By Dianne Washington
THE LAST POETS:
The Last Poets is a group of poets and musicians who arose from the late 1960s African American civil rights movement‘s black nationalist movement. The name is taken from a poem by the South African revolutionary poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, who believed he was in the last era of poetry before guns would take over. The original members were Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kain, and David Nelson.
The Last Poets have been cited as one of the earliest influences on hip-hop music. Critic Jason Ankeny wrote, “With their politically charged raps, taut rhythms, and dedication to raising African-American consciousness, the Last Poets almost single-handedly laid the groundwork for the emergence of hip-hop.” The British music magazine NME stated, “Serious spokesmen like Gil Scott-Heron, Gary Byrd, and the Last Poets paved the way for the many socially committed Black [emcees] a decade later.”
The original Last Poets were formed on May 19, 1968 (Malcolm X’s birthday), at Marcus Garvey Park in East Harlem.
The group continued to evolve via a 1969 Harlem writers’ workshop known as East Wind. Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Umar Bin Hassan, and Abiodun Oyewole, along with percussionist Nilaja Obabi, are generally considered the primary and core members of the group, as it appeared on the group’s 1970 self-titled debut and, in various combinations, on subsequent releases. Luciano, Kain, and Nelson recorded separately as The Original Last Poets, gaining some renown as the soundtrack artists of the 1971 film “Right On!” See also Performance (1970 film) soundtrack song “Wake Up, Niggers.”
Having reached US Top 10 chart success with its debut album, the Last Poets went on to release the follow-up, This Is Madness, without then-incarcerated Abiodun Oyewole. The album featured more politically charged poetry and that resulted in the group being listed under the counter-intelligence program COINTELPRO during the Richard Nixon administration. Hassan left the group following This Is Madness to be replaced by Suliaman El-Hadi (now deceased) in time for Chastisment (1972). The album introduced a sound the group called jazzoetry, leaving behind the spare percussion of the previous albums in favor of a blending of jazz and funk instrumentation with poetry. The music further developed into free-jazz–poetry with Hassan’s brief return on 1974′s At Last, as yet the only Last Poets release still unavailable on CD.
The remainder of the 1970s saw a decline in the group’s popularity. In the 1980s and beyond, however, the group gained renown with the rise of hip hop music, often being name-checked as grandfathers and founders of the new movement, and themselves collaborating with Bristol-based British post-punk band the Pop Group, among others. Nuriddin and El-Hadi worked on several projects under the Last Poets name, working with bassist and producer Bill Laswell, including 1984′s Oh My People and 1988′s Freedom Express, and recording the final El Hadi-Nuriddin collaboration Scatterrap/Home in 1994.
Suliaman El-Hadi died in October 1995. Oyewole and Hassan began recording separately under the same name, releasing Holy Terror in 1995 (re-released on Innerhythmic in 2004) and Time Has Come in 1997.
Their lyrics often dealt with social issues facing African American people. In the song “Rain of Terror,” the group criticized the American government and voiced support for the Black Panthers.
More recently, the Last Poets found fame again refreshed through a collaboration where the trio (Umar Bin Hassan) was featured with hip hop artist Common on the Kanye West-produced song “The Corner,” as well as (Abiodun Oyewole) with the Wu-Tang Clan-affiliated political hip hop group Black Market Militia on the song “The Final Call,” stretching overseas to the UK on songs “Organic Liquorice (Natural Woman)” “Voodoocore” and “A Name” with Shaka Amazulu the 7th. The group is also featured on the Nas album Untitled, on the songs “You Can’t Stop Us Now” and “Project Roach.”
Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, aka Lightning Rod (The Hustlers Convention 1973), recently collaborated with the UK-based poet Mark T. Watson (aka Malik Al Nasir) writing the foreword to Watson’s debut poetry collection, Ordinary Guy, published in December 2004 by the Liverpool based publisher Fore-Word Press Ltd. Jalal’s foreword was written in rhyme, and was recorded for release in 2008 in a collaborative album by Mark T. Watson’s band, Malik & The OG’s, featuring Gil Scott-Heron, percussionist Larry McDonald, drummers Rod Youngs and Swiss Chris, New York Dub poet Ras Tesfa, and a host of young rappers from New York and Washington, D.C. Produced by Malik Al Nasir, Lloyd Masset, Larry McDonald, and Swiss Chris, the albums Rhythms of the Diaspora; Vol. 1 & 2 are the first albums of their kind to unite these pioneers of poetry and hip hop with each other.