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Hip-Hop’s original street poets make a comeback

The Last Poets, who laid the foundations of Hip-Hop with their revolutionary albums in the early 70s, are back with a new album 'Understand What Black Is'

The Last Poets on the cover of their self-titled debut album in 1970.
The Last Poets on the cover of their self-titled debut album in 1970.

It was no coincidence that the group of musicians and poets who formed The Last Poets decided to do so by gathering at a park in New York City’s East Harlem on the birth anniversary of the radical African-American human rights activist Malcolm X. It was May 1968 and barely a month after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. The group had emerged during the height of the black activist movement of the late 1960s. Originally a loose and motley congregation of poets and musicians, which later morphed into a smaller group, their early performances were stark with spoken-word lyrics that were blunt and politically charged; and music that was sparse—sometimes just the primordial beat of a drum. Years later, they would be acknowledged by many to be the biggest influencers, the genesis even, of hip hop, but when they began, they were angry young men expressing themselves through their unique brand of music themed on black rights and activism.

The early albums of The Last Poets—1970’s eponymous debut or 1971’s This Is Madness—raged against not only racism and white oppression but also against the passivity and inaction of blacks. On the first album, songs such as N*****s Are Scared of Revolution or Wake Up N*****s rebuke and admonish those who let things be the way they were and invoke them to rise and join the civil rights movement that was raging in America then. The founding members of The Last Poets included Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan. Nuriddin, who died on 5 June at the age of 74, was a US soldier, imprisoned after he refused to serve in Vietnam, and the other two were inmates he had met while in jail. The three formed the group after they were released from prison and began by performing on the streets of Harlem. Soon, they adopted the beats of jazz, incorporating horns, drums and other instruments, but the overriding factor of their music remained their explosive lyrics.

Those were tumultuous times. Student movements had broken out in Paris and that revolutionary zeitgeist had spread across the world, including America, where, after King’s assassination, militant Black Power and anti-Vietnam War protests surged. When This Is Madness, The Last Poets’ second album, with incendiary songs such as White Man’s Got A God Complex, Related To What and Mean Machine (excerpt: Treachery and deceit the people must defeat/ In the battle for free men’s minds/ For complete domination is the goal of this nation/ Of all free thinking thought/ And those who oppose will be killed by their foes), came out, the group was put on then-president Richard Nixon’s list for counter-intelligence programming, which used surveillance and covert methods to infiltrate and disrupt domestic political organizations.

In the following years, they broke up but re-formed multiple times, releasing as many as 17 albums, including compilations, till 1999. Their influence would be felt as they inspired generations of latter-day rappers and hip hop artists such as Notorious B.I.G., N.W.A., and many others. But thereafter, for nearly 20 years, The Last Poets slipped out of the limelight. Now they’re back. The newest incarnation of The Last Poets has two of the original founders, Oyewole and Hassan, but a new percussionist, Baba Donn Babatunde. This May, the trio released its newest album, Understand What Black Is. One might have thought that a 50-year-old group whose raison d’etre was the spirit of an era long gone would seem anachronistic today. But no, circumstances have been propitious for The Last Poets. Issues of racism, discrimination and police violence against black Americans have again become relevant in the Trump era and the new album is as vociferous as their older ones had been, dealing with matters of inequality, oppression and racial hatred.

Yet there are differences. Five decades later, the angry young men are now older and worldly wise. Their music, once raw and jagged, is now tempered with beats borrowed from reggae and jazz rock. But they’re still as angry. And it shows in the songs on Understand What Black Is. On How Many Bullets, they sing: You can’t kill me/ You can’t kill what you can’t see/ Oh how you’ve tried/ To blow my brains out with bigotry/ Chopped off my wings/ So I couldn’t fly free/ And dared me to be me/ Took my drum/ Broke my hands/ Yanked my roots right up out of the land/ And riddled my soul with Jesus/ You killed the mind with dreams/ And the heart with desires… You can’t kill me/You can’t kill what you can’t see. On other songs, there are references to hip hop stars such as the late Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, and a heartfelt hat-tip to Prince.

Decades after the tumultuous years when The Last Poets were formed, race and discrimination are still relevant issues but things have also changed. In their early years, The Last Poets were fixated on things that mattered to the black community, now they’re looking beyond. Understand What Black Is tries to address those changes. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Hassan says: “As we get older, we realize that it’s humanity. It’s not just black or white. There’s a thing called humanity. All of us, whether we’re black, white, gay, trans, whatever, basically, there’s two things we really want. We want to be loved, appreciated, and respected." I hope we haven’t heard the last from The Last Poets.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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