enter into a physical altercation with the dude, telling him to "Shut the f--- up!" and threatening him with various weapons. A third voice enters the song at the end, the first-person voice of a woman whose stuff is getting taken away, screaming and crying as the Repo Man makes off with all the stuff in her house. They may not develop a complex character here, but The Coup make their point: they don't like the folks from the bank, and all that they represent.