The Last Poets
“They was nappin’ when we was rappin’”
Jalaluddin Nuriddin, one of the Last Poets on this Last Poets’ debut album laughed after he said this, his cackle crackling through the phone. While the acknowledgement of the Last Poets’ role as the grandfathers of rap, the progenitors of hip-hop culture has gone the way of political consciousness in the music, Jay-Z wasn’t even born 32 years ago when this album first hit the streets.
"I think that the teenagers identify with [today’s rappers] because they don't know. They don't know what preceded that. As far as what they're saying in their rap, I don't think it's relevant. In fact, I think it's just the opposite. I think it's designed to keep your mind in your behind, designed not to make you think.”
The Last Poets clearly aimed to make people think and to make them act. This was the kind of poetry Amiri Baraka was talking about when he wrote “We want poems that kill, assassin poems.” With just percussion and the voices of the three poets, chanting, declaiming, exhorting, the debut album by the Last Poets exuded a kind of power that had no one had ever captured on a recording previously.
Radio, of course, wouldn’t touch it. Radio still wouldn’t. You can be sure that Eminem gets more spins in an hour than The Last Poets have in all the nearly 35 years since they debuted at a 1968 celebration of Malcolm X’s birthday in Harlem’s Mount Morris (now Marcus Garvey) Park. As Gil Scott Heron (never a member of the group, by the way) declared, the revolution will not be broadcast, the revolution will be live.
Revolution, of course, was at the heart and soul of the Last Poets’ message. In 1968, whitey was on the moon (another Gil Scott song) and an overwhelming number of young black men were slogging through rice patties and swamps in South East Asia. In Newark, Detroit, Harlem and Watts, massed violence was always a threat, had erupted several times in the previous few years. A month before the Poets’ debut, someone gunned down Martin Luther King Jr. There were tanks in the streets of Newark to keep the peace. Into this world of chaos and turmoil, the Last Poets threw the monkey wrench of revolutionary rhetoric.
Nor was it solely aimed at “whitey.” They had plenty of venom and verbiage for their brothers as well. “Niggas Are Scared of Revolution” took on complacency in the hood to the same (or greater) extent than “White Man’s Got a God Complex” took on “the oppressor.”
And despite lack of airplay, and despite their inability to take the show on the road as Abiodun Oyewole was serving time for robbery in the service of revolution down in North Carolina, and despite the fear and loathing the ideas on this album engendered among members of America’s comfortable class, both black and white, The Last Poets actually spent seven weeks in the Billboard album charts, rising to #29! All based on the word on the street.
Word reached the white intellectual towers as well. Some civil rights sympathizers found the contained, poetic vitriol contained in the grooves energized their commitment. Others just liked the rhythm, man.
“All the razzy, jazzy, sassy sounds of black culture meet and mingle in the chants of these uptown medicine men,” wrote Albert Goldman in Life. “They made you think and kept you “correct” on a revolutionary level,” noted essayist Darius James. “At no time does The Last Poets falter or fail to please,” added Amy Hanson in her five star review in the All Music Guide. “It will always be as vital, alive and fresh as it was the day it was recorded.”
Sadly, it is also almost as relevant. Black men under 30 make up a vast majority of the incarcerated in this country. The barriers of the barrio still haunt our cities, and as the economy goes south, watch for the sparks to smolder in Brooklyn and East LA. Things haven’t changed nearly as much as many think, and in 2002, as it was over 30 years ago, The Last Poets is a wake-up call. Wake up, dammit, wake up.