Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“5 Million Ways To Kill” Bodies Without Organs: The Coup and Party Music

I have demonstrated in my analysis of Outkast's emergence in the American mainstream that it is necessary to think through the popularity of their utopian aesthetic by relating it to that of the material excesses of gangsta rap. It is also necessary to think through Southern rap's emergence within the mainstream media by referring to the historical conditions – black disenfranchisement, white patriarchy, and corporate consolidation - which shaped the social/political/economic topography of its event in the first place.

The same conditions of analysis will apply to my exploration of The Coup and their brand of political hip hop, except through the concepts of “desiring machines” and “bodies without organs” that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari articulate within Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. I argue that at the level of aesthetics, The Coup is similar to Outkast in that both of their discographies function as funk-filled utopian machines that disrupt the ideological molar organizations which internalize, reify, and occlude the reality of class struggle in America.

I see these two rap groups differing in that the latter, The Coup, has always been explicitly Marxist in it's politics, seeking not just a creative remediation but a complete negation of the American anti-productive system, i.e. neo-liberal capitalism itself, and the globalized totality which it contains and represent. The Coup's political stance against American hegemony would have later consequences following their 2001 album, Party Music, whose original cover art depicts the destruction of the Twin Towers via a digital chromatic guitar tuner, created four months before the actual attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11. 2001.

The political music that The Coup offers differs greatly from that of other hip hop artists, in that their aesthetics function not just as a mere representation of revolutionary sentiment, but as part of a larger assemblage that plugs into the desiring-production of activist politics. The lyrical half to The Coup, Raymond “Boots” Riley, argues:

Rappers have to be in touch with their communities no matter what type of raps they do, otherwise people won’t relate…Political rap groups offered solutions only through listening. They weren’t part of a movement, so they died out when people saw that their lives were not changing. (Boots Riley, “That's The Joint”)

Boots Riley is thus not only a political rapper who channels revolutionary desires through his lyrics, but is himself an activist who gets down and does the dirty work to create sustainable forms of material change. This sets The Coup apart from other rap groups of the era, whose aesthetics while “moving” do not necessary plug into any materialized movements – except of course in the commodification of drugs, misogyny, and 'thug life' found in the corporate consolidation of gangsta rap tropes, which functions as a viable yet volatile means for “young blacks [to] get money” (Dr. Dre, “Still D.R.E”):

From student organizing in Oakland's public schools, to serving on the central committee for the Progressive Labor Party, holding the presidential position for InCAR (International Committee Against Racism), and organizing to build California's Anti-Racist Farm Workers' Union, Riley has been an integral part of a progressive struggle for radical change through culture. (Speak Out Now!)

The Coup's political aesthetic functions not just as a means of commodifying proletarian desire in the form of CDs, but as an active call to arms against the totalizing social machinery of American late capitalist hegemony. According to Deleuze and Guattari, “art often takes advantage of [desiring-machines] by creating veritable group fantasies in which desiring production is used to short-circuit social production, and to interfere with the reproductive function of technical machines by introducing an element of dysfunction.“ (Anti-Oedipus 34).

Over fiery club beats delivered courtesy of DJ Pam The Funkstress, the proletarian desire to “turn the system upside down“ and to “take control of the cash and the reality“ is what Boots Riley channels throughout the 2001 album Party Music. The Coup introduces elements of dysfunction against America's bureaucratic and capitalist forces in Party Music through various aesthetic techniques, ranging from negation to fanciful satire. For instance, the lyrics to “Ride the Fence“ highlight and negate the social realities produced in America and around the world by black disenfranchisement, police brutality, imperial ambition, and corporate consolidation, drawing the line for the contemporary class struggle against the haves and have nots:

They anti-social, pointin' M-16's

Guess I'm anti-the-anti-nigger-machine



We need cash and that's the anti thesis

I'm pro-overthrow of the “Hip Hop Nation“


(Boots Riley, “Ride The Fence”)

The prehension of The Coup's corporate ”anti-venom” channeled over funk filled “revolution rhythms” entails not just an aesthetic pleasure, but a becoming-activist in the listener to “Get Up” and find an activist movement, and to take a stance with others against the grind of totality. The negation of American hegemony results in the polarization of interests between social classes, urging the becoming-activist to take sides either for or against their labor-centric cause: “Take a look, be in support or opposition / Then be proactive proceed with confidence / Cause you know that you can't change shit by ridin' the fence” (Boots Riley, “Ride The Fence”).

The Coup's assemblage of Marxist politics and funkadelic aesthetics results in the creation of a Jamesonian “ideologeme” that functions as both “a pseudoidea - a conceptual or belief system, an abstract value, an opinion or prejudice“ and a “protonarrative, a kind of ultimate class fantasy about the 'collective characters' which are the classes in opposition” (Jameson 87). The pseudoidea or 'belief system“ that The Coup posits in Party Music is channeled through the ressentiment of colored youth against American empire found on songs like “Pork and Beef”, in which guest rapper T-Kash raps that “I'm a young, black, heterosexual male / Don't drink , no drank, don't smoke, don't sale / That's the real reason they want me in jail, I resist and rebel.” (T-Kash, “Pork and Beef”). On the other hand, the protonarrative put forward by The Coup sets the stakes for the material opposition between the molecular activist production of the “proletarian-funkadelic-parliamentarian“ and the molar anti-production of capitalism, which functions as a

….[B]ody without organs [that] incessantly 'falls back on…all production, constituting a surface over which the forces and agents of production are distributed, thereby appropriating for itself all surplus production and arrogating to itself both the whole and the parts of the process, which now seem to emanate from it as a quasi-cause (Shaviro 128).

In the anti-productive processes of late-capitalism’s body without organs, “the creative role of living labor is occluded,” due to the fact that “in capitalism’s image of itself, labor is placed alongside raw materials, machinery, rent, and so on as a mere input of production; profit is calculated as a function, and indeed a product, of the total capital advanced“ (Shaviro 126). Thus, in the last song of the Party Music, Boots Riley attacks capitalism's body without organs through the symbolic figure of “Lazymotherfucker“ millionaires, rapping sardonic lines such as “Now you don't wash ya ass, you got a personal bather / If you roll out of bed it's like you doin' a favor / You was born into paper and that behavior” (Boots Riley, “Lazymotherfucka”). The source of antagonism between labor and occluded capital is most explicitly stated in the lines “So when you spend a dollar that's ten seconds of my time / And when ya spend a billion that's my life and that's a crime,“ a Marxist reference to the sins of surplus value created by capitalism's processes of anti-production (Boots Riley, “Lazymotherfucka”).

In "5 Million Ways to Kill a C.E.O,“ Boots Riley further critiques through a rather satiric caricature of C.E.O's what Deleuze and Guattari would refer to as the “miraculous” function of capitalism, which transforms the distributive function money into a fetishized value in and of itself: “You could throw a twenty in a vat 'o hot oil / When he jump in after it watch him boil,” as well as “Tell [him] that boogers be selling like crack / He gon' put the little boogies in his nose, and suffocate like that.” (Boots Riley, “5 Million Ways To Kill A C.E.O.”).

The original album cover to Party Music (created months before the actual events of 9/11), functions as a visual counterpart to the ideologeme of class struggle found in The Coup's revolutionary musical assemblage. The World Trade Center, both on the album cover and before its destruction in the real world, functioned as a metaphor for the self-representation of American capitalism to itself as a worldwide body without organs. The Twin Towers were a physical manifestation of capital's anti-productive processes, and functioned as a sterile space of office buildings in which American financialization could operate as a global mode of production. Flows of capital and culture from everywhere were captured and redistributed across the World Trade Center's recording surface, making it both a miracle machine of neo-liberal policies and a symbol of American hegemonic rule.

I also read this symbolism at work on The Coup's original album cover, in the sense that the Twin Towers stand alone against a decontextualized skyline, reflecting the way in which capital arrogates labor and value to itself as both a site of inscription and as a miraculating machine. In the creation of this visual ideologeme, The Coup meant no disrespect to the victims of the 9/11 attacks; this was not a literal interpretation of the actual events, but rather an act of “symbolic closure” against an otherwise overlooked system of daily oppressions (Jameson 112). Boots Riley explains that “Any similarities are totally coincidental, and it was originally supposed to be more of a metaphor for destroying capitalism — where the music is making capitalist towers blow up. The politics of the Coup have more to do with the people organizing each other” (Boots Riley, Interview with The Stranger, 20, Sept. 2001).

Prophetically speaking, the politics of American social organization would undergo a substantial de/re/territorialization following 9/11, leaving gaps of uncertainty within American hegemony and ideology that needed to be resealed. The acute resonance of the 9/11 attacks as a turning point in world history brings to the table Joshua Clover's concept of the “image-event,” in which “the outcomes of a historical dynamic...congeal [into the] singular image-event, into which all meanings are bound to collapse” (Clover 25). I argue that much like the fall of the Berin Wall in 1989, the image-event of September 11, 2001 resulted in “the collapse of historicity into a single idea,” that of terror and terrorism. The images of Ground Zero, operating much like a black hole in the American psyche, created an “event horizon” in which all future discourses would inevitably permeate and be permeated by the 9/11-event of “terror”. The quasi-casual image-event of “terror” would enter into all facets of media and daily life, creating the threat of an invisible enemy posed to strike against Americans at any time. The nature of the disappearance of the World Trade Center would be reflected in society as the disappearance of a clearly defined enemy, prompting the creation for an ambiguous “other” which the U.S had to define and then find (or perhaps find and then define, as was the case with many of the political prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay. Even Osama Bin Laden would undergo a type of etherealization, evading capture by U.S. intelligence and the armed forces to this day).

The collapse of historicity into the image-event of “terror,” and the resulting black/white fundamentalism of an American “us” against an other-worldly “them,” (quote: “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” - George W. Bush), would inevitably mask over the historicity of class struggle which The Coup has always fought to bring to light. Boots Riley stated The Coup's political intentions best when asked in a post-9/11 interview about the original album art to Party Music:

Interviewer: You were for keeping the cover?

Boots Riley: Yeah, and this is why: As the day unfolded, I saw--which is what I should've known--what the media was doing with this tragedy. How the media and the government were using people's shock and sadness to parlay it into spending millions more on the military, and to parlay it into making people [approve of] super right-wing measures--and using this incident on Tuesday to put forth the picture that this happened in a vacuum, as opposed to what really is going on--the fact that this is just one in a series of blows that needs to be compared to what the U.S. does on a yearly basis throughout the world. What's about to happen in the next few months is that there are going to be hundreds upon hundreds of people dying all over the world, with the perceived thumbs up from masses of people in the United States.” (Boots Riley, Interview with Seattle newspaper The Stranger, 20, Sept. 2001)

According to Boots Riley's prediction, and what is now known in hindsight, the image-event of 9/11 set the precedent for the deterritorialization of American ideology within neo-liberal globalization and its subsequent reterritorialization within the extra-territorial apparatus of the military industrial complex, the territorial apparatus of the NSA and 'Homeland Security', and the narrative discourse of terrorism. Unfortunately for The Coup, the original album art to Party Music was banned by their corporate distributor, Elektra Records, a subsiduary of Time Warner. The album never quite got the political attention it deserved or warranted, although it was hailed as the #1 album of the year by several critics in music publications, including the New York Times. The original album art still survives to this day in the form of a digital specter, it's visual ideologeme an eerie reminder of the social energies and class struggles circulating in the phase-space of the 9/11 image-event.

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